Freedom to move – for everyone

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Freedom to move – for everyone

People have always moved and cultures have always mixed. So why are we so worried about borders? asks Hazel Healy.


Migrant travellers from Togo on their way to Italy after Spanish rescue NGO Open Arms rescued them, February 2017. David Ramos/Getty

On 11 November 2019, three prime ministers were at a five-star hotel in London. The prime ministers – from St Lucia, Albania, and Montenegro – were at a conference organised by Henley & Partners. It is a company that acts between the super-rich and countries who sell citizenship.

Allen Chastanet is from the British colony, St Lucia. He told the audience that they wouldn’t actually have to live on the Caribbean island. They only needed $100,000 and buy a house there. The real prize was a ‘golden passport’ that gives visa-free travel to 145 countries, including the UK, members of the EU Schengen area, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

If you go onto Henley & Partners’ website, a Quality of Nationality Index (QNI) puts countries in order based on the privileges a passport can bring, with levels of development, economic strength, and ‘peacefulness’. If you are Swiss, you are fairly sure of a healthy life, good education, freedom to travel, work, and live in over 40 other rich nations. If you are Somali, that is a problem. Dimitry Kochenov is a citizenship scholar and created QNI. He says if you are Somali, you have a 20-per-cent chance of dying before you are five and your passport offers no ways out of your life.

The QNI index shows apartheid in global mobility. Most of ‘super-citizenships’ are associated with former empires. Money is connected with the rights and freedoms that your nationality brings. Africa has mostly ‘low’ or ‘very lowest quality’, citizenship, with Syria, Yemen, and parts of South-East Asia.

Moving around

Our borders are different depending on who you are. Some, cannot cross them, for others they do not exist.

It can be easy to forget that large numbers of people are moving all the time. The UN World Tourism Organization says more than a billion tourists travelled in 2016. 390 million went to the US, 40 million arrived in Australia. Their journeys were safe and legal.

Then there are people that choose to stay. About 3.5 per cent of the world’s population are migrants. 271 million people have moved to another place.

But they are not moving from the South to the North. Most people move in the same region, usually from a low to a middle-income nation. The long-distance travellers usually move from the QNI’s mid-range countries: India, Mexico, Russia, and China. Some countries, like Britain, both ‘receive’ and ‘send’.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are 11 per cent of these international migrants. The exact number of people changes with the beginning and end of wars. Of the 26 million people who move overseas, around 85 per cent live in the Global South. And then there are some who have moved without permission – around 10-15 per cent of international migrants.

So, it’s a mixed world. As long-distance migration has increased, it has globalized and brought diversity to the small number of countries where there is most economic power and there are most opportunities: North America, Western Europe, the Gulf, and parts of Asia. For every 1,000 residents in New Zealand/Aotearoa there are11.7 immigrants per year. About 28 per cent of Australia’s population are born in another country, and 13 per cent in Britain.

New technologies allow people to stay in touch. James Wan is a co-editor of news platform African Arguments. He says academics are busy finding new categories for these transnational people, such as ‘cultural chameleons’, ‘global nomads’, and ‘third-culture kids’. Wan is a British citizen and his family are from the island of Mauritius. He also says this isn’t so new. People have always moved and cultures have always mixed.

We’ve moved and mixed since people came from Africa about 150,000-200,000 years ago. Jacqueline Bhabha is a legal scholar. She says that by 2,000 BCE, with pack animals and boats people could go to all the places on earth it is possible to live in. Transport may move more quickly now, but the reasons for people to move have not changed for millions of years – to survive, to colonise, to trade, and for opportunities.

Today people move because of the migrations which came before them – often because of colonization or invasion. History shows that there are dangers only when migrant populations bring better technology, or they bring new illnesses, and they plan to dominate less powerful groups. When half a million Spanish and Portuguese arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, it killed much of the population. It reduced the native population from 25 to 2 million in less than a century. When 2.5 million Latin Americans moved to Spain between 1996 and 2010 with no negative plans, Spanish civilization was much richer.

What is unnatural and new about migration are the border walls and fences that now cross the Earth. About 75 per cent of today’s walls and fences went up in the last 20 years. Just before World War One, borders existed mostly on paper and passports were unusual. They made the US-Mexico border in 1853, but the first fence came only in the 1990s.

That does not mean people could always move freely, particularly the poor, even inside their countries. But blocking travellers is not the only way to be a strong country. Achille Mbembe is a political scientist from Cameroon. He says that in pre-colonial Africa the borders were not impossible to cross but easy to cross. Movement was very important. ‘A border is, in fact, for people to cross. That is what borders are for.’ Groups stayed together not just through the control of borders, but through ‘networks and crossroads, movement of people and nature’. The borders today, and the rules that give rights and citizenship, are of our times. They come from 19th-century Western nation-states.

Borders, deaths, and detention

The border walls and immigration rules keep out the citizens of the lower levels of Kochenov’s QNI. But they have not stopped people wanting to move. But they make it more and more dangerous for these travellers.

Many deaths have had no witnesses. But the Missing Migrants project has found at least 33,000 deaths since 2014. People die in mountains and deserts, fall under trains, suffocate in the backs of lorries, or fall from fences.

