Recently, in our podcast we had the opportunity to have a talk with Alex Sager, the professor of philosophy at the Portland State University. In his research, Sager has focused especially on the philosophy of migration and has published two monographs on the topic: Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World (2017) and Against Borders: Why the World Needs Free Movement of People (2022). The key topic of our podcast episode was the free movement of people. The following text summarizes the focal content of that discussion. Additionally, the reflection on free migration will be extended from the perspective of our association.
First, it is pivotal to note here that Sager focused primarily to the concept of boarders as political constructions. The central questions here are whether people have the freedom of movement across geopolitical boarders and can also enter within the distribution of various resources and benefits that the indigenous population receives. However, it should be noted that within the scope of philosophy the concept of boarders is not limited to those of geopolitical constructions. Additionally, we can observe various boarders as well as boundaries of culture, time, and space. Since these are often social constructions, they exist to serve a particular purpose: they separate individuals and groups of people as well as constitute an instrument of organizing the world around us. In the context of social boundaries, we find ourselves in the realms of taboos and legislation: for example, the majority of societies and their legislation prohibit (i.e. set the boundaries) marriage and sexual intercourse between a parent and a child or between siblings.
These aforementioned social boundaries are arguably necessary, but generally boundaries and borders are to be regarded as negative phenomena – especially when they exclude individuals and groups from possibilities and capabilities to lead a dignified human life. This often extends from the social sphere to a political one. Let us a take the European Union as an example: within the Schengen Area 26 European countries have officially abolished all passport and all other types of border control at their mutual borders while refugees entering the European Union “illegally” via the Mediterranean might end up living in refugee camps for decades. It is evident that the refugee policy of the European Union is defective: the current system functions as a platform of intimidation, fear, and inhuman treatment, not to mention the human casualties caused by dubious practices of people smuggling. A great number of people enter the European Union as refugees seeking asylum – a basic human right that unfortunately is not currently fulfilled sufficiently. As geopolitical boarders are both social and political constructions, policymakers are maintaining a system of inequality that also violates the basic human rights.
There are a number of well-founded reasons for supporting the free movement of people. When the current geopolitical boarders are recognized as socio-political constructions, it is evident that they can be abused as instruments of creating juxtaposition and further, a means to stigmatize different human groups. As a result, tensions between the indigenous population and immigrants are being generated. Here the concept of categorical inequality is of special importance. Similar to boarders, a categorical inequality is a social construct that divides people into categories based on a combination of achieved and ascribed traits. Thus, immigrants and refugees have lesser possibilities and capabilities compared those of the indigenous population creating further inequality.
A central argument in the defence of the free movement of people is the concept of freedom. It is clear that the current geopolitical boarders constitute a significant limitation of human freedom. Limitations of this sort should always have thorough justifications. While examining the circumstance and living conditions in economically less developed countries, it is clear that an individual born in one of these countries does not have the same possibilities and capabilities of exercising personal freedom as those born in economically more developed countries. From an ethical perspective, this phenomenon is arguably unsound since from the standpoint of global justice everyone should have a genuine freedom and possibility to have influence on one’s course of life. As the free movement of people introduces new possibilities of pursuing a more dignified life, it consequently constitutes a means to tackle the issue of global inequality. It is self-evident that this issue is multifaceted and requires other decisive actions.
Apart from the problem of political rigidity to implement open boarders, the negative prejudices and bigotry against immigrants and refugees pose a major obstacle to the smooth actualization of the free movement of people. Yet, it is noteworthy that there are studies within the social sciences indicating xenophobic concerns and fears often as irrational and not based on first-hand experiences. Many studies suggest that immigration does not increase crime levels (some studies even suggest that they decrease them) nor security threats – even though these are frequent arguments within right wing populism. Similarly, studies show that immigration does not significantly reduce work positions, decrease the amount of wages nor harm trade unions. This might happen to a small degree, but issues of this sort should be solved via the progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth. As immigration and exile are products of the complexity of the present-day world, there are naturally many problems and issues related to them. Yet, these challenges are solvable. Studies and history demonstrate that when people from different backgrounds are brought together in an open and constructive environment this acts as fertile ground for solidarity and creates an atmosphere in which people can overcome their xenophobic fears and prejudices.
