Country is full, borders are closed

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on April 19, 2019

In or out: African and Haitian migrants at a temporary camp outside the National Migration Institute in Mexico   -  REUTERS/JOSE CABEZAS

The choice of migration saved millions of lives during the Great Irish Famine, and its absence killed as many in the Bengal famine

Recently, I was doing some research around the Bengal Famine of 1943 and was exploring the parallels that horrific tragedy shared with the Great Irish Famine of the mid-19th century. In both cases, millions died as a result of British policies and neglect; through callousness and its commitment to free market principles, London allowed the mass deaths of its colonial subjects.

But I was struck by one major difference. The famine in Ireland sparked huge waves of migration from the island, with the US alone receiving upwards of 2 million refugees (a huge figure proportionally, considering that the US population then was only 17 million). They travelled at a time when modern border regimes had not come into being, when barriers to entry were not just low, but often non-existent. The population of Ireland in 2019 is a little more than half of what it was in the middle of the 19th century.

On BBC radio recently, the Irish scholar Cormac O’Grada emphasised how the possibility of migration saved millions of Irish lives. “Had that emigration not happened, had America not been there as an outlet, just imagine how much worse the Famine would have been,” he said. “The Famine was probably not as bad in terms of the deaths it would have caused because there was this possibility to migrate.”

O’Grada qualified this contention slightly. While the Irish middle class “muddled through” the famine period, small farmers left in enormous numbers, often with help from their landlords. But it was the poorest of the poor — the destitute and landless who could not afford to leave — who ended up dying in droves. O’Grada suggested that the British government should have adopted a policy of assisting the migration of the most impoverished.

Had such an outlet existed for starving Bengalis in the 1940s, many lives would not have been lost. But it didn’t. Modern passport and border control regimes proliferated from the late 19th century. How and to where would have millions of poor Indians fled?

This question remains incredibly relevant in the present. The “migrations crises” vexing many countries around the world are often the result of humanitarian disasters caused by war (like that in Syria) or by both the spectacular and incremental effects of climate change (migration from Central America to the US is propelled by the changing ecology of the region; migration out of flood-prone Bangladesh will intensify as sea levels rise).

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went “viral” earlier this year when he attacked the jet-setting elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos for tax avoidance. Among the proposals (which include universal basic income and reducing the work week) for making a better world, in his book Utopia for Realists, Bregman argues for open borders. He points out that the nation-state is a new creation, a product of the 19th century. “Borders hardly existed back then,” he told TheGuardian newspaper. “Now it’s become a whole system of global apartheid, where 60 per cent of your income is dependent on the simple fact of where you were born.” The arbitrariness of birthplace grossly distorts your life outcomes in the global economy. “Borders are the biggest source of inequality worldwide right now. Immigration is by far the most powerful tool we have in the fight against global poverty.”

It’s not terribly realistic to unwind a century of the modern nation-state overnight. But Bregman and other scholars such as Branko Milanovic, the foremost economist of inequality, argue that if you are troubled by global disparities, the best way to shrink them is by allowing the greater movement of people.

Many public figures want to make that movement less possible. Recently, US President Donald Trump provocatively insisted that his “country is full”, a claim that is false by any measure, but, more importantly, was meant to signal uncompromising hostility against migrants to his political base.

Though they distort and misrepresent the impact of migration on their societies, right-wing politicians around the world do recognise that the movement of people is inevitable in an era of great economic inequality and climate disruption. They want to stop that movement by building literal and figurative walls and by deploying the unoriginal, hateful rhetoric of their nativist predecessors of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

By contrast, politicians on the left have yet to find a language to talk sensibly about migration in the 21st century, nor have they tried to adapt their visions of greater fairness and equality within their societies to a larger scale, to an era of global population upheaval. The true measure of the bold, visionary politician of the future will be their willingness to question both the morality and practicality of borders.

Kanishk Tharoor




Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction

Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on April 19, 2019

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