Imagine that Martin Luther King never had a dream. Imagine that instead of working outside the narrow confines of time and place, he had resolved to work only within them. Imagine he had risen to the steps of the Lincoln Monument and announced a five-point plan that he imagined he could both sell to the black community and win a majority for in both houses of congress that would bring civil rights legislation that one step closer.
But he didn’t. He chose not to engage in the nitty gritty of the here and now. Instead, he addressed not what will be or could be, but what should be. And it is in that spirit and tradition that I want to make this contribution now.
I am fully aware that no nation is going to get rid of its border tomorrow. If you’re looking for a discussion on workable immigration policies that can be enacted in the next parliamentary session, then watch Question Time or listen to the Today Programme. There you will find people going around in circles about what is practical rather than bothering themselves with what is ethical or moral.
It’s not naïve to hope that what does not seem possible in the foreseeable future is nonetheless necessary and worth fighting for. As a descendant of slaves and the child of an immigrant working-class single parent family, I owe my life today to those outrageous and brave enough to fight for a society that they insisted upon even when they could not imagine it ever materialising.
If politics is the art of the possible, then radicalism must be the capacity to imagine new possibilities. ‘A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at,’ wrote Oscar Wilde. ‘For it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.’
The map of my utopian world has no borders. No border guards, no barbed wire, no passport control, no walls, fences or barriers. The world, I think, would be a better place without them. I believe in the free movement of people. As a principle, I think we should all be able to roam the planet and live, love and create where we wish. I’m about to make the case for why that’s desirable and what we would need to be and do to get there, but first I want to throw down the gauntlet to those who oppose the notion of open borders. What place do Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or the ‘jungle’ in Calais, or the vessels in the Mediterranean, have in your utopias? Why did you dream of them?
Make no mistake, a world with open borders would demand a radical transformation of much of what we have now. It would demand a rethinking not only of immigration, but our policies on trade and war, the environment, health and welfare, which would in turn necessitate a re-evaluation of our history, of our understanding of ourselves as a species and as a nation.
This is partly personal for me. My parents were born and raised in Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean caught in the crosswinds of colonial ties and post-war labour scarcity. Along with my parents, nine of my aunts and uncles left Barbados for lives in Britain, the US and Canada. I have cousins scattered across the globe. Borders are no friends to diasporas. They privilege form-filling over family.
Borders exist by definition to separate one group of people from another, and the primary two issues then become which ‘other’ that would be, and on what basis they should be separated. As such, borders are both arbitrary and definite. Arbitrary because they could be drawn anywhere, and they often move. Countries are, in the words of Benedict Anderson, imagined communities. Nation states as we commonly understand them are a relatively new idea.
‘We have made Italy,’ said Massimo d’Azeglio, at the meeting of the newly united Italy in parliament in the mid-19th century. ‘Now we must make Italians.’ We have lived far longer without countries than with them. And if you look at what is happening in Catalonia or Scotland or Flanders then some of the ones we are living with are far from being based upon fact.
But if borders are arbitrary they are also definite, because wherever they are we have to deal with them. Because the process that determines who is allowed to move where and why is exercised with extreme prejudice. America’s 1882 Chinese exclusion act, the White Australia policy, a series of measures lasting 70 years, or Britain’s 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act are the most crude filters. But while the othering changes with time – recently in the western world the shift from race to religion as grounds for suspicion over a generation has been breath-taking – the fact of it remains the same: ‘some people won’t be welcome’. Not because of what they have done, but because of who they are, even as the groups of people in question may change.
A Home Office report in 2007 about who gets stopped for extra questioning when coming into Britain and revealed that non-white South Africans are ten times more likely to be pulled aside and non-white Canadians nine times more likely than their white countrymen. Moreover, even though the mean income of a black Canadian is almost double that of a white South African, a black Canadian is still four times more likely to be stopped. To anyone who seeks some other explanation, I point you to the faces of those who have been caught in the Windrush scandal and ask you: is that a coincidence? This is not a glitch in the system, this is the system.
This has been relatively recently compounded by a further contradiction that even as borders have become tougher for people, they have all but been lifted for capital. Money can travel the globe, virtually without restriction in search of regulations that are weaker and labour that is cheaper. And when it does, it often displaces people, sucking investment and resources from one place at the flick of a switch, shutting down factories and shifting them to the other side of the globe, or introducing automation that makes some professions obsolete. But nobody asks a machine or money when it’s crossing a border whether it will put someone out of work. Those who find their lives turned upside down by the free movement of capital are often prevented from moving country and looking for work. People should at least have the same rights as machines.
The rich can buy themselves citizenship in around 20 countries, cash down. Meanwhile, desperate people are turned away at borders all the time. It is a fact rarely stated, but generally acknowledged and accepted, that the global poor should not be allowed to travel. Indeed, one of the more intriguing aspects of hearing the new home secretary Sajid Javid’s life story, held up as an uplifting example, is the detail that his father came to the country with just £1 in his pocket in 1961. That means that were his own father were to arrive in the country now, Javid would not let him in.
