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Freedom to move – for everyone

Europe-bound. Migrant travellers from Togo en route to Italy after being rescued by Spanish rescue NGO Open Arms, February 2017. David Ramos/Getty

On 11 November 2019, three prime ministers took to the stage at a five-star hotel in London. The premiers – from St Lucia, Albania and Montenegro – were speaking at a conference put on by Henley & Partners, a firm that acts as matchmaker between the super-rich and countries selling citizenship.

Allen Chastanet, from the former British colony St Lucia, reassured the audience that they wouldn’t actually have to live on the Caribbean island, just invest $100,000 and buy a house there. The real prize on offer was a ‘golden passport’ that bestows 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) is on hand to rank countries based on the privileges a passport can bring, alongside levels of development, economic strength and ‘peacefulness’. While being born Swiss pretty much guarantees you a healthy life, good education, freedom to travel, work and reside in over 40 other rich nations, being born Somali is a ‘liability’, in the words of QNI’s creator, the citizenship scholar Dimitry Kochenov. You face a 20-per-cent chance of dying before you turn five and your passport offers no legal exit from the life chances prescribed to you, at random, at birth. And unlike Henley & Partners’ prospective clients, you can’t buy your way out.

The QNI index illustrates a system of global mobility apartheid in stark, racialized terms. The majority of access-all-areas ‘super-citizenships’ are associated with former empires. Wealth disparity correlates neatly with the rights and freedoms – or lack of them – brought by your nationality. Africa is almost exclusively in possession of ‘low’ or ‘very lowest quality’, restrictive citizenship, along with Syria, Yemen and swathes of South-East Asia. Moral philosopher Joseph Carens dubs this state of affairs ‘the modern equivalent of feudal privilege’. It’s only when these people move, unauthorized, that it’s treated as a problem.

Getting around

Our borders, in the words of French philosopher Etienne Balibar, are ‘polysemic’ – they present differently depending on who you are. For some, they are impassable, for others, non-existent.

It can be easy to forget – amid the language of ‘crises’ and chaotic scenes broadcast from closed borders – that huge numbers of people are moving all the time. A simple fact, which bears repeating. More than a billion tourists packed their bags to go exploring in 2016, according to the UN World Tourism Organization; 390 million entered the US, 40 million arrived in Australia. Their journeys were safe and legal, no-one batted an eyelid.

Then there are those that choose to settle. Around 3.5 per cent of the world’s population are migrants – a proportion that has stayed roughly constant since the 1960s and a reminder that the vast majority stay put. That’s a current tally of 271 million people who have ever relocated  – around the same size as the population of Indonesia.

But contrary to popular perception, it’s not an exodus of the South to the North. Most people move within the same region, usually from a low to a middle-income nation. The long-distance travellers tend to move from the QNI’s mid-range countries: India, Mexico, Russia and China. Some countries, like Britain, are both ‘receivers’ and ‘senders’.

Refugees and asylum-seekers account for 11 per cent of these international migrants. The exact number of people ebbs and flows with the outbreak and conclusion of wars; of the 26 million people displaced overseas, around 85 per cent are living in the Global South. And then there are some who have slipped in without permission – around 10-15 per cent of international migrants, though for obvious reasons the undocumented are hard to count.

World in motion: Estimates of global migration flows, 1990 to 2010. Click on a region to see flows by country. Credit: Nikola Sander, Guy J. Abel & Ramon Bauer

In summary: it’s a mixed-up world. As long-distance migration has increased, it has globalized, bringing new diversity to the relatively small pool of countries where economic power and opportunities are concentrated: North America, Western Europe, the Gulf and parts of Asia. For every 1,000 residents, New Zealand/Aotearoa welcomes 11.7 immigrants per year, some 28 per cent of Australia’s population are foreign-born, 13 per cent in Britain.

New technologies allow people to stay knitted more closely into home cultures and scattered families. James Wan, a co-editor of news platform African Arguments, notes how academics are busy inventing new categories for these complex, transnational individuals, such as ‘cultural chameleons’, ‘global nomads’ and ‘third-culture kids’. But as Wan – a British citizen whose family hail from the island of Mauritius and trace their ancestry to China – also points out, this isn’t so new. People have always moved and cultures have always intermingled.

We’ve been a migratory species ever since homo sapiens first emerged from Africa about 150,000-200,000 years ago. Legal scholar Jacqueline Bhabha records that by 2,000 BCE, pack animals and boats with sails and oars meant humans could reach all habitable spaces on earth. Transport may move more quickly these days, but the fundamental drivers of human movement have not changed over millennia – survival, colonization, trade and opportunity.

