Tag Archives: refugees

Realistically Assessing the Danger of Terrorism From Immigration

Jay Inslee, the governor of the U.S. state of Washington, where I live, is my hero. Most governors have proclaimed their opposition to having Syrian refugees enter their states out of fear that they might commit acts of terror, and most Americans are opposed to admitting the refugees into the U.S., but Mr. Inslee has voiced his support for accepting the refugees after they have been screened for security threats. He has stated, “I have always believed that the United States is a place of refuge for those escaping persecution, starvation or other horrors that thankfully most in America will never experience… I told Washingtonians that I wouldn’t join those who wanted to demonize people because of the country they flee or the religion they practice. I will uphold our reputation as a place that embraces compassion and equality and eschews fear-mongering…”

At issue is the fate of a relatively small group of Syrian refugees, only 10,000 out of millions seeking a safe home abroad. Open borders advocates like myself would prefer the admission to the U.S. of as many refugees as wish to come, excepting any who might be security threats. But accepting the 10,000 is better than not accepting any. It is the right thing to do from an open borders perspective, and as Phil Mader and I have argued, a tool for dealing with terrorism. Mr. Mader points out that refusing Muslim refugees would alienate the refugees, who could be our “natural allies” if allowed to immigrate.  Similarly, I have noted that Muslim immigrants could provide cultural and language skills in the effort against Islamic terrorism.

Beyond providing support for the admission of the refugees, Mr. Inslee correctly urges perspective on the risk involved in admitting the refugees. Referring to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he writes that “there is no guarantee that the same thing can’t happen here, and no way to erase all risk.” However, “we can take a deep breath, stand up straight and make a realistic assessment of risk.”

Indeed, the terrorist risk to the U.S. posed by the refugees, who will undergo rigorous screening before being admitted, and by Muslim immigrants in general, is minimal, especially when compared to other threats. As has been previously observed, most Muslims are peaceful. American currently has over 2.5  million Muslims, about two thirds of whom are immigrants, but very few are involved in terrorism. Since 9/11, there have been 26 people killed and about 200 wounded from jihadist attacks in the U.S.  (An attack by a Muslim immigrant that killed 4 marines in Tennessee last summer also may have been motivated by radical Islam. ) Most of the eight attackers were born in the U.S., and some were African-American, with no apparent recent immigrant ancestors.

Meanwhile, American right wing extremists have killed more people (48) in the U.S. since 9/11 than have radical Muslims. Most of these attacks were committed by white male Americans. And the second deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history was committed by a white antigovernment extremist in 1995: the truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, 19 of whom were children.

White males are also responsible for most of the mass
shootings in the U.S. Mother Jones collected more than thirty years of data on public mass shootings in the U.S. which involved indiscriminate killing and the killing of at least four people. Apparently 44 out of 64 perpetrators were white males with no apparent connection to Islam or immigration. (2 of these mass shootings were included in the data on right wing and jihadist attacks.) Dana Ford of CNN writes that “the man who opened fire at a Charleston church on June 17, killing nine people, joined a list many would like to forget. Dylann Roof. Adam Lanza. James Holmes. Jared Loughner. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their names stir painful memories and conjure images of hate and violence. The killers have other characteristics in common too: They either were, or are, young, white and male.” Texas mayor Mike Rawlings states that he is “more fearful of large gatherings of young white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up” than Syrian refugees.

More importantly, all of these jihadist and right-wing attacks and mass shootings are extremely rare and account for a minuscule portion of premature deaths in the U.S. According to Politifact, about 300,000 people in the U.S. have been killed by guns over the last decade, compared to less than a hundred deaths from extremist, both right wing and jihadist, attacks. Deaths from mass shootings have been in the low hundreds in recent years.

