freedom-of-movement-7This is an extended version of the talk I gave at a debate on freedom of movement at the Battle of Ideas conference in London on Saturday.

The default position, in discussions such as this, is that immigration controls are the norm and that those advocating free movement have to justify what is seen as an outlandish position. I want to turn this claim on its head. In any public space, humans have, or should have, the right to move as they wish, just as they have, or should have, the right to speak as they wish. In both cases, any attempt to prevent individuals from acting freely must be justified by good reason.

Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering America. Many Britons want to ban Donald Trump from entering Britain. In neither case is it sufficient to say that such a ban is reasonable simply because Muslims or Trump have crossed a national border. The existence of a national border does not in and of itself provide a reason to restrict movement. It is for those who advocate restrictions on movement to make the case as to why the existence of a national border requires the state to infringe an individual’s freedom of movement. That is the case whether we are talking  of individuals (Trump), groups (Muslims) or of movement in general.

Providing a proper justification is particularly important because restrictions on freedom of movement are more than simply policy options. They are coercive acts of the state. Not simply the inconvenience of a border guard checking your passport. But the coercion of military patrols shooting migrants; of detention camps that imprison thousands in the most brutal conditions; of deals such as the EU’s with Turkey and Sudan, or Australia’s with Papua New Guinea and Nauru, under which these countries are paid to lock up all those deemed heading for Europe or Australia. These are not merely the unacceptable face of immigration controls. They are the reality of border controls today. And it’s those advocating such coercion, not those opposing it, who have to make a moral and political case for it. You can’t simply say ‘I want controls, but only the nice bits’.

So, what are the arguments against freedom of movement? They fall into three broad categories: that it undermines sovereignty, defies democracy, and has disastrous practical consequences. Let’s look at each briefly.

Sovereignty demands that a nation be able to make its border policy. It doesn’t define what that policy should be. There is no reason why a sovereign state cannot adopt freedom of movement as its border policy.

Consider the case of Spain. When Spain joined the EU in 1986, it had an open border with Morocco and hence with North Africa.  A condition for EU accession was, however, the closure of that border; from 1991 all Moroccans and other African nationals, entering Spain through its Moroccan border required visas. In this case, a sovereign Spain had established an open border; controls were imposed by EU rules.

Freedom of movement, in other words, is not in itself an infringement of sovereignty. What the critics are confusing is the right to control borders with the duty to enforce controls. A nation should have the right to define its policies, including border polices. But a nation does not have its sovereignty infringed if it chooses to open its borders; sovereignty is infringed only if the nation is coerced into opening its borders.

Those who defend controls by pointing to sovereignty are actually avoiding the issue. The debate is not whether a sovereign nation should be able to determine its border policy. It is rather whether one should use that sovereignty to impose controls. Taking back control, to use a current phrase, is not the same as restricting movement.


The second argument against freedom of movement is that open borders are undemocratic, because there is no mandate for such a policy. It is true that liberal immigration policies can be enforced only through winning public support, not in spite of public opposition. This, however, is not an argument against freedom of movement. It is an argument for winning a democratic mandate for such a policy. That would be true for whatever policy one is debating.

I believe in free abortion on demand. There is no public support in Britain for that policy. It would be undemocratic to impose that policy against the wishes of the majority. But there is nothing undemocratic about arguing for free abortion on demand despite being a minority voice. Nor does the attitude of the majority have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of the policy. Free abortion on demand is not wrong because most people do not support it. The rightness and wrongness of abortion policy rests upon the moral and political reasons one adduces, not the degree of public support for it. That is equally true of freedom of movement.

Insofar as there is public opposition to freedom on movement, it would be undemocratic to impose such a policy. There is, however, no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past 30 years. On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other hand, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a problem that must be dealt with. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as irrevocably racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration. But none of this makes a policy of freedom of movement wrong in principle nor does it suggest that the public will always be opposed to such a policy.

The third set of arguments against freedom of movement relates to the practical consequences of such movement: that open borders would allow the whole world to walk in; and, in particular, that it would allow criminals and terrorists to walk in.

Remember that until relatively recently, open borders were the norm. Britain had an open door to the Commonwealth until 1962, America to Mexico for much of the 20th century, Spain to North Africa until 1991. In none of these cases did millions come. The borders were eventually closed not because of migration pressure but because of political pressures driven by fears about migration. Fear, not reality, was the fundamental problem.

Ironically, it is the closure of borders that often creates the very problems that the closure was supposed to solve. Take the closure of Spain’s border with North Africa. Prior to the closure of the border, Africans came for seasonal work and then returned home again. The open border worked well. The closure of the border did not, however, stop North Africans coming to Spain. Now they took to boats to smuggle themselves in. That was the real beginning of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In May 1991 the first bodies were washed up on Spanish beaches. Those that smuggled themselves into Spain did not return to North Africa –  had  they done so, it would have been much more difficult to return – but stayed, and often brought their family. The ‘problem’ that many thought had to be solved by closing the border, was in fact created by border closure. Much the same is true of, for instance, the closure of the US-Mexican border.

