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Walls, fences, and a borderless world: Recent arguments

With millions of people across the world fleeing violence, oppression, economic desparation or because of environmental reasons, migration remains a key issue on the political agenda. Two years ago we reported on our blog that a powerful case was made that the global benefits of open borders and free movement of people may strongly outweigh the disadvantages. This piece looks at some of the arguments since then.

In an article penned for the Los Angeles Daily News, Doug McIntyre argued recently that nation-states as we know them eventually may become a thing of the past. The columnist said that due to increased access to the internet, and subsequent exposure to ‘others’, people are beginning to identify themselves as global citizens. “For the first time in human history our sense of community is not limited by geography,” he writes. In fact, surveys confirm that the notion of global citizenship is widespread.

The world is far away from ‘borderlessness’

However, the world is far away from achieving a state of ‘borderlessness’. According to Tim Marshall, author of the 2018 book Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls, Donald Trump’s controversial plans for building a wall on the border to Mexico is actually in the global norm. The author reveals that 65 countries now have a wall or fence. Half of these fortifications were built in this century. Marshall argues that their purpose is to ease concerns by giving the impression that ‘something is being done’ to keep migrants out. After all, the current influx of nationalist leaders often is a result of growing concerns about uncontrolled mass migration.

The idea of a world without borders remains unfathomable for those in the Global South. The free movement of people across borders has only been awarded to the affluent and those with European and North American passports.

In a piece titled The Idea of a Borderless World, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist,  argues that the “capacity to decide who can move, who can settle, where and under what conditions is increasingly becoming the core of political struggles.”

According to Mbembe classical liberal thought embraces the freedom of movement for capital, goods, and services. He argues that a ‘fourth freedom of movement’ must be added: that of people. In the European Single Market this freedom is referred to as free movement of labour.

Thus, Africans and all world citizens must be awarded the same freedom of movement that others already have. Mbembe acknowledges that in order to initiate this transition, African countries themselves must start with opening their borders to each other and remove the tight constrictions that were mapped out by colonizers. The African Continental Free Trade Area which is set to launch on 30th May 2019 may be perceived as a step towards this. The new free trade area is envisioned to become one of the largest single markets in the world and will provide companies with easy access across the continent. Two months ago Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta called upon African governments to allow free movement of people as well. The African Union is already working on a single African passport for all African citizens.

From a moral point of view, freedom of movement should be granted irrespective of social or economic status. Nonetheless, denial of the ‘fourth freedom’ remains rooted not only in xenophobic views but also in economic bias. This is best illustrated by the fact that 108,000 millionaires were able to migrate freely in 2018 as a recent study showed. Further reports predict that at least 26% of the world’s millionaires will make similar moves in 2019. In many cases, millionaires from countries such as China, Russia and Turkey flock to states such as Australia, Canada and the USA. Often millionaires effectively purchase citizenship or residency status, a privilege not awarded to the poor. They cannot even travel freely.

Amy Oloo
Amy completed a master's degree in international affairs at American University of Paris and is an associate at Democracy Without Borders
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