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Discrimination in plain sight

  • Published at 05:30 pm September 11th, 2018
Can we dream of a borderless world?
Can we dream of a borderless world? Photo: BIGSTOCK

The moral case against borders


Consider the following thought experiment: It is a pleasant afternoon on a shorot weekend. It is not too hot, not too humid, and not too windy. The sky is blue and scattered with fluffy white clouds, as are typical for the season. 

You call up your best friend and the two of you decide to head to Dhanmondi Lake, intent to adda and enjoy some phuchka by the lakeside. Once at the lake, however, your plans are rudely thwarted. 

You are informed by a law enforcement officer that the government has put a new policy in place. You are told that you may not access the lake -- because you are dark-skinned. From now on, only light-skinned people are allowed at Dhanmondi Lake. If necessary, that policy will be enforced by the use of physical force.

Surely, this new policy is an outrageous injustice! It reminds us of some of the darkest periods in history, such as apartheid South Africa and the pre-civil rights United States. Treating human beings differently simply based on the colour of their skin is contrary to justice, and on that account, profoundly immoral. Thankfully, there is today almost universal agreement about that. 

Having skin of a certain shade rather than another, a fact about yourself which you cannot control, is not a valid reason to deny you the benefit of enjoying a good time with your friend by the lake, or any other benefit for that matter.

Why am I making this obvious point? Because an analogous kind of discrimination is taking place in plain sight, yet is rarely recognized as such. Just like we have no control over the colour of our skin, we have no control over where we are born or who our parents are. That fact about us too is entirely a matter of chance, and yet it often plays a decisive role in determining where we can and cannot go. 

If you happen to be a Bangladeshi citizen and you want to move to France, maybe to make a better life for yourself, or maybe just because you are fond of the climate there, you have no easy options. 

You can fly to Libya, as a good number of Bangladeshis have done in recent years, and risk your life embarking on the perilous journey to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, just to live in fear of being deported if you reach your destination unharmed. 

Or you can try to make it through the extremely challenging process of obtaining a residence and work permit, for which there is no guarantee of success. For a vast number of Bangladeshis, however, even obtaining a visitor visa will prove practically impossible. 

If you happen to be a German or a Greek citizen, things are very different. You can simply buy a train ticket to any place in France, rent an apartment there, and start looking for a job. No permission to enter, reside, or work is needed. What, if anything, justifies this stark difference in treatment?

Perhaps borders can be justified as a means of excluding at least some potential entrants, such as terrorists or human traffickers. But almost all people who are currently prevented from going to other countries by immigration and visa policies are ordinary, innocent, and peaceful people who are simply looking for a better life. 

They are denied entry not because they are dangerous, but merely because of where they happened to be born. In the absence of a compelling reason for such discrimination, it is plainly immoral. 

Not only does it violate the right to equality, it also does great harm to millions of people, by denying them the opportunity to dramatically improve their quality of life. A full-time worker in France, earning a minimum wage, makes about 1,500 euros per month. That is close to Tk1.5 lakh, and more than 10 times what an average worker in Bangladesh makes per month. 

Open borders, in contrast, promise significant benefit. Economists believe that open borders would roughly double the world’s GDP. In an article last year, The Economist estimated that if borders were open, the world would be $78 trillion richer. 

“Workers become far more productive when they move from a poor country to a rich one. Suddenly, they can join a labour market with ample capital, efficient firms, and a predictable legal system. 

“Those who used to scrape a living from the soil with a wooden hoe start driving tractors. Those who once made mud bricks by hand start working with cranes and mechanical diggers. Those who cut hair find richer clients who tip better.” 

Current restrictions on labour mobility are hence a major barrier to global economic growth, and doing away with them could be the most effective anti-poverty program ever conceived.

The arbitrary lines that litter the Earth’s surface, secured by barbed-wire, walls, cameras, drones, and armed guards, are a visible indicator of one of humanity’s greatest moral embarrassments. Instead of allowing people to move freely about the Earth, which belongs equally to all who live on it, we confine each other in cages created by immigration and visa policies that are harmful, degrading, coercive, and discriminatory. 

And, as long as politicians like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán win elections by stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, I am afraid the dream of a borderless world will remain just that, a dream. 

My hope lies with the young global citizens eager for change. 

Rainer Ebert is a Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He can be reached at www.rainerebert.com.