Beyond violent deaths, over a third of early deaths in the US. are due to behaviors such as using tobacco, eating a poor diet, and not getting enough exercise.  According to the Population Reference Bureau, “diet alone accounted for more than 650,000 early deaths in 2010.” Almost 19,000 people were killed in car accidents during the first half of this year, along with nearly 2.3 million “serious injuries” from the accidents. Tens of thousands more die each year from chokings, fires, falls, drownings, and poisonings.

Of course, a single terrorist attack can cause enormous carnage and destruction. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people directly and caused billions of dollars of damage. And the problem of jihadi terrorism may more likely arise in the offspring of immigrants. The Paris attacks were committed by Muslims who were apparently born in Europe.

However, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have a large number of alienated Muslim residents like Europe does, who may be more prone to committing acts of terror like those seen in Paris. Fortunately, America does a better job than Europe at integrating its immigrants.  It should continue to improve its ability to integrate newcomers, including Muslims.

As for catastrophic events like 9/11, fortunately they are rare, 9/11 itself was the work of temporary visitors to the U.S., not immigrants, and, as discussed, having more immigrants enter the U.S. could help our intelligence agencies foil future attacks. In addition, it should be noted that, as deadly and shocking as 9/11 was, the attack’s toll is dwarfed by the number of deaths resulting annually from accidents, guns, poor diets, and other causes. Moreover, rigorous screening of entrants from abroad, whether immigrants or temporary visitors, without significantly hindering the flow of immigrants, should continue to be the goal.

The minimal harm that Islamic terrorism has caused in the U.S., both absolutely and in comparison to other causes of early death, should reassure those concerned about the threat of terrorism from immigration, whether it involves 10,000 refugees or larger flows under open borders. As Mr. Inslee recommends, people need to realistically assess this risk.

Related reading

Refugees and the 2016 US presidential candidates

Last month, I shared with the Open Borders Action Group an interesting Facebook post from Andy Craig, a Libertarian running for Congress in Wisconsin, pointing out the hypocrisy of many US presidential candidates promoting anti-immigrant policies:

Bobby Jindal, who wants to stop so-called anchor babies, was born four months after his parents arrived in the U.S. on temporary student visas.

Donald Trump, who has made actually deporting so-called anchor babies a centerpiece of his campaign, is the son of a woman from Scotland who was naturalized four years before he was born.

Bernie Sanders, who says allowing more immigrants is a Koch brothers plot to reduce wages, is the son of a Polish immigrant who arrived penniless in the United States to escape the Holocaust.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have one and two parents, respectively, who were naturalized after their sons were born. Rick Santorum’s father was naturalized before Rick was born, when his own father brought him here fleeing Mussolini.

A nation of immigrants: where anybody’s child can grow up to run for President and campaign on pulling up the ladder behind them.

(One thing Craig forgot to mention: Trump’s grandfather Friedrich was an unaccompanied child migrant, who was later deported from Germany.)

Now, the hypocrisy these candidates embody is one thing. But something else stood out to me too: none of these candidates’ ancestors were referred to as “refugees,” even though many of them certainly were. For some reason, it’s better to label someone as an “immigrant” rather than “refugee.” But look at these stories:

  • Bernie Sanders’s father fled the Holocaust
  • Ted Cruz’s family fled the Castro regime in Cuba
  • Marco Rubio’s family fled the same Castro regime
  • Rick Santorum’s grandfather fled Italian fascism

Someone who moves across international borders owing to a fear of violence or political persecution is by definition a refugee. By this count, a substantial number of candidates for the US presidency are descendants of refugees!

It sounds strange to put it that way, because we are not used to thinking of refugees in that way. The way we normally think of people labeled as “refugees” is more similar to the thinking I saw in another posting on Facebook:

Refugees can’t be helped, regretfully. You can’t teach them anything, you can’t provide them all with housing, you can’t give them all jobs. Refugees are to remain [a] burden forever, and even their children won’t be able to integrate.

Well of course if you redefine “refugees” as “immigrants” you’ll have a mysterious shortage of refugee success stories. “Immigrant” has a successful ring to it; “refugee” does not. Self-reinforcingly, we think of successful people as “immigrants,” and the less successful ones who didn’t fare so well as “refugees.” We forget that even titans of business like Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel, and George Soros, a self-made billionaire, are literally refugees.

