Destination: Open Borders

Immigration is one of the most significant moral quandaries of the 21st century. Nobody in Finland is suggesting we open our borders, but perhaps someone should.



P:Pictures: Mikko Rikala & Dora Dalila

Everything in the terminal is made so simple.

Just a moment of queueing to the check-in, the flash of a passport, and my boarding card is printed in 20 seconds.

There is a ten-minute wait before we can board the ship. When the doors open, we all amble in a general line through the corridors and on board. Inside, people move around where they will. Some go off to grab a coffee, others for a pint. Some decide to take a nap on the wide window ledges.

After two and a half hours we reach our destination. ”Dear passengers, our arrival in Tallinn will be delayed by 10-15 minutes due to harbor traffic,” a ship-wide PA system announces.

The furiously foaming four-meter swells raised by an autumn storm whipping the cruise ship presented zero obstacles to our passage.

Even in stormy weather, the 80-kilometer journey’s defining feature is boredom – and I mean this in a positive sense. About nine million passengers traveled between Tallinn and Helsinki in 2017, making the Finnish capital the busiest commercial seaport in the world last year.

Landing in Tallinn is a cinch. A few hundred meters of hallways, some stairs, and voilà, you’re in the city. The procedure is the same in Helsinki, with minor variations.

This raises a sincere question: why can’t things be this dull and easy elsewhere, as well?

Such as in the Mediterranean Sea, say, between Tunisia and Sicily. The Strait of Sicily is 150 km wide, but only a few vessels pass across it each week.

What if nine million passengers traveled across that channel per year? And what if asylum seekers could cross it, too? What if they could disembark as easily as I arrived in Tallinn?

At the very least, thousands of people wouldn’t need to die in the sea. Some 1,800 asylum seekers or other crossers have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, from January to the end of September.

The argument of ”helping people where they are” doesn’t fly.

So that would mean fewer deaths, excellent. And Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho should be thrilled: there would be no need to allow NGO-operated rescue boats into harbors, because the human smuggling trade would collapse. Rescue vessels would have no one to rescue.

Yet another consequence would make Halla-aho smile: the idea of ”humanitarian immigration” could finally be done away with.

Prime Minister hopeful, Social Democratic Party chair Antti Rinne said in early September in an interview with tabloid Ilta-Sanomat that ”calling for open borders” and ”bidding everyone welcome” is ”irresponsible”.

Rinne constructed and attacked a strawman argument in that interview; no one has actually ever seriously proposed that Finland’s borders should be opened wide.

Immigration, and especially immigrants who come from foreign cultures, are seen by many as a threat.

In September, national broadcaster Yle used a racist illustration as part of an article surveying the immigration policies of various political parties. In between the white faces of party leaders, a brown-skinned woman wearing a black niqab was drawn, as if that was a fair representation of immigrants in general, of ”those others”. The picture was especially out of place as the article itself does not mention the niqab even once, whereas politicians in the piece were asked about their views on banning another garment, the burqa. The illustration was later changed.

Yle also asked party leaders whether school grades and classes should have a maximum number of immigrants or children of immigrants. What a terrible menace these foreigners seem to be!

Dangers and threats, coming over here, either stealing jobs or sitting around unemployed. Take cover! 

But what if people coming into Europe from Northern Africa and the Middle East were treated like human beings? What if they weren’t shipped onto Lesbos to attempt suicide in overcrowded camps? A representative for Doctors Without Borders, Luca Fontana told the BBC in July that even 10-year-old children had tried to end their own lives at the refugee centre.

Here’s another what if: what if the journey between Northern Africa and Europe were as easy as a day trip from Helsinki to Tallinn? What if all borders were just as easy to cross?

It is our moral duty to strive for such a borderless world, according to American reporter and author Ryan Avent, author of the praised 2016 book, The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century. He is also the senior editor of the globally influential The Economist, and one of the writers for the magazine’s Free Exchange column.

Avent’s book is a wide-ranging, journalistic, and up-to-date overview of the so-called third industrial revolution – the one, he says, we’re in right now.

