The border regime is a form of global apartheid. Eventually it must fall
18 December 2020
Even in the middle of a global pandemic, few days go by when migration is not in the news. Migrants have become the perpetual scapegoat, to distract from the damaging anti-social policies of the elite and to boost the votes of demagogues – in the UK and around the world.
Under constant assault, even those who normally support human rights can be forced onto the back foot. Rather than big visions – of a world in which all enjoy equal rights to move freely around the globe with equal protection – we are forced into defensive campaigns. Migrants battle to meet their most basic needs in the face of threats of destitution, arrest and deportation.
In this, we face an uphill struggle, as even the limited system set up to protect the rights of refugees is being unwound at an alarming rate, by authoritarians and populists who pretend that the victims of our global economic system are actually the cause of our problems.
So we need to do something more: to change this narrative we must get back on the front foot. We must speak with hope and energy about the sort of world we want to see. After all, really big changes have always come about when those campaigning and organising have been ‘unrealistic’ in what they’re calling for; when we have demanded the impossible. How else would the slave trade have been defeated? How else would women and working men have won the vote? How else would the NHS, social housing or comprehensive schooling have come into being?
That’s why Global Justice Now is proudly calling for the right to free movement of all people in the world. We know this will not come about overnight - and indeed, Covid-19 has brought about necessary temporary restrictions on freedom of movement even within countries. But freedom of movement is a long term struggle. It will require many years and decades of persistent work. Huge movements will need to be built, with those most deprived of the right to move at the forefront.
The ethical case for free movement
The scale of the challenge should not prevent us from starting, here and now. After all, the ethical case for free movement is strong: it cannot be right that the place you are born dictates whether you will live a life of poverty or plenty, of freedom or imprisonment. It cannot be right that while the richest can move around with freedom, the poorest – those who have most to benefit from such movement – are imprisoned in geographical poverty. This is a form of apartheid on a global scale.
The injustice is particularly acute when we remember that the very reason so many people need to move is the result of economic and political decisions made in the richest part of the world. For hundreds of years, Europeans have run empires, conducted one-sided trade, allowed their big businesses to pillage the planet. Our countries have created environmental and social disaster. They drew the lines on maps which created the ‘nations’ that still dictate the fates of most people in the world. And then they prevented people from leaving those nations to come and share in the wealth which was stolen from them.
Here, then, we need to be clear what we mean by free movement. We reject entirely the free market notion that ‘free movement’ is about people being forced to move so that they can produce a greater profit for someone somewhere else. Our starting point is that movement is not ‘free’ until people have the choice not to move as well.
Reversing the logic of freedom for business, barriers for people
There is a myth that the last few decades – the era of neoliberalism – have seen unprecedented openness, tearing down the barriers of old. This isn’t true. Neoliberalism has been about the dismantling of barriers to capital, so that big business and big finance can accumulate ever more money. But this same period, with a few notable exemptions, has also seen the borders faced by most people in the world multiply. The barriers to movement have become harder and more brutal, from an environment so ‘hostile’ that migrants are persuaded to ‘deport themselves’ here in the UK, to incarceration in concentration camps in Texas, torture in North Africa, and mass death in the Mediterranean. Even the border industry that implements this system generates big profits for a few – a quasi-military economic sector worth £15 billion in Europe alone – and misery for the many.
If we want to create a more equal world, we must reverse this logic. We must create barriers so that big business and big finance cannot exploit at will, so that people are not forced to move in search of a decent life. But at the same time, we must lower the barriers which prevent the great majority of humanity from being able to achieve their rights and live the lives of dignity that we all deserve.
Why we need open borders
The truth is that people have always moved, and those in control of society have often tried to stop them in order to control them. Throughout history, borders are fundamentally about keeping resources and power in the hands of the few, and controlling and dividing the many.
Today on International Migrants Day, we have released a new pamphlet, Freedom of Movement: Why we need open borders. It is our small contribution to making the vision of free movement a reality. We look at the major reasons why borders are unjust, at some previous and existing examples of free movement around the world, and at some steps governments could take to bring this vision a step closer. And we show how this vision is not nearly as impossible as we might believe.
On its own, this pamphlet will hardly change the world. But we hope it might begin to change minds, to inspire, to mobilise. And we present it in the certain knowledge that, like all systems of apartheid, this one must eventually fall.