Nor is it the case that freedom of movement means that nations cannot check, or stop, terrorists or criminals from entering. All it means is that there are no arbitrary controls based on such categories as nationality, wealth or class, any more than there should be on such categories as religion, race or sexuality.


Many critics of immigration argue that mass migration creates unemployment, depresses wages and diminishes resources. Most of the evidence suggests otherwise. The grievances that many people feel are real. Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of voicelessness and marginalisation. Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes. The trouble is, so long as we continue to scapegoat migrants for such problems, we will continue to ignore the underlying reasons for wage restraint, the rise of zero hour contracts, the shortage of housing, or many people’s sense of being politically abandoned and marginalized, and consequently never begin properly to address these problems.

Critics claim, too, that immigration transforms local culture and creates a more fragmented, broken society. Immigration has clearly brought major changes, in the physical character of European cities, in the rhythm of social life and in the sense of what it is to be British or German or Swedish. But immigration is not alone in driving social changes, nor is it even the most important driver of social change. Had not a single immigrant come to Britain, Britons today would still be living in a vastly different nation from that of half a century ago. Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the acceptance of free market economic policies, the destruction of trade unions, greater individual freedom, the atomisation of society, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse.

Critics of mass migration argue also that certain types of migrants are more difficult to integrate because their values are so different. In the past Irish and Jewish immigrants to Britain, Italians and North Africans to France, Catholics and Chinese to America, were met with the claim that there were too many, that they were too culturally distinct, and too corrosive of native values. These days the finger pointing is usually aimed at Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, or Muslims more generally.

It is true that immigrants carry with them cultural baggage, have attachments to particular traditions and institutions, and adhere to particular moral codes. But migrant communities are neither homogenous nor are such attachments fixed. In America, for instance, Muslims have far more liberal attitudes to those of Muslims in Britain, or indeed in most of the rest of the world; they tend to be more liberal, too, than evangelical Christians even on issues such as homosexuality. This is not merely an issue of America vs Europe. French Muslims are closer to the attitudes of American Muslims than to those of British Muslims, as were British Muslims themselves a generation ago.

All cultures, traditions and institutions change and evolve. British cultures, attitudes and values are significantly different today than they were half a century ago. How those of immigrant communities transform depends less on where they have come from than on where they are. Hence the importance of public policy and of civil society in shaping the relationship of migrants to wider society. In simply scapegoating migrants as the problem, we ignore the wider changes – the institutionalization of multicultural policies, the mainstreaming of identity politics, the decline of civil society organizations – that have created a more disaffected, tribal society, and not just with respect to migrants. It is the wider changes that have made societies more fractured and fragmented.


We can turn the question of consequences on its head. The mass movement of people is a fact, and always has been. Proportionately, the numbers of people migrating today is no different to that 50 years ago. The numbers of refugees are actually lower today than they were in 1992. Nor, despite the hysteria, are most migrants heading for Europe. More than 75 per cent of African migrants, for example, are migrating to other African countries. Perhaps the most grotesque aspect of European or Australian policy is the insistence that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue primarily for poor countries. Against this background, suppose that every nation took the attitude taken by rich states such as Britain or Australia or the EU. What then would be the consequences? Mass detentions and mass deportations on a global scale. And effectively walling up people from poor countries into their own lands. It is already happening. Kenya is deporting tens of thousands of Somalis from camps and building a 700 km long wall, citing EU policy as justification. Similarly Pakistan with Afghan refugees.

What drives hostility to freedom of movement is fear – fear that migrants will flood our countries, take jobs, live off benefits, undermine culture, degrade values. It is a fear that is creating a world not of greater sovereignty or democracy but of walls and walled-in people, every nation its own Fortress Europe. Is that really what we want?

I am not making the argument that all borders should be opened tomorrow. Liberal immigration policies, as I have already suggested, can be established only with public support, not in spite of public hostility. We live today in a world in which walls and restrictions are on the rise. Controls, again as I have already observed, create the very problems that they are supposed to solve. Against this background, opening all borders tomorrow would be neither feasible or desirable. The question of whether or not one has open borders depends on circumstances and context. What I am insisting, however, is that none of the arguments against freedom of movement have much depth. The most powerful claim is that there is no democratic mandate for such a policy; but that is an argument not about the rightness of freedom of movement but about the implementation of such a policy.  I am arguing, too,  that current attempts to keep out migrants for arbitrary reasons are both unworkable and immoral, resting as they do increasingly on harsh coercive measures; and that scapegoating migrants for social and economic problems make it more difficult to tackle the real causes of those problems. The only coherent approach is to build the case for the liberalization of immigration policy, moving towards an ideal of freedom of movement.


