TOPIC GUIDE: Migration

"We should have an open borders policy for migrants"

PUBLISHED: 01 Apr 2008

AUTHOR: James Gledhill

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The arrival of migrants from Eastern Europe after the expansion of the EU in 2004 prompted a heated debate about imigration [Ref:]. Since then around half of the one million EU workers who came to the UK have returned home [Ref: BBC News]. However, migration flows continue to break records [Ref:  BBC News], and 40 years on from Enoch Powell’s apocalyptic prediction of the consequences of mass immigration in his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech [Ref: BBC News] it remains a highly contentious issue. A House of Lords report [Ref: BBC News] found that immigration makes little contribution to economic well-being, although this has been contested. The government has refused to set a limit for immigration [Ref: BBC News], but recently introduced a points-based system [Ref: BBC News] designed so that only skilled workers are allowed into the UK from outside Europe. It is a debate in which the claim that society can’t cope with mass immigration is met with the charge that anti-immigration arguments are often racist. Immigrants are variously presented as benefit cheats or as decent people seeking to improve their lives. The consensus view is that large-scale immigration poses serious economic and social problems. Many countries take in limited numbers of asylum seekers [Ref: BBC News] and recognise the importance of migrant workers to their economies; few are prepared to consider a policy of open borders. A firm distinction is drawn between the small number of asylum seekers who are genuine refugees [Ref: BBC News] and ‘bogus’ economic migrants [Ref: BBC News]. However, as opposition to immigration mounts, a radically different position in the debate has also gained ground. Advocates of open borders – who include supporters of a global free market in labour and campaigners for immigrant rights – argue that we should abandon the idea of setting limits on immigration because of its damaging economic and social consequences. Both sides agree that a country’s policy on immigration says a lot about how it regards itself. Should we abandon restrictions and open our doors, or instead put up further barriers?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Should the movement of people be as free as the movement of goods and money?
While globalisation is characterised by increasing flows of goods and money, there are significant barriers to the movement of workers, with immigration policies tending to become more restrictive rather than less. Advocates of open borders argue that governments can’t possibly calculate the number of new workers that should be let in, and that this should be left to the market. Opponents of open borders say that the market has to be regulated and argue that people are very different to goods, bringing their families with them, consuming resources and taking advantage of welfare support.

Would an open borders policy be a recipe for anarchy?
Yes say opponents. If immigration restrictions were dropped huge numbers of people would move, increasing pressure on housing, damaging the environment, putting security at risk and making densely populated countries even more crowded. Supporters contest this. Emigrating is expensive and requires people to leave their families and culture. Furthermore, they argue, it is tight immigration controls that lie behind the huge market in illegal human trafficking and explain why immigrants tend to settle permanently. Open borders, which would still be monitored and have passport controls, would provide legal routes for migrants and allow temporary migration, with people earning money and then returning home.

Are the economic effects of immigration positive or negative?
It depends on who you listen to. First, there is the contested question of whether immigrant workers take jobs from local workers and lower wages. Some studies say this is the case; others suggest that immigrants mainly take jobs like seasonal fruit picking that local workers refuse to fill. Second, there’s the equally contested question of whether immigrants are overall contributors to the economy or a burden. Third, there’s a debate about whether immigration is a solution to the problems caused to developed societies by ageing populations. Finally, what is the effect of migration on the developing world? On one side of the equation are concerns about a brain drain [Ref: BBC News] from developing countries, while on the other side there are the remittances [Ref: BBC News] sent home by migrant workers, which exceed the sums that developing countries receive in foreign aid.

Is immigration a threat to our culture and national identity?
Immigration is about far more than just economics, and many economic debates are inconclusive, so the fundamental issues are moral and social. Opponents of open borders argue that a nation is defined by its right to police its borders and decide who it allows in. Advocates argue that free movement is a basic right: we wouldn’t stop people moving around within a country, so what’s the justification for stopping them moving between countries? At a social level, concerns about immigration focus on how it changes a country’s culture, and the claim that ignoring people’s fears about immigration creates tensions between different communities. While some say this is based on fear of change, blaming immigrants for problems that have other sources and ignoring the positive contribution immigrants make, many see this as an urgent problem.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

The case for opening Europe’s borders wide to migrant workers

Philippe Legrain vs Michael A. Landesmann Europe’s World Summer 2007

Viewpoints: Should borders be open?

BBC News 13 April 2004

An open debate on open borders: reply to Stephen Castles

Liza Schuster openDemocracy 29 December 2003

A fair migration policy – without open borders

Stephen Castles openDemocracy 29 December 2003

Migration fantasies: how not to debate immigration and asylum

Ali Rattansi openDemocracy 29 May 2003

The folly of mass immigration

Anthony Browne openDemocracy 1 May 2003


Ending global apartheid

Kerry Howley interviews Lant Pritchett Reason Magazine February 2008

Why we need an open-door policy

Nathalie Rothschild spiked 17 January 2008

The new common sense

Teresa Hayter New Internationalist 1 October 2002


Devastating demolition of the case for mass immigration

Andrew Green Daily Mail 31 March 2008

A state of influx

Frank Field Guardian Comment is free 21 September 2006

Never have we seen immigration on this scale: we just can’t cope

Robert Rowthorn Daily Telegraph 2 July 2006


At the immigration rally

Peggy Noonan Opinion Journal 13 April 2006

Myths of the stranger at the gate

Kenan Malik The Times 7 March 2005

Why borders cannot be open

David Coleman Population-Environment Research Network 24 August 2001


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Contrasting views on EU migration

Mark Easton BBC News 30 April 2008

What impact have EU migrants made to the UK?

BBC News Have Your Say 29 April 2008

Shifting the debate on immigration

Hugh Pym BBC News 2 April 2008

The case for open Immigration: A Q&A with Philippe Legrain

Melissa Lafsky The New York Times Freakonomics blog 17 October 2007

Migrant workers: What we know

BBC News 21 August 2007

The borders of liberalism

Alan Wolfe Guardian Comment is free 10 July 2007

Head to head: Migration amnesty?

Keith Best vs Andrew Green BBC News 14 June 2006

Viewpoints: US illegal immigration

BBC News 23 May 2006

Q&A: US immigration debate

BBC News 1 May 2006

Migrant world

BBC News Have Your Say Special 24 May 2005

An open door to disaster?

BBC Radio 4 Analysis transcript 18 March 2004

People flow: Migration and Europe

Theo Veenkamp, Alessandra Buonfino and Tom Bentley openDemocracy 1 May 2003


Manage migration for Britain

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Destination UK

BBC News In Depth


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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