Another significant social challenge in the pursuit of free movement is nationalism. Often the elite of different nation states has been – and still is – involved in the creating and maintaining national identity that, in turn, is based on nationalism that benefits this elite. This is also a powerful instrument of juxtaposition and antagonism that divides people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is needless to say that national identity is an extremely complex topic in itself. Apart from separatory elements, there are universal dimensions to the question of identity. There are even claims that view the differences within particular societies to be remarkably more significant from an individual perspective than those between these societies. While discussing the question of nationalism and national identity, it is vital to also accentuate the far-lasting historical effects of colonialism and imperialism that are discernable even now. The aftermath of the actions of European nations in Africa, the juxtaposition of people and nation and the deeply rooted inequality in present-day societies can all be perceived as the heritage of colonialism. It is evident that the rich countries have a moral responsibility to help the economical less developed countries to whose development the rich countries have affected negatively.
Ecological crises constitute another central theme related to the issue of free movement. The degeneration and destruction of the environment alongside with the living conditions and livelihoods related to it will lead to more widescale migration. Naturally, free movement would allow larger migration, but it should be noted that it is only one solution for people to adapt to ecological crises. In a world presided over by injustice and inequality free movement of people functions also as an incentive for possible conflicts. Yet, Sager noted that according to his view there cannot be a just world without the free movement of people. When through the force of circumstance people end up migrating, it should be meditated upon what sort of systems and structures are in effect so as to guarantee the smooth running of migration. The ecological crises call for completely new politics and cooperation – work done for mutual objective. Sager pointed out that unexpected cooperation might occur during a time of crisis, but usually the presence of leaders of right sort in the right place at the right time has been crucial. The idea of open boarders might seem like impossibility to many, but it must not necessarily be so: implemented sensibly it could prove to be a rational political innovation in many parts of the world. Furthermore, it might not even result in such massive waves of migration that many are afraid of.
Solidarity is the key factor in the cooperation that is required in the implementation of the free movement of people. Fortunately, there are already signs of this in the present-day world. For instance, in the United States of America there are a lot of people who are active in the integration of immigrants. It is plausible that majority of people have a positive attitude towards immigrants but unfortunately it is the vociferous anti-immigrant minority that has captured the public space. Thus, the time is ripe to alter the views and attitudes concerning immigration, to concentrate on the positive sides of migration, to change our conceptions about communities, and to build institutions that support migration. Open boarders could be a real social reform of the future if policymakers get on board with this project and perceive the issue as both challenge and possibility instead of a problem. The common narrative of migration should be transformed.
Global Visions aims at participating in making the world a better place where globally just and equal innovations such as the free movement of people could be implemented. It is evident that the political leaders have a decisive role in all of this. Respectively, democratic systems need educated citizens who are well-informed of the possibilities related to the issue of migration and therefore use their universal suffrage to elect politicians of high moral standing – policymakers prepared to act on expert knowledge instead of yielding to the courting of the public. Further, the reliance on research should be supported to a larger extent – especially in cases of important decisions. Thus, the narrative behind migration could also be transformed more effectively. In the current zeitgeist, populism and disinformation constitute a major threat to the development of justice and equality. It requires certain strength and determination to make decisions that might seem hard at first but which arguably have clear, positive effects in the long run. The free movement of people would be one of such decisions.
From the perspective of Global Visions, the free movement of people could function as a stepping-stone for other possible, utopian innovation of the future such as world citizenship and even democratic world state. The implementation of a global basic income would also be more plausible in a world where people are treated equally in principle and the boundaries between nation stations would blur. Even without such future innovations the free movement of people alone would surely lead to a more equal world where the position and activities of nation states could take a more constructive and less discriminative direction. In such a world the international relations would be less polarized, and peace could have more room to spread. This development should also lead to a more just and equal world. All these are reasons to support the free movement of people.
- Basten, C. & Siegenthaler, M. (2019) Do Immigrants Take or Create Residents’ Jobs? Evidence from Free Movement of Workers in Switzerland. The Scandinavian journal of economics. [Online] 121 (3), 994–1019.
- Chouhy, C. & Madero-Hernandez, A. (2019) ‘Murderers, Rapists, and Bad Hombres’: Deconstructing the Immigration-Crime Myths. Victims & offenders. [Online] 14 (8), 1010–1039.
- Dustmann, C. et al. (2013) The effect of immigration along the distribution of wages. The Review of economic studies. [Online] 80 (1), 145–173.
- Finseraas, H. et al. (2020) Labour immigration and union strength. European Union politics. [Online] 21 (1), 3–23.
- Tallberg, M. & Lahtinen, P. (2022): 07 Free Movement of People and Open Borders, with Alex Sager pt. 1 [Podcast] November 14th, 2022.
- Tallberg, M. & Lahtinen, P. (2022): 08 Free Movement of People and Open Borders, with Alex Sager pt. 2 [Podcast] November 23rd, 2022.