Migration and Human Rights (52): Remote Border Controls, Or How to Deal With Poor People On the Move

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citizenship / globalization / international relations / intervention
Migrant boat in trouble off the coast of Italy

Migrant boat in trouble off the coast of Italy


Many of the poorest people in the world are determined to seek a better life in wealthy countries. The governments and large swats of the populations of those countries react with increasing despair to this stubborn fact, even though the numbers of immigrants aren’t really much higher than they used to be. It’s also not the case that current immigrants create more problems than their predecessors. (On the contrary, welfare consumption, crime rates etc. are lower among immigrants than among natives, and there’s a lot of evidence that natives benefit from immigration).

But then what is causing this despair? I guess it’s got something to do with the perceived failure of Western governments to deal with the “immigration problem”. Whether or not it’s true that there are too many immigrants causing too many problems, many Westerners think it’s true and are dismayed by their governments’ reaction to this supposed fact: people are upset with ineffective policing of the borders (to the extent that some of them have set up private militias to deal with illegal border crossings); they’re upset with the failure of government agencies to send back “illegals” present on the territory; they want but often don’t get harsher immigration laws; they sometimes get but don’t want amnesty etc.

These governments, being democratic, feel the need to respond to popular discontent – even though the actual popularity of the discontent can be questioned. How do they respond? The first thing they do is step up their existing efforts: tightened border security (including walls if necessary), less generous visa and asylum rules etc. Unsurprisingly, this is often unsuccessful if success is defined as a large reduction in the number of illegal – and sometimes also legal – immigrants. Poor people are very determined folks and often find a way around restrictions.

Hence, there’s now a second line of response. Since a few decades now, Western governments have been trying to “externalize” or “extraterritorialize” their immigration restrictions. They also call this policy, somewhat euphemistically, “upstream” or “remote” border control. Western governments have de facto extended their borders. A first step in this second line of response has been the policy of intercepting people on the high sea, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the states that are the supposed destinations of the people who are intercepted. For example, the US has used force against Haitian refugees outside its territorial waters. And of course this is now the common European practice in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US, Europe but also Australia are moving their border enforcement efforts beyond their national borders into the high sea. But that’s only a first step in the extraterritorialization of immigration control. Immigration restrictions are now being implemented in the territories of countries wherefrom migrants try to reach the West.The policy is to have agreements with the countries of origin and important transit countries. These countries agree to control people departing from or transiting through their territories.

The word “control” can mean different things here: for example police patrols carried out in cooperation with the authorities of Western countries; no-go buffer-zones if the origin or transit countries share a border with the destination countries; destination countries funding detention facilities abroad etc. Cooperation agreements like these aren’t always mutually voluntary. In some cases, Western countries make development funding, visa-allotment and other goodies conditional upon acceptance of said agreements.

Here’s a visual representation of the increasing importance of remote border controls:

(the black dots are migrant detention centers)

(the black dots are migrant detention centers)


Here’s another map with some more information (click the image to enlarge):



This is the outsourcing of immigration control, and I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of it. In truly Orwellian style, Western governments use the supposed wellbeing of (potential) migrants as a justification of remote border controls. Better to stop them before they depart for the West than to allow them to put themselves at risk during an often dangerous journey. Better also to stop them than to send them back on the same dangerous journey. As if it’s not the immigration restrictions that make the journey dangerous and that force a good deal of successful immigrants to make the same journey back.

If you believe that immigration restrictions are morally acceptable, then I guess remote borders controls are OK. This type of immigration restriction isn’t necessarily more harmful to potential migrant than more traditional restrictions at the border or in the territory of destination countries. It can indeed be less harmful, sparing a lot of people a lot of trouble and risk. But my point is of course that immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable. If I’m correct, then more restrictions mean more immorality. Why do I think immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable? Because I believe there are good reasons based on human rights to allow people to move across borders, even people who want to move for purely “economic” reasons (meaning that they want to move in order to escape starvation and crippling poverty). I’ve set out these reasons here and won’t repeat them now.

I do realize that I’m occupying a minority position here. Much less controversial is the right of refugees and asylum seekers to move across borders. The Refugee Convention is very clear about the rights of people migrating in order to escape persecution. One of these rights is non-refoulement. This is a principle of international law that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.

Article 33 of the Convention states:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if you think it’s OK to have remote border controls for economic migrants, the same controls will unavoidably trap some refugees in the countries that want to kill or imprison them. It’s only abroad that they can get a fair hearing of their asylum claims, but this is made impossible by remote border controls. So let’s get rid of it, and not only for the sake of refugees.

More posts in this series here.

A Short History of Life Expectancy

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economics / health

old age old face


Our early ancestors lived on average till the age of 30. High infant mortality rates were an important reason for this disappointing prospect. So it’s not as if people 30.000 years ago never lived until what we now call “old age”. But it wasn’t as common as now. One had to be very lucky, and continuously so during a whole lifetime. Early death wasn’t the only risk; disease, famine, cold and conflict were just as lethal.

Over a period of 30 millennia, until basically the Victorian age and the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t much improvement. Victorians lived on average until they were 40. The reasons for early death did change however. The risks associated with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle were replaced in many parts of the world with problems caused by settled and urban life (e.g. fecal contamination of water, contagious diseases and diseases carried by insects; war and violence of course remained omnipresent and became more lethal with the advances in technology). These problems were only partially compensated by better agriculture. Most improvements in healthcare had still to come.

Here’s an animated graph from Gapminder, which only starts in 1800 but it does show that nothing much happened to life expectancy over the entire 19th century. There also wasn’t a lot of difference between the different parts of the world. Pre-20th century history was in fact a history of global equality in life expectancy, albeit an inequality in misery. Only by the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century do we see rates going up in Europe and North America, briefly interrupted by the two World Wars (you can clearly see the effect of the wars in the animation):

life expectancy 19th 20th century

(blue = Africa, orange = Europe & Central Asia, yellow = America, red = Eastern Asia & Oceania, green = Middle East & North Africa, light blue = Southern Asia)


The strong improvements which Westerners experienced since the beginning of the 20th century – and which resulted from better healthcare, better technology and sanitation, and increased prosperity – also lead to a widening of global inequality in life expectancy compared to the centuries before. The rest of the world only starts to improve during the decades after WWII, and does not reach levels close to the West until the first decade of the 21st century; or at least that’s the case for the non-African parts of the non-Western world (HIV has wreaked havoc in much of Africa).

Russia is a relative disappointment for a European country (in the graph above, Russia is the medium sized orange ball that can’t follow the other orange and yellow balls).The opposite is true for Japan (medium red ball doing better than the other red balls). After WWII, Japan sprints past the rest and ends up above everyone else in 2012, although even before WWII it outperformed its East Asian neighbors. China (big red ball) has made strong progress recently, especially when compared to many relatively wealthier Latin American countries (small to medium yellow balls, not to be confused with the medium yellow ball which does very well and which is the US). If you look carefully you can see the spectacular drop in life expectancy in China around 1960, the period of the Great Leap Forward. If you watch even more carefully, you can see the drop in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union.

Overall, India and Sub-Saharan Africa continue to disappoint.

More data on life expectancy are here.