Borders, in the words of French philosopher Etienne Balibar, are ‘polysemic’: for some, they are impassable, for others, non-existent

Today’s movements of people are rooted in the migrations that precede them – often a direct consequence of colonization or invasion. History also reveals that it’s only when migrant populations bring superior technology – or unknown germs – and a plan to dominate less powerful groups that they pose a fatal threat. The arrival of half a million Spanish and Portuguese in the Mexican peninsula in the 1500s was near-genocidal, reducing 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, without predatory intent, Spanish civilization was enhanced.

What is unnatural and new about migration is the plague of border walls and razor-wire fences that now crisscross the Earth – around 75 per cent of today’s physical barriers were erected in the last 20 years. On the eve of World War One, borders existed mostly on paper and passports were rare. The US-Mexico border was drawn in 1853 but the first fence didn’t appear there until the 1990s.

That’s not to say people have always been able to move freely, particularly the poor, even inside their countries. But blocking travellers’ passage is not the only way to order sovereignty. Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe describes how in pre-colonial Africa the borders that existed were porous and permeable, circulation was fundamental. ‘The business of a border is, in fact, to be crossed,’ he writes. ‘That is what borders are for.’ Groups were held together not exclusively through the control of a territory, but through ‘networks and crossroads, flows of people and nature’. The border regimes in place today, and the exclusionary rules conferring rights and citizenship that sit inside them, are peculiar to our times, an export of 19th-century Western nation-states that comes with some particularly nasty side-effects.

Entanglement and enclosure

The border walls and immigration rules that conspire to keep the citizens of the lower echelons of Kochenov’s QNI in their place have not succeeded in extinguishing people’s aspirations to move. But they expose these unauthorized travellers to ever-increasing dangers.

Countless deaths will have had no witnesses. But the Missing Migrants project has recorded at least 33,000 fatalities since 2014: people who succumb to exposure in mountains and deserts, fall under the wheels of slow-moving trains, suffocate in the backs of lorries or fall from barbed-wire fences. 

For the mafia, these precarious travellers are easy prey. In Central America, some 20,000 men, women and children have disappeared after being kidnapped by criminal gangs for extortion. On this route, six out of ten women can expect to be raped or sexually assaulted; while in Yemen, the gateway to the Arab Gulf, thousands of Somali and Ethiopian women abducted by gangs are simply unaccounted for.

Migrants are frequently abused by officials in partner ‘transit’ states. In recent years, Western nations have increased this ‘remote control’ approach with some dubious partners, rewarding corrupt regimes, which create instability and, in their turn, produce more migrants. Australia has warehoused hundreds of refugees for the past six years in one of its notorious ‘off-shore’ detention centres on the island of Nauru, at the astronomical cost of $400,000 per refugee, per year.

Migration funds have been an economic lifeline in Nauru even as it ‘lurched towards authoritarianism’ and cracked down on the press. Until recently, the journalist Sally Hayden reported, the European Union (EU) was giving Sudan $245 million for migration control of the border with Eritrea that allegedly funded the deployment of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, the genocidal re-branded Janjaweed militia.

Maurice Stierl, a researcher and founder of Alarmphone, a charity that takes calls from migrants in need of rescue, writes of a new ‘purity of violence’ on the EU border. Since 2015, policy has shifted from a dubious system of ‘care and control’ to outright violent containment with a speed that activists describe as ‘overwhelming’.

Adapted from Theo Deutinger's Handbook of Tyranny, Lars Muller Publishers, 2018
Adapted from Theo Deutinger's Handbook of Tyranny, Lars Muller Publishers, 2018
Click on the image to see the full map.

Since the EU struck a deal to keep refugees in Turkey in 2016, the Greek islands have become holding camps. Tens of thousands of people are stuck in overcrowded, insanitary conditions, subjected to an ‘indescribable’ level of human suffering according to a Médecins Sans Frontières aid worker, who spoke to The Guardian last September. Children are bitten by scorpions, rats and snakes, the smell of excrement is pervasive and food is running scarce; incidents of self-harm, even among toddlers, have risen sharply.

The EU plans to spend $38.3 billion on border security between 2021 and 2027, and increase its standing corps of Frontex (border force) guards to 10,000. Other EU measures include: removing rescue ships from the world’s deadliest border, the Mediterranean Sea, where 18,000 are known to have drowned since 2014 in favour of surveillance drones.

And funding Libyan militia-turned-coastguard to intercept boats and return their migrant passengers to overcrowded detention centres. Incidents of murder, torture and enslavement are well documented in these places, prompting a group of lawyers to petition the International Criminal Court to bring a case against the EU and certain member states for crimes against humanity.

Borders are not only upheld by walls around territory but via exclusionary rules on citizenship, and visa regimes that punish those who ‘overstay’ their welcome. Labyrinthine immigration rules in-country wear down the undocumented in what has been called ‘the politics of exhaustion’, stripping away the right to work, to have a bank account, to rent a house or to drive.

