Is it Utopian to Argue for Open Borders?

by Chris Gilligan

Thousands of migrants in Europe are prisoners of border controls. They ask, ‘are we not human?’ Is it utopian to answer yes, and that we need to open the borders?


Why We Need to Argue for Open Borders

In Europe today it is imperative that everyone who desires a human-centred world gets involved in developing, making and winning arguments in favour of open borders. The inhumane nature of immigration controls are evident in the thousands of human beings who are dying every year making the perilous journey to Europe. They do not die because the journey is by its nature perilous. They die because nation-states in Europe have made it so.

The inhumane nature of immigration controls is evident in the thousands of human beings who are snared at border crossing points, in camps, in detention centres. Europe has enticed them with its talk of freedom and opportunity. Europe has enticed them with its abundance and its opportunities for learning. Thousands of human beings have tried to seize these opportunities. They have walked, paddled, swum, crawled and dashed towards the beacon of a better life.

And, when they arrive at the borders, when they land in our midst, when they stand up and say ‘we want the same opportunities as you’, European nation-states say ‘these opportunities are not for you. These opportunities are for the privileged few’. Immigrants are trapped at the borders, in camps, in detention centres – because European nation-states are incapable of recognising their humanity. Nation-states are not good at recognising humanity. They are only good at recognising nationality. We need to argue for open borders because millions of people, all over the world, are demanding to be allowed their freedom of movement, and every day hundreds of thousands of people are being denied that freedom.

At the borders of Europe, in the treacherous seas, on the roads, in the camps, in the detention centres and in the tortuous limbo of waiting to hear the outcome of asylum claims, hundreds of thousands of people are asking, ‘are we not human?’ And, in response, hundreds of thousands of citizens in Europe are saying ‘we recognise your humanity’. They are organising rescue boats. They are providing lifts to weary migrants. They are organising soup kitchens and other food outlets. They are organising clothes collections and toy collections. They are travelling across the continent to help deliver to those in need. They are helping to comfort the grieving. They are helping to bury the dead with dignity. They are befriending people in detention. They are organising legal advice. They are helping with accommodation. And, they are helping to bring laugher, to brighten up the darkest corners of our souls, to help people to laugh and cry at the joy of being human.

All of this activity is a testament to human kindness and generosity. All of this activity is a riposte to those cynics who think that humans are, at base, greedy and selfish. All of this activity, however, is only dealing with symptoms. We need to develop and make the arguments in favour of open borders because we need long-term solutions. Unless we develop the bigger picture we will be confining our vision to what is, rather than what could be. Unless we take control of our own destiny as humanity we will remain at the mercy of forces beyond our immediate control – the market, competition between nation-states, financial crises, the arbitrary whims of global elites …

We need to develop, make and win the case for open borders because the issue is not just about refugees and asylum-seekers. The issue is about human freedom. All human beings – whether they are migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, students, lovers or family members separated by man-made borders – have a right to free movement.

We need a human-centred approach to migration. We need to develop, make and win arguments that put humanity first. Arguments that put people before profit. Arguments that prioritise free movement over free markets. Arguments that prioritise humanity over humanitarianism. Arguments that prioritise human freedom over human resource management. Arguments that put freedom before finance. If the way that we currently organise human society makes it impossible to provide human freedom, then there is a problem with the way that society is organised. This is a problem for humanity, not a problem of humanity. Migrants are not a problem; they are human beings. Migrants are not a problem; borders are. Migrants are not a problem; they are part of the solution.

What Would Happen if We had Open Borders?

The idea of open borders frightens many people in Europe (and in other affluent parts of the world). They see a world in which war and conflict is commonplace. They see a world in which billions live on less than two dollars a day. They see a world of financial chaos, job insecurity, homelessness, rising poverty. They see a world in which they live in fear of terrorist attack. They see a world in which old certainties are being swept aside in the winds of global change. They see a world where borders are a means to hold back the horror. They see borders as a bulwark against the seething mass of problems that threaten to overwhelm humanity. They want safety, and security, and certainty. Many frightened people demand that borders be fortified, policed, surveilled. States are building higher fences, pushing back the boats, denying chance for entry. If we opened up the borders tomorrow, there would be chaos they say. The streets of Europe would be dangerous, there would be homelessness, there would be poverty.

Restricting human movement, however, won’t eradicate poverty or homelessness, it won’t end war and violence. It will, at best, maintain the current inequitable distribution of misery and opportunity between the west and the rest. The terrorist attacks in Paris and in Brussels were horrific. They were brutal and inhumane. Similar attacks are happening every day, yes, every day, in Syria and other war zones around the world. Those who express horror at the attacks in Paris and Brussels, but do not feel anything for people who are faced with this kind of brutality in other parts of the world, are denying their own humanity. Those who refuse to recognise the humanity of others are killing off the humanity in themselves. Inhumanity begets inhumanity.

The punitive, repressive, cold reaction that characterises much of the response of European leaders today is part of the problem, not part of any solution. Punitive state action – against Afghanistan, against Iraq, against Libya, against the emancipatory dynamic of the Arab Spring – has paved the way for horrors that people in Europe fear are being visited on them today.

Maintaining borders will not bring a better future. Restricting free movement will not eradicate fears. We need a positive vision. Is that a utopian idea? Perhaps, or perhaps not. That vision of a better world is already with us in embryo. It is there in the hundreds of thousands of acts of human kindness and generosity towards migrants. It is there amongst those who recognise the common humanity that lies at the core of the multiplicity of human diversity. We can get to that better world by building on these positive actions. Instead of attempting to criminalise altruism, we should encourage it.

Freedom for All

Everyone wants freedom. The desire for freedom is integral to us as human beings. We live, however, in a world in which the freedom of others is made to appear as a threat to our own freedom. No one opposes freedom, at most they oppose the freedom of others.[1] What we are witnessing in Europe today is a battle over freedom. Nation-states draw up the battle lines. Nation-states place the freedom of their citizens on one side and the freedom of foreigners on the other.

We need to oppose their attempts to divide humanity in this way. We need to make the case for open borders. We need to make the case for a society in which an opportunity for one is an opportunity for all. By making the case for open borders we are saying ‘another world is possible’. By making the case for open borders we are saying ‘recognise our common humanity’. By making the case for open borders we are saying ‘freedom is indivisible’. Open up the borders now! Another world is possible!


A version of this article was first published on It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.



This idea of freedom is inspired by a quote from Marx: “Freedom is so much the essence of man that even it’s opponents fight realize it in that they fight its reality…. No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, another time as a universal right.” Cited on p. 53 of Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom (Humanity Books, 2000).


About the Author

Chris Gilligan was a founding member of Open Borders Scotland, which campaigns for a human-centred approach to migration. He is a member of the Advisory Board of GRAMNet (the Glasgow Refugee and Migration Network) and a former member of Scottish Detainee Visitors and of the Refugee Action Group (Belfast). He is the author of Immigration Controls and the Erosion of Popular Sovereignty (2012) and editor of The Public and the Politics of Immigration Controls (2015).

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