Tag Archives: Palestine

Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy

The recent influx of child migrants into the US has put immigration and refugee issues in the limelight. Because many of these children are fleeing violence in countries like Honduras and El Salvador — countries where US foreign policy has empowered violent gangs and created political instability — the debate has also seen the resurgence of what I call the “reparations argument” for liberal migration laws.

In essence, this argument runs:

  • The US (or whatever potential host country is being discussed) created a bad situation in the migrant-/refugee-sending countries
  • Therefore, the US is actually responsible for creating the flow of migrants from these countries
  • Therefore, the US must do one or more of the following:
    • Welcome these migrants
    • Send more foreign aid to these countries
    • Change its foreign policy

This cartoon from the Facebook page Muh Borders is a good summary of the reparations argument:
If you didn't want to deal with refugees, you shouldn't have f***ed with their countriesNow, I think this argument does make logical sense and is a pretty decent framework for thinking about foreign policy. If one nation wrongs another, it seems intuitive that reparations should be on the table.

But I don’t think the reparations argument makes sense as a justification for the status quo plus limited liberal treatment of migrants from certain nationalities. It could perhaps be logical to say “We ought to recognise the right to migrate for all people. But if we can’t agree on that, we should at least agree that those people we have harmed have an especially strong claim on the right to migrate.”

But note that this reparations argument is pretty much orthogonal to the case for open borders — it doesn’t have much bearing on the question of whether we ought to recognise a right to migrate, which is probably why not many open borders advocates rely on it. Reparations are just a “second best” argument. Indeed, the only open borders advocate I’m aware of who regularly uses this argument as direct support is Aviva Chomsky, and as both co-blogger Vipul and myself have noted before, her arguments are actually not that sound.

The problem becomes acute once we depart from making the case for general open borders, and just attempt to marshal this reparations argument for selective openness as the very best solution. e.g., “There isn’t any such thing as a right to migrate, but we should at least let people from countries we’ve harmed come here.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how much suffering excluding and deporting innocent people might cause — you’re perfectly in the right to do this unless you’ve originally created suffering in their home countries.

This may sound appealing and consistent at first, but actually making this argument work in practical terms is maddeningly hard. Nobody I have seen making this case actually clearly articulates the exact details of how they’ve concluded open borders with a given country (such as Guatemala) are a moral imperative, while still rejecting open borders for other countries.

After all, although most of the child migrants arriving in the US today are from countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, these three countries are far from the only ones in Latin America who have been wronged by the US. The US sponsored a coup in Chile; the US has a history of repeatedly invading Haiti; the US once invaded Mexico and occupied its capital city; in the lifetime of many of us, one of the biggest political scandals in the US was its funneling of arms into Nicaragua to destabilise the government. And if we’re going to talk about the harmful effects of the drug war, surely gang wars in Mexico and Colombia ought to be in the picture too. What’s the reason the US shouldn’t have open borders with — or at least adopt a more liberal stance towards migration from — these countries?

But wait, there’s more: we’ve only been talking about the countries of the Western hemisphere. Elsewhere on the globe, it wasn’t long ago that the US waged a war in Vietnam, and dropped bombs and chemical weapons over Cambodia and Laos. It colonised the Philippines for decades, imposing an initial harsh military occupation to subjugate Filipino nationalists bent on independence for their country. The US has directly sponsored the weapons used to murder hundreds of innocent Palestinians and subsidised the Egyptian and Israeli governments which prevent Palestinians from fleeing violence in Gaza or seeking work and opportunity outside a narrow strip of land. And, of course, it would be hard to argue the US isn’t responsible for much of the violence happening in Iraq and Afghanistan today. If we count the second order impacts of those recent American invasions, we could certainly argue these invasions have dreadfully harmed the people of Syria and Pakistan as well by empowering Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in those countries.

I don’t necessarily endorse the argument that because the US has pursued policies which have harmed the people of the countries I just named, the US is obligated to pay reparations to these countries, or offer reparations in the form of liberal treatment for their nationals who might want to migrate to the US.  My point in laying out these hypothetical arguments is that not a single person who wants liberal treatment specifically for El Salvadoran or Guatemalan asylum seekers on the basis of reparations owed has explained why their argument wouldn’t justify similar treatment for nationals of other countries who have been severely harmed by American policy.

That said, let’s assume we can resolve this tension somehow — either we find some intellectually consistent way to welcome El Salvadorans while deporting Mexicans (note that this is actually close to the status quo for unaccompanied child migrants in the US), or we choose to welcome the nationals of any country the US has harmed (within some reasonable and widely-agreed upon definition of harm).

The other leg of this argument tends to be some form of the following: accepting these migrants will be a temporary form of relief for these countries, while we figure out a way to help them and make proper reparation for messing them up in the first place. In other words, if the US dumps billions of dollars into El Salvador and shuts down the drug war, then deporting El Salvadorans and treating them as “illegals” will become morally acceptable.

I think people who advance this argument often believe that if the US stops its harmful policies and makes large enough aid payments to these countries, then these countries will bloom and prosper,

  • making it justifiable to deport people back to these countries; and/or,
  • reducing or eliminating any flows of migrants from these countries, since people wouldn’t want to leave.

Embedded in all this is the huge assumption that it would be possible for the US to magically destroy the problems of political instability, corrupt institutions, gang warfare, and rotten infrastructure that might plague these countries, if only the US were to do something different. I find this assumption incredibly questionable, to put it lightly.

But let’s say that the US were able to accomplish the incredibly-unlikely, and actually wipe out the worst poverty and violence that plague many of the countries whose people are desperate to seek a better life in the US. Would this reduce or even eliminate migrant flows? The evidence suggests that in general, such economic development would lead to more migration.

