The right to migrate trumps politics as usual

by Thomas R. Wells

RTX19ZDA-1-628x330The current immigration crisis in Europe has, finally, generated much soul searching among European citizens, as well as a great deal of unfortunate political squabbling among European governments. Yet a great deal of the debate still assumes the centrality of national political concerns when this is, morally speaking, irrelevant.

The right to migrate is a meta-right. As a practical matter, access to human rights, including social and economic rights, depends on governments. Since some governments are uninterested or unable to protect or support human rights, people must be free to move to other states where their access to human rights is acceptable, including such socio-economic rights as a fair market wage for their labour. The very point of the idea of human rights is that human beings do not belong to their states, and what they deserve is not to be determined solely by the benevolence or otherwise of the state they happen to be born into.


My case goes beyond refugees – those fleeing armed conflict or persecution. But refugees are a good place to start because most sovereign governments have formally acknowledged, with legally binding treaties, that the right to migrate trumps ordinary political concerns. They did so in the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing unleashed by the conclusion of the second world war, and for the kinds of reasons identified by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the awful failure of European states to accept stateless Jewish and other ethnic minority refugees in the 1930s.

When refugees request asylum it must be granted, subject only to checking the basis of their claim. States acknowledge that they cannot refuse asylum merely on the basis of the economic costs or political unpopularity it would impose. The granting of asylum does not fall within the usual logic of statecraft in which a policy is considered from the perspective of the political interests of a governing party, taking into account how it will play to popular prejudices, how it fits with internal party disputes, its consistency with budgetary and other manifesto promises, its influence on the viability of other policies the government wants to pursue, and so on. None of these have standing in the face of the moral emergency of aiding refugees to regain their lives.

As Ban Ki-moon put it, “Refugees have been deprived of their homes, but they must not be deprived of their futures.”

As is clear from the present crisis in and around Europe, and in other parts of the world such as the Andaman Sea, many states are currently failing in their moral – and legal – obligations to refugees. This is often portrayed as an exercise of sovereignty. Actually it is a failure – an inability to govern oneself according to the principles one has laid down.

One should not confuse sovereignty with degrees of freedom. Sovereignty is about autonomy, a demand that others recognise and respect that you are your own master. But that is not quite the same thing as doing whatever one likes, whenever one likes. That is not self-mastery but a child's idea of what being a grown up must be like. There is nothing in the idea of sovereignty that is incompatible with making and keeping self-binding promises, for example to the UN Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. Quite the opposite. Being recognised by other states as capable of promising, of holding oneself answerable for what one says, is the essence of sovereignty, a requirement for recognition as an equal by other states.

What a number of European states have recently been asserting is not sovereignty but nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that your country is morally exceptional, and therefore need not hold itself to its promises, or to the rules and moral standards of international cooperation, or to the universal moral principles its government voluntarily espouses, such as human rights. Think for a moment. You probably know someone who behaves like that. The technical term for them is asshole (a point I have elaborated on elsewhere).


When I say that states confronted by refugees must assist without counting the costs, I mean that the mere political and economic inconvenience refugees pose is irrelevant to states' moral obligation. That doesn't mean that costs are irrelevant, only that they must be considered by different standards.

1. Is accepting more than a certain number of refugees likely to do more harm than good?

Refugees trump ordinary political and economic concerns because their need for a state that will recognise them as rights holders is more significant and urgent than meeting the morally and legally established bu mundane expectations of existing citizens, for example not to lose their place at the front of the queue for social housing. Refugees thus present the same kind of moral priority as the victims of a great natural disaster, like Japan's tsunami, which may likewise require suspending or curtailing the ordinary rules and ordinary government service to unaffected citizens while the emergency is addressed.

One exception to this would be if accepting refugees brought a significant risk of catastrophic state failure. For example, causing a civil war that would newly endanger one's own citizens as well as the refugees. This kind of existential risk arguably applies to Lebanon (and to a lesser degree, Jordan), where 25% of the population are now Syrian refugees. The scale of this movement of people combines with the underlying fragility of the Lebanese state as a stalemate between civil war factions who are also involved in the Syrian civil war. Not only do Lebanon and Jordan lack the resources to provide adequately for the refugees who have arrived there – there is no way their economies could absorb them – there is a real risk that they might implode and generate even more refugees.

But refugee flows do not pose such an existential risk to any European state. The EU has 500 million people and a GDP of $19 trillion. It is pretty obvious that we could economically politically afford to welcome all 5 million or so Syrian refugees who have fled the country so far (and the rest of the world's refugees too, for that matter) without giving up anything of comparable moral significance. (No, Viktor Orban, Muslims do not count as an existential threat to Hungary.) In addition, the real existential threat to Lebanon and Jordan provides even greater reason for European states to step up and send ferries and 747s to bring the refugees to a place where they can get on with rebuilding their lives.

