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Migration is capitalism’s unfinished business – it cannot and should not be stopped

Written by Claire Melamed


​A tin of beans has more freedom to travel the world than a person does. Over the last 200 years there has been a dramatic reduction in the rules that restrict things travelling across borders. The average tariff on goods moving between countries is now about two per cent.

While things are increasingly free to move around the world, the opposite is true for people. Almost all developed countries restrict immigration to some extent.  And while three quarters of UN member states have signed up to the rules that prevent people trafficking and smuggling, less than a quarter have endorsed global rules to protect migrants’ rights. The priority is to keep people out, not to welcome them in. 

What a change from a hundred years ago. Then, more than one million people emigrated quite legally from Europe to America every year in the decade after 1900. These were people exercising their freedoms to realise their ambitions of a better life for themselves and their families. A liberal capitalists’ dream, you might think. But it seems not. Throughout the twentieth century, barriers have gone up, and people’s choices have been restricted around the world. 

Trade barriers and restrictions never stopped people trading – they just led to smuggling, to crime and even to death. And rules on migration do not stop people moving. Barriers go up, but migration keeps on rising – the number of international migrants has risen by nearly 50% since 1990. Just as with trade, the combination leads inexorably to people-smuggling, to crime, and to the daily massacres in the Mediterranean that have claimed nearly 2,000 lives this year. 

The trend is unstoppable, the evidence is clear, and it all adds up to the strongest of cases for reducing restrictions on people’s freedom to migrate. But political pressure for the liberalisation of movement is almost absent. Instead, political leaders are encouraged to respond to migrant deaths with more restrictions – rather than taking the humane, realistic and economically sound approach of looking at how the rules can be liberalised. Who will speak up for people?

It won’t be political parties, at least not in the UK – the recent election here saw a near-universal consensus that immigration is something to be stopped. It won’t be NGOs – the traditional voices for the voiceless in other places. While there have been some campaigns about the humanitarian response to migrant death, development organisations have been almost totally silent on how to actually make migration fairer. Almost no one, it seems, will speak up for the millions who move.

There is something shameful in our acceptance of freedoms for things, when we are not prepared to grant that freedom to our fellow human beings. It’s better, it seems, to be an inanimate object than a living breathing person if you want to travel around the world.

Among the first lobbyists for trade liberalisation were the Corn Law reformers Cobden and Bright. It is almost unbelievable now that a legitimate political stance two hundred years ago was that trade should be restricted even while people starved through lack of food. It took brave people to challenge that view, people whom history has proved entirely correct. In two hundred years’ time we may also look back with the same incredulity at the idea that free movement of people is anything other than a global good, for those who move and those who stay.

Migration will not and cannot and should not be stopped. It’s good for countries, and it’s good for the millions of people who vote with their feet however many restrictions are put in their way.  Who will be brave enough to lead the last liberalisation of capitalism and give to people the same freedoms as cars, as clothes, and as computers?

Update: this blog was amended on 23 May in response to comments about some remarks about trade unions. While there have been incidents of strikes protesting the use of foreign workers, in fact the union movement as a whole has been supportive of migrant rights. I apologise for this and am happy to report that the political outlook is perhaps not quite as bleak as I suggested in the first version of this article.