Tag Archives: India

Open borders between hostile nations

This blog post is an expanded version of a comment I posted on the Open Borders Action Group. It’s about whether hostile nations can or should have open borders, and how close a world would be to open borders if countries had open borders for all countries except those where they had nation-to-nation hostility.

In principle, one might say that having open borders with all countries except the few that the nation is officially hostile to is almost as good as having complete open borders. In most cases, a given nation is hostile to only one or two other nations, so curtailing the freedom to move to those specific nations is not that big an imposition. After all, if two nations with populations of a hundred million each closed their borders only to each other, that still leaves the residents of each nation access to the remaining ~7 billion of the world’s population and over 90% of the world economy. Isn’t that close enough to open borders?

In practice, though, countries with hostile relations aren’t random pairings — often the hostile relations are linked with shared cultural elements, a common language, family ties across the border, and interest in specific geographic locations. This is partly because hostilities arise from war, secession, or controversial historical reconfigurations of boundaries that failed to account for realities on the ground, often because it’s intrinsically impossible (see here, here, and here for more on how borders have been drawn historically around the world). Thus, cutting off people’s access to the hostile nation is a disproportionately large imposition relative to what the population sizes alone would suggest.

Now, it could still be argued that in some cases, the existential threat of free movement is so severe that, unfortunate as it is, free migration between the hostile nations cannot be permitted. But, as with many arguments to close borders, such arguments should be examined critically and appropriate keyhole solutions worked out wherever possible.

An additional point: looking at the most challenging situations for open borders can help us test the limits of the strength of the case for open borders. It can help explain just how far we believe the right to migrate stretches, and just where people who claim to be open borders advocates draw the line. I carried out a similar exercise earlier when considering denial of migration for people based on their criminal records.

Special dangers

Special benefits

High levels of cultural exchange, family ties, and commercial interaction give people in both countries vested interests in the preservation and safety of members of the other country. Free migration and free trade can facilitate these and make the world safer and more prosperous.

It’s not clear whether government leaders want these benefits. Those who derive their power from aggressive hawkish stances may find their authority undermined by friendly ties with hostile neighbors. But not all politicians fit this category. Further, politicians can sometimes combine hawkish rhetoric with the promotion of cultural interchange, getting the best of both worlds: the economic and cultural benefits and the support of people who care about national pride.

Temporary diplomatic standoffs

In cases where nations have temporary diplomatic standoffs over the actions of national leaders that don’t necessarily have popular support in either country, it doesn’t make sense to curtail migration — it’s highly unlikely that individuals in the country bear each other much ill-will. Ending free movement might turn a temporary standoff into long-term rivalry. Examples of such temporary standoffs arise when a government in one country clandestinely (often without the knowledge or support of its own citizens) supports a rebel faction, or an incumbent who eventually gets deposed, during infighting in the other country. The focus in this post is not on such instances but rather on cases where there seem to be enduring feuds based on long-term grievances. This article on how the West should respond to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine makes a similar point.

Some examples

The following are some examples of hostile nations that may be considered tough cases for the open borders paradigm:

  • North Korea and South Korea: This example is perhaps too unusual, because the main constraint here is not immigration restrictions but emigration restrictions put in place by North Korea. For more on North Korea, see here.
  • India and Pakistan: The countries were created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, with a lot of bloodshed accompanying the creation. There is considerable mutual hostility over the disputed territory of Kashmir. More on India and Pakistan in a separate blog post. You can also get a good historical primer on the countries here.
  • Israel and Palestine: This is a highly asymmetric situation in many ways. Israel is internationally recognized and has considerably greater military might. Palestine is not internationally recognized and does not have a strong government, but there have been many suicide terrorists from the area attacking locations in Israel. We hope to write more, but for now, you might want to check out this post.
  • Russia and its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia): There are land disputes between Russia and some of its neighbors, due to inherently contested boundaries. You might want to check out co-blogger Nathan Smith’s post, and we hope to write more about these issues later. This article (also linked from the temporary diplomatic standoffs section of the post) has an interesting relevant quote:

    Georgian policy towards Putin is a good example, I think. The Georgian government abolished visas for Russian tourists in spite of the tough relations between the two countries. Lots of Russians had an opportunity to see with their own eyes what was really happening in Georgia and how the market-oriented anti-corruption reforms affected the society.