Some catch phrases in The Wealth of Humans are already darkly familiar to many: digitalization will completely revolutionize economics and working life, robots will do our jobs in the future, and so on. Important points; but the book’s real selling point is how seriously the author takes the potential hazards of the brave new digital era. How can human societies cope with all the technological changes occurring all around, which are at least as massive as those that came with the dawn of mass production in the 19th century?

Avent’s answer, in a nutshell, is to rethink all of society. In thinking about such a sweeping issue, one soon stumbles across the problem of defining where society ends, and for whom it is intended.

Avent’s moral imperative comes from a simple observation.

”Where we are born is hugely consequential, and none of us have the slightest control over it,” the writer comments via email.

”Those of us born into rich countries do not end up rich, by global standards, because we are better people than those born elsewhere,” Avent writes. ”We just got lucky: we had the good fortune to enter the world in places where effort and ingenuity are rewarded and where even the poorest families enjoy living standards well above the norm in much of the world.”

We have a moral obligation to share the fruits of our good fortune with those who were not as lucky, as a simple matter of justice, Avent says. Social Democrats may once have called this solidarity.

Because luck is all it is. People living in poorer countries aren’t somehow less productive than people in rich countries because of some innate reason.

”We know that when people born into poor countries have the opportunity to migrate to rich ones, and to participate fully in rich societies, they are just as capable as natives of thriving,” Avent says.

The benefits reaped by rich countries compared to poor ones are born of their institutions and cultural norms. These have come about on top of so-called social capital, while they simultaneously maintain it.

In short: social capital comprises people’s personal know-how, which only holds value in certain social situations and only if enough other people hold this same know-how to be valuable in the first place.

Concepts such as ownership would be unlikely to work if they were defined solely by legal order. Ownership requires a society where people grow up to trust that owned things remain owned, and that they won’t be wrested from them arbitrarily.

Avent expresses the sentiment through economics: ”[Institutions and cultural norms] support and reward investments in physical and human capital, and create incentives for people to use their skills productively.”

When you give people born elsewhere access to those institutions, they learn to operate within them and they become much more productive than they could be in their home country.

Result: people become much more productive than they ever could have been in a poor country.

”So, practically speaking, there is a huge economic gain to be enjoyed from providing access to rich-world institutions to those born in poor countries,” Avent says.

Moral imperative comes from a simple observation.

How huge? Development economist Michael Clemens wrote in a 2011 study that making it even slightly easier to move from poor countries to rich ones would expand the world economy by trillions of euros.

Clemens says it would be enough for less than five percent of people in poor regions to move to rich countries for the benefits of this migration to far outstrip those that would arise from removing the obstacles hindering free movement of goods and capital. And this is a careful estimate.

So making the Africa-Europe trip as easy as the Helsinki-Tallinn connection is not only a moral duty, but also an extremely profitable economic opportunity.

The social capital of rich countries is a massive resource and also the reason why the argument of ”helping people where they are” doesn’t fly.

Certainly the very poorest should be aided, if only for the benefit of the already rich countries. Poor countries should be helped as much as possible in switching to renewable energy, if we want to keep the planet habitable for modern civilization, Avent points out.

But institutions – such as democracy, the rule of law, and the market economy – are not suitable for export. They cannot be installed in countries that lack the social capital to support them.

So how can this social capital be increased? Unfortunately, the social sciences have no ready answer.

”It would be nice if it were easy for poor countries to adopt those institutions on their own, but history tells us that flipping countries from bad institutional equilibria to good ones is really, really hard,” Avent says.

Avent’s view is that people in rich countries should think long on a few ”hard truths”:

  1. Across most of modern economic history, very few countries have made the transition from poor to upper-middle income or high-income. Mostly that history is the story of rich countries getting richer and poor ones lagging behind more and more.
  2. The sustained, broad-based growth in developing-economy incomes that has occurred over the past twenty years or so is probably (though not certainly) a one-off experience associated with the rise of China.
  3. Background conditions in the global economy are going to make it harder for developing economies to catch up in coming decades.

