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The EU referendum campaign was fought very heavily as a referendum on immigration. Not just UKIP but the official campaign talked about the need to ‘control’ immigration and the ‘threat’ of Turkey joining the EU. Many who want to respond to Brexit voters’ concerns reach first for further restrictions on so‑called ‘open-door immigration’.
The first problem with this argument is that it’s just not based in facts. Open-door immigration is a myth. The UK’s immigration rules are among the toughest in the world. Even UK citizens aren’t allowed to bring foreign partners or children into the country unless they earn at least £18,600 a year. And while it’s true that EU citizens could live and work here, the EU itself is busy constructing Fortress Europe to keep out people desperately fleeing war and poverty. Far from being an ‘open door’, it’s an inhumane policy that is costing thousands of lives every year on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
But there is something missing from the debate. Very few, on either the left or right, seem to be questioning the idea that we need strict border controls at all. Some argue that too much immigration strains our public services. Others concede that we need to take in more refugees from Syria, but baulk at challenging the logic that we need to keep poor people out of our country to protect our standard of living.The strongest argument for more open borders is a moral one, not purely pragmatic
The Global Justice Now policy briefing Migrant Crisis or Poverty Crisis? has laid out the reasons why we shouldn’t fear migration. The evidence is clear that public services such as the NHS would collapse without it and that migrants are, on the whole, net contributors to the public purse. But the strongest argument for more open borders is a moral one, not purely pragmatic.
The right to free movement currently only applies to people from rich countries. If you’re lucky enough to be born a UK citizen you can more or less live anywhere you like in the world. If you’re born in Afghanistan, you can’t even visit most countries. So depending on the lottery of birth, you either have the right to free movement or you do not. This is fundamentally unfair.
On the right to free movement, we are still where we were with the right to vote in the 19th century. Then, only people with a certain level of wealth were permitted to vote. The elites feared chaos if the masses (or indeed women) were allowed to influence the outcome of elections. Now we hear the same about migration. Free movement is okay for Harry from Hemel Hempstead but not for Najuma from Nairobi.
There is an element of hypocrisy among those who advocate stricter border controls. Very few want to be stripped of their own right to travel freely. They assume that they, as citizens of a rich country, should have the right to live and work wherever they choose. But they would deny that right to people in other countries. They want one set of rules for themselves and another for those who are less wealthy.
This is why, morally, there are only two coherent positions on migration. You can try and dial back the clock and end free movement. No more holidays abroad. No more travel. Back to a world in which you lived your entire life within a few miles or where you were born. Or you can argue for free movement for all, rich and poor, British or Bhutanese. The status quo, free movement for the rich and death on the Mediterranean for those fleeing war in Syria, is not just. It is little better than apartheid on a global scale.
Free movement for all sounds idealistic. And it would be difficult to execute without the establishment of a more egalitarian global economy. But, in the longer term, it is not impossible. And it is vastly preferable to a system in which we deny the vast majority rights that we take for granted.
Of course, we can’t just burn down the border posts everywhere immediately. This has to be a long-term process that goes hand in hand with the broader fight for a more equal world. But we can do the groundwork for a world in which true free movement is made possible. We can start by accepting our share of refugees and easing visa restrictions on people coming from the global south. And it’s also vitally important, all the more so in the face of the vote to leave the EU, that we defend the idea of a Europe with no borders. The fight for universal free movement must start somewhere.
Migrant Crisis or Poverty Crisis? Why free movement is vital in the battle for global justice, Global Justice Now’s policy briefing, is at globaljustice.org.uk