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan: There may be more about these countries on our blog later. Some good articles to read are here, here, and here.
  • China and Taiwan: We’ll have more about this pair of countries on our blog later. Some good initial articles to read are here, here, here, here, and here.

There are many other examples of countries that have disputes over specific territories. There are also some examples of intranational borders to keep competing factions within a country from attacking or getting into conflicts with each other. Examples include the peace line in Northern Ireland and the green line in Lebanon.

We hope to explore these situations in greater depth in future blog posts. Any other examples of hostile nations worth discussing? Any historical examples? Any general considerations I missed in my opening remarks above?

Nepal and India: an open borders case study

This blog post builds upon this Open Borders Action Group post and its comments.

Nepal is a small mountainous country, with much of the Himalayas running through it, and is home to some of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest. It is bounded by China on the north, though the Himalayas form a fairly impenetrable barrier for getting to China by land. it is also bounded by Tibet to the northwest and by India on all other sides. The border between Nepal and India is relatively easy to cross by land (compared with the border with China).

Map of India, Nepal, and other nearby countries
Map showing India and Nepal. Source Himalayan Homestays

According to many indicators, Nepal is somewhat less developed than its southern neighbor India:

  • GDP (PPP) per capita in Nepal is in the $1300-1500 range, relative to India, where it is in the $3800-4000 range. Thus, GDP estimates suggest that Indians are 2-3X as well off as Nepal.
  • Literacy rate in Nepal is 66% versus 74% for India.
  • The population of Nepal, according to the official 2011 census, is a little over 26 million, or about 2% of the Indian population (over 1.2 billion). The CIA World Factbook from July 2011 estimates the population at a little over 29 million.

Nepal-India land borderThe open border between India and Nepal, source Nepal Mountain News
Nepal and India have good diplomatic relations. The aspect that interests us most, obviously, is that the two countries have had open borders throughout their history (since long before Indian independence from the British). In fact, the border is literally open — it’s largely unmanned, people can cross any time, and natives of the two countries are not even required to have a passport to cross by land. Here’s what the description says (same as previous link):

Nepal-India border is unique in the world in the sense that people of both the countries can cross it from any point, despite the existence of border checkposts at several locations. The number of check posts meant for carrying out bilateral trade is 22. However, only at six transit points out of them, the movement was permitted to nationals of third countries, who require entry and exit visa to cross the border. As the whole length of the border except police does not patrol the checkposts or paramilitary or military forces of either country, illegal movement of goods and people is a common feature on both sides of the India-Nepal border.

So, the puzzle: given that India has 2-3X the per capita GDP of Nepal and substantially more economic opportunity, and given that the countries have open borders, why hasn’t there been labor market convergence between the countries? Why hasn’t a larger fraction of the Nepalese population moved to India in search of economic opportunity?

Here are a few other articles on Nepalese migration to India:

Open borders is a political non-issue

Indians aren’t necessarily welcoming of Nepalese as individuals: attitudes to Nepalese range from welcoming to hostile. But the total size of the Nepalese population is small relative to the Indian population (about 2%, and certainly not more than 3%). So far, nothing terrible has happened in India due to Nepalese migration. Even if the entire country of Nepal were to move over a decade to India, it wouldn’t be noticeable to most Indians. For the most part, therefore, Nepalese migration seems a non-issue.

There are a few issues. Smuggling of goods along the border could lead to a tightening of border security, and that might get in the way of peaceful migration. Maoists in Nepal have connections with Maoist-Naxalites in India. This too could lead to tightening of borders for security-related reasons. Overall, however, I don’t expect the open border between the two countries to be closed even in the face of Nepalese migration picking up significantly. This is in sharp contrast with Bangladeshi migration, which has caused a nativist backlash particularly in the state of Assam.

Are the GDP numbers reliable?

