As for the recent European elections, parties located often at the (extreme) right of the political spectrum have gained momentum thanks to their critique of the European project. While differences exist across these political formations, most of them agree on the need for Europe to tackle unwanted migration by closing its borders – being them located in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, or across member states. By depicting the presence of foreigners as a danger, they advocate for so-called “zero-tolerance” at the frontier. In Italy, the Lega lead by Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, has proudly – claimed to have – closed the Italian ports to people rescued at sea.(1) In France, Marie Le Pen of the Front National (FN) wants the “closure” of the French-Italian border to prevent secondary movements of those landed on the Italian seashores.(2) A worry which is shared with the leader of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) in the Netherlands – Geert Wilders – who wants southern European countries to close their outer borders to avoid Europeans from being ‘replaced with mass immigration’.(3)
Alongside these explicitly anti-migrant actors from the (far) right, also mainstream parties have embraced increasingly tough views on how to govern migration. Following the “open-borders” policy of chancellor Angela Merkel in the midst of the so-called “refugee crisis”, the current leader of the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) in Germany – Kramp-Karrenbauer – made clear that the party will ‘do everything […] to ensure that 2015 won’t ever be repeated’.(4) Similarly, representatives of major forces from the centre-left also aligned themselves to this wider anti-migrant political mood. In Italy the Partito Democratico (PD) promoted some of the most repressive – and controversial – policies to “close” the central Mediterranean border, by involving Libyan militias in detecting and detaining asylum seekers and migrants transiting in North Africa.(5) In a meeting in Rabat, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) pushed Morocco to implement stricter border control on undocumented migrants.(6) Such pressures came after less than two months when the Moroccan police had shot and killed a young Moroccan who was trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar unauthorized to enter Spain via the sea.(7)
There is in sum a wide political consensus on the need to increase control and deterrence – i.e. to close borders – in order to better and more effectively manage unwanted migration. As such, little if no space is left for alternative and more liberal options to manage international human mobility – i.e. open borders. Using the words of an important Walloon member of the Belgian Parti Socialiste (PS) – Paul Magnette – ‘there is not on the one hand the right which is attached to the nation-state and citizenship, and on the other a naïve, lax or “cosmopolitan” left which advocates for the opening of all frontiers’.(8) Somehow counterintuitively, however, empirical evidence suggests that restrictions at the border do little to increase the ability of authorities to control and limit the arrival of unwanted foreigners. On the contrary, as briefly discussed here, to open borders – that is, to allow people to cross frontiers orderly and legally – can instead solve most of the tensions and issues migration seem to generate today.
While many see closed borders as the only option to avoid being “flooded with millions of desperate Africans”,(9) no data supports such scenarios. Figures concerning international mobility in the African continent show that – similar to most other areas of the world – migration happens mainly within the continent. When deciding to move, people tend to remain close to their countries of origin or move within national boundaries – e.g. rural/urban migration. This is the case also when relatively high inequalities exist across countries, and borders are left open – as for instance in Africa and Europe.(10)
While based on available empirics there is no reason to think that open borders will automatically imply a growth in migration from Africa, closing borders does not help much in reducing unwanted migration. First, despite the huge financial resources spent by the EU and its member states to enforce border control, the number of undocumented people present in Europe has not decreased (Mountz and Kempin, 2014). What is important to notice here is that most “illegal” residents in the EU are overstayers who entered regularly Europe and remained after their permits expired (Ambrosini, 2018). On the other hand, the majority of those crossing the border unauthorized are asylum seekers who, legally speaking, have the right to enter Europe and apply for some form of international protection (McMahon and Sigona, 2018).
In other words, it is not at the border where unauthorized migrants can be found. Rather than facilitating control, what “closing” borders makes is to deviate migrants’ journeys away from safer routes, into less patrolled but more dangerous alternatives (Brigden and Mainwaring, 2016). There, people often put their destinies in the hands of smugglers, thus increasing business opportunities for criminal organizations and, consequently, insecurity for both migrants and the host societies (Aronowitz 2001).
More generally, to reduce legal options to migrate turns harder for law enforcement to keep track of foreigners and their identities: after all, when successful unauthorized migration goes undetected. Open borders, on the other hand, increases authorities’ ability to enforce public order, as they will have more information on migrants’ identity – including, for instance, their biometric data.
Even assuming that unwanted migration could constitute a danger or a burden for host societies – something which is largely contested by research – open borders seems the most efficient strategy to govern and control it. One which produces a series of other positive externalities. One argument which is frequently put forward to sustain closed borders is that, without restrictions in place, European workers will suffer the unfair competition of cheaper non-European labour. However, these views tend to do not account for the social and economic effects of closed borders. It is because people reside unauthorized in a country that they will most likely work in the informal labour market. Due to the precariousness of their resident permits, that they will accept working under all possible conditions in order to keep their job and, with it, the right to remain in the country (Lewis and Waite 2019). The case of EU workers provides a good example: as they are given equal rights across European labour markets, the costs of hiring a native or a European migrant are the same – turning eventually more convenient to hire locals who, for instance, already know the local language. Here a specification is necessary, since most of those advocating for closed borders often refer to social dumping within the EU as a proof of the need to restrict human cross-border mobility – one example being that of Marie Le Pen’s latest presidential campaign of 2017.(11) As it is often argued by those linking the free circulation of people with the deterioration of standards in European labour markets, migrants are not only taking jobs to nationals: they are also the cause of, for instance, the loss of workers’ rights and their decreasing salaries. Yet, such views are misleading, in as far as social dumping in Europe generates from posted workers and, thus, the freedom of goods and services – rather than people – to circulate across national frontiers (Bernaciak 2014).
To open borders to people – and eventually limit the free circulations of capitals, goods and services – would then favour the best matching of labour markets’ demands and the availability of workers: unemployed migrants would search job elsewhere if allowed to move without facing too big legal and administrative costs to do so. On the contrary, restrictive migration policies go against an efficient distribution of labour: given the very high human and financial costs of migrating, people will hardly decide to leave a country even when they have found no job there.
To conclude, rather than a utopian and naïve option, to open borders constitutes arguably the best strategy to solve that permanent migration emergency which monopolizes politics in Europe now from decades – dangerously making the fortune of undemocratic forces from the Mediterranean, up to Scandinavia.