(Of his early life, Grove has said: “By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution,’ the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint…  Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West. I was one of them.” Soros’s biography on his website simply states: “Born in Budapest in 1930, he survived the Nazi occupation during World War II and fled communist-dominated Hungary in 1947 for England”.)

All that said, I don’t think the distinction between refugees and “economic migrants” are as important as they’re made out to be. Whether you’re fleeing persecution, escaping economic deprivation, or simply looking to live in a slightly better neighbourhood, I think the law ought to treat you exactly the same way when you show up at the border. All of these are perfectly valid reasons for someone to move.

To this end, I consider it morally suspect to insist economic migrants be deported but refugees be welcomed. Consider: millions of African Americans moved from the southern US to the north and west during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century. Some fled political persecution and racial discrimination. Others simply went looking for better jobs. But both were and are perfectly valid reasons to move.

(Sidenote: Republican presidential candidate and internationally-renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson was born in Detroit to parents who fled the Jim Crow laws of Tennessee, participating in the Great Migration. If you’d like to count “internally-displaced people” as well, you can add another one to that list of presidential candidates descended from refugees.)

At the same time, I think it’s important, as long as the word “refugee” remains part of the English lexicon, to remember that “refugee” does not connote someone who is “to remain [a] burden forever”. People sometimes presume that refugees are tremendously harder to integrate into society or the economy because of their background. This may be true, but it’s simultaneously clear that whatever problems refugees may face, they don’t stand in the way of a refugee like George Soros becoming one of the 30 richest men in the world, or in the way of refugees’ descendants becoming the face of popular national campaigns against immigration.

Refugees, like any other kind of immigrant, are people. It is not a valid use of government authority to ban people from travelling somewhere simply because of where they were born. If government can prove that certain kinds of travel would have terrible consequences, of course government can prevent that sort of movement. Take infectious diseases for example: travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of dangerous diseases have to be blind to nationality if they are to operate effectively. Border officers don’t need to know or care about someone’s nationality to effectively prevent the spread of Ebola because any person, foreign or not, can carry Ebola.

Now while we’re talking about the effects of refugee movements: the Great Migration of people fleeing political oppression and economic deprivation in the American South was incredibly disruptive. In many cities, from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco, over the span of a few decades, the black population grew 10 to 20 times over. Boston went from being 2% black in 1910 to 22% black in 1980. Adjusting to these inflows was not easy for the affected communities outside of the South. But these adjustment costs were neither disastrous, nor valid reasons to obstruct the legitimate aspirations of the Americans who moved in search of a better life.

That’s why I support open borders for all people — be they refugees fleeing oppression, economic migrants fleeing poverty, or even just middle-class professionals who dream of living in a different city. No country should allow its public institutions — like its border controls — to become the private property of xenophobic bigots. Yet, the modern refugee system has become a figleaf for border policies of bigotry. What basic morality asks of us and our laws is clear: justice demands that all people with legitimate aspirations be free to move across political borders, be they domestic or international.

The photograph in the header of this post is of African American migrant workers from Florida bound for New Jersey in 1940. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Barry York’s case for amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia

Barry York resides and works in Canberra, Australia. He is a former Research Officer with the Australian Parliamentary Library, where he was on the immigration and refugee desk. Below is York’s blog post A case for an amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia, republished with his permission, along with some commentary and additional links. The post was originally published on C21st Left, York’s blog.

Amnesties occur when a government grants a pardon to a group of individuals. It can apply to prisoners, or people in other forms of detention. Or even people not in prison or detention. An amnesty for asylum seekers would be a pathway to permanent residence.

Some historical background

Australia’s experience of amnesties in the immigration field date back to Australia Day (26 January) 1976 when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. At that time, this meant individuals who had entered Australia lawfully but overstayed their visas. The period in which applications could be made for amnesty expired on 30 April that year. It was an offer too good to refuse.