The GDP estimates carry a lot of uncertainty. In particular, they can be bad measures of standards of living in cases where:

  • A lot of economic activity goes unreported, or
  • government is a large share of the economy and spends the money on things that people don’t really benefit from.

Both problems exist to some extent in India and Nepal, but not to the same extent as they would in a country such as Somalia (the first problem) or North Korea (the second problem). Further, there’s no reason to believe that the figures are unreliable in a direction that would overstate the disparity between the two countries.

Reasons for economic disparity

Why is India so much richer than Nepal? A number of reasons suggest themselves:

  • Better geography: Nepal is covered with mountains that are unsuitable for many economic pursuits. It’s also landlocked. India is geographically diverse, and has large areas of flat plains suitable for agriculture, industry, and dense urban life. Moreover, India has a long coastline with great sea ports.
  • Larger population: Having a larger population allows for a larger diversity of activity and an economy with a greater level of specialization.
  • Historical advantages: The British developed a number of institutions in India that were bequeathed to the Indian government at the time of Indian independence. Even prior to the British, India, though very poor, had a diversity of historical institutions. These historical advantages gave India more growth potential, even if the country failed to realize that potential until very recently.
  • Economic freedom: Economic freedom in Nepal has been somewhat lower than India. According to the Economic Freedom of the World report, Nepal has had economic freedom in the 5-6.5 from 1980 to now, and even though its absolute level of economic freedom has increased, its ranking has fallen, as the rest of the world liberalized and it didn’t. As of 2011, it ranks 125th out of 152 countries with a rating of 6.19/10. Economic freedom in India started out lower than Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s, but with liberalization, overtook Nepal. In 2011, it ranks 111th out of 152 countries with a rating of 6.34/10. The difference isn’t huge, and arguably within the measurement error, but Heritage Foundation’s Index of Freedom reports a similar small gap in India’s favor. This probably accounts for only a small fraction of the economic difference, though.

How many Nepalese are there in India?

The size of the Nepalese population in India is highly unclear, both due to the fact that migration between the countries is not properly recorded by either, and because of the lack of clarity in definition. Table 3.3 in the Being Nepali Without Nepal chapter estimates that, as of the 1981 Indian census, there were 500,000 Nepal-born people in India, whereas the size of the Nepali community construed more broadly (to include descendants of Nepalese who spoke the Nepali language) may be as large as 2.25 million. Wikipedia claims that there are 4.1 million Nepalese Indians, without citing a source, but the data on the page seems to be taken from the 2003 CIA World Factbook (I cannot find a direct link for the specific claim). If correct, this is a huge increase relative to 1981, and more recent estimates may yield even higher values. The World Bank data for 2010, included in the Migration and Remittances Factbook, states that there are 564,906 Nepalese in India. It’s unclear what to make of these varied figures: the number of Nepal-born in India may be anywhere between 500,000 (~2% of the Nepalese population) to 5 million (~20% of the Nepalese population). The size of the Nepalese diaspora more broadly defined as descendants of Nepalese is probably at least 5 million, though probably not more than 10 million.

Recency of divergence

Indian GDP (PPP) per capita has been modestly higher than Nepal for quite a while, but the difference was fairly small until the Indian economy began liberalizing. As recently as 1992, one data set shows Nepalese GDP (PPP) at $800 per capita and Indian GDP (PPP) as $1200 per capita — hardly a big difference. India’s geographical and historical advantages, and more importantly, its much larger population, have always given it more growth potential, but the potential started getting unleashed only with liberalization measures in the 1990s. This caused the Indian economy to gallop ahead in relative terms, leading to the current situation where Indian GDP (PPP) per capita is $3800-4000 while that in Nepal is $1300-1500.

The recency of divergence might explain why Nepal hasn’t caught up with India and also why there aren’t more Nepalese in India: the Nepalese haven’t yet fully adjusted to the knowledge of India being a more attractive destination for economic opportunity. In other words, although India and Nepal have had open borders since forever, the “open borders with a large income disparity” is a relatively recent phenomenon, about as recent as the addition of poorer member states to the European Union. If Indian economic growth continues, we should expect to see Nepalese migration pick up, and I’d also expect that the gap in GDP (PPP) per capita is unlikely to widen beyond the 3X level.

