Every day, a handful of the world's wretched say a prayer and board rickety, overcrowded boats off the shores of North Africa. These vessels are captained by smugglers to whom they have typically given everything they own and every penny they could borrow – all in the hopes of finding a better life in Europe. All too often, however, it is death that finds them instead. An estimated 1,500 people lose their lives annually in this way, making such tragedies too commonplace to draw consistent attention. Sometimes, however, they are too terrible to ignore. Such was the case on October 3, when a 20-meter long boat carrying about 500 people from Libya to Italy caught fire and capsized, killing at least 300 passengers.
In response, many advocate increased border and coastal patrols to stop migrants before they arrive, even going so far as to authorize police to force people in the street to prove their legal status. But if we really want to put an end to these calamities, we need not hire more border guards or institute random paperwork checks. We need not spend any money or make additional efforts. We need only open our borders.
Of course, few ideas are more controversial than a world without borders, which in the popular mind portends all manner of economic and social catastrophes. While there are very solid rebuttals to those practical objections, I will not dwell upon them here for the simple reason that certain policies are so manifestly wicked that we do not – certainly, we should not – consider empirical evidence when judging them. Some things are simply wrong, and I contend that barriers to free movement are among those policies that should be judged not on practical grounds but only in ethical terms.
I should emphasize that I am not arguing that we are our brothers' keepers. We may or may not be morally duty-bound to help those in need, but I firmly believe that we should not be coerced into doing so. So long as we refrain from using violence against others and respect their property rights, we are entitled to decide for ourselves how we wish to deal with them. And so I am not talking about requiring anyone to lift a finger or to pay a dime to help the world's poor. I am advocating only that we cease our efforts to block these people from moving across imaginary lines that exist only on maps and in our minds.
Equally important, I would in no way deny you the right to exclude people from your property based on whatever criteria you like. If you wish to live in, say, a condo building where the owners have agreed to bar people of a certain religion or ethnicity, then while I personally disagree with your choice, I respect your right to make it. And anti-discrimination laws that force people to associate with others against their will should be repealed as the borders are opened. But there is no reasonable way to extend this logic to say that foreigners should be kept out, as if the entire country were your home. After all, your home is not full of millions of people that you will never meet. It is not so large that you will never set foot in most of it, and it does not have countless strangers coming and going (and being born and dying in it) every day.
So why should a foreigner be able to come and go as he pleases? Is it not proper that outsiders have their movements proscribed while locals enjoy full rights of entry and exit? In a word, no. There is no logical or moral basis for drawing such distinctions for the simple reason that it is impossible for you to influence the factors that determine your citizenship: in which place and to which parents you are born. Whether you are a Rockefeller or a refugee, you did literally nothing whatsoever to deserve the circumstances of your entry into the world. Granted, certain accidents of birth are inevitable. It is natural and appropriate that some of us are lucky enough to be born into money, or to be smarter or stronger. But for the state to create an accident of birth – to grant certain people an incalculable advantage in life based on happenstance – is profoundly wrong.
To put this in concrete terms, consider it from the perspective of, say, a young Gazan woman. She lives in a place that is largely walled off from the rest of the world; all movement of people and goods is controlled by Israel or by Egypt and almost one worker in three is unemployed. She lives under an Islamist Hamas government whose respect for human rights (particularly those of women) ranges from slim to nonexistent. Twice in the past five years, her home has been ravaged by devastating military conflict. From her point of view, as an individual, the cause of, and ultimate solution to, these problems is irrelevant. Whatever their provenance, these are the challenges she faces. And however they might be addressed, she is but one person and can do nothing to resolve them. What is she to do?