The reason is simple: people who are very poor can’t afford an expensive journey, even if the economic returns from taking a job in a much more developed economy would more than justify it. They simply don’t have the money to finance it. As countries become richer, their people become better able to afford the journey, and so more of them will leave in search of better work and fairer wages.

So in all likelihood, pursuing reparations for the US’s past harms to these countries will not markedly stem the pressure to migrate to the US or other developed countries in search of a better life. Advocates making the reparations argument don’t even present empirical evidence that throwing billions of dollars at these countries will fix their problems (whether or not the US created those problems in the first place) — they assume that magically the US can do something different, and all the problems will go away. Worse still, they ignore empirical evidence that assuming their proposed reforms actually succeed in helping these countries develop, the likely outcome will be even stronger pressure to migrate for better jobs and wages.

Rohingya refugee family beg the Bangladeshi coast guard to not deport them

What then? Would it be just and right to tell an El Salvadoran child fleeing rape or murder “You have to go home because we paid your government a few billion dollars — that you’ll be killed or raped because we’re deporting you is now not our problem”? Would it actually be honest to say that the US isn’t responsible for the death or rape of this child if the US government then sends this child “home” to be raped and killed? Heck, if the child just dies of starvation or illness because his home country doesn’t have a functioning economy or healthcare system — i.e., the child is just an “economic migrant” — would it somehow be any better that the US sent him back to die?

My answers to these questions is, of course, no. But the reason why I answer in the negative has nothing to do with whether the US owes any reparations to the people of the countries it has harmed — as important an issue as that may be. It is fundamentally unjust to exclude an innocent human being — especially one fleeing violence or murder — purely because of where they are from. Where these people are from simply does not matter — every government owes justice to every human being under its jurisdiction. Excluding innocent human beings purely because of their national origin is at its heart an act of barbarism and injustice.

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?

Open borders: the solution to conflict in the Middle East

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a respected US academic and former bureaucrat in the field of international studies, recently authored an interesting piece highlighting an unconventional 2-state solution for Israel and Palestine:

“Two-state condominialism” is as visionary as the name is clunky. The core idea is that Israelis and Palestinians would be citizens of two separate states and thus would identify with two separate political authorities. Palestine would be defined as a state of the Palestinian people, and Israel as a Jewish state. Under “condominialism,” however, both Palestinians and Jews “would be granted the right to settle anywhere within the territory of either of the two states, the two states thus forming a single, binational settlement community.”

…Palestinians “would have the right to settle anywhere within Israel just as Jews would have the right to settle anywhere within the territory of the Palestinian state. Regardless of which of the two states they lived in, all Palestinians would be citizens of the Palestinian state, all Jews citizens of Israel.” Each state would have the authority and the obligation to provide for the economic, cultural, religious, and welfare needs of its citizens living in the other state’s territory.

Condominialism recognizes the reality of the deep interconnectedness of Israeli settlers in the West Bank with the rest of Israel – through roads, water supplies, electricity grids, administrative structures, and economic relationships (just as Israeli and Palestinian parts of Jerusalem are interdependent). Instead of trying to separate and recreate all of these structures and relationships, it makes far more sense to build on them in ways that benefit both states’ peoples and economies. And, in a world in which many citizens spend an increasing proportion of their time in virtual space, de facto condominialism is already happening.

As ideas go, I’ve seen worse. I like this a lot. In fact, I like this enough to the point that I would like to know: what’s keeping the rest of the world from trying this out? In many parts of the world, the forms of “deep interconnectedness” Slaughter describes already exist in total defiance of arbitrary, human-defined borders. In fact, I am a bit surprised she almost seems to gloss over the human relationships and communities that constitute the most important interconnectedness here.

To take an example I’m familiar with, it matters little to a Malaysian living in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo where the technical border is. Not when he and his family have been living and moving across the land long before any international border sprung up separating Malaysia and Indonesia. Across the South China Sea in West Malaysia, Malaysians who live in the north are permitted to cross our border with Thailand without passports or visas, a governmental nod to our deep interconnectedness. Stories like these can be found across the world, including in the southern US, where people still recall how, before paranoia post-9/11 set in, communities divided by a border paid it no heed, their lives bonded together by social and economic ties that matter far more than arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

And to her credit, Slaughter closes by obliquely pointing to the relevance of open borders outside the Middle East:

In the 1950’s, after four decades of war across Europe, the idea of a European Union in which member states’ citizens could live and work freely across national borders while retaining their political allegiance and cultural identity seemed equally far-fetched. (Indeed, the name of the political process by which the EU was to be constructed, “neo-functionalism,” was every bit as abstract and cumbersome as “two-state condominialism.”) Yet French and German statesmen summoned the vision and the will to launch a bold experiment, one that has evolved into a single economy of 500 million people.

The EU has proven that on a fairly large scale, open borders work. (I am not too sure about the feasibility of a single currency, though.) To the extent that open borders in the EU have been detrimental, they have been addressable by keyhole solutions (such as transparent, clearly-defined temporary restrictions on immigrant flows to allow societal adjustment). And to the extent that they have been harmful in spite of keyhole solutions, it is absolutely clear that most, if not all, predictions of catastrophe have not come to pass.

Borders may be arbitrary, but we don’t need to abolish them to have open borders. Indeed, Slaughter says: “To make this work, the borders of each state would first have to be defined – presumably on the basis of the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed territorial swaps.” Borders define the area of a state’s sovereign jurisdiction. But they don’t define the human relationships that form the warp and weave of everyday life. Fundamental morality and economics agree: we need open borders.