For the criminal gangs these travellers are easy victims. In Central America, about 20,000 men, women, and children disappeared after criminal gangs kidnapped them. On this route, six out of ten women are raped or sexually assaulted. In Yemen, the way to the Arab Gulf, no one knows about the thousands of Somali and Ethiopian women the gangs kidnap. Officials often abuse migrants in partner ‘transit’ states. For the past six years Australia has put hundreds of refugees in one of its ‘off-shore’ detention centres on the island of Nauru. It costs $400,000 per refugee, per year.

Maurice Stierl is a researcher and started Alarmphone, a charity that takes calls from migrants in need of rescue. He writes about a new kind of violence on the EU border. Since 2015, policy has changed so quickly from a system of ‘care and control’ to violent detention.


Adapted from Theo Deutinger's Handbook of Tyranny, Lars Muller Publishers, 2018

Since the EU made a deal to keep refugees in Turkey in 2016, the Greek islands have become holding camps. A Médecins Sans Frontières aid worker spoke to The Guardian in September 2019. He says tens of thousands of people are in overcrowded, insanitary conditions, with terrible human suffering. Scorpions, rats, and snakes bite children, there is the smell of excrement everywhere, and there is very little food. Self-harm, even among young children, has increased a lot.

The EU plans to spend $38.3 billion on border security between 2021 and 2027, and increase its border guards to 10,000. Other EU plans include: replacing rescue ships with drones on the world’s most dangerous border, the Mediterranean Sea. There 18,000 have drowned since 2014.

And paying for Libyan coastguards to stop boats and return the migrants to overcrowded detention centres. There is murder, torture, and slavery in these places. A group of lawyers have asked the International Criminal Court to bring a case against the EU and certain member states for crimes against humanity.

In the US, President Trump has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy against undocumented men, women, and children inside its borders. After mass raids, with the use of new surveillance technology, a quarter of a million people were deported in 2018.

With the 25.9 million recognized refugees who can have protection under international law, the world is also doing badly. Refugees must now spend about 10 years in camps. For some populations, such as Somalis and Palestinians, there is a third generation trying to live in these temporary camps. In 2018, fewer than 7 per cent were settled of the 1.4 million people who met the UN refugee agency’s rules.

Jacqueline Bhabha is a human rights lawyer. She says we need a new word for ‘refugee’. She suggests ‘distress migrant’ – to show the many reasons why people move – it can be war, loss of land to development, money problems, or the environment. With the increase of environmental problems with climate change, sending a community member abroad will be a way for vulnerable groups. Money sent home by migrants is already three times the total of development aid every year.

Even with the terrible problems made by states, people will still want the right to move. If success means the right to love who you please, to educate your children, to cure an illness if you are ill, and to work, then for most people the journey is a risk worth taking.

The bigger question is not, will people stop moving but – how did so much abuse become normal? And what will happen in 10 or 20 years from now? The World Bank says that as many as 143 million migrants will have to move within their own countries by 2050 due to climate change. Our biggest worry should be about those who find it impossible to move at all. The new and terrible idea of borders is not playing well for societies in the West. As migration scholar Bridget Anderson writes, if the aim is to ‘bring down numbers’, people will always say to governments that there are ‘“too many migrants” and “too many” is a difficult number’. If we are to avoid the ideas of the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage, we have to start agreeing that this world belongs to everyone.


Women at Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in October 2019.

There are now tens of thousands of migrant travellers in over-crowded camps on the Greek islands since 2016. Valery Sharifulin/Tass/Getty

Another way of thinking

It may not seem easy to talk about the possibility of stopping border restrictions. But it shouldn’t be so difficult to imagine. We can find places where these restrictions do not exist, for example, Mercosur in South America, and the Nordic countries. And the EU gives rights to live and work.

In Africa in a group of 12 Western and Central countries (‘ECOWAS’), citizens can spend 90 days, with no questions asked. Achille Mbembe sees the possibility of a continent free of its colonial borders.

Countries in Latin America also offer another approach. Colombia, for example, has welcomed 1.4 million Venezuelan refugees since 2015, offering welfare, schooling, and work, and citizenship to children of displaced parents. Germany, too, took in more than a million refugees in 2015-16. Polls suggest that since then, support for a multicultural society has increased.

People everywhere are starting to defy state borders. Volunteers leave bottles of water in the Arizona desert, pensioners give refugees lifts over the Alps, anarchists open places to stay in empty buildings in Athens. Living below the poverty line in the US still places you in the richest 14 per cent globally. And there climate change is not checked. But the question of who can move, and stay, is at the centre of political struggles for equality.

Why not end Immigration Acts, stop discriminatory regulations such as the UK’s hostile environment; stop US agency Immigration and Customs (ICE), offer places to live to Australia’s off-shore refugees, close detention centres, defend and extend the humanitarian protections that exist, and create the kind of world where people move because they want to and not because they have to. We will need to change the way we think – to move away from nationalism and open to the possibilities of new ways of belonging and better ways of sharing the one world that is home to all of us.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)