2. What is the shape of my supply curve for migrant infrastructure and how does it relate to those of other states?

Ordinary cost-benefit analysis is suspended in the case of refugees: refugees do not have to justify their expense in the same way as a new road. But providing space for refugees to build a new life for themselves requires not just moral commitment and general purpose economic resources, but time. Housing and public services like schools and hospitals are finely attuned to the size of the current population. Increasing their capacity takes time, as is demonstrated by how long it takes even very wealthy well-governed countries to rebuild such infrastructure for their own citizens after a large-scale disaster such as hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown.

This provides a justification for states that recognise the moral priority of refugees to seek to coordinate their obligation with other states in proportion to their immediate absorptive capacity, as was done for the 200,000 Hungarian refugees of the 1956 failed revolution (which Orban has managed to forget) and, more grudgingly, for the 2.5 million refugees of Indochina's civil wars. Germany's recent opening and then abrupt closure of its borders to refugees can be seen in this light. Refugees need more than a tent in a muddy field. Other states, in and out of Europe, have a responsibility to step up. They also have a general obligation to incorporate a capacity to quickly accommodate largish numbers of refugees into their future urban planning.


The moral case for admitting refugees concerns an obligation to assist those in severe need by any state in a position to do so effectively, to the extent of sending commercial airliners to collect them from their holding camps on the borders of conflict zones. In contrast, the moral case for migration is negative, it concerns the obligation of states not to do harm.

Although people migrate for various reasons (as rich world citizens like myself do all the time) – to pursue studies, to follow love, to explore another culture, to further one's career – I will focus on the pure economic case: seeking higher wages than are available in one's home country.

An individual's earnings depend not only on their talents and effort but on circumstances outside their control that determine which talents they are able to develop (to learn computer programming for instance) and the market value of their talents (what jobs are available and how well they pay). Those born into citizenship of a poor country will be subject to lower educational and labour market opportunities than those born into rich countries. Some people say this is unfair. It's much more than that.

First, it is inefficient. On the reasonable assumption that raw talent is equally distributed around the world, a great many brilliant entrepreneurs, movie stars, concert pianists, philosophers, and Olympic athletes who would enrich our world are missing, along with practitioners of many thousands of less flashy professions. If the talents of the poor could be connected with the kind of opportunities for human development that rich world countries provide for their citizens the whole world would be tremendously richer. Rich enough to to easily pay for the costs of providing those opportunities.

Second, it is an arbitrary constraint on liberty. Poor economies offer fewer highly skilled jobs and lower wages for the same jobs as in the rich world. Consider the sweatshop worker in Cambodia. Why does she earn a mere couple of dollars a day to sew shirts when someone doing the same job in France would earn a hundred dollars? The long answer is about economics. Labour productivity is higher in France than Cambodia, meaning that people have more capital to work with. That means that the wages for sewing shirts in France must compete with the wages for other jobs requiring similar skills, or people will go do them instead.

But the short answer is about politics. The Cambodian woman earns $2 per day because the French government will not allow her to move to France. Free trade has traditionally meant the free movement of goods between countries. The neoliberal version of globalisation extended this to the free movement of capital, so that rich world companies could build factories in poor countries. But the free movement of people never happened. Cambodians have less rights than the shirts they sew to a global market price for their labour. They are prohibited from bringing their talents into competition with ours, and this protectionism is the cause of much of their poverty.

Consider, by way of a parallel, the injustice imposed by segregated labour markets, such as the colour line in American baseball or the exclusion of women from more than a handful of jobs. Such measures were exercises of political power by a dominant group to protect the perceived interests of one set of workers by limiting others' access to the better paying labour market. When the pundits and politicians complain that allowing migrants to come in would lead to fewer or worse paying jobs, one should remember that they also said that about allowing women to do 'men's work', and they were as wrong about that as they are now.

Governments have a clear duty not to obstruct the citizens of poor countries from gaining a fair market price for their skills and labour, equal pay for equal work. So says moral theory. The socialists, a nicer more motherly version of the nationalists we met above but no less opposed to universal moral principles, are aghast at this because they do not see how a right to migrate can be reconciled with the welfare state they built up with such struggle and have spent the last 35 years trying to cling on to. But this does not seem an insuperable problem. One can treat economic migrants like guest workers without denying them their right to work, for example by restricting access to social insurance systems for several years until they have paid a certain amount into the system (as David Cameron is proposing that Britain do for EU migrants). One can also reduce the limits gradually so that any disruptions are moderated and there is time to ramp up the urban infrastructure like schools and housing that migrants own taxes will pay for.


Migration should be recognised as a special kind of human right. It permits individuals who lack central human rights, whether those be socio-economic or outright persecution and fear for their lives, to act for themselves to escape the states which impose or allow such problems. As a citizen of a rich country I have been able with minimal bureaucratic hassle to live in 5 different countries on 3 continents. It is unconscionable that the governments of rich countries, including my own, refuse to extend that basic right to the very people for whom it is most vital.