Why Mobility Across Borders Is A Human Right

As climate change reshapes our world, more of us will need to move.
Wenkai Mao for Noema Magazine
Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. His latest book is “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.”

SINGAPORE — Singapore is the kind of place any global city would envy. It’s impeccably clean and safe, filled with vibrant architecture, a mecca of culinary tastes. My children chase rainbows in manicured parks where luscious mangoes fall at our feet. And part of what keeps the city thriving is its high population of foreign-born residents — more than 40% of Singapore’s population in 2018.

Throughout history, great cities have been open to trade and talent, knowing that their survival depends on it. Singapore evolved over several centuries into a multi-ethnic milieu as Chinese migrated southward and Indians were circulated across the British empire. But since independence in 1965, it has become a melting pot by design. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew insisted on ethnically mixed public housing, and mandatory national service in which all races share bunks and basic training has given rise to lifelong friendships across ethnic lines. Singapore has by far the world’s highest rate of interracial marriages (around 1 in 5), especially Indo-Chinese couples who become parents of “Chindian” children. As the number of mixed-race families grows, pleas for ethnically based politics become weaker, and having multiple identities becomes the norm.

This kind of technicolor ethnoscape will only become more common in the future, because the story of the coming decades will be one of migration. As climate change reshapes our world, more of us will need to move.

Our species is in for a rough ride. The feedback loops among the major forces that have determined our human geography for the past thousands of years — nature, politics and economics — have never before been so intense and complex.

Human economic activity has accelerated the deforestation and industrial emissions that cause global warming, rising sea levels and massive drought. Four of America’s most important cities are at great risk: New York City and Miami may drown, while Los Angeles is running out of water and San Francisco is blanketed by wildfires. The chain reactions slamming millions of people in America apply to billions in Asia.

“The story of the coming decades will be one of migration.”

Consider this: Asia’s spectacular economic rise in recent decades was propelled by breakneck population growth, urbanization and industrialization, all of which have spiked its emissions output. This has contributed to rising sea levels that threaten the teeming populations of its coastal megacities on the Pacific Rim and Indian Ocean. So the rise of Asia is accelerating the sinking of Asia — which could cause ever more Asians to flee across borders and spark resource conflicts. We push the system, then the system pushes us.

This seems an appropriate moment to take stock of how badly out of sync these layers of geography have become. We have wealthy countries across North America and Europe with nearly 300 million aging people and decaying infrastructure — and roughly 2 billion young people in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia who are capable of caring for the elderly and maintaining public services. We have countless hectares of arable farmland across depopulated Canada and Russia, while millions of African farmers are driven from their lands by drought. There are countries with sterling political systems yet few citizens, such as Finland and New Zealand, but also hundreds of millions of people suffering under despotic regimes or living in refugee camps. Is it any surprise that record numbers of people have been on the move?

Twenty years ago, we still feared rampant overpopulation. Yet today’s most urgent task is almost the opposite: We need to nurture those alive and yet to be born to ensure the maximal survival of humanity through this century and beyond.

What justification is there for a system in which large and resource-rich but depopulating countries close their borders, while those countries least responsible for climate change are sinking or running out of water? To lock the world population into its present position amounts to ecocide — yet it won’t make those who survive better off. Our economies will still face acute labor shortages, and the wealth created from global exchange will halt. Instead, we should sustainably cultivate the planet’s habitable oases and move people there.

Despite these clear imperatives, nations are stuck in an outdated form of nationalism. The philosophical roots of this way of thinking run deep. Moral philosophers have long put the nation ahead of mankind in their inquiries. Seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, for example, made a pragmatic case for naturalizing immigrants to enlarge the labor pool and expand production and trade. He was clear, however, that migration should not deprive locals of their property rights. The 18th century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant went a step further in advocating a right to hospitality for all people, but this was understood more as a temporary sojourn rather than permanent residence and, as with Locke, it was conditional on the visitor not causing harm to his hosts.

“We should sustainably cultivate the planet’s habitable oases and move people there.”

Kant’s ideas continued to animate 20th century debates about migrant rights. Living through the postwar decades of significant migrations between Britain and its former colonies, the late Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett echoed Kant in his view that a moral state should provide fundamental rights to both citizens and noncitizens alike.

The right to migrate is itself such a right, as is the right of stateless people to become citizens of some state. Jacques Derrida similarly argued for strict national sovereignty to soften in favor of a more ethical hospitality toward foreigners. But even for famed philosophers such as John Rawls, migration played little role in his thought experiments about self-contained states. He supported people’s right to move but not any imposition on national sovereignty. Instead, a just global system would eliminate the root causes of poverty, corruption or other motivations for migration.