The Coalition government realized that these ‘illegals’ were in the country anyway. They were part of Australian society, despite their official status, and working or bludging, or having fun, playing music, fishing, reading, chatting with neighbours, going to the pub, etc, like the rest of us. And, again like the rest of us, they had a future here. Fraser’s standing in immigration history is being rewritten and mythologized by all-too-eager academics who seem to have put aside any semblance of critical approach.

Fraser was responsible for formalising the distinction between genuine and non-genuine refugees through the establishment of the Determination of Refugee Status Committee in 1978; a decision that laid the basis for all the subsequent problems arising from exclusion.

When it came to the ‘Australia Day’ amnesty of 1976, Fraser gave with one hand while taking with the other. He also funded a special unit to hunt them down. A cost-benefit analysis may have found that the benefits outweighed the costs in letting them stay. Not that that is the only – or main – point. But what is important to note is that the amnesty did not alter the basic policy: over-stayers after 30 April 1976 were in big trouble if caught.

Australia’s next experience of amnesty occurred during the Hawke years when, in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that the thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia would be permitted to remain here until 31 July 1990 on a temporary basis. This was later extended to June 1994 and then, as was the intention all along, 42,000 were allowed to apply for permanent residence. Again, it was an offer too good to refuse. Who in their right mind, after the Tiananmen massacre, would want to return to live under a social-fascist regime compared to life in bourgeois-democratic Australia?

The situation today: about 30,000 in limbo and detention

Currently, in Australia, living as part of our community and society but separated from it by various restrictions imposed by a ‘bridging visa’ system, there are more than 27,000 people, mostly asylum seekers waiting to have their cases determined. Most have been waiting for a long time. There are also 2,500 in detention centres.

It’s always helpful to look on the bright side in any bad situation. There are about ten thousand fewer in detention today than there were under Gillard’s Labor government. When it comes to detention of asylum seekers, Labor holds the record. (Lest we forget).

It is curious, to me, that pro-refugee groups tend to advocate the more rapid processing of these asylum seekers’ claims, as though it is fair enough to identify those who are not genuine refugees, rather than questioning the system itself. Sadly, this is the main paradigm in public discourse. Nearly everyone, the Greens included, think it’s fair enough to keep out asylum seekers who are not genuine refugees. So, a family might sell everything in, say, Iran, risk their lives by escaping, lose nearly everything to unscrupulous people-smugglers (note: these guys are not to be romanticized) and then having made it across the dangerous, often deadly, waters, under the old ‘Fraser system’ they could be be rejected because they are found to be ‘economic’ refugees not the ‘political’ type. Needless to say, within this paradigm, they have to leave the country, which they will not do voluntarily. They therefore (the dominant thinking goes) need to be detained in some way, lest they abscond into the community. The Greens want this process to be accomplished quickly, more efficiently and ‘nicely’; Labor and the Coalition are rather less polite about it, though at each election since 1996, Shadow Ministers for Immigration have promised to ‘speed up’ the determination process.

Those who were denied permanent residency because they were found to be economic refugees made the journey in order to have a better life – and, after such a journey you can be sure that means they will want to improve things generally. My parents paid ten pound each to get here in 1954, and were allowed in. Their motivation was a better life for themselves but mostly for my future. Both my parents made special contributions to their community (in Brunswick, Melbourne) and in other ways. Had they not been ‘authorised’ migrants but rather ‘economic refugees’, and allowed in, their contributions would have not been diminished in any way.

There are financial and human costs involved in maintaining these 30,000 people in their current state. Most of the costs are borne by government – you and me. We are denying each of them the opportunity to be productive and useful members of society, as a result of restrictions placed on them through the bridging visas. As I say to my wife: That asylum seeker lighting a fire and jumping up and down on top of the detention centre’s roof may be our next dentist! So, in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?