Paul Collier’s diaspora dynamics model suggests that migration flows at any given point in time are far less than what either polling data on migration or economic models (such as John Kennan’s) predict.

However, if borders have been open for a sufficiently long time, then the fraction of the population with genetic origins in the source country that is in the target country does come close to the high levels suggested by polling data and economic models. Now, Nepal and India have had an open border for quite long, but the recency of divergence suggests that the “open border with huge economic disparity” is a relatively recent phenomenon for the country pair, and the size of the Nepalese diaspora in India at present is not inconsistent with the levels predicted by diaspora dynamics models (I’m just using a crude sense of the numbers and haven’t done any formal quantitative checks).

Prosperity of nearby states

One possible explanation for the wide disparity and low migration rates despite the disparity is that the Indian states near Nepal aren’t that prosperous. Consider this list of gross state domestic products. The five Indian states that share a land border with Nepal are Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Sikkim. Of these:

  • Bihar, one of India’s worst performing states, has a per capita GSDP pretty similar to Nepal’s (emigration from Bihar to the rest of India is significant, though I haven’t compiled quantitative measures). The state has also historically been linked with violence based on caste and class lines. It’s understandable that this is not an attractive target for Nepalese migrants.
  • Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s largest states, with a population of about 200 million (so only four countries have a higher population) has per capita GSDP about half India’s national per capita GDP. Assuming the same PPP adjustment factor, this would put the per capita GSDP at about $1900-2000, somewhat but not significantly more than Nepal. This is not a very attractive target for Nepalese migrants.
  • West Bengal and Uttarakhand have per capita GSDPs fairly close to the Indian average. These states should at least in principle be attractive targets.
  • Sikkim has a per capita GSDP about twice the Indian average, but it is a very small state, and India’s least populous. The most recent population estimate (based on the 2011 census) is 610,000, about 0.3% the population of Uttar Pradesh. It is the only state in India with an ethnic Nepali majority. The economy runs largely on agriculture. In recent years, tourism has been promoted. Despite being well-to-do, Sikkim may not offer many job opportunities to facilitate large-scale Nepali migration beyond the level that’s already occurred.

(The question of why significant economic disparities between Indian states persist despite internal open borders will be the subject of another blog post).

Apart from going to the immediate bordering states, Nepalese also go to other parts of the country, including the major metropolitan cities such as the capital cities, as well as the north-eastern states. But the lack of economic attractiveness of the states very close by could be part of the reason why Nepalese migration isn’t greater in magnitude.

Lack of information

Until I looked up the data, I wasn’t aware of the huge GDP (PPP) per capita disparity (I had been aware of the level for India, but not for Nepal). And I’m relatively well-informed about economic matters. Is it possible that many Nepalese simply aren’t aware of, or haven’t given active thought to, the prosperity levels in India? The recency of divergence is important here: information may take time to percolate.

Possible reasons for information not having flown fast enough within Nepal:

  • Low population density, making it more difficult for information to flow quickly (the population density is actually not all that low — at about 180/km^2, it is in the mid-range, but Nepal doesn’t have dense population concentrations where information flows really quickly)..
  • Low teledensity (less than 50%) suggesting that information about the outside world and about friends and relatives living abroad may not flow in as quickly and in as much detail as it needs to for people to be inspired to migrate. For comparison, teledensity in India is about 70% and teledensity in First World countries is close to 100%.

Explanations for differing attitudes in India to immigration from Nepal and Bangladesh

The following explanations have been posited for why India has an open border with Nepal, with little political resistance to it, yet a lot of unrest over illegal immigration from Bangladesh, despite Nepal being poorer than Bangladesh.

