Is It Inhumane to Oppose Freedom of Movement?

The idea of freedom of movement is often in the news these days, whether in relation to Britain’s seeking control over immigration from the EU through Brexit, or to the discontent expressed in other EU countries about the apparently unending stream of migrants escaping war zones or poverty in the Middle East and North Africa, or to Donald Trump’s attempts to crack down on illegal immigation to the USA.

Those who take the migrants’ side in these debates frequently present their case as a moral one: that people who wish to leave a difficult political or economic situation and find a better one elsewhere have an intrinsic right to do so as members of the same human race as those who would seek to stop them. This looks on the face of it to be a legitimate moral position which cannot be as readily dismissed as many might seek to do: the fact that it persists is testimony to the resonance this line of argument strikes in our collective moral conscience.

I would argue, however, that the most cogent critique of this line of argumentation lies in the realm not so much of moral theorising but rather of Realpolitik. In other words, it is my suggestion that we should subject this line of reasoning to the challenge of how it fares in relation to practical issues, specifically: what are the consequences of accepting this moral argument at face value? Are we willing to live with them and is the new world order which might result from pursuing this moral principle in a thoroughgoing manner a moral order we would happily submit to? These are important questions and need to be addressed before we could consider implementing policy based on such moral reasoning.

So if we were to seek to reconstruct the world based on the principle that people could live where they chose, what would such a world look like? Well, certainly there could be no such thing as a national or regional immigration policy: the Schengen Area set up as an approximation to such an end state in mainland Europe would have to be extended to encompass the whole world. And in the process the concept of nationality would become all but irrelevant. But then it begins to become clearer what the real issue is with untrammelled freedom of movement. Because, what are the entitlements of people who choose to exercise that freedom, and who has the obligation to provide them?

Well first, either they would have the same entitlements as settled nationals or they would not. If they did not, that would create a major problem for liberal democracies (which would be the destination for most of the migrants) because then there would be two classes of citizens, which would clearly be unacceptable to those advocating freedom of movement in the first place, since their moral arguments in favour invariably derive from a penchant for equality.

On the other hand, if it were determined that everyone who arrived was entitled to the same rights and benefits as settled nationals, the second question would arise: who is responsible to resource this? This becomes a matter for the government of each country to organise and for the taxpayers to resource. But how can a government do this when it has no ability to control or determine the number of people it is responsible for and can the economy grow fast enough to pay for the additional burden? Experience teaches us that this is not a workable scenario. And even if it were, any country which was successful (or even more so than other countries) at absorbing migrants and offering them a better life would become a magnet for the next wave, as Germany discovered to its cost a couple of years back. Experience teaches us also that there will almost certainly be a backlash amongst nationals who perceive their livelihood and possibly lifestyle under threat, and relations will become strained. In the UK we are struggling to make things work as things are with fairly strict rules in place on who can enter the country and settle. It is difficult to imagine how things would be if these rules were to be lifted.

We are forced to the conclusion that decision-making about the allocation of resources and the provision of services can no longer under such a scenario be organised at the national level: responsibility to decide about allocation of resources needs to be aligned with the scope of the needs being addressed, so if the answer to the question of whose needs a national government is responsible to fulfil is potentially anyone anywhere, decision-making authority over resourcing needs also to move to a global level. In other words, the process of government itself needs to be globalised and the idea of autonomous nation states with governments accountable to their electorates has to be dispensed with.

To be fair, many of the advocates of freedom of movement already understand the logic of this position and, being implacably opposed to the nation state anyway, are happy  to live with this consequence. But I would suggest the number of people who openly adopt this extreme position is a fairly small number, certainly in the UK. They are free to do so. But what they should not be allowed to do is to precipitate a collapse of government by advocating an unworkable immigration policy as a Trojan horse for their ultimate aim of eradicating the nation state as a political entity.

So, short of advocating an end to the principle of national sovereignty, is there a coherent argument to be made for a more limited form of freedom of movement? Well, arguably this has already been done in  the European Union, both in terms of freedom of movement of EU nationals within the European Economic Area and in terms of free movement of non-EU nationals across internal borders of Schengen countries. However, both these provisions are proving problematic and causing populist backlashes in their different ways and neither was able to be established without significant dilution of national sovereignty. So while the tensions may be less here, the principle is the same: that implementation of freedom of movement across international borders requires significant dilution of national sovereignty, whence debate, moral or otherwise, about these two topics cannot ultimately be conducted in isolation one from another.

Nonetheless, many rightly feel a sense of compunction when evidence of the plight of thousands of hapless refugees and other migrants is beamed into their living room by television or via the Internet. To empathise with the plight of a fellow human being does not constitute the adoption of a moral position: it is no more than an expression of our humanity! But a determination as to what this or that government should do to address the problem is to take not a moral but a political position, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise, since the implication is that those who do not agree with your proposed political solution are by your arguments behaving immorally.