In the US, President Trump has spearheaded a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that targets undocumented men, women and children inside its borders. Mass raids, partly enabled by new and pervasive surveillance technology saw a quarter of a million people deported in 2018.

Volunteers leave bottles of water in the Arizona desert, pensioners give refugees lifts over the Alps, anarchists open squats in Athens

When it comes to the 25.9 million recognized refugees who are entitled to protection under international law, the world is also falling woefully short. Refugees can now expect to spend an average of 10 years in camps. For some populations, such as Somalis and Palestinians, a third generation is eking out a minimal existence in what were planned as temporary settlements. In 2018, fewer than 7 per cent were settled of the 1.4 million people who met the UN refugee agency’s criteria.

Besides, the term refugee needs an update, according to human rights lawyer Jacqueline Bhabha. She argues for a new term – ‘distress migration’ – to capture the host of reasons that prompt the decision to move, be they conflict, loss of land to development, economic hardship or environmental degradation. With ecological devastation set to increase with climate change, sending a community member abroad will be a key coping mechanism for vulnerable groups. Remittances sent home by migrants already equal three times the total of development aid every year.

Despite the nightmarish machinations of states, people will continue to claim the right to move. If success means the right to love who you please, to educate your children, cure an illness if you fall ill and a guaranteed source of work, then for most people the journey is a risk worth taking.

The bigger question becomes not, will people stop moving but – how did such widespread abuse become normalized? And what will happen 10 or 20 years from now? The World Bank has predicted that as many as 143 million migrants are likely to be displaced within their own countries by 2050 due to climate change. Our biggest worry should be about those who lack the resources to move at all.

This myopic obsession with borders is not playing well for societies in the West, either. As migration scholar Bridget Anderson writes, if the aim is to ‘bring down numbers’, governments will always be open to the charge that there are ‘“too many migrants” and “too many” is a difficult number’. If we are to avoid being held hostage to the likes of the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage, we have to start contesting the fundamentals: this world belongs to everyone.

Women at Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in October 2019.
Tens of thousands of migrant travellers have been trapped in over-crowded camps on the Greek islands since 2016. Valery Sharifulin/Tass/Getty

Alternative zeitgeist

It may not feel like a promising environment to be talking about easing up on border restrictions. But it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine – the clues are all around us. We can look to places where territory is already decoupled from citizenship. Several regions already practise it – Mercosur in South America, the Nordic countries. The EU extends rights of residency and work across major wealth gaps. Something to work towards: how to roll out these principles on a wider scale?

In Africa – where in a group of 12 Western and Central countries (‘ECOWAS’) citizens can spend 90 days, no questions asked – Achille Mbembe has visions of a continent freed of its colonial borders and transformed into ‘a vast space of circulation’. The ability to move and settle would end one of the most ‘tragic challenges of our history in the modern world’ – harassment, humiliation and ‘being asked to go back where we came from’, he writes. It could begin with a moratorium on deportations, e-permits for swift movements of goods, visa waivers for all and visas on arrival.

Countries in Latin America also offer an alternative approach. Colombia, for example, has welcomed 1.4 million Venezuelan refugees since 2015, allowing access to welfare, schooling and work, plus – in a rare humanitarian gesture – offering citizenship to children born to displaced parents. Germany, too, bucked the trend when it took in more than a million refugees in 2015-16. Polls suggest that since then, popular support for a multicultural society has increased, not gone into reverse.

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 squats in Athens. And while living below the poverty line in the US still places you in the richest 14 per cent globally – and climate degradation goes unchecked – the question of who can move, and settle, sits at the centre of contemporary political struggles for equality.

How’s this for a game plan, to set us down the right path to making everyone’s journeys safe, easy and circular, not just those of the super-citizens? Revoke hostile Immigration Acts, reverse discriminatory regulations such as the UK’s hostile environment; abolish rogue US agency Immigration and Customs (ICE), offer sanctuary to Australia’s off-shore detainees, close down detention centres. Defend and extend the humanitarian protections that exist. Create the kind of world where people leave through choice, not necessity.

Along the way, we will need to transform our thinking – to step away from narrow nationalism and open our minds to the possibilities of new ways of belonging and better ways of sharing the one world that is home to all of us.​

CAMPAIGNING: Grassroots migrant organizers Movement for Justice; Mediterranean hotline for boatpeople in distress Alarmphone; Australian frontline support and advocacy Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; Australian migrant-led campaigns, RISE; Humanitarian volunteers on Mexico-US borderlands, No more deaths; Grassroots migrant justice organization No one is illegal Toronto 
READINGCity of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence, Thorndike Press, 2016; Citizenship by Dimitry Kochenov, MIT Press, 2019; The Idea of a Borderless World, Essay by Achille Mbembe; Open Borders: In Defence of Free Movement, Edited by Reece Jones, University of Georgia Press, 2018.

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