  • Population: Bangladesh has a population of 150 million, about 5-6X the population of Nepal. So, having open borders with Bangladesh is (considered) less feasible, or at any rate, would be a bigger and more transformative change.
  • Greater cultural similarity propelling more migration: Bangladeshis share close cultural roots with West Bengal (indeed, Bangladesh and West Bengal were both part of the state of Bengal in British India). Thus, there is likely to be much greater migration of Bangladeshis since they may have more confidence they’ll be able to adjust to life in West Bengal.
  • Religion: Bangladesh is an officially Muslim country with a Muslim majority. Although not as hostile to India as Pakistan, it still has some hostility. Nepal is a Hindu majority country with small amounts of Buddhism and Islam — religious demographics very similar to India.
  • Historical accident: Bangladesh and India actually started off somewhat well, because India supported Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in its struggle for independence against West Pakistan (~1971). But political changes in Bangladesh led to a worsening of relations.

We’ll explore Bangladesh and India more closely in a subsequent post (UPDATE: The post is here).

Nepalese in Bhutan

India also has open borders with a very small country called Bhutan (population ~750,000). Bhutan has a much higher GDP (PPP) per capita, somewhere in the $7000 range, but the economy runs largely on tourism, suggesting that it may not scale well with increased population. A large number of Nepalese have migrated (via India) to Bhutan, and Nepalese form a significant minority in Bhutan. Although richer, Bhutan also has more political oppression, so many Bhutanese (including some of Nepalese origin) have sought refuge in Nepal (see here).

Related reading

Poverty, International Aid and Immigration

One of the main justifications for supporting open borders is that it has the potential to alleviate poverty.  But opening borders is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of poverty reduction measures.  Most people tend to think of international aid programs. Trouble is, international aid isn’t that effective.

For a quick primer, see this report published by the Center for Global Development. The main points include the following:

  • International aid has four main objectives: stimulation of economic growth, strengthening local institutions, immediate humanitarian relief, and economic stabilization after a shock.
  • The evidence accumulated from numerous studies is that there is basically no correlation between international aid and economic growth even though many countries receive over 10% of their gross national income in aid annually.
  • Donors are faced with a significant Principal-Agent problem, which results in a lot of aid ending up in the hands of corrupt officials and useless bureaucrats, or being wasted in some other way.
  • There is some evidence that aid is (slightly) more effective when given to countries with better governance and policies in place, but this does not always correlate with who needs aid the most.

Basically, international aid doesn’t work that well in the long run. Interestingly, this does not mean that we are losing the war on poverty. In fact, according to this article in the economist, the world met the millennium challenge goal of cutting poverty in half between 1990 and 2015 five years early.  So how did it happen?

In a word, China. We are all familiar with the story of China by now. After China adopted meaningful economic reforms in the 1970’s, their economy exploded and millions of people got jobs in new industries making goods that are exported across the world.  What we don’t always take into account is that this massive economic growth depends on a massive level of economic migration.  Chinese cities have over 250 million migrant workers.  Some estimates claim that another 250 million will move to the city by 2025.  China’s migrant population will soon be greater than the entire population of the US.

China has hundreds of millions of internal migrants despite the fact that the government does not allow its citizens to freely move around the country.  Chinese migrant workers live under conditions similar to illegal immigrants in this country.  Millions of migrant worker children are not even allowed to attend school even though China’s leaders know that their urban industries depend on migrant labor.  Migration has been vital to China’s economic growth, but there is massive bureaucratic resistance to granting these migrants basic rights because of the strain it would put on local welfare and education systems.  Sound familiar?  Still, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have decided it is better for them to live on the margins of an industrialized economy than to risk starvation in a backward agricultural area.

Despite government attempts to prevent it, migration has been a fundamental part of how the world has cut poverty in half.  The explanation is pretty simple. Prior to industrialization, pretty much everyone lives in poverty.  Individuals in agricultural societies don’t produce very much, and they are fairly evenly distributed across the land. Individuals who specialize in a modern economy are very productive but they need to live in close proximity to other people. Thus industrialization goes hand in hand with massive rural-urban migration.

China isn’t the only country that has been transformed by internal migration. 30 percent of India’s population are migrants, as that countries citizens search for better conditions. In Brazil, the urban population went from 36% to 81% of the total in the second half on the 20th century.  And of course, the United States has experienced several periods of migration that shaped our nation’s history.