And he is okay with that. It is absolutely right, he said three years ago, that today we should have an immigration policy based more on skills. That excludes most of the world, and so the border stands as an ultimate point of confrontation in the broader dystopia we have made possible. I think that poor people should be able to travel. Not least because if they couldn’t, I wouldn’t be here.
It would be useful to deal pre-emptively with some of the more obvious retorts regarding open borders. The first relates to security. If we open the borders we will compromise our security, goes the claim. Well, the overwhelming majority of people who have committed terrorist attacks here were either born here or are here legally. That shouldn’t surprise us. So long as Britain has had colonial or imperial interests elsewhere, it has had a terrorist problem. We have been growing our own terrorists for years.
For the better part of a century, we mostly were engaging with Ireland. The security that came after that conflict emerged not as a result of tighter borders or more stringent policy, but from a political settlement. Similarly, the source of our terror problem is not the result of stringent or lax borders, but a thoroughly misguided foreign policy in which we either commit acts of state terror ourselves, as in Iraq, or profit from the weaponising of others to do it, as in Yemen.Nation states are a relatively recent concept; migration is as old as humanity. Borders seek to regulate and restrict that basic human custom for the distinct purpose of excluding some and privileging others
It would also help if we addressed the problem with the issue of refugees. First of all, we don’t take anything like our fair share of refugees even compared with other European countries, let alone the rest of the world. But it is particularly galling because a significant number of refugees are fleeing wars that we have created and states that we have failed, regimes we have subsidised and regions we have disabled. If we don’t want people to come here, then maybe we could start by not going there and messing it up.
Similarly with our trade policies, which punish poorer countries by preventing them from developing as we did with nationalised industries protected by subsidies and thereby confine them to the volatile markets of raw materials and the whims of multinationals.
These are often countries that Britain and other western nations actively and intentionally underdeveloped during colonialism. There we have a historical responsibility. Much of the migration in the world at present, it should be pointed out, is not voluntary but forced, by extreme poverty, natural disasters and wars. It would be a better world if people only moved if they wanted to and if they did not have to move to eat. Environmental policies, particularly on climate change, arms controls and responsible foreign and trade policies, would assist in allowing many people to stay where they would rather be – at home.
Put another way, those who insist that we cannot afford to take in the world’s misery should make more of a concerted effort to ensure that we are not helping to create the world’s misery.
That brings us on to the welfare state, the health service and so on, which is a tougher call. How do we sustain, with national taxes, these things that we value if they are then free to the world?
Clearly, if we didn’t contribute so much to global poverty this would be less of an issue. And we shouldn’t forget the huge health inequalities within nations. A black man in Washington DC has a lower life expectancy than a man on the Gaza strip.
What’s more, just because you have no national borders doesn’t mean that there can’t be national rights and obligations. The pragmatist in me says we have free movement in the European Union but I’m still not eligible for an Italian pension. So ring-fencing a system whereby those who contribute can benefit should not be beyond our ken.
The idealist in me, though, asks the question: do you want to live in a world where healthcare is determined by an accident of birth? And if your answer is yes, is that because the accident occurred in your favour?
The thing that all these objections have in common, and I know that there are more, is fear. Fear of others, that others might take what is ours, might pollute what we share. That fear is a potent force. It can drive people into the arms of fascists, racists, bigots and bullies.
We have seen recently where that fear gets us. What happened with the Windrush generation was not a mistake – it was the whole point of the ‘hostile environment’ policy. People are treated as illegal unless they can prove otherwise.
Not content with a physical border on the water’s edge and at the airport frontier, it revealed that we now have borders that are invisible and omnipresent, dividing communities and generations at whim and will. The border now represents not a physical space but a political one that can be reproduced without warning in places of learning and healing. At any moment almost anyone – your boss, doctor, child’s headteacher, or landlord – can become a border guard. Indeed, they may be legally obliged to do so, and on the basis of their judgement you may be denied livelihood, family, home and health. Is that the world we want?
The great thing about dreaming is that you always have something to wake up to. I don’t want to wake up to this any more.
Nation states are a relatively recent concept; migration is as old as humanity. Borders seek to regulate and restrict that basic human custom for the distinct purpose of excluding some and privileging others. They discriminate between all people with the express intent of then being able to discriminate against some people. They do not simply set boundaries for countries, they are metaphors for how we might imagine other human beings.
Immigrants are not the problem, borders are. We don’t know what the future holds, but if we don’t fight for it, it won’t exist. Activism is the key. Bad things happen when good people stay at home.
This is an edited extract from a public lecture by Gary Younge at SOAS on 3 May 2018.