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Alternatives to Mass Migration: a Humanist Approach


By Barry Newman


Barry is a retired NHS intensive care consultant. He is the humanist representative on the Dorset Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education and a Humanists UK accredited school speaker. In this article, he explains the necessity of controlling borders at the same time as recognising the moral claim of migrants who are desperately seeking a better material existence. He suggests that there's a third way out of this dilemma.



National borders distinguish, demarcate and divide peoples on the basis of political identity and jurisdiction and thus they establish sovereignty, which is the right and ability of a country to govern itself independently. Independence is greatly valued in our culture. Sovereignty and the rule of law deliver internal order and security for citizens who are, by definition, legal members of that national community. Borders therefore protect and maintain socio-political systems with specific norms, cultures and laws for the benefit of citizens of that country.


Borders also frequently demarcate ethnicities, although the vagaries of history have often thrown different ethnic groups together – often with unpleasant consequences, which suggests that the drawing of borders is a necessary but imperfect science. Throughout the recorded history of humanity it appears that a distinct population, settled in a territory which supports their survival, will demarcate and defend such a territory – in much the same way that territorial animals do. Nomadic peoples also defend territory, often with violence. So it would seem fair to claim that establishing and defending borders is a natural phenomenon on which the world’s political order depends.


Geographical features such as rivers, mountains and coastlines are natural borders which often serve as political borders. The other political borders that we recognise today as lines on maps, which are usually physically demarcated by human-made barriers such as a wall or a fence, are a relatively recent phenomenon. 52 per cent of the world’s current political borders were in fact set during the 20th century, largely as a result of the two world wars. These recently made borders often came into being when empires were dismantled and replaced by new nation states. The establishment of borders is also the usual outcome of peace processes to resolve territorial disputes. Therefore, establishing and maintaining political borders promotes peace between competing neighbours and powers. Borders are clearly important for world peace.

Since the establishment of political borders across the world, movement of people across borders in peacetime has been controlled by laws. However, the world is currently experiencing a peak of mobility from low income countries to higher income countries, particularly Europe and the USA, although the country with the largest number of migrants is in fact Turkey – a result of war in the Middle East. The irony of Europe demanding that Turkey restrict the number of people travelling from there to Europe is plain to see. However, the majority of people on the move into the USA and Europe are moving due to poor quality of life in their countries of origin rather than major conflict. They are desperately seeking a better material existence and a more secure future, and there are smuggling gangs all too ready to exploit this opportunity. What should our response be?


If we recognise the essential socio-political purpose of borders and the right of a sovereign state to control them through the rule of law, we ought vigorously to oppose uncontrolled migration, because this undermines the entire concept of borders and endangers their benefits. The argument for maintaining borders and control over the movement across those borders may therefore not be entirely due to a lack of compassion or generosity, because open borders may well undermine the very qualities and values to which the immigrant is attracted and which we hold very dear.


However, the case for compassion is strong. Global financial and political systems have resulted in an uneven and unfair distribution of the world’s wealth, often leading to political instability and insecurity. Richer countries have forged ahead and poisoned the planet in the process – the consequences of which will fall mainly on the poor. Compassion should induce us to become more permissive in our definition of asylum by reducing the threshold for claiming this right. Currently, asylum may be granted in response to clear and severe threat, persecution or violence in the country of origin. A more permissive approach to asylum would permit validity of this claim for less extreme discomforts such as current poor quality of life and prospects, or discrimination on the basis of gender or belief. Such a loosening of the qualifications for asylum would no doubt result in a great increase in those claiming this right.


The desperation of migrants and the risk and suffering that they endure in their quest for better lives cannot fail to convince us that theirs is a powerful motivation which appeals to our sense of fairness and justice. In response to these humanitarian challenges, some might promote the idea of a borderless world. A borderless world is a political ideology – one that would overturn what appears to be a natural and longstanding order for maintaining peace and stability. Ideologies that do not recognise and respect fundamental aspects of human nature tend to fail, often spectacularly. If we treat those worse off than ourselves with blind compassion and open our borders, we may have to discard sovereignty and with it all the good that results from this, such as the rule of law.


So what is the humanist response to this dilemma? Reason may well lead us to defend the status quo and retain borders and the controls that maintain them. Empathy may induce us to discard the fruits of reason and submit to our better sentiments. Neither seem attractive. A third way could be to harness both reason and empathy and make changes to the world order that encourage people to remain in their ancestral lands but with much greater fairness and support for their betterment than has hitherto been offered. Cancelling or limiting historical national debt, opening markets without protectionism and tackling the causes and effects of climate change would go a long way to offering alternatives to mass migration, and would maintain the fragile peace and material security that developed nations have achieved.


As always, solutions to complex problems are rarely simple, and it is very doubtful that “a world without borders” is a viable response to the challenge of mass uncontrolled migration.

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