Migration and the Possibility of a Borderless World

In our 21st century world, true political defiance can occur through simple acts. The Financial Times recently published an article which presented migration as the most resourceful way to achieve radical change. Revolution in a globalised world needs neither ideology nor grand radical gestures. If you want transformation, there is no need to overthrow the government. You can move away.

With migration levels rapidly growing, calls to facilitate the international movement of people are coming from more than one direction. Migration is alternately framed as an issue of human rights and as a question of economics. The two approaches have their origins in different ends of the political spectrum – with human rights activists calling for global cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and libertarian arguments for world capitalism on the other. Somewhat ironically, both approaches share an end goal: the decriminalisation of border crossings, and for individuals to have the autonomy to make decisions about where they want to live in the world.

A demonstration against the expulsion of illegal immigrants in Tel Aviv, Israel, by Roi Boshi

The human rights argument for a world without borders is built on the idea that no person should ever be considered ‘illegal’. It argues that universal free movement is the only way to enable people to exercise their right to make individual choices to leave their home country, whatever reason they may have. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a vital document for making this argument, but it fails to offer a clear decree on the matter. While stating that “everyone has the right to leave any country … and to return to his country,” there is little indication of where one is supposed to turn once having left. Asylum, UDHR states, should be granted only to those fleeing persecution. Furthermore, the declaration claims that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

A close reading of the UDHR seems to indicate that the UN is propagating free universal movement as a norm, and to some extent as a right, but that it stops short of allowing it any legislative support. However, the UN makes an important distinction between migrants, whose movement is voluntary, and refugees who move involuntarily. Refugees get special consideration and are granted asylum rights. As such, the migrant/refugee distinction carries with it enormous implications, and could greatly affect the individuals they describe. In reality, however, the distinction might not be so easy to make. Such language is also important in how it might necessitate government action – as is the case with the current crisis at the European border. Alternately called a migration crisis and a refugee crisis, the terminology used hugely impacts the measures required to be taken by EU bodies as well as individual states.

The economic argument for free movement sees current borders and anti-migration measures as a barrier to economic prosperity. Some research on the economic effects of migration has suggested that the relaxation of barriers to human mobility would mean a boost to the global economy. The report estimates that the boost triggered by free movement could have a greater effect than the abolishment of all current policy barriers to trade. The importance of migration for the economy is easily explained: the economic productivity of a worker is much more dependent on location than on skill. For example, two workers can carry out the exact same work in two different cities, but one will contribute more to the world economy than the other, simply because of their location. For this reason, free movement of people would allow for a more flexible global workforce, which in turn would enrich the world economy. Barriers to human mobility have an adverse economic effect.

United States border crossing, by Rick Webb

The Schengen Agreement currently in place between 26 European countries may act as a possible small-scale model for how a world without borders could function. The region is a passport-free zone where citizens and visa-holders are able to move from one country to the other without border controls. Simultaneously, a founding principle of the European Union was the free movement of people to work and reside within any member country. Free movement of human resources has been an important part of the European economy, and predictions have stated that as much as 110 billion Euros in trade would be lost over the next decade should the Schengen agreement be abolished. This suggests that free trade and movement within Europe contributes greatly to its economy. However, the European case of free movement might serve as a repellent for some. The recent migrant (and/or refugee) crisis has challenged the borderless Europe, with several countries imposing temporary border controls.

The rights-based and the economic arguments for universal free movement are brought together in a journal article by academic Satvinder Juss. He points to the paradox at the heart of the free movement debate that, despite ever louder arguments in favour of free movement rights, the general global trend has been to strengthen national borders and discourage migration. He claims this to be a result of the emotive context in which immigration policies are currently being discussed. Migration has, he claims, become politicised to the point where there is a lack of constructive challenges to the legitimacy of current immigration policies, both at the international and at the state level.

An image of a future with universal free movement remains highly hypothetical. For the time being, we are stuck in a system of ‘gated globalism;’ a world where borders might not be closed to immigrants, but the criteria for admission has generally been tightened. Economic and rights-based arguments alike are questioning the viability of the current state of affairs. It remains to be seen if we should accept the current state of affairs as the new norm, or whether the current situation is merely a temporary hiatus on a larger trajectory towards further interdependency, exchange, and migration.

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