In other words: let’s call for an amnesty for them all.

Given the current parliamentary political situation in Australia, the demand could reap some benefits. After all, isn’t the ALP keen to recapture votes it has lost to the Greens on this issue? Aren’t the Greens out to convince us that they represent a humanitarian alternative on the refugee issue? Wouldn’t Labor and the Greens have the numbers in this fine humanitarian and entirely practicable act? And 30,000 is not a big number. For heaven’s sake, 30,000 is about a third of the net loss Australia experienced through permanent departures last year. And last year we took in 200,000 newcomers.

Above all, from the viewpoint of the prevailing consensus, the actual refugee policy would not have to change. Much as I think it should, and must – and will (one day). An amnesty can be granted as an act of compassion, without any need to change current refugee policy.

‘Christian compassion’ for Australia Day next year.

Let’s call it… er… well… “Christian compassion”. Yes, Christian compassion for ‘Australia Day’ 2016. Marking the 40th anniversary of the first amnesty granted by a Coalition government in Australia.

Tony: ya there?



Related reading

Some related reading suggested by the author:

The remainder of the related reading section has been added by the Open Borders: The Case editorial team and has not been vetted by York, the author of the original post.

On migration to Australia:

On refugees:

On moderate immigration reform groups and the differences with those who support radical migration liberalization:

And another miscellaneous article: An Apology, Not a Fine by Joel Newman, Open Borders: The Case, February 24, 2013.

The painting featured at the top of this post is “The Immigrants’ Ship,” by John C. Dollman, and is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Free Havens for Refugees (mostly by Pieter Cleppe)

Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of the think tank Open Europe, has written a piece advocating something akin to my idea of passport-free charter cities. (Also see my thoughts on charter city constitutions here and here,  my post about the abortive charter city experiment in Honduras, and my post “Make More Singapores!”) Cleppe advocates “free havens” in response to the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean. The rest of this post is by Cleppe (see the original piece here, it is reprinted with his permission), except a few comments of mine at the end:

Free havens as a solution to the refugee crisis

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean once again highlight that migration is without any doubt one of the challenging issues of our time. Few dispute that it would be a bad idea to close borders completely. On the other hand, few support opening borders completely, recognising the obvious downsides to this.

The debate mostly focuses on the type and number of immigrants allowed into wealthier societies. There is very little debate about what to do with those wanting to leave their country when even the most generous quotas would have been filled.

Since 2011, 3 million people have already fled Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced. The EU hasn’t accepted more than 200.000 of them, while it faces ever increasing numbers of refugees, from Syria and other places, attempting to enter illegally. Even if Western countries drastically increased their willingness to welcome refugees, this would in no way serve demand. Nearly everyone agrees refugees should have the right to flee war-torn countries, but politically, there is no willingness to welcome everyone, whether one agrees with that or not.

The solution proposed below is a humble attempt to launch this debate and provide a more sustainable solution than the ones offered in the past.

One way to deal with this challenge has been to ignore it and to let people sort it out themselves. The result has been that the most vulnerable were delivered to human traffickers, at best reaching the Western world as an illegal immigrant, at worst finding the Mediterranean Sea as their graveyard.

A better solution has been to provide shelter for them in refugee camps. This clearly is an honourable attempt to minimise suffering. There are currently estimated to be up to 50 million refugees. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees offers them protection and life-saving supplies at refugee camps in more than 125 countries. Often, these camps aren’t temporary and sometimes conditions are horrendous. Often, refugees are also banned from becoming economically active. Thailand, for example, banned Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burmese border from leaving their camps in 2014.

