Tag Archives: Italy

Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death

Open borders advocates on occasion borrow philosopher Peter Singer’s metaphor of the drowning child:

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes – in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

The analogy is somewhat obvious: many of the people prevented from moving by our immigration laws are fleeing a disaster of some kind that puts their life in serious danger. Those who want to prevent them from moving cannot use the excuse that it might be economically costly to us if we allow them to flee; otherwise, we are literally saying we value an expensive pair of shoes over the life of another human being.

However, open borders advocates are quick to caution that inasmuch as this is a thought trigger, this is not a true reflection of the state of things. Migration is actually rather different: most migrants seeking to move don’t require us to even lift a finger, let alone ruin an expensive pair of shoes. Many of the migrants we exclude, even the weary refugees, are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. They can afford to pay for their journey to a land safe from political persecution, economic disaster, cholera, or whatever plague ails their native country; they can afford to rescue themselves. All our governments need to do is get out of their way, and allow them to pay for their own fare. The very reason that so many pay expensive fees to smugglers is because our own laws banned them from buying a regular ticket at the market fare in the first place!

Distancing the analogy even further, many migrants are not in any sort of life-threatening bind: they are capable individuals simply seeking to author their own life stories. That many prospective migrants simply want to and are fully capable of authoring their own better life makes it all the more galling that we regularly characterise the migrant as some sort of criminal burdensome leech. The “but my expensive shoes!” sort of excuse doesn’t even hold water when there’s nobody drowning — not when it’s just somebody trying to marry their spouse, pursue an education, or see the city lights, and is perfectly able to do this without troubling any of us in the least.

This is why I rarely refer to Singer’s analogy; it isn’t a very good portrayal of the true situation. If you want a better analogy, the situation is more like a well-dressed person trying to go somewhere, and us standing in the road complaining that if we let him go somewhere, he’ll step on our expensive shoes, and that’s why we need to build a giant electrified fence to keep him from ever coming anywhere near us. Our complaints are unfounded, and the gentleman requires nothing more from us than to move on and go about our own business.

But in another sense, immigration restrictions are far worse than refusing to rescue a drowning child. Most migrants may not face any life-threatening danger — but there are still millions forced to live in countries where they could be tortured or killed, and millions more forced to live in countries where there are no jobs for them outside the sweatshop. When our laws ban these people from moving to a society that won’t literally kill them, we are not just refusing to help a drowning person; this amounts to actively drowning the victim.

In these cases, the drowning person is perfectly capable of swimming to safety; they can buy their own ticket on a plane. The only thing keeping them from saving themselves is our own laws that ban them from doing this. We have prevented the drowning person from swimming to safety; we have become complicit in the death, if not murder, of a human being. When we ban people from fleeing death and suffering, we are complicit in the consequent dangers that befall them.

t1larg.sfax.boat.gi.afp[1]

African migrants banned from buying a regular ferry ticket await rescue on their disabled, overcrowded vessel in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: AFP/CNN.

Mind you, it is already the case that our laws give no reasonable avenue for bona fide refugees to safely travel in search of safety on aeroplanes or boats like the rest of us. Many people stay in their home countries resigned to lives of poverty or persecution because they have no legal avenue to leave for a society that allows them to flourish. But it only gets worse.

Those who do strike up the gumption to leave are punished even more harshly and actively in our name, at our own expense. Our own law enforcement agencies treat penniless unarmed people as though they are an invading army. And so our governments wind up literally killing people — not merely in silence by banning them from pursuing safety, but vocally and actively, by putting them to death.

Take the case of Australia. It is no secret that Australia pursues “pushbacks” or “towbacks” of migrants seeking asylum; there is video evidence showing it, and eyewitness testimony confirming it. The Australian procedure appears to be:

  1. Send the Navy or Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats;
  2. Transfer migrants from their potentially unseaworthy boats to lifeboats (literally, lifeboats manufactured for use only in dire circumstances when one has to abandon ship)
  3. Tow these lifeboats to Indonesian waters;
  4. Cut these lifeboats adrift; they’re now Indonesia’s problem.