When we talk about poverty reduction, migration should be the first word that comes to mind.  Of course, the movements discussed here have been internal.  Internal migration is a bigger factor than international immigration in global poverty reduction because it is easier for people to move around within their own countries (despite restrictions, as in China).  A few countries have both the massive rural populations and dynamic urban production centers that make economy changing rural-urban migration possible.  But many areas of the world are being choked off either because their rural population has nowhere to go or their aging economy lacks an influx of new workers.

The benefit of open borders is that it allows the process of industrialization and poverty reduction to proceed without artificial barriers.  The China miracle could become a comprehensive global solution to poverty.


“Brain drain” does not harm political activism: my experience, and open borders

I just picked up my copy of the latest edition of The Economist, which had plenty to say about the recent elections in Malaysia (see this story, for instance). I’ve been asked to comment on this from an open borders standpoint — specifically, on how being a Malaysian living overseas has affected my ability to contribute to the political life of my nation. A common concern raised about open borders is that permitting migration more broadly might delay political reform in dysfunctional countries. I think I am well-placed to discuss this: this was the second Malaysian election in my adult life, and also the second I’ve participated in from overseas.

When I was a student during the last Malaysian national elections in 2008, I contributed financially to the causes I support. I also helped write campaign communications material, and I had no issues following the campaign from my university’s New Hampshire campus. Throughout the time I’ve been in the US, I’ve stayed abreast of Malaysian affairs, and for a few years, penned a regular column on Malaysian politics for a popular news website .

It’s actually remarkable how to a significant degree, online news and social media have made it easy to keep one’s thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist. Sometimes readers would ask me how I knew what people were thinking or feeling back home, and it almost felt cheap to say that I just read blog comments or listened to what people were saying on Facebook. Of course, it also helped that I spent a few weeks at home whenever I had vacation time. This recent election, I similarly helped by donating money to the candidates I supported. Coincidentally, I donated to one of these candidates because another Malaysian currently living and working in Mongolia prodded me to, and offered to match my donation.

But beyond these basic things, which I could have done from Antarctica, I also plugged into the Malaysian diaspora in the US. There aren’t many of us here, but for the past 5 years in a row, I’ve helped organise a conference on Malaysian affairs in the northeast (and advised others as they began to organise similar gatherings in the midwest and west coast) — the Malaysia Forum. I organised and attended demonstrations in Washington, DC and New York City demanding a fairer political process.

I still remember how only a couple days after moving into my apartment near Washington, DC I was preparing a poster saying “Where is MY vote?” — a reference to how Malaysian policy then disenfranchised most citizens living overseas. I don’t think any of us at that demonstration outside the Malaysian embassy in DC less than two years ago expected that by this election, we would have the right to vote. And yet, our struggle came through. We were part of a global movement holding simultaneous rallies, in Kuala Lumpur and across the globe, for free and fair elections in Malaysia. At the same time I demonstrated in Washington, I had friends gathering and marching in London, Paris, Melbourne, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. The global synchronicity of it lent a powerful impetus to the movement; it was inspiring to Malaysians to think that scattered across our planet, there were Malaysian citizens sharing in the same struggle for democracy in our country. This election, I not only voted for the first time in my life at our embassy in Washington, but I also served as an election observer.

There is a concern that under open borders, people would flee dysfunctional countries instead of trying to fix them, this “brain drain” dooming these countries to failure in perpetuity. This concern is definitely applicable to Malaysia, and it’s something Malaysians openly wonder about and discuss all the time. (If you doubt me, come on over to next year’s Malaysia Forum and listen in.) The size of our diaspora perennially raises concerns that bad government policies are driving Malaysians away — which itself puts paid to the suggestion that emigration papers over domestic political problems.

Moreover, it’s not enough to suggest that apathetic Malaysians are disproportionately represented among emigrants as proof that permitting such migration is an issue. After all, there’s a selection bias going on: would the kind of people who leave Malaysia because they don’t care about it start caring about the country if immigration restrictions forced them to stay back? On the flip side, would the kind of people who love Malaysia but decide to leave it for other reasons stop loving their country?

