Discrimination in plain sight: The moral case against borders

Consider the following thought experiment: It is a pleasant day in September. It is not too hot, not too cold, and not too windy, and the sky is clear. You grab a blanket and head to one of Dar es Salaam’s public beaches, intent to make yourself comfortable by the seaside and enjoy the sunset. Once at the beach, however, your plans are rudely thwarted. You are informed by a law enforcement officer that the government has put a new policy in place. You are told that you may not access the beach – because you are black. Black people and only black people are no longer allowed on the beach. If necessary, that policy will be enforced by the use of physical force.

Surely, this new policy is an outrageous injustice! It reminds us of some of the darkest periods in history, such as apartheid South Africa and the pre-civil rights United States. Treating human beings differently simply based on the color of their skin is contrary to justice and on that account profoundly immoral. Thankfully, there is today almost universal agreement about that. Having skin of a certain color rather than another, a fact about yourself which you cannot control, is not a valid reason to deny you the benefit of enjoying the sunset by the beach, or any other benefit for that matter.

Why am I making this obvious point? Because an analogous kind of discrimination is taking place in plain sight, yet is rarely recognized as such. Just like we have no control over the color of our skin, we have no control over where we are born or who our parents are. That fact about us too is entirely a matter of chance, and yet it often plays a decisive role in determining where we can and cannot go. If you happen to be a Tanzanian citizen and you want to move to France, maybe to make a better life for yourself, or maybe just because you are fond of the climate there, you have no easy options. You can do what a good number of Africans did in recent years and risk your life embarking on the perilous journey to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, just to live in fear of being deported if you reach your destination unharmed. Or you can try to make it through the extremely challenging process of obtaining a residence and work permit, for which there is no guarantee of success. For a vast number of Tanzanians, however, even obtaining a visitor visa will prove practically impossible. If you happen to be a German or a Greek citizen, things are very different. You can simply buy a train ticket to any place in France, rent an apartment there, and start looking for a job. No permission to enter, reside, or work is needed. What, if anything, justifies this stark difference in treatment?

Perhaps borders can be justified as a means of excluding at least some potential entrants, such as terrorists or human traffickers. But almost all people who are currently prevented from going to other countries by immigration and visa policies are ordinary, innocent, and peaceful people who are simply looking for a better life. They are denied entry not because they are dangerous, but merely because of where they happened to be born. In absence of a compelling reason for such discrimination, it is plainly immoral. Not only does it violate the right to equality, it also does great harm to millions of people, by denying them the opportunity to dramatically improve their quality of life. A full-time worker in France, earning a minimum wage, makes about €1,500 per month. That is close to four million Tanzanian shilling, and about ten to fifty times what a worker in Tanzania makes per month. Open borders, in contrast, promise significant benefit. Economists believe that open borders would roughly double the world’s GDP. In an article last year, The Economist estimated that, if borders were open, the world would be $78 trillion richer. “Workers become far more productive when they move from a poor country to a rich one. Suddenly, they can join a labor market with ample capital, efficient firms and a predictable legal system. Those who used to scrape a living from the soil with a wooden hoe start driving tractors. Those who once made mud bricks by hand start working with cranes and mechanical diggers. Those who cut hair find richer clients who tip better.” Current restrictions on labor mobility are hence a major barrier to global economic growth, and doing away with them could be the most effective anti-poverty program ever conceived.

The arbitrary lines that litter the earth’s surface, secured by barbed-wire, walls, cameras, drones, and armed guards, are a visible indicator of one of humanity’s greatest moral embarrassments. Instead of allowing people to move freely about the earth, which belongs equally to all who live on it, we confine each other in cages created by immigration and visa policies that are harmful, degrading, coercive, and discriminatory. And, as long as politicians like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán win elections by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, I am afraid the dream of a borderless world will remain just that, a dream. My hope lies with the young global citizens eager for change.


Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
“Discrimination in plain sight: The moral case against borders,” The Citizen (Tanzania, 8 September 2018)
“Discrimination in plain sight: The moral case against borders,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 12 September 2018)