But the time for mere thought experiments has passed — our global system is far from fair. Humanity shares one climate that the North’s industry has cataclysmically devastated, with the South bearing the brunt of the consequences. We have desertified lands across the South and agriculturally abundant terrain in the North. We have abandoned towns full of modern homes in the North and millions of displaced refugees in the South. We have huge labor shortages in the North and labor surpluses in the South. Bryan Caplan’s “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration” argues that most migrants are neither school age nor retirement age, but working age Gen-Xers and millennials whose long-term fiscal benefit amounts to about $259,000 for each migrant with a high school education in the U.S. alone. Economist Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development estimates that opening the world’s borders to even temporary migrant workers could literally double world GDP.

Despite all ethical and economic arguments in favor of mass migrations, we have no global migration policy. Instead, we face a growing number of moral tests — people drowning crossing the Mediterranean and the Rio Grande, for example. Migration has become a political Rorschach test in almost every Western democracy, yet still not enough migrants are let in while too many die on the way. Nor is enough done to repair their homelands despite the external pain inflicted on them (such as military interventions and ecological ruin) and their own internal failings (such as corruption and reckless population growth). Both Kant and Rawls would be very disappointed in us.

Few other living philosophers have thought harder about what our obligations are in light of our failures than Peter Singer, who argues that the logical conclusion of holding all people as equal (cosmopolitanism) as well as striving for maximum collective happiness (utilitarianism) is that the fortunate give as much as possible to those less fortunate, irrespective of their geography or nationality. The maximalist version of this thesis is open borders and mass wealth redistribution, while the minimalist case is far greater aid to poor countries.

“The surest path to improving the human condition is migration.”

We have ample evidence, however, that aid barely keeps people alive, while moving people gives them a chance to live. For most people who live in poor countries, 3D-printed homes won’t magically materialize after a cyclone. Hydroponic food will not appear after a drought, nor will large sums of money appear in their mobile wallets during civil wars. The truest way to care is to let victims become neighbors. Western countries promote human rights abroad knowing that their pressure will yield few results. The surest path to improving the human condition is migration.

Migration is as much a human right as freedom of speech or due process — and indeed, for many, crossing a border is the only way to attain these rights. Mobility thus ought to be one of the paramount human rights of the 21st century.

If there is a term for my position, it’s “cosmopolitan utilitarianism.” We should realign our geographies to bring maximum welfare to current and future generations. It’s also a cosmopolitan realism: States make their own decisions, but more migration is very much in the national interest.

Indeed, smart governments don’t talk about immigration as an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead, they forecast labor demand by sector and recruit foreigners to fill those gaps so that domestic unemployment remains low even as the population grows. Remember there is no zero-sum competition between local and foreign workers: A greater influx of labor itself stimulates the economy and creates greater demand for labor. At the same time, compromises can be made to maintain support for openness such as stronger curbs on illegal immigration and local preferences in hiring. Another way to sustain a pro-migration orientation: distribute a portion of the revenues from foreign investment in real estate and other sectors to citizens as a dividend. Such measures are a small price to pay to achieve a more productive and humane distribution of people around the world.

“A large-scale re-sorting of the global population would be in everyone’s best interest.”

To achieve a more fair and sensible human geography will require arguments based on both rights and obligations — especially since politically, neither is sufficient. In 2018, governments agreed to a “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration” that recognized the rights of migrants to work and contribute. But the U.S. has rejected both this migration compact and a parallel Global Compact on Refugees. During the 2015-2016 wave of Arab migrants into Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel initially advocated for the rights of asylum seekers but later shifted toward stricter controls to avoid losing political ground to far-right anti-immigrant parties. Perhaps, then, the dilemma is more about the contrast between ethically sound and demographically necessary immigration and the self-defeating shortsightedness of democratic politics.

Many large and wealthy countries across North America, Europe and Asia already require mass immigration to maintain their standard of living, yet none are absorbing nearly as many migrants as they need. As the Indian-American novelist Suketu Mehta points out, “Never before has there been so much human movement. And never before has there been so much organized resistance to human movement.” Demographic decline in rich countries sparks socioeconomic tension, while booming population growth in poor countries hinders equitable development. More migration could balance these dynamics out, preventing the world from collectively becoming poorer and more unequal at the same time.

A large-scale re-sorting of the global population would therefore be in everyone’s best interest. Our choice is either a progressive redeployment of especially the world’s youth to geographies where they can be gainfully employed or a global underclass revolt. Recent years have given us a taste of what the latter looks like. Are we brave enough to take the other path?

This is a modified excerpt of “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us” (Scribner, October 2021).