I think these questions speak for themselves. But some further historical evidence unique to the Malaysian context: the overseas Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia were extremely politically active in their homelands up until World War II. Sun Yat-Sen paid frequent visits to Malaysia to fundraise and organise, and Jawaharlal Nehru toured Malaysia to drum up political awareness. With a modicum of open borders, people were able to travel and so stay in touch with affairs of their respective homelands. Nowadays with the internet, there is absolutely no reason one can’t play an active role in the political life of one’s home, even from afar.

Another curious political event of note: the affiliates of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang / Guomindang) and the Indian Congress Party in Malaysia eventually morphed into the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress. Both went on to fight for Malaysian independence from the British, and remain influential Malaysian political parties today. It is not easy to classify political participation as an either/or thing.

Migration is a socially complex phenomenon. Not all who leave choose to do so permanently. Many return. Some stay. I have met many Malaysians in the US who, for various reasons, have wound up staying here and may wind up dying here. Perhaps their children will grow up as Americans rather than Malaysians (something I personally, at this point in time, can’t conceive of doing as a parent). But they have impressed on me their love for Malaysia despite spending years, if not decades, away from home.

There is no denying that living away from one’s homeland is tough, whether or not you have line of sight to eventually returning home. There are certainly things I could have contributed in this past election had I been home, instead of in the US. But I confess I do not see how forcing me to remain in Malaysia instead of being in the US would have made the political life of my country significantly better off. Neither do I see how forcing the thousands of Malaysians who have left the country to instead stay behind our country’s arbitrary borders would have made things significantly better.

Malaysia may be a unique case because we are a partially democratic country, and so overseas Malaysians have more opportunities to plug into the political struggles of our homeland. But neither pre-WWII China or India were democratic, and yet the Chinese and Indian diasporas stayed looped into the struggles of their respective home countries. One would not refuse refuge to someone fleeing North Korea. The US has open borders for Cubans who can make it to US soil, and Cuban-Americans continue to be vocal about the affairs of their ancestral homeland.

My suggestion is that political involvement primarily depends on how much you care about the issues at hand, not where you are. It might be that where you are affects your ability to hear about the issues, and thus how much you care about them. But that was not much of an excuse when the borders were open enough to let dissidents like Nehru travel, and it certainly isn’t much of an excuse now when we have the internet and Facebook connecting us to far-flung friends and family.

If anything, because of how it promotes exchanges of ideas and commerce, open borders arguably lends greater impetus to far-flung political movements: I earn far more in the US than I could in Malaysia, and can remit my income to Malaysian causes I support. The ideas I learn of in the US are ideas I can translate to a Malaysian context — and similarly I can transmit Malaysian ideas to my US friends and colleagues. Malaysian opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim (a former Georgetown professor) and Lim Guan Eng (a former Australian student) are fond of quoting American figures like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr. In a world where ideas are free to roam, it hardly seems right to keep the people behind them in a cage.

Collected comments on the World Values Survey data

Co-blogger Nathan Smith recently had a post titled who favors open borders? that looked at some data from the World Values Survey on attitudes to immigration. Nathan’s post was mentioned by Bryan Caplan at EconLog here and by Steve Sailer on his own blog here and here. Commenters at all places have raised a number of interesting points. This post is meant to expound a bit on my own interpretation and mention issues raised by commenters across all these posts.

Interesting theories for the general patterns

This is an expansion and restructuring of some stuff I already mentioned in a comment on Nathan’s post. I’ll first offer the individual theories, then the synthesis.

