Open Borders Part 2: How Many People Would Come?

In my last blog post, I discussed the case for open borders in ethics and social and political philosophy. I discussed two major points in favor of open – or at least significantly more open – borders.
First, states use a great deal of violence to prevent people from entering their territories, incarcerating hundreds of thousands of people every year who are seeking only a better life, or escaping from persecution or from civil war. Second, border controls serve to reinforce inequalities between states, condemning much of the world’s population to poverty because of an accident of birth. I also noted that open borders does not mean that migration would be unregulated. Just a people moving internally from one part of a country to another, governments will continue to track people’s whereabouts through employment, taxation, schooling, and many other means.
In this second blog post on open borders, I’d like to consider another common objection: wouldn’t open borders subject developed states to hundreds of millions of desperate people seeking better lives? Sometimes this is posed as an apocalyptic lifeboat scenario (a theme echoed by anti-immigration groups such as Numbers USA). Nonetheless, people who genuinely welcome immigrants have a legitimate concern that opening borders might lead to so many immigrants that it would strain and possibly break some institutions (mostly prominent the welfare state).
If borders were open so that anyone who wants could enter, work, and settle in any country they wanted, what would happen? In 2013, there were approximately 232 million (96 million of these migrants reside in the South). Presumably this percentage would increase if states ceased to police their borders. A Gallup Poll that took place between 2007 and 2010 suggested that 14 percent of the world’s adults would like to migrate to another country (down from 16 percent in the previous poll). With a world population at around 5.343 billion people over 15, that suggests 748 million migrants under open borders.
We need to keep in mind a few things about this figure, though. First, it reports what people say they would like to do when answering a poll. Actually migrating requires knowledge, initiative, and resources, including social capital in the form of contacts abroad to facilitate moving. Notably, a Gallup poll on internal migration carried out between 2011 and 2012 finds that 381 million adults migrated within their countries in the last five years. This smaller number of people who actually moved under conditions of free movement may reflect the lack of pronounced economic inequalities or opportunities within countries. Nonetheless, migration within one’s country is usually less onerous since it does not usually involve learning a new language, cultural, and legal system or facing stigma as an immigrant.
Second, these figures tell us little about the time frame and location. Assuming that a significant percentage of these 748 potential migrants would emigrate if given the chance, how quickly would they do it and where would they go? We know that people usually migrate between countries connected by connected by networks formed through past migration, so it is likely that emigrants would disperse around the world. If emigration also occurred over a number of years, the actually number of immigrants would be less daunting.
Third, the Gallup poll’s question tells us what people think they would like to do assuming current conditions. As migration occurs, it changes economic and social conditions and we can expect potential migrants will react to these changes. Though there are reasons to be critical of neo-classical economic models of migration when they are taken as a complete framework for explaining why people migrate, they contain the important insight that migration is partially guided by supply and demand. People are not going to migrate unless they perceive it to be in their interest. Under open borders, we would expect economic convergence between sending and receiving countries which would eventually reduce the incentive to move.
A fourth related point is that there are obstacles other than state-enforced border controls to migration. Institutions and infrastructure do not automatically respond to an influx of a large group of people. People concerned about open borders insist on this point, but they fail to take into account the fact that migrants are also aware of this. If the labor market does not provide opportunities or if affordable housing is not available, people will learn about this and stop coming – and some of them will leave.
Fifth, many people may prefer to engage in circular migration, working abroad for a period and then returning to their home country, rather than resettlement. (A third Gallup suggests that 26 percent of the world’s adult population would move for temporary work.) People in the developed world probably overestimate other people’s desire to settle in their countries and underestimate the attachment that others have to their homelands. Given the appalling inequalities between countries in today’s world, open borders would no doubt increase immigration. One drawback to the current system of border controls is that once people have settled in a country – in some cases after incurring debt to a smuggler – there is a high cost of leaving. Open borders would eliminate this cost, reducing the number of settlers and allow migrants to base their decisions on market conditions.

Update:  In this fascinating Vice News interview, Center for Global Development economist Michael Clemens explains why this may not be the case: We Asked an Expert What Would Happen If the EU Opened its Borders to Everyone

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