This entire procedure is both legally and morally suspect. Migrants generally set sail in rickety and unsafe boats because they are banned by immigration law from purchasing passage on safer, legal vessels. Then, when they do get close to the country they want to settle in peace — a country not riven by war or sweatshop slavery — they are captured, placed on a slightly less unsafe boat, and cut adrift on the open sea. The Australian government surely gives them some provisions and a presumably slightly better vessel, but the fact remains: the government is setting these people at sea, in reckless disregard of their human lives. To quote one media account,

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also said the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by Australian authorities, but claimed to have run out of food 48 hours before landing in Java.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says it is concerning that children were on board the lifeboat.

“I’m very concerned that there are reports that there were children as young as 18 months old, toddlers on board this boat,” she said.

“It is never safe to turn back a boat, push a boat back to the high seas with children that young on board.”

But hey, nobody’s died yet from these pushbacks, so maybe it’s ok to leave babies as young as 18 months afloat on a tiny vessel, days away from any shore, and have them fend for themselves — right? This is surely extremely morally dubious. And as it turns out, legally dubious too, if Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney is to be believed:

Australia cannot turn back boats if it would expose a person to return to persecution contrary to the [UN] refugee convention. That includes sending people back to countries which do not offer effective refugee protection. Those can include transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where there is no refugee protection status given to people who are there to claim refugee status.

The second consideration is under the law of the sea. It is not legal to turn back a boat which is unseaworthy and on which the lives of passengers are in danger or at risk.

[Towbacks] would ultimately require the safety of the vessel to be ensured, so Australia presumably would then need to tow it right back to an Indonesian port. It couldn’t just then leave the boat stranded without a motor on the edge of the Indonesian territorial sea, for example.

Australia’s brazen disregard for ethics and the law is hardly unusual. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned Italy for performing near-identical pushbacks. The only substantive difference? Rather than putting migrants into new lifeboats, Italy transported migrants on its own boats back to Libya, where the Gaddafi regime promptly imprisoned many of them. Some of the people who were pushed back were even later granted asylum by the Italian government, a tacit acknowledgement that their initial towback was wrong.

Consider the above interview with some of the migrants immorally and unlawfully sent back to Libya. Does it morally matter whether these people were put in harms way by setting them afloat on a tiny vessel at sea, by returning them to a tyrant’s jail, or by settling them literally in the Sahara Desert? Whether you die of thirst, exposure, or tyrannical murder, whatever the case may be, if you were sent to your death by the Italian government, was your death not effected at the hands of the Italian taxpayer?

This 2012 decision did not seem to affect the Greek government, which has reportedly sent masked commandos to effect near-identical pushbacks of migrants fleeing the mass murder of Bashar Assad and the Islamic State in Syria. And yes, Greece has drowned some of these poor people. About a year ago, the Greek coast guard was towing a refugee boat (survivors allege they were being taken to Turkey, while Greece claims it was towing them to a Greek island) when rough seas, poor handling, or a combination of the two caused the boat to sink, sending many — including children — to death by drowning.

Now, one could take a sympathetic view to the governments of rich countries. They are somewhere in between a rock and a hard place: people will complain no matter what they do. If they allow migrants in, people will circulate false claims of lavish government treatment for these poor people — while at the same time complaining that these people are also cluttering up the streets begging, and also stealing their jobs. If they don’t allow migrants in, they get some bad press, but it’s not their own citizens drowning in the sea or being tortured in some mass murderer’s jail, so nobody capable of holding them accountable will actually bother to do so. So these governments might as well get some blood on their hands; it’s easier than the alternative.

And facetious as I might sound, I do see some room to sympathise with the people effecting these pushbacks. It’s ultimately the citizenry and the institutions that are responsible for political outcomes, and so this political drowning of immigrants is not wholly the fault of, say, the Australian, Italian, or Greek governments. It is the fault of bigotry and the fault of institutions that allow bigotry to fester — that allow us to say our expensive shoes are worth more than human life.

The challenges governments face in handling the problems of migrants, especially the most destitute, are very real. Take for example one report of the Thai government pushing back Burmese Rohingya migrants (though from the description, it sounds like these are actually true deportations, as these migrants have already landed):

The 259 will be put back on boats and sent back to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police.