  1. “French Muslims are closer to the attitudes of American Muslims than to those of British Muslims, as were British Muslims themselves a generation ago.” In Glasgow, where I live, the generational difference is obvious; the hijab has gone from being rare to being commonplace, while the Central Mosque has fallen under the control of evolution-denying traditionalists.

    What has caused this change?

  2. Ecologically a defined territory (bioregion) has a limited capacity for human development. Obviously as more and more people occupy a defined territory then green infrastructure must be replaced with grey infrastructure. This exerts an increased demand for basic need imports from either other regions or other countries. Therefore whilst one defined territory is turning grey, another must turn green to compensate in order to provide for food, wood, textiles.

    Consequently a balance must be struck and incorporated into this balance is both rights and responsibilities. For example, as Britain increases its population though immigration and its green infrastructure decreases, Lithuania has seen a loss of 375,000 people which is going to cause hardship for future generations in the form of brain drain.

    This highlights that freedom of movement carries with it rights and responsibilities which requires policy coordination between different countries. The question that arises, who effects this policy coordination if not the individuals who exercise their right to freedom of movement.

    This points to an international order that is seemlessly integrated, not one that is chaotically determined by markets and self-interest. As such in order to enable freedom of movement on a global scale then resource flows must be managed in order to meet transnational demand. This implies a form of global socialism or a form of global mutualism as opposed to global capitalism.

    In conclusion, freedom of movement requires a systemic transformation on a global scale in order that the responsibility of fulfilling the basic needs of all that choose to move can be coordinated as policy between different countries. This may or may not result in highly populated regions of the world deviod of green infrastructure but it most certainly will result in a global system in which labour and economic activity must be managed. Thus freedom to move will result in less freedoms economically since policy coordination to provide basic needs will need to be determined more technocratically as opposed to via free markets. Otherwise scarce resources through market manipulations will make high density populated areas prone to conflict and crisis. And who will get the blame, migrants!

    • Christopher


      In order to combat depopulation, the latest Polish government has instituted a policy to pay parents 500 PLN per month for each child from the second onwards. In the UK this would be like getting £500.

      The argument in favour of freedom of movement seems always to cover the economic benefits to the destination countries, as if the source countries don’t matter and economic indicators are the only things that matter.

  3. People’s fears about freedom of movement are reasonable – it’s a competitive (and chaotic) world.

    If those fears are not addressed – and to real effect, not with liberal platitudes, signifying nothing – then, inevitably, the walls will go up.

  4. The turmoil and crisis about immigration into Britain, have arisen from the 1997 decision by Tony Blair and Jack Straw to liberalise immigration rules, by abolishing the more cautious rules that Michael Howard had put in place.

    Blair and Straw did this in true New Labour fashion – surreptitiously, without public debate (indeed, carefully avoiding it).

    Brexit is the consequence.

  5. damon

    Try commuting across London by car. It’s pretty horrible most days.
    I have to go east/west on the A232 for several miles.
    That’s in South London and there aren’t any quick alternatives on public transport.
    There’s just too many people on the road, and why would anyone want more?

  6. If there are countries and borders, it’s up to the single countries citizens to decide who can enter and who can’t; there will be freedom of movement only when there will be no more countries and borders, there will be freedom of movement only if all borders will be opened tomorrow. Tertiumnon datur.

  7. Christopher

    If all countries were equal (wealth, quality of life, attractiveness of labour market) then you might be right.

    But all countries are different. There’s nothing wrong with countries being different – it makes them interesting to visit and live in. Some of these differences are economic.

    For example, the UK labour market and the relative value of the pound makes moving to the UK highly attractive for many eastern Europeans. Partly as a result, the population density in English towns and cities has increased noticeably and Poland, for instance, is suffering economically and socially from depopulation.

    Surely it is for the people of each country to choose how they want that country to be. If the British people do not want Britain’s density of population to increase or its culture to change then they should be able to control immigration.

    I am British. Should I not be allowed to influence demand for housing and the number of cars on the road?

  8. It would end up with people gathering in those places where they think life is best, i.e. Big cities in Europe and the USA, causing a strain on infrastrucure, welfare and environment als can allready be observed in places liek Mexico City and Sao Paulo, leading to chaos and violence.

  9. Fi

    I think free movement is way more problematic than you allow. It’s not something I am instinctively happy to pronounce as problematic.

    What you really want, I would respectfully suggest, is more helpfully defined as freedom of settlement.. As you want this to be a very strongly held freedom, I think we could go even further and call what you want a right of settlement. Individuals should have the right of settlement wherever they wish in the world. You say it is not realistic to do this now, but at some vague point in the future it will be the right thing to do. I will deal with it in a world as it is now.