The final point has two sides. Technological changes made global production and logistics networks possible, drove down industry in rich countries, and helped developing countries to some degree. The ongoing digital revolution, however, will once again make life in the future more difficult for developing nations. 

The smaller the labor costs, the less likely it is that that production will be moved to poorer countries. Developing states find it almost impossible to join the ranks of affluent countries by industrializing, because industrialization no longer practically happens.

In his 2016 book, Avent took India as an example, whose history economist Arvind Subramanian has described as ”premature non-industrialization”. The phenomenon ended before it could properly begin there.

In 2016 this was ”extremely worrying” to Avent, because it is not clear whether there is any other model for succesful economic development than industrialization. 

Two years later, Avent admits that technological change is still a major factor, but it must be coupled with a political counter-movement that resists global trade and immigration.

”A retrenchment in globalisation would really make it very difficult for poor countries to catch up to rich ones.”

Meaning that rich countries should help poorer ones, but their economic development is unlikely to remove the gaping income inequality between rich and poor countries, or the pressure to emigrate to rich countries.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä said in an episode of Yle’s morning politics program Ykkösaamu that the majority of asylum seekers who came to Europe in 2015–2016 were migrating ”for economic reasons”.

Researchers shot down the PM’s claim, but perhaps even more asinine than making such statement is that so-called ”economic refugees” are considered by top politicians to be somehow suspicious.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says that the median GDP of rich countries is about 49,000 dollars per resident. For contrast, the same figure in Burundi is 340 dollars per resident, and 426 dollars per resident in the Central African Republic. That means that in both countries the GDP/resident ratio is less than one percent of that of rich countries.

”There are excellent reasons for why millions of people leave their homes behind and risk everything to have a shot at a better life in rich countries,” Avent said in 2016.

Of course, the justified threat of being murdered in one’s country of origin goes ahead of merely seeking a better life when the Finnish Immigration Authority (FMI) is granting residence permits to people who want to enter Finnish society.

However, if we are able to identify the humanity and true distress of asylum seekers and do not want their deaths on our consciences, how hard can it be to identify the humanity in someone seeking a stabler life? If immigrants want to engage in society and enjoy even a part of the affluence and opportunities the people already living here tend to take for granted, who are we to tell them no?

”Are they humans with the same fundamental drives and natural rights as us or not? Obviously they are, but the implication of a lot of nasty political rhetoric is that they are not,” Avent says now, in autumn 2018.

Ah yes, politics.

The fact is that even though increasing immigration would be both morally right and economically profitable – especially in countries such as Finland where the population is rapidly aging – the likelihood of that happening seems incredibly remote.

”We can see that native populations begin to oppose immigration if the volume of influx is high or if the immigrant’s culture differs greatly from the native culture,” Avent says.

The vicious circle completes itself quickly. Nativist politics that emphasize the local population’s identity and culture, in addition to outright racism, make it harder for immigrants to integrate, which in turn fuels the nativist hatred of immigration.

Open borders do not look like a winning political message right now. Moral obligation doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, even though it is only gaining strength, when you take into consideration the single most important subject when it comes to humanity’s future: climate change.

Climate change is rich countries’ fault. We have created a problem for the entire Earth, but the worst of it will be felt by poor countries.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced in September that the number of people living in hunger has risen worldwide for three years running. The reason: global warming and the growing frequency of extreme weather conditions.

Avent mentions economic models that show that the projected costs of global warming change based on how easily people can be expected to migrate.

If we assume that the majority of the human race can move to places where the effects of climate change are less severe, the crisis may not be inconceivably expensive.

”But there’s no getting around the fact that advanced economies will either accept vast numbers of climate change refugees or will tolerate unforgivably high levels of political instability and death associated with climate change in poor countries,” Avent says.

”We are messing this up.” – Ryan Avent

Avent also says he would like to believe that moral arguments for immigration will win out in places such as the United States, which has a long history of welcoming immigrants. Both the nation and the immigrants have benefitted hugely from the waves of migration.

”But the spirit of generosity is not as strong in rich countries right now as it should be,” Avent adds.