“They are Muslims from Myanmar … They are illegal migrants,” Sanya told Reuters by telephone.

“If they come in then we must push them back … once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that’s considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem.”

Sanya hardly sounds like a sympathetic character. Much like Australia, he intends to set people adrift at sea — and in presumably worse conditions than an Australian lifeboat. But he is really between a rock and a hard place:

Sanya said the 259 people were currently being held at a community hall and that his team were “looking after them like relatives” but that they would soon be put back on boats.

“Who will feed them? I’m struggling day to day to feed them,” said Sanya.

If he were a rich country official, one might be tempted to play him the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. But he is a developing country official with hardly any resources to effect an orderly resettlement of refugees. He can perhaps feed them for a while, but he cannot help them find homes or jobs. In his shoes, it’s hard to say we could do much different than deport these poor people back to persecution and suffering in Burma.

But this is only a problem because we continue to tolerate the bigotry that views deportation as an solution to poverty, and the bigotry that denies migrants the agency to run their own lives. The Rohingya fled for a reason: they would rather run the risk of starving in a hostile land than continuing to suffer in their own country. Pushbacks and deportations do not cleanse our hands of guilt.

If the Rohingya come to misfortune in our own countries because of their own failings, that is one thing. But if we send them back to the very suffering they toiled so hard to flee, we are directly complicit in all that may befall them — which, in the case of the Rohingya, often turns out to be slavery, summary execution, torture, or rape.

Who will feed them? Ideally, they should feed themselves. But irrespective of how they are fed, the answer to this question of feeding is not “Send them away to be enslaved, murdered, tortured, or raped.”

One would hope that the more “civilised” governments of the Western world would have a more elegant solution to this than Sanya’s “Send them back to the country that’s killing them, then it’s not my problem.” But unfortunately, besides elaborate commando gear and expensive lifeboats, there seems to be little that separates the rich world from poor in the matter of drowning migrants. Whichever the government may be, its callousness is galling.

People often take it to be a strawman when I say that defenders of the border status quo are in essence apologising for persecution and murder. But when governments are putting unarmed civilians adrift at sea, and don’t seem to care whether they live or die as a result, it surely behooves us to ask what on earth these people did wrong to merit such punishment, such endangerment. And when on occasion, someone does pose this question, as one British journalist did, we find the “protectors” of our borders proffering the following:

The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others.

We are drowning people for the crime of fleeing destitution and persecution. We are drowning people for seeking to preserve their own lives. We are drowning people to send a warning to anyone else who might dream of a life in a society where they can be free to pursue their ambitions and realise their potential. We are literally drowning innocent children.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how we should implement immigration law, how we should deal with refugees, or how we should police our borders. But I do know that there is no satisfying rationale for why our governments drown people — metaphorically in the home countries they might want to leave, or literally in the seas surrounding our countries where they dream of being free from oppression and murder.

It is no strawman nor exaggeration to say that our closed borders kill people. Our border politics have led to our governments suggesting it would be quite literally better to let people drown.  And yet one of the most grating aspects of the status quo is that nobody even feels compelled to articulate a justification for so many parts of it that seem obviously wrong — like the fact that ostensibly civilised societies are condoning the drowning of innocent people.

Nobody feels pressured to justify the way we specifically treat immigrants. There are plenty of philosophical arguments for the state’s authority to “control” its borders, but none that specifically explain why throwing people into prison camps or literally refusing to rescue drowning people is a morally acceptable or required method of doing so.

The drowning children are real, and yet we don’t have to do anything to rescue them; they can swim just fine on their own. All we have to do is allow them to save themselves. Yet we would rather use our own ships and our own taxes to prevent them from saving themselves, and watch them drown. Why do we do that? How can we justify it? Maybe you can tell me.

The image featured at the top of this post is an Australian government advertisement warning prospective immigrants and refugees that they are not welcome in Australia.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you. Some of these are also linked inline from the post:

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor
Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor, used in the New Statesman article From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:

What international evidence exists for adverse impacts from illegal immigration or amnesties for immigrants?