In the particular case of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Lampedusa (or more likely these days just making their way out of Libyan coastal waters), where does the moral force of the argument that they should be transported to Europe come from? As I have suggested it is to a large degree the emotional response of empathising European citizens to their plight, or more specifically to graphical images and descriptions thereof. But another way of characterising this situation is to argue that desperate people are being lured tragically into the hands of ruthless people smugglers who profit from their misery and offer them a game of Russian roulette, the glittering prizes on offer being the prospect of an opportunity to settle and enjoy a better life in Europe, underwritten by the citizens of Europe. As Australia has already demonstrated, and as to a limited degree has been found in relation to the similar problem with refugees crossing from Turkey, the number of people risking and losing their lives quickly diminishes when the prizes are removed. Without seeking to turn this essay into a political diatribe in favour of this or that political solution to the problem of drowning refugees, I believe the point is made that arguments can be put both for and against freedom of movement as a strategy to deal with the problem of refugees risking and losing their lives in perilous sea crossings.

The other issue of course is the fact that many of these refugees are fleeing war zones where their homes have been destroyed and/or their lives are at risk. Surely it is our duty as fellow human beings to facilitate their transit to a safer place if we can? This would appear to be a powerful moral argument. However an argument that we should look to help is not an argument that we should necessarily aim to settle them in Europe where the cost of settlement per refugee is considerably higher than if they could be settled temporarily or otherwise closer to their original home, since the latter argument is a political one. Finally, if it is our aim to facilitate the exodus of refugees from war zones, we should arguably look to ensure the southern border of Libya is kept as porous as possible and that transit through that country from Niger is rendered as safe as possible, possibly with UN trucks replacing those run by the people traffickers. But this would of course further exacerbate the problem and in likelihood increase the number of deaths on the Mediterranean leg of the journey. For that reason, no one is advocating such a policy, but the talk is instead of tightening security at the Libyan border to the south. One can’t help noticing that the “strength” of the moral arguments put forward seems always to be in proportion to our exposure to the plight of the refugees in the media and to how close to home the problem is perceived to be.

In conclusion, there are many moral issues relating to the plight of refugees and migrants in our world today we could usefully give attention to. But there is no moral compunction to support or advocate freedom of movement as part of a moral response. Ultimately the degree to which freedom of movement is allowed between nations is a political decision with moral arguments capable of being made on both sides.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.


  1. This essay seems to be all very reasonable on the face of it but IMO seems utterly devoid of any attempt to “think outside the square”. As a result all it does is contribute to the idea that anything big or important on Earth is necessarily the product of a zero sum game.
    Three new things to think about [for starters]:
    1/ the idea that “realpolitik” can be separated from ethics only makes sense in the absence of empathy. The fact is we human beings are all stuck together here on lifeboat Earth and within the next century or so the inhabitants of our wonderful planet are going to survive or die out together. Why? Because 11 thousand million people will either learn to live together in reasonably peaceful cooperation or suffer the catastrophe of the ocean [the one big salty puddle covering 2/3 of Earth’s surface] turning into a dead pond that cannot absorb any more CO2 yet is a toxic producer of sulphurous gases as well, as well as other environmental disasters. Summary, “realpolitik” is bullshit if its long term consequences are not accounted *now*.
    2/ The ocean can provide us humans with an enormous amount of extra living space, in effect a new home for every refugee anywhere can be accommodated around the oceanic regions of Earth’s equator – at very least in a region up to 5 degrees North and South – which is where tropical cyclones do not form. How? On platforms of insulated ice strengthened with a surprisingly small amount of plant fibre [for which kelp, bamboo, wood will all work]. Furthermore the biological productivity of the ocean can be increased enormously by the creation of artificial upwellings. Why would this work? Because the limiting factor on photosynthesis in the ocean is that *Shit sinks* away from the sunlight at the surface. The only reason anything lives in the middle of the ocean is because cyclonic storms pull deep water laden with nutrients towards the surface.
    3/ The main impediment to doing anything really useful at the moment is because too many old fogies still think that bureaucracy is a good thing. However, as Karl Popper pointed out 70 and more years ago, only democratic entities are capable of dealing fairly and effectively with the unforeseen negative consequences of policies. Bureaucracies are intrinsically authoritarian and evolve to maintain their survival by disempowering the the maximum number of people who are affected by them. This is true of governmental, mercantile, military, academic, health-related, and religious organisations. They all need to be converted to sustainable and robust democratic entities as soon as possible.
    This last project will be impeded less if all persons in a position to explain things to the general populace take the time to actually say out loud that “Neither God/s nor nature decree that bureaucracies must be!”

    1. I am not sure that any of the three points made above, even accepting their validity, countermands the arguments in my essay. Concerning the second point, extrapolating linearly forward without taking account of human’s resilience and capacity for innovation when necessity requires is I would suggest thinking “inside a square” where there are (purportedly) enlightened people who see a threat to the planet on the long-term horizon and the rest of the world locked into a path towards destruction. The reality is we are all locked together in a process whereby allocation of resources is prioritised according to the perceived size and imminence of threat. The fact more and more people are prioritising environmental concerns and gaining traction with their agenda is a sign that the process is working.

      On the third point, I think we are in agreement and indeed Don and I have written quite extensively on Societal Values about the dangers of bureaucracy inhibiting freedom and prosperity. Notably even China with its highly bureaucratic governmental system has come a long way in recent years in prioritising more environment-friendly policies out of necessity.

  2. Very interesting article, Colin – many thanks for sharing your considered thoughts. It does seem a dilemma of competing interests and then you have to factor in any unintended consequences that may result from whatever action is taken. Not easy but a round table discussion among relevant stakeholders is needed so some consensus can be reached on best course of action.

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