In reaction to the general mood, both in the UK and other western countries, of political parties and governments wanting to be seen to be “tough on immigration”, many social justice activists are turning their abhorrence of what they see as inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees into attacks on migration controls. Activists have been mobilised into a defence of people’s right to move freely, and have even called for as radical a policy as completely open borders. While concerns about the fairness of migration policies are certainly justified - and not only in relation to refugees - is the call for more generous entry policies the right political strategy? And what exactly is motivating the activists’ claims - is it really freedom of movement, or something much more basic, such as inequality?
The campaign for freer international migration is not restricted solely to the left. On the right, lobbyists are generally concerned about the free circulation of labour and a larger pool of consumers, while on the left, campaigners are motivated by considerations of the welfare and rights of migrants. In this piece, however, I am going to concentrate on the left.
For campaigners on the left side of the political divide, if we look deeper into their motivations, it seems that poverty occupies a central role in their concerns. It is the poverty, perceived or real, of those wishing to migrate that chiefly seems to concern many of the activists who advocate for the right to move freely. Migration is seen very much as an opportunity equaliser and as a way to redress global injustices. It is the fact that so many migrants are in conditions of such desperate need that elicits moral outrage at their exclusion from our wealthy communities.
Of course many people are also concerned with freedom of movement as such, or simply with the inhumane way refugees and migrants are often treated once they arrive on our doorstep, regardless of any particular concern about poverty. Nevertheless migration as a solution to global poverty and inequality is undeniably a strong motivator for advocates of migrants’ rights. People are generally not as concerned with the freedom of Canadians to move to Sweden as they are for that of Mexicans to move to the USA, let alone the issue of refugees.
But regardless of whether we think people have a right to move and live where they wish, arguing for open borders or even just for freer migration, while certainly well-meaning, is in fact a totally misguided enterprise if what we are concerned with is the alleviation of poverty.
Left-wing campaigners are certainly right to be concerned about poverty, given the wretched standard of living suffered by many people in the poorer regions of the world. Poverty is precisely what we should be concerned with, especially when we think of justice across borders. It is actually surprising that the problem of global poverty does not engage our moral indignation more directly. However, using the issue of free movement to tackle poverty not only confuses the debate, but obscures the primary concern: poverty itself.
Arguing in favour of migration as a solution to poverty is very problematic because it fails to help the very people who are ostensibly the subjects of concern. This is true for at least three reasons. First, the people most in need are unlikely to be knocking on our doors. Instead, it will be the better off among the worse off who have the initiative and resources to make the journey. Migrants who come to western democracies from poorer countries often belong to either the “middle classes” of those countries or are among the young, healthy and resourceful. Moreover, no matter how many migrants we let in, even on the most generous of migration policies those admitted would still be a drop in the ocean when compared to the number of people in need. Consequently migration is a solution only to the poverty of the few, and those few are typically not the people most in need.
Second, far from being a solution to poverty, migration might actually be making things worse. Immigration saps human resources from countries which are struggling already and so further impoverishes them. True, migrants often send money home to their families, and these remittances are crucial in the economies of many poor countries but the positive effect of remittances is not always clear. Many think that reliance on remittances undermines countries’ potential for change and development and is at best a short-term band-aid solution. Moreover, the families to whom this money is sent are often among the better off in the poor countries. Once again, then, it is really only the better off among the worse off who benefit. This is to say nothing of the effect remittances might have in cementing already existing inequalities within the communities of origin.
Third, even those migrants who manage to be admitted into wealthier countries would themselves prefer often to see the situation in their home countries improve rather then having to uproot themselves in search of opportunity - with all the personal and communal disruption which follows from such movements. Migrating out of necessity rather then choice is often a very painful experience.
Besides migration not being a good solution to poverty, arguing for freer migration is not a wise political strategy. This is a point made forcefully by the eminent political philosopher Thomas Pogge in his work on global poverty. Pogge points out that arguing for more open borders is a mistaken political strategy, and that instead of arguing for freer migration, we ought to employ our scarce political resources to campaign for the alleviation of poverty where poverty happens, and for the protection of rights where rights are violated.
Pogge argues that convincing our governments and compatriots to admit more needy foreigners is politically very difficult and costly, especially now that migration has turned into such a hotly disputed political issue. Crucially, such campaigns seem to exhaust the good will towards foreigners that might otherwise be employed to implement other strategies of poverty eradication. A lot of solutions to poverty have been suggested by experts on development, and some are much more feasible and effective than commonly believed - what is lacking is the political will to implement them. It seems this is what we should push for in our fight to eradicate poverty, rather than campaign for a relaxation of migration restrictions.
At this point I am probably expected to make an exception to this argument and exclude refugees from what I am saying here - I will not do so. The distinction between “refugees,” put simplistically, people escaping persecution, and “economic migrants”, people leaving difficult economic situations, carries a lot of weight in debates on migration, with economic migrants typically thought to be less urgently in need. Yet, it seems to me that the difference between people fleeing persecution and those fleeing extreme poverty is morally less relevant than we are accustomed to considering. Why should it be any better to die slowly of starvation and preventable diseases rather than being executed for one’s political views?