Why we need an open-door policy

Kicking off spiked's campaign for freedom of movement in 2008, Nathalie Rothschild argues that there's one way to stop illegal immigration: stop making immigration illegal.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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Immigration is set to remain a big issue in 2008. UK immigration minister Liam Byrne started off the year by outlining the government’s new, ‘compassionate’ approach to stopping illegal immigration. But to some of us, criminalising free movement, overriding foreigners’ privacy rights, telling non-English speakers they have no place in the UK, and slapping fines on employers who hire individuals whom the government deems ‘illegal’ doesn’t spell ‘compassionate’. The easiest – and most humane – way to stop illegal immigration is to stop making immigration illegal.

Byrne claims that ‘the public wants stronger borders’ and a system which ‘makes and enforces decisions fast when we have obligations to honour’ (1). The demand for strictly monitoring migration in the name of protecting both Britain and migrants extends beyond policymakers in the higher echelons of the Home Office. Controlling borders rather than opening them up is now commonly seen as a worthy response to ‘illegal immigration’.

Humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International UK and Anti-Slavery International, for example, also focus on tougher measures against illegal movements. When they call on the government to crack down on trafficking in the name of protecting vulnerable migrants, they fail to acknowledge that it is the government’s strict border controls and immigration policies that force people to take great risks in coming to the West in the first place. If people who want a better life are forced into the hands of criminals, it is the UK government’s immigration policies that put them there. Surely it would be in the interest of migrants if borders were opened up, rather than their movements being monitored even more heavily by the very governments that want to keep them out?

Discouraging people from leaving their home countries in the first place is often seen as the best way of putting an end to risky illegal immigration. In a preventative effort, Spain ran an ad campaign in Senegal last year, aimed at scaring off would-be boat migrants. One ad shows a mother who hasn’t heard from her son for months before cutting to an image of a dead body washed up on a rocky shore, and Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour telling viewers: ‘Don’t risk your life for nothing.’ (2)

A clip from this ad was shown in the Panorama documentary ‘Destination UK’ on BBC TV this week (3). The film highlighted the plight of those who take great risks to come to Europe. It followed five of 27 Africans who were deserted last year by ‘people traffickers’ who had promised to bring them from Libya to Italy. When, after seven days at sea, their boat started taking in water, the 27 young men had no choice but to cling on to a tuna net cast in the middle of the Mediterranean. Their ordeal lasted for three days before an Italian navy plane spotted and rescued them.

The documentary showed how difficult life can be for many of those who do reach Europe, where they not only face the challenges of getting a job and learning the languague, but are also met with strict repatriation policies and internment in detention centres. Yet while the film showed compassion for the migrants, the message was that the tragedies awaiting thousands of African ‘boat people’ can be avoided if they just stay at home and if governments take more responsibility for controlling dangerous immigration routes.

The argument for the abolition of immigration controls was not raised in the documentary. In fact, open borders were cast as a cause of suffering and hardship. Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddaffi, was reprimanded for opening up his country’s borders to the rest of Africa in an attempt to re-position Libya as ‘a hub for the united states of Africa’. It was estimated in the film that about one million migrants in Libya are hoping to make their way to Europe – and some will do so with the help of ‘people smugglers’. The message was that by opening its borders to the rest of the African continent after years of isolation, Libya is boosting people-smuggling and putting Africans at risk of dying in the Sahara Desert or the waters of the Mediterranean.

The idea that Europe can expect one million Africans to arrive at its borders at any time is the kind of nightmare scenario envisioned by those who believe countries like Britain need to be protected from overcrowding and that immigration puts a strain on public services. Such sentiments are not just held by right-wing groups like the British National Party or Migration Watch. In fact, ‘overpopulation’ and a lack of resources are central issues for many green-leaning officials and activists today, who argue that mass immigration is a surefire route to environmental collapse. A net zero increase in population is becoming an increasingly common demand among green-leaning groups who apparently feel that freedom of movement puts the welfare of the planet at stake (4).

While many have sympathy for refugees escaping persecution, and many accept that immigrants can make valuable financial contributions to society or do the types of jobs that Brits don’t want, few seem to endorse the idea that people shouldn’t have to justify their decision to move abroad by proving that they are either in danger if they go back home or good for the economy if they stay here.

The fact that the government’s new border control shake-up involves demanding that all those seeking visas for entering Britain have their fingerprints taken, and that all foreign nationals carry ID cards, reveals a deep suspicion of foreigners, be they holidaymakers, economic migrants or asylum seekers. This is not a minority view propagated by a cabal of right-wing authoritarians, but one increasingly held by everyone from government ministers to greens and human rights campaigners. Yet, as was rightly pointed out in the Panorama documentary, you can’t police away the desire to seek a better life.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild looked at the Gatwick No Border Camp and asked if it was a positive protest. Brendan O’Neill gave three cheers to one million new workers. Frank Furedi took a look at David Cameron’s demographic determinism, and called population control a really bad idea. Neil Davenport said there should be no limit on immigration from Eastern Europe and asked why we in the UK are lunatics about asylum. Or read more at spiked issue immigration.

(1) Border controls shake-up set out, BBC News, 14 January 2008

(2) Spain begins anti-migration ads, BBC News, 20 September 2007

(3) Panorama: Destination UK, BBC

(4) See, for example, Greens need to grasp the nettle: aren’t there just too many people?, Guardian, 10 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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