One of the 120.000 Burmese refugees in Thailand describes how living in such a camp, with its travel and work restrictions, while being forced to be nearly completely dependent on outside help for food, shelter, protection and other basic needs, have adverse psychological and social effects on the refugees:

“Living in the camp is similar to living in prison because I can’t go outside or make my own decision. I can commute only in the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If we go outside of the camp, Thai police will arrest us. In the long run, it affects not only my physical but also my mental health.” (Christine, 22, refugee, who spoke with Burma Link in Mae La refugee camp in May 2014)

Lebanon’s 470,000 Palestinian refugees, of whom over 50 percent live in 12 refugee camps who’re controlled by competing Palestinian armed groups, face restrictions to practice about 30 different professions. Whatever solutions one has for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, surely condemning generations of Palestinian refugees to this fate can’t be one of them.

A preferable solution could be to create “Free havens”: a refugee zone but then one with stable rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time.

This has been tried, but only very occasionally, although with extraordinary success. Most prominently in the last century, it was applied in Hong Kong, effectively a refugee zone, governed by the British rule of law, welcoming millions of Chinese wanting to fled war, totalitarian rule and turmoil in mainland China. Refugee camps at best offer refugees safety, but Hong Kong offered those Chinese refugees something which even the best refugee camps can’t offer: the opportunity to develop yourself.

Refugees, broadly defined as people fleeing from both war and economy misery, aren’t asking for a lot. They want a better life. Not necessarily a whole of a lot better. Only slightly better, if nothing else is possible. Refugees don’t only want shelter. They want to be able to develop themselves. Why would they need to wait before their country returns to the better or before wealthier countries decide they’re willing to welcome them?

A tiny percentage of land in the world is urbanized, perhaps around three percent. Would it really be so impossible to identify a place where no-one lives and welcome anyone willing to go there? Would it really be impossible to identify a place where really no-one would be bothered? If a city the size of Las Vegas can be successfully developed in the middle of a desert, there shouldn’t even be any requirements in terms of average temperature or access to the sea, although a climate like California would clearly be preferred.

It’s highly likely that such a place would be part of the territory of a State. But why would this State not allow “Free havens” to be hosted? Perhaps in some remote part of it, not to bother any of its citizens with any possible burden, especially if it would be financially compensated for it, for example by charity organisations wanting to offer refugees a better perspective or by companies investing in these Free havens, which could attract a lot of skilled individuals?

Why would companies not be interested to invest in these Free havens, just as they invest in the poorest parts of the world already, which often would not offer the same standards of justice and safety that such a Free haven would offer, given that these Free havens could be administrated by officials from countries with a certain level of rule of law?

Why would such a Free haven offer standards of justice and safety that are sufficiently high to make such a project succeed, so people would actually voluntarily want to go there, and companies would actually want to invest, thereby freeing up the resources needed to compensate the host State to actually allow such a Free haven to exist on its territory?

The answer is simple: For this project to be a success, it needs to become more safe than the most unsafe place in the world and its investment climate should beat the most horrible place on earth to do business, to attract those fellow human beings who actually have to survive there at the moment. Surely that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Would it really be so hard to do better than North Korea, Syria or Congo?

This project, which could be driven by the private sector, states, supranational organisations or various actors working together, doesn’t exclude everything that’s already happening: opening borders for trade, trying to develop poor countries, attempting to pacify violent conflicts, providing emergency aid to the most needed, allow more migrants to enter wealthy countries or develop refugee camps when no other option is there. This project simply offers a solution for immigrants who are not or insufficiently helped by what is already been done: the vast majority of them. If it is so simple, why not just take action?

So what is this again?

Let’s create “Free havens”: refugee zones but then with rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time

Which countries would allow such zones on their territory?

That’s a challenge the EU is currently facing, at least if it continue with its idea to establish immigrant-processing centres outside the EU. These offshore centres may be based in key transit countries such as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. France, Germany and Malta would reportedly be keen on the idea. When seeking refuge there, asylum seekers would get the chance to indicate in which EU country they’d like to apply for asylum, and at one point there may even be a system of forced “burden sharing”, which is however unlikely, given that national politicians in the EU rightly think such sensitive policies should be decided at the national level.