Should politicians wish to increase immigration, the best arguments they are left with will generally be based on functionality, for instance: immigrants are more likely to start companies than locals, immigrants could breathe new life into regions with negative net migration rates, and immigrants increase the long-term economic prospects of governments.

Leading economist Mauri Kotamäki from the Finnish Chambers of Commerce – a coalition of 19 regional commerce groups – adds an item to the mounting list of pros: research data showing that immigrants improve the local population’s overall level of education in the long run. Immigrants tend to be either quite meagerly or extremely highly educated, and the less educated drive the local population of low-education residents back to school.

Then there are the pensions.

Finland’s birth rate fell to a record slump in 2017. The country is aging, fast. If pensioners want to keep their benefits at their current level, or if workers don’t want to pay constantly rising pension payments, Finland needs more immigrants. The so-called ”procreation project” touted by SDP chair Rinne, calling on Finns to make more babies to save the economy, is not on its way.

Kotamäki wrote in his blog in August that if Statistics Finland’s projection of a 17,000-person rise in population through immigration were combined with a further 8,500 more immigrants annually, workers’ pension payments would fall by some two billion euros by 2085 – per year. This estimate is based on a long-term model proposed by the Finnish Center for Pensions.

To make it crystal clear: two billion euros is an immense amount of money for a country the size of Finland.

”Immigration is a very effective way to boost the pension system, albeit a special case of the positive net effects of immigration,” Kotamäki says in a phone interview.

An unemployed immigrant does not accrue any costs within the system. If an immigrant becomes employed, they do nothing but contribute until the day they become pensioners themselves, Kotamäki says.

It is safe to say, then, that rich countries with a huge group of retired or soon-to-retire individuals would be politically prudent in removing the obstacles of immigration – just for the personal interests of a large group of voters.

For instance, are so-called means tests for workers outside of Europe at all justified?

”No, they are not,” Kotamäki replies. ”It is completely unnecessary. Why should we be blocking, say, a foreign chef from gaining employment by placing a Finnish chef in a position of privilege, if the Finnish company in question had not even discovered said Finnish chef in the first place? Means tests make no sense for businesses or for society, it is an obstacle to entering the job market.”

In Yle’s immigration survey, the party leaders who said they would retain means tests came from the Social Democratic Party and the Finns Party, as well as the splinter group of the latter known as Blue Reform.

The first picture of the article is a view to the north taken in Tunis. The last picture is a view to the south taken in Helsinki. Both pictures were shot at 12 p.m. EET on the 21st of September 2018.

In 2016 Ryan Avent wrote that the most important moral question of the 21st century is how much immigration we will allow from poorer countries. The evidence at the time pointed to giant gaps in the answers provided by wealthy nations.

According to Avent, the results gathered over the last two years show that the gaps are even wider than previously indicated.

”America is accepting fewer refugees under Trump than at any time in the recent past. Countries that I think one would have identified as forward thinking on migration issues, like Sweden and Germany, are experiencing worrying nativist backlashes. Europe has largely addressed its migration crisis by outsourcing the job to cruel governments in North Africa and the Middle East.”

”We are messing this up.”

Most of the planet’s population lives outside of rich countries. About 97 percent of the projected population growth will also occur outside of rich countries.

As for why it is the most important moral question of this century, well, most of the world lives outside of rich countries. An overwhelming share of population growth in this century will occur outside of rich countries.

”The welfare of humanity depends, to an overwhelming degree, on what happens to incomes and living standards for people in those countries,” Avent says.

”If the history of the 21st century is that we could not manage to extend the peace, prosperity and freedom enjoyed in the rich world to most of humanity, that will be a terrible moral stain on all of us.”

The history of the 21st century is not yet written. Avent makes the point that progress has been achieved before, too. There were times when slavery, brutal imperialism, and the suppression of entire nations were considered perfectly honorable pursuits in the West. Not anymore.

Avent adds that when speaking of migration from poor countries, we are speaking of human beings. These are people’s lives, lives which matter just as much as mine and yours.

”We either recognise that in this century and change our ways accordingly, or we don’t.”


Original article in Finnish. Translated by Kasper Salonen.