She might do what one 25-year old Gazan woman and her husband did three years ago, as related by Time Magazine:
Rasha had a simple dream when she left Gaza's al-Shati camp. ‘Job, food, house,' she says. ‘Or at least hope for them.' Europe, she had heard, was full of hope. So Rasha, 25, and her husband Ali, 31, sold their belongings and borrowed from friends and relatives to pay a smuggler nearly $2,000 to help them and their 4-month-old son Yusef get there.As the story begins, Rasha and Ali have been intercepted by the police and held in a detention centre for three days but are about to be bused to Athens. The author sets out the grim reality of undocumented migrants in Greece: joblessness, resentment and violence. The acceptance rate for asylum seekers is 0.3%. But Rasha's thoughts are unencumbered by this knowledge. “I am hopeful. And I am so happy … Ali and I will have jobs, maybe at a shop, and we will have a little house, and the baby can sleep.” The piece concludes with a smiling Rasha waving goodbye through the bus window.
Now, again, I am not advocating forced assistance. Rasha's sad plight may not be of her making, but neither is it of yours and no one should in any way be forced to help her. But Rasha's dream was not welfare; it was work that would allow her to acquire the comforts of modern life. She and her husband would have had to find someone willing to hire them. To have her little house, someone would need to choose to rent out property to them. Even the bed for her son would need to come from a willing seller. Rasha aspired only to the freedom to enter into contracts with others, without external interference. She asked only to be given a chance to sell her labour and to purchase goods and services. How can it not offend every moral fibre of our conscience that a woman born in Greece freely enjoys the right to build a life for herself whereas Rasha is coercively denied that opportunity based on a criterion that is divorced from personal merit and over which neither individual has any control? To prevent a human being from existing in a given place based on an accident of birth is simply inhuman, for it is literally existence within a defined territory that immigration laws render illegal: for a Gazan to merely stand on Greek soil without prior authorization is a crime. Her actions and intentions are wholly irrelevant. By occupying physical space with her body, she has committed an offence worthy of punishment.
One legitimate objection to opening borders is that no country's taxpayers could support hordes of new welfare claimants and benefit seekers. But the fact that the welfare state reinforces innate human xenophobia by legitimizing the view of foreigners as an economic threat is an argument for dismantling the coercively-financed welfare state, not for keeping people out. Short of that, why not render newcomers ineligible for public funds while leaving anyone who chooses to give them assistance free to do so? And if this approach seems wrong, we should ask why it is acceptable to bar people from entering the country entirely but not to let them in on inequitable terms, especially when there are plenty of honest, hardworking people who would jump at such an offer – Rasha and Ali doubtless among them.
To put a different spin on the issue, contrast attitudes toward people who arrive in a country via a port of entry versus through a birth canal. While it is obviously normal to favour your own children over unknown foreigners, does it really make sense to object to the appearance of a stranger at the border but not to that of a stranger's child in a hospital? After all, whatever negative stereotypes exist for foreigners also apply to children, who produce little to nothing in the early decades of life while soaking up massive amounts of public funds. They have no job skills and in many cases become criminals. In adolescence their tastes and customs seem strange and bizarre to the older generation, while in infancy they are notorious vectors for disease who have little regard for basic hygiene and at times live, quite literally, in their own filth. Ultimately, the only difference between a strange child and a strange immigrant is their birthplace, and yet we cherish the former while viewing the latter with suspicion and mistrust. We should instead recognize the right of both groups to zealously pursue happiness without hindrance so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.
We condemn the “human smugglers” who will take every cent that an aspiring migrant can pay or borrow and then put them to sea in a precarious boat, but like the gangs that deal in illegal drugs, they are not the problem but rather a symptom of laws that redirect demand away from legitimate business toward violent criminals. Until immigration policies change and people are no longer consigned to their fates based solely on the accident of their birth, perilous crossings in the Mediterranean and elsewhere will continue and the body count will creep ever upwards.
A world without borders may be a utopian ideal that could never be accepted by the public. But to show that it is not mine alone, I give the final word to a man not generally remembered as a wide-eyed dreamer or a political naïf, who spent his life communicating a vision of his country as a shining city on a hill:
"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." ‒Ronald Reagan's farewell address, January 11, 1989----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B. A. and an M. A. in political science from McGill.