Walling Ourselves Off

In the past two weeks, more than a thousand people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe on often-overloaded boats. In 2014, more than three thousand perished on this crossing.

Each individual migrant’s motives are unique and unknowable, but this collective surge in deaths clearly stems, in part, from the disorder engulfing parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Civil war and state collapse have expanded the incentives and opportunities to flee, and the increased flow of migrants along dangerous routes has, predictably, led to a surge in accidental deaths.

Of course, those deaths also owe something to the policies of the countries toward which the overloaded boats sail. European governments—many of them presiding over anemic growth and unemployment crises of their own—do not have open borders, and they have responded ambivalently or coolly to this spate of arrivals. Italy, where many of these boats land, had run a widely praised search-and-rescue program for a couple of years, but that effort was replaced in late 2014 by a smaller and so-far less successful EU program. Most observers lament the drownings, but some also worry that a more effective rescue scheme will encourage more people to attempt the crossing, or to get into the sordid business of ferrying others.

Humans have always, and often literally, built walls to keep outsiders out. Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls examines China’s current wave of urban migration, but she also dug into her own family’s history in that country and found this:

In 1644, the Manchus, an ethnic group living on China’s northeaster frontier, conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty. Soon thereafter, the Qing rulers declared Manchuria off-limits to the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group of the rest of the country. Their aim was to monopolize the region’s natural resources and to preserve their homeland: As long as the frontier remained intact, they believed, their people would retain their vitality and forestall the corruption and decadence by which dynasties inevitably fell. To seal off Manchuria, the emperors ordered the construction of a two-hundred-mile mud wall planted with willow trees. It stretched from the Great Wall northeast through most of present-day Liaoning and Jilin provinces, with fortified checkpoints along its length.

The border was called the Willow Palisade, and it was even more porous than the Great Wall. It was completed in 1681, and perhaps twenty years later my ancestor breached it to settle in Liutai, which means “sixth post”—one of the fortified towers that was built expressly to keep out people like him.

An article by Sarah Stillman in this week’s New Yorker describes how, over the past 15 years, the U.S. has adopted tougher measures to keep migrants from crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico in spite of the U.S. economy’s continued dependence on more immigrant labor than our government will legally allow to enter. These measures, which include the construction of hundreds of miles of fence, apparently have slowed the rate of illegal crossings. At the same time, they have encouraged the expansion of the human-smuggling business, catalyzed the growth of criminal rackets that extort the families of kidnapped migrants for ransom, and, as in the Mediterranean, contributed to a significant increase in the number of deaths occurring en route.

On the US-Mexico border. Photo by Anthony Suau for TIME.

This impulse is not specific to rich countries. In South Africa, at least seven people have been killed this month in violent attacks on immigrants and their businesses in parts of Durban and Johannesburg. Among the governments publicly condemning these attacks is Nigeria’s. In the early 1980s, the Nigerian government expelled millions of West African migrants from its territory, “blaming them for widespread unemployment and crime” after a slump in oil prices pushed Nigeria’s economy into a downward spiral.

This impulse runs deep. A study published in 1997 found that drivers at a shopping mall left their parking spaces more slowly when another car was waiting near that space than they did when no one was around, even though that delay was costly for both parties. The study’s authors attributed that finding to territorial behavior—”marking or defending a location in order to indicate a presumed right to a particular place.”

This behavior may be instinctual, but that doesn’t mean it’s just. Physical or legal, these walls implicitly assign different values to the lives of the people on either side of them. According to liberalism—and to many other moral philosophies—this gradation of human life is wrong. We should not confuse the accident of our birth on the richer or safer side of those walls with a moral right to exclusively enjoy that relative wealth or safety. The intended and unintended consequences of policy change need to be considered alongside the desired end state, but they should at least be considered. The status quo is shameful.

Some economists also argue that the status quo is unnecessarily costly. In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Michael Clemens estimated that barriers to emigration have a much larger damping effect on the global economy than barriers to capital and trade do.

How large are the economic losses caused by barriers to emigration? Research on this question has been distinguished by its rarity and obscurity, but the few estimates we have should make economists’ jaws hit their desks. When it comes to policies that restrict emigration, there appear to be trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.

I hope I live to see that claim tested.

Leave a comment


  1. Well said

  2. Emmanuel F Letouze

     /  April 23, 2015

    Fantastic post Jay.

    Emmanuel Letouzé + 1 917-207-7473

    On Apr 23, 2015, at 9:01 AM, Dart-Throwing Chimp wrote:

    WordPress.com dartthrowingchimp posted: “In the past two weeks, more than a thousand people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe on often-overloaded boats. In 2014, more than three thousand perished on this crossing. Each individual migrant’s motives are unique “

  3. Adham

     /  April 26, 2015

    Reblogged this on Adham and commented:

    “We should not confuse the accident of our birth on the richer or safer side of those walls with a moral right to exclusively enjoy that relative wealth or safety.” (h/t Daniel Solomon of Securing Rights for sharing this piece)

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