  1. Countries that people generally want to leave (emigrate from) tend to have a larger proportion of people supporting “let anyone come” and in general seem to have a more pro-open borders position. If this holds up empirically, one simple explanation may be a sort of intuitive Golden Rule: people who want to migrate to other countries take the right to migrate more seriously for immigrants to their country as well.
  2. Countries that generally see a higher proportion of immigrants generally tend to be more restrictionist, while countries that have a low proportion of immigrants (and a low proportion of the foreign-born in general) tend to be more pro-open borders. If this holds up empirically, then the simplest explanation might be that high levels of immigration lead to a nativist backlash by making the native-immigrant distinction more salient. One confounding factor here is that countries with a high proportion of immigrants also tend to have a high proportion of people who are more pro-open borders on account of being immigrants or related to immigrants. My suspicion is that the relation between high immigration levels and low support for open borders would be even stronger if we restricted attention to natives who are native-born and do not have a foreign-born spouse, sibling, parent, or child.
  3. Slightly related to (2), but different: countries that have higher proportions of immigrants tend to be less likely to favor extreme solutions. In other words, in addition to leaning more restrictionist, they’re generally less likely to have lots of people at the extremes of “Let Anyone Come” and “Prohibit” whereas countries like India that have a very low share of the foreign born have large proportions of people at both extremes. Of course, it’s possible that India is an outlier in this regard. I’m less sure of this pattern than the others. The simple explanation for this pattern, if it holds up, is that countries with a large resident foreign born population (whether immigrants or guest workers/students) is more tuned to the practical constraints and “arguments on both sides” and hence would be more likely to support middle-of-the-road solutions.

My overall guess, based on looking at the table, is that the very high “Let Anyone Come” countries are mostly explained by (1). Take a look at the top five countries: Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Mali. With the exception of Vietnam, they all have GDP (PPP) per capita per year less than $2000 (they’re in the $1000-1500 range by a number of estimates — see here). Vietnam, with a GDP (PPP) of about $3000-3500 per year, is somewhat of an outlier on the GDP front, but still poor enough to go with the general thesis here. The only other country that I can see on the list with a notably low GDP (PPP) is Ghana, but the estimates for Ghana (#11 on the “Let Anyone Come” ranking) vary quite a bit between $1800 and $3100.

From #6 onward on the list (percentages 28% or lower for “Let Anyone Come”) we start seeing middle-income countries and “upper low-income countries” which are generally not places that people want to desperately leave, but also aren’t attractive destinations for immigrants in general (though they see some traffic from their bordering countries). Countries 6 to 10 are Morocco, Romania, Uruguay, Peru, and India. Of these, Morocco and India are low-income but not the extreme low-income levels of sub-Saharan Africa, whereas Romania, Uruguay, and Peru are solidly middle-income countries — GDP (PPP) between $8000 and $16000 for all of these. The case of India is a little confusing because of its huge size — there are parts of India that have income levels comparable to the extreme low-income sub-Saharan African countries, and other parts that almost make it to middle-income status. One reason for the unusual response percentages in India may be this considerable diversity in the income levels between regions.

For these countries, then, I think the main operative factors are (2) and (3) — they tend to generally be more pro-open borders but also have high numbers of people at both extremes. However, unlike the extreme low-income countries case where almost all these countries are strongly pro-open borders, middle-income countries overall are all over the map. Malaysia, the most restrictionist country by the “Let Anyone Come” metric, is also middle-income. So a more careful statistical analysis would be needed in order to decipher the patterns here.

Patterns for specific countries

Some outlier countries have been pointed out in various comments:

  • The causes of Vietnam’s top position are unclear. Eric speculates a bit about this here (comparing Vietnam to Indonesia), and some commenters on Steve Sailer’s blog post also offer their thoughts.
  • India has received a lot of attention for having unusually high percentages of people in both the “Let Anyone Come” and Prohibit” categories. Regional variation within India may be part of the story. I offer some thoughts on India at this comment.
  • Among developed (high-income) countries, Sweden is a bit of an outlier with respect to its “Let Anyone Come” percentage. Its percentage, 18%, is much higher than the 8% and lower values for other developed countries. Steve Sailer and his commenters offer some theories about Sweden here.
  • Malaysia’s unusually low “Let Anyone Come” number has sparked the interest of my co-blogger John Lee, who offered some preliminary thoughts in this comment.
  • In this comment, Brian Moore points out that Canada and the USA have very similar views on immigration but very different immigration policies.