    The test of a strongly held right like this is to see whether it impinges on any other strongly held rights when it is held in a universalist sense. Lets test this one. Lets tell relatively underdeveloped and relatively uncrowded and commodity rich Africa that as a continent it is now going to be joined in a right of settlement pact with the People’s Republic of China. What would Africans say to this? They would say that they reserved their right not to be subjected to another era of mass settlement by non-Africans because past experience had taught them that this was not beneficial to them. They would assert their right to autonomy as a people. You might argue that the autonomy is valid but that Africans must be argued out of an inherently immoral and selfish decision to put their own perceived rights ahead of the rights of the would be settlers. Would you in all seriousness argue with them on this point and seek to get them to embrace such an open border? I suspect you would not. I suspect that you would backtrack from a universalist perspective of human rights here to a non-universalist fallback position of selective settlement rights tied to power and proportionality in order to preserve the right of Africans to settle elsewhere while protecting autonomy at home.. I would too if pushed into this position. Only now that you have ditched the universalist aspect can you really talk of this in terms of an overarching and fundamental human right? You are protecting the right to freedom from poverty and exploitation here above the right to settle. You are admitting that this right has serious limitations when set against the rights of autonomies of peoples and freedom from poverty and exploitation.

    Once you have limited this right to this extent you are allowing coercive state powers the ability to work on behalf of the Africans. They are entitled to hold back unwanted settlers at their borders by force of arms. Those who do not respect Afrrican territorial integrity and African rules can expect to be repelled by force. Now that you have given this right to Atricans, who else is going to want it and what are you going to say to them about why you think they shouldn’t have it? What are you going to say to the Chinese poor who now see many middle class Africans in their midst enjoyng more freedom, more children back in Africa than theycan have? Are you going to tell them that you have balanced their rights to settlement and more space for population growth against the Africans rights to freedom from exploitation and poverty and that you feel that the Chinese poor are being selfish in envying an African middle class who now have a foot in both countries?

    The balancing here can become such a tangled conceptual mess of rights that cannot adapt to the fluidity of history and changing economics and demographics that it becomes less ‘free’ and more inherently authoritarian than what you started out with – the idea of fluid and evolving but autonomous peoples held together by myriads of societal contracts having an ongoing barter and dialogue with one another about who gets to settle where.

    • You seem to be confusing a number of issues here. One is immigration and invasion. I know that it has become common, in Europe especially, to talk of immigration as a form of invasion, but there is a fundamental difference between the movement of people from A to B and an attempt by A to impose its rule over B.

      You write

      They are entitled to hold back unwanted settlers at their borders by force of arms. Those who do not respect African territorial integrity and African rules can expect to be repelled by force.

      My view is that nations have the right democratically to define border policy. You are aware that this is my view since you specifically refer to it. Yet, you seem deliberately to confuse for rhetorical purposes the idea of free movement as a democratically decided policy and an invasion by people ‘who do not respect African territorial integrity and African rules’. (There is, incidentally, no such thing as ‘African territorial integrity’ or ‘African rules’. There are many nations in Africa, each possessed of sovereignty, and hence of their own territorial integrity and rules.)

      The conflation of immigrant and invader is more than simply disingenuous. There has been, in South Africa for instance, much xenophobic violence directed at immigrants. Are you seriously suggesting that people are ‘entitled’ to mete out such violence?

      You imagine that I

      would backtrack from a universalist perspective of human rights here to a non-universalist fallback position of selective settlement rights tied to power and proportionality in order to preserve the right of Africans to settle elsewhere while protecting autonomy at home.

      By ‘autonomy’ I assume you mean what I referred to as ‘national sovereignty’. In which case, again, you must be aware that I do not in any sense argue that ‘autonomy’ should apply only to Africans. The argument I made for sovereignty was with respect to European nations. Do I think that freedom of movement should apply only to Africans moving to Europe (or, more generally, to people from poor countries moving to rich countries)? No I don’t. Do I think that ‘Africans must be argued out of an inherently immoral and selfish decision to put their own perceived rights ahead of the rights of the would be settlers’? Leaving aside the loaded language (I did not talk of ‘immoral’ or ‘selfish’ decisions, or of people putting ‘their own perceived rights ahead of the rights of the would be settler’), yes, I would argue for freedom of movement in, say South Africa, just as I would argue for gay rights in Uganda, freedom of religion in Sudan or freedom of speech in Egypt.

      So, no, I don’t adopt ‘a non-universalist fallback position’. I have a universalist belief in democracy and a universalist belief in freedom of movement. If there is democratic opposition to freedom of movement, then, just as when there is democratic opposition to free abortion on demand, or to freedom of speech, I argue that one has to win support for one’s political stance. And that applies whether in Europe or in Africa.

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