Opening the Gates

One of the most striking achievements of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreement was the pledge to end all detention of children for immigration purposes. Unlike areas such as prisons and civil liberties, where Liberal policies chimed with Cameron’s instincts, this is a policy that the Tories would never have implemented on their own. This is a hugely commendable policy, correcting an injustice that has shamed Britain in recent years

Unfortunately, the policy comes with a sting in the tail. In June we heard that the government planned to build a ‘reintegration centre’ in Kabul, for Afghani boys who had sought asylum in Britain. Such a centre is designed to ease them back into life in Afghanistan. The policy has a veneer of care but is in essence extremely cold-hearted if we can’t imprison children, we’ll simply deport them. Then last week there was a further development, a leak of a pilot scheme in the North-West of England. Under said scheme, failed asylum applicants would have 2 weeks to leave the country, after which they can be deported at any time without notice, presumably in a ‘dawn raid’ that has become so commonplace in the asylum system. The two week notice period would apply regardless of how long you had been in the country; a family might have been in Britain in 5 years, with children attending school and then given a mere 14 days to uproot themselves.

Many other injustices in the system remain: adult asylum seekers may still be subject to detention despite having committed no crime, most refugees are prevented from working legally or claiming mainstream benefits, leaving them frequently close to destitute. Most benefits that are received are in the form of supermarket vouchers, depriving the claimant of any meaningful liberty. On top of this there is the ingrained attitude of the UKBA, which as was recently revealed, has an institutional culture in which every accepted application is considered a failure, and the low standard of immigration tribunals and their decisions which require so many cases to go to appeal. All of this designed with one goal, confirmed by the leaked document, of increasing the number of removals, and keeping down the overall immigration headlines. This then is not a policy not driven by the needs of the immigrant, nor by economics, since, even in recession, migrants tend to do the jobs that British citizens refuse to. No, immigration policy continues to be driven by the desire for good headlines, regardless of any other factors.

The trouble is, even if many of these issues could be satisfactorily resolved, the immigration system would still be unjust. That is because at its core, any border control regime relies on force, the force to keep unwelcome migrants out, and the force to coercively deport migrants whom the system has rejected. The entire apparatus of unjust policies, such as detention, come from this central fact; any functioning immigration system relies on treating migrants in a way that the state could never treat its citizens. The system produces real violence on a day-to-day level, the forceful arrest of a family in a dawn raid being the least of it The thousands of deaths every year from people trying to enter Europe via crowded lorries or precarious rafts, or the death or torture of those sent back without fully recognizing the danger they faced at home, are the flip side to our wish to maintain a system of secure borders. They are the victims or our ‘national gated communities’, the barbed wire fences we have constructed around ourselves in order to protect our wealth and our ‘liberty’. This represents the liberal dilemma, the contradiction between liberalism and the liberal state. While many liberals want to ameliorate the treatment of refugees, and are concerned about many of the issues outlined above, their wish to maintain the integrity of the border leads them to justify a barrage of violent practices that stand opposed to everything they believe about human rights and dignity. The only logic of a genuinely liberal politics that refuses to leave human rights behind at the immigration checkpoint is one of open borders, where, like capital, people are free to move from country to country.

Such a suggestion, that we freely open our borders for all to come and go, would be horrifying to many. It seems to promise a descent into anarchy. There are however precedents; Britain, like many other countries had no immigration control until the Aliens Act of 1905. Free movement is the norm within the European Union, and where it is not this is simply the result of transitional arrangements that will expire in a few years time. There is also a similar arrangement in South America, with Mercosur (comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay with Venezuela’s membership pending) forming a trading unit in which there is freedom of movement across members states which constitute around 60% of the land mass of south America. Why could these precedents not be gradually expanded? There could still be border control – but it would exist purely for the purpose of combating crime, rather than to prevent entry for non-criminals into the country. The real reason for opposing such a system is the vast disparities of wealth that exist globally – it is feared that millions of people from poor countries would immediately come to richer ones in order to seek a better life for themselves. This fear is well founded, as many do risk their lives to reach Europe/the US, and presumably more would do so if the barriers were abolished. The trend if also set to increase due to the impact of climate change, as parts of the (mostly poorer) world become uninhabitable.  This however is not a sufficient reason for maintaining the immigration control system, with the inevitable violence and death associated with it. If we (in the West) have constructed an economic system that enriches us but impoverishes half the world then we cannot be surprised that half the world wants to come and live with us. We have to face the consequences of our prosperity.  A policy of free borders, to be implemented at a future date, say in 15 years time should function as a spur to redistribution and reorganisation of global trade towards justice. The likely trajectory would be a series of blocs, in which the inhabitants enjoyed freedom of movement, and once this was created, a series of reciprocal arrangements between the blocs. The implication is not necessarily of totally equal treatment for the native-born and the immigrant – while basic rights such as healthcare and housing should be available equally to all, it might be that one has to live and work within a state for a number of years before being able to access its full range of benefits. It is though and end to the notion of national borders as large-scale prison cells, and an acceptance that general restrictions on movement are simply unjustifiable.

Is this going to happen overnight? Clearly not. Is it somewhat utopian? Of course.  But it continues to stand as the only ethical immigration policy, the only one in accordance with principles of Liberalism and human rights. All other reforms – whilst welcome – simply rearrange injustice.

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