To convince them, Niger, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon or maybe even Morrocco would logically need to be compensated for hosting such centres. Given the huge amount of funds available in national and European aid budgets, reaching a compromise shouldn’t be impossible.

The only element the EU Commission would need to change in its current plan, is to combine its welcoming of refugees offshore with a rule of law – mission. The EU has some experience with “rule of law”-missions. Part of its EULEX-mission in Kosovo was to administer justice in the most delicate sectors over there. It must be said that there have been major problems with the implementation, but at least Kosovo has known some kind of stability. Either way, the main difference between Free havens and the mission in Kosovo would be that anyone moving to such a Free haven would do so voluntarily.

Has something like this ever been tried?

As I made clear earlier: yes, indeed. Hong Kong effectively served as such a Free haven to Chinese refugees. It probably also served to convince mainland-China to choose the path of international trade.

Why would companies want to invest there?

Fair question. The likes of Ikea or Coca Cola would certainly need to consider this carefully, but a safe investment zone governed by officials from countries with a relatively high level of rule of law surely should be able to compete with countries where a revolution or social unrest is always only around the corner?

How much would this cost?

The Belgian police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. With 10 billion per year, which is not even 10 percent of the EU’s 130 billion euro budget, 20 million refugees could already be welcomed, as 7 billion euro would be reserved for basic infrastructure. Also co-financing from investors could be attracted. Even if only 1 million out of 50 million refugees could be welcomed at first, it would be a massive step forward.

Anyone dealing with the EU budget knows massive spending improvements could be made. More than 270 billion euros are still being sent to agricultural landowners, including the Queen of England, between 2014 and 2010. Given how the EU’s agricultural policies have been hurting developing countries for decades, it wouldn’t be such a bad target to find funds.

Is it politically feasible?

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once proposed off-shore asylum centres, the European Commission is keen them, several member states are open to something like this. The whole idea really comes down to accepting two realities: one reality is that many people currently want to flee their country. Another reality is that a large majority of the European population, rightly or wrongly, is only willing to accept a tiny part of all the refugees in the world. So welcoming them in a safe place somewhere else is not more than obvious solution.

What if it goes wrong?

Amnesty International has criticized the European Commission’s suggestion to externalize refugee policy, warning that there may be “human rights violations” in many countries outside of the EU. Fair point, but this is being addressed when EU countries themselves would run these zones. What if EU countries would still mismanage the whole thing, and these Free havens wouldn’t be so nice at all? Even in that case, given that every refugee would obviously only go there voluntarily, people would only come if the welcoming zone would be nicer than refugee camps or the places from which they are fleeing. Surely, it can’t be hard to beat these standards?

Won’t it lead to a brain drain?

In the event that these Free havens turn out to be a massive success and start attracting not only desperate refugees but also people that are already relatively well off, we would indeed face this discussion. I won’t go into detail here, but there are also upsides to intelligent people moving to work in wealthier countries, given the fact that they can send more money back home to help their families than if they had stayed.

Isn’t this “apartheid”?

When you accept that migration should be limited, you accept a certain form of “apartheid” already. To support unlimited migration is a fair position to hold, but has very little support. Why then not try to improve the fate of those who’re not welcome in wealthier countries?

Pieter Cleppe

There’s no explicit open borders advocacy here. (Open borders is a “fair position to hold, but has very little support.”) But if a global archipelago of passport-free charter cities were established, the right to emigrate would be effectively realized, even if the more general right to migrate were not. I’m all for it. And this is a good example of how human rights can be the thin end of the wedge for open borders, as religious freedom was once the thin end of the wedge, first for freedom of speech, expression, and conscience, then for democracy. If we take seriously the responsibility of the international community not to drown desperate people or trap them in places where their lives are in danger, we will be on a path that, if followed devoutly enough, leads quite far in the direction of open borders. It would be, among other things a fitting Western repentance for the blood of the Jews of the MS St. Louis.

Related reading

In addition to the links included by Smith in the leading para, the following might be of interest to readers:

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.


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: