One of the biggest debates right now amongst world leaders, activists and the general population is the question of whether migration is a human right or a privilege that we can give or take at will. Making the case for migration as a human right is complex, nuanced and incredibly multi-faceted; here, three Wessex Scene writers make the case in their own words.
‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains’. Jean Jacque Rousseau was bang on. Migration, movement, exploring a world none of us truly have ownership over, is a fundamental freedom. One man may lay claim to a land, but what makes that land his? In restricting movement we are restricting a very essential part of our condition, to explore and experience. There is not a corner of this planet I don’t want to explore and the fact that there are so many restrictions in the way, particularly at the moment, proves yet again, what a greedy and self serving species we are. We are providing our own chains when we moderate free movement.
Movement is a fundamental part of being alive. Ever since the first humans left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago, we have been on the move. Early peoples travelled for better climates and food availability, and as civilisations flourished, so did the idea of the nation state, of territories and rights to the land that you call home – and, of course, the rights to the land that other people call home.
Human history is a history of migration, from the Roman, Greek and Chinese Empires who sought to expand their territories, to the explorers in the Middle Ages who set out for the New World, to the era of colonial expansion that saw European powers competing for African, Asian and American territory.
A few hundred years ago, most people’s horizons didn’t stretch beyond the next village and leaving your immediate area was a brave step. The Industrial Revolution saw a shift away from the rural to the urban, and more and more people moved to the cities to secure work. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw widespread international migration – not only due to conflict, but also the desire to seek a better life in a new country.
All that is to say: citizenship and nationality are a matter of perspective.
It’s a great irony that two of the wealthiest countries in the world also have the strictest rules on immigration and the strongest sense of national pride in the journeys their ancestors have taken. The American Dream is founded on the belief that anyone can make a better life for themselves if they try hard enough, whilst Central and South American migrants drown in the Rio Grande. In Australia, three quarters of people cite British or Irish heritage, but modern-day migrants attempting to make the journey by boat are held in indefinite detention on island camps.
Over the last few years, there has been a concerning rise in far-right ideology. Those in power have been determined to build walls, shut down borders and ultimately divide up their nations based on ‘the colour of their skin rather than the content of their characters’. Make no mistake: the hostile rhetoric around migration isn’t about whether you were born a citizen of the country of question or not. If you look at the news, you read about people who have lived in a country for 20-30 years or since birth who are suddenly being told that they are no longer able to live in the place they call home, and are shipped off to a place they don’t know solely because of their heritage and where their parents are from.
Policies surrounding migration are, unfortunately, not even about migration anymore. The people in America that are classed as migrants and thrown into ICE detention centres are usually people who have never lived outside of the US. It appears that these days, anyone who isn’t white is accused of being a migrant, and it seems as if migration is being confounded with racism.
The other day, I had a very heated conversation about migration with people from a different generation to me. They said that the country was overpopulated, and that the only people who should be allowed to migrate are those who have no choice – such as if their home country is war-torn or if, for whatever reason, it was too dangerous for them to stay. I, however, strongly disagree with this. When people talk about ‘freedom of movement’, we think that they are just referring to how Brexit impacts UK citizens’ ability to study, vacation or live in other countries that are within the European Union. This, however, is yet another example of our society’s Eurocentrism; what we seem to be forgetting is that freedom of movement is not just about us being able to have a swanky year abroad on our CV – it is a fundamental human right that applies to people all over the world.
The true definition of freedom of movement is made clear in Article 13 of 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’
The people I debated with may well have thought that they were being oh-so-generous by saying that we would open the borders for those who couldn’t stay in their home country at risk of death, but what they failed to realise is that any kind of restriction on one’s ability to migrate amounts to a human rights violation. At the end of the day, whilst policy-makers might dress up restrictions on migration as protecting us from terrorism or overpopulation, all they are doing is violating people’s human rights. Plain and simple.