Open borders advocates have long seized philosophical hypotheticals to argue that open borders would, quite literally, save lives. Restrictionists tend to jump through all kinds of hoops to argue that preventing someone from earning an honest living isn’t economically equivalent to robbing that person of some of their income — which, in extreme cases, can obviously cause death. But it isn’t hard, at all, to find cases where closing the borders quite literally kills people.
Historically, developed countries have welcomed political refugees, knowing that to turn someone away would likely lead to their death. We regret and condemn cases where the civilised world has failed to do this, such as when the 1940s US denied visas to European Jews (perhaps the most famous victim of American oppression here being Anne Frank). West Germany welcoming East German escapees or the US welcoming Vietnamese refugees come to mind; even today, the US near-automatically grants residency to Cuban refugees.
While reading an article in the New York Times today about the corner of the world where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran meet, all I could think about was the power of open borders to transform people’s lives. I don’t know many people who would find it appealing to live in Iran, yet there are literally people willing to run the risk of death just to get into Iran (over 2 million of them, by one estimate from the article). That’s the immense power of the place premium.
I don’t have extremely strong views on Iran, but after reading the article, I don’t think I had a very positive impression of the country — to put it mildly. The way it treats undocumented Afghan workers, literally murdering people for crossing a line someone drew on a map, is unconscionable. Yet almost everything about Iranian immigration policy, short of murdering immigrants, resembles immigration policy in almost every country of the world. What makes Iranian immigration policy barbaric, but US or European immigration policy civilised?
Something else to chew on: Australia’s policy of jailing immigrants has backfired, because Indonesians are willing to risk death on the open seas to immigrate to Australian jails. The place premium’s existence and power are undeniable: people risk life and limb to get into Iran. They risk life and limb to get into an Australian jail, because that’s still a better life than what they had before. If closing the borders isn’t equivalent to taking food away from a starving man, it’s pretty damn close — especially when you need to literally kill some people to keep the borders closed.