In the US, California is every restrictionist’s (and fair-minded skeptic’s) example of how badly things can go wrong if you mismanage immigration policy. I have not yet seen someone cite country-level evidence of poor immigration policy’s impacts: given that Italy and Spain have given multiple amnesties to unauthorised immigrants over the last 3 decades, and the current state of their economies, this seems surprising. Does anyone know of a comprehensive analysis that looks at jurisdictions outside the US?

To be clear, I often see specific references to how life in California is now terrible because of illegal immigration. Commonly-cited examples are the problem of the state government’s debt, a dysfunctional state government, soaring crime rates, deteriorating levels of social trust, a collapsing public school system, the high level of unemployment…I could continue on. I often see references made to California as the ultimate end-state for any jurisdiction that permits a large amount of illegal immigration, and would like to understand if this conclusion has been validated or supported by analyses that look at other jurisdictions with large amounts of illegal immigration. A previous post considered this question in the context of comparisons between the US states, but for this post, I’m interested in international comparisons.

I’m fine with somewhat unsophisticated stabs at this analysis: breadth can be just as important as depth, and given the rather poor state of knowledge about the ultimate impacts of high levels of immigration, any research or analysis can prove valuable. My understanding is that France and Germany both have ongoing processes for unauthorised immigrants to regularise their status, and considering the widespread use of discrete amnesties in other European countries’ immigration policies, it would be interesting to see if there are any different impacts, and what people’s thoughts are on the impact of either option has been relative to a counterfactual where these European countries did not regularise any unauthorised immigrants whatsoever.

The US has only implemented one amnesty of note, in 1986. In Europe, amnesties are much more common. Poland for example announced in 2011 its third amnesty since 2003 (though to be fair, Poland has much fewer unauthorised immigrants than the US). Surely there has been some study of the impacts of these amnesties, or even some informal comparison that correlates the number of unauthorised immigrants to various socioeconomic indicators at the country level. And I’m only really somewhat aware of amnesty policies in Europe: I’m not even sure what arrangements, if any, exist in other continents.

And going beyond amnesty, large numbers of unauthorised immigrants exist in various countries. The number of unauthorised immigrants could similarly be correlated to various indicators, as informal analyses in the US often do with California. If we rank countries by the percentage of their population that is present without legal authorisation, how would that compare to the ranking of countries by GDP per capita, or public debt per capita, or rankings in international educational aptitude surveys like PISA or TIMMS? What about ranking countries by the number of previously unauthorised immigrants whose legal status has since been regularised? Here are two charts (from link #3 at the end of this post) which rank EU countries:

EU-27 regularizations through programsEU-27 regularizations through mechanisms

A quick glance suggests that some of the worse-performing Eurozone economies have been much likelier to offer larger-scale regularisations. However I’m not sure what to make of Germany and France coming in right behind four of the PIIGS on this scale, or of Germany and France topping the list when it comes to mechanism-based (i.e. ongoing) regularisations. Moreover within the PIIGS it also seems quite clear that Italy and Spain are performing better than Greece (I am not sure where Portugal stands). So the correlation, if there is one, does not appear to be that strong.

(Something else that may be food for thought: according to the source for these charts, France once insisted that the EU adopt a continent-wide ban on mass regularisations of the “amnesty” type currently being discussed in the US. This idea was dropped because Spain vetoed it. It would be fascinating to learn what’s driving the different approaches here.)

If anyone knows of material that might be pertinent to the issues I’ve raised here, I would love to hear about it in the comments of this post. We can compile a compendium and document it on an Open Borders page about illegal immigration, and/or the regularisation of unauthorised immigrants. This compendium would be a useful reference for future discussions and blog posts on this site.

I’ll start by listing out some documents I’ve been able to find, and will add to this list as people post in the comments:

  1. Why Countries Continue to Consider Regularization, Amanda Levinson (2005) — a good summary of how different countries approach regularisation/amnesty, and where volumes stood as of 2005
  2. Regularisation programmes in France, Amanda Levinson (2005) — a good summary of the French approach, but no contextualisation with respect to how it compares to elsewhere
  3. Regularizations in the European Union, Kate Brick (2011) — probably comes closest to what I’ve been looking for, has excellent comparisons of different countries’ approaches to regularisation

Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

Continue reading “Who favors open borders?” »