Open borders, 2050

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Open borders, 2050

Alex Sager imagines a time in the future when all people will be free to move.


Illustration by Nick Taylor

Amouk Majok is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Mobility. She walks to the stage at the end of her open-borders tour. The trip took her from Geneva to Lesvos, Melilla, Johannesburg, and El Paso. Now she is jetlagged and very tired. She looks at the crowd at Nauru’s Museum of the Migrant. They are mostly international journalists, some foreign policy people, and a group of Australian school children with their Prime Minister, Yao Chung.

The man sitting on the stage to Amouk’s right is the human rights activist Ibrahim al-Attar. As a boy, he spent a year in the Nauru detention centre. He is there to accept Prime Minister Chung’s apology for stopping boats carrying refugees and for putting migrants in offshore camps.

Amouk spent the last five years leading the reorganization of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She worked for the organization from 2020 and will work for it until it ends in 2048. The refugee camps have mostly disappeared. That includes Bidibidi in Uganda, to which her parents and sister went when she was a student at Oxford. The camps are temporary places for people waiting for the UN mobility agency and its partners to find local organizations to help them with their travel and somewhere to stay.

In the morning she toured Nauru’s Museum of the Migrant. An international group of governments paid for its construction. They asked the organisers not to show the horrors of immigration. They said no to architect Faisal Khan’s idea for an open-air museum built from the world’s border walls. Instead the museum is a very simple monument and tells a story only of moral progress. The exhibition did not really tell the story of worldwide migrant protests but instead a positive story about a few leaders. Non-profit organizations, supreme courts, and politicians received too much credit.

But we can still see some of the darker sides of migrant life. In a small section about the Nauru detention centre, there is a photo of men and boys who sewed their lips shut in protest. It reminds us about the violence used. Thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean and died in deserts. Millions of migrants were in prisons, making money for the army and corporations.

It was hard to understand how much the world has changed in the past 30 years. When Amouk joined UNHCR in 2020, no-one could predict open borders. Far-right governments were strong in the United States, India, Brazil, the Philippines, and many European states. Some time after, the United Kingdom finally ‘Brexited’ from the European Union, a tragedy and a comedy. There was concrete and barbed wire across national borders, which they said kept out refugees. Mostly, it was political theatre.

Many didn’t understand that the 2020s was also a time of big protests against neoliberalism and against white supremacy. The media were mostly negative about worldwide resistance to the Far Right, writing about protesters as anarchists or rioters. But as people took to the street against neoliberal austerity, they found they were marching in support with migrants under banners of No-one is Illegal. On 14 July 2025, the migrant collective, the Gilets Noirs, led an occupation of the Palais du Luxembourg. They stayed for 93 days until France agreed to a nationwide regularization programme. Movements around the world took notice.

Mostly, though, the 2020s brought even worse immigration policies. Governments filled more prison cells with migrants. They sent migrants to places where they were not worried about human rights. Prosecutors saw activists as criminals and then their families. They prosecuted those who offered shelter or money to their children, parents, or cousins. The queue of immigration cases in the courts grew to tens of years.

With all of this there were floods and droughts in the early 2030s. Millions of people lost their homes. Most climate migrants stayed in their states and moved to town centres or to refugee camps. Others found only poverty and rejection in their countries. Immigration budgets went up as a global recession destroyed the middle class. Only then the movement to pull down the border walls, which were built at the beginning of the 21st century, started seriously.

Many saw the 2030 International Migrants Day #I am a migrant campaign as a real beginning. Hurricane Susanoo destroyed Beyoncé’s main New Orleans house and forced her family to move to Bel Air. Then, she said, yes, she was a migrant. Commentators made fun of her at first. Didn’t she understand that you couldn’t be a migrant in your own country?

It didn’t help that when Hurricane Susanoo hit Louisiana, Beyoncé was at the Met in New York, raising money for her campaign to be a senator. But Beyoncé’s words made sense to the tens of millions of climate migrants who left the devastated towns and cities of Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. More and more people took the slogan #I am a migrant and politicians found they had to talk about their immigrant past.

After so many homes were lost and the horrors of immigration, people began to listen to open-borders philosophers. Voters began to think about the possibility that border controls did not help human freedom and equality. People began to think and say that the nation-state failed. Transnational support networks between migrant, environmental, socialist, feminist, and LGBTQIA+ groups began to try inclusive, localized forms of social organization.

None of this was what Amouk would say about state-centred open-borders. The official story did not give credit to migrants or activists but said that Canada was at the centre. (Ecuador already had an open-borders policy, but it was ignored because of prejudice and Canada’s strong public relations campaign.) During the Americas Free Trade Agreement of 2035, Canadian Prime Minister, Fatima Chowdhury, led the New Democrat majority to open its borders.

The Conservative Party and the Bloc Québécois predicted disaster. Nationalist politicians formed a Franco-Anglo alliance and said that tens, if not hundreds of millions, of poor immigrants would come into Canada, steal jobs, commit crimes, and bankrupt social services.

But when the borders opened, immigration increased quickly, then slowed down. Temporary migration increased, with many workers coming during the agricultural and construction seasons. Immigrants who remained found jobs, paid taxes, and supported local businesses. Labour unions recruited them, and won new rights for agricultural and service workers.

Because immigrants were usually younger, they paid more into social services than they took out. Most learned English or French – or both – and sent their children to state schools. It was surprising that Canada’s open borders came at the same time as its economic success. In 2037 Canada was one of the few countries in the world that reported growth.

Amouk says a few words about the African Union’s refusing to move forward with the 2044 Gaborone trade negotiations unless human mobility was included. Japanese and European voters recognized that migration was necessary to care for their ageing populations.

In 2045, the General Assembly of the United Nations changed Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights from ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state’ to ‘Everyone has the right of freedom to movement and residence in every state.’

Amouk smiles at Ibrahim al-Attar, then turns to her audience.

‘I stand here today in Nauru’s Museum of the Migrant. It is now a sign of hope. I stand here as someone who devoted her life to human mobility, but also someone who was realistic. I am here to celebrate the right to freedom of movement and to say that open borders are a victory for us all. At the same time, I am here to tell you that we need to do a lot of work. Too many people need to migrate because they do not earn enough money at home. Too many others would like to migrate, but do not have the possibility.’

She stops for a moment. Today was a day of celebration, two years since the last border was opened. But she knows that progress is not easy and there will be problems. She wonders how the world will have to change.


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