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Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford questions borders, citizenship and the right to migrate

Why can you read this article in Diplomat, either in print or on the website?

It’s because the owners of Diplomat have invested their time and money in the magazine. Likewise, the investments made by owners of countless other businesses involved in printing and publishing, in distributing and designing, in energy supply, and in drafting contracts for everything along the way.

Why have they all made that investment? Because reliable rules protect that investment. Where do those rules come from? From law. So, what’s the basis of law? The modern state as the key source of authority and legitimacy. And what’s the basis of the modern state? In practical terms it’s that state’s international borders: they define down to the millimetre the exact reach of its legal jurisdiction.

OK then. Who decides where those borders are and who gets which citizenship? Good question! Indeed, it’s the big question of international law and order.

Hundreds of millions of people are now on the move around the world every year. Refugees. Displaced persons. Asylum-seekers. Migrants. Business travellers. Tourists. Sports contestants. Pop stars and roadies. Ship crews. Politicians and celebrities flying in carboniferous private jets to global climate change conferences. Diplomats! And so on.

They move by car or truck, by plane or balloon, by boat or submarine, on bicycles, on foot, maybe on hands and knees through tunnels. Where can they all go? What are the rules?

One place to start pondering this question is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark human rights document was agreed by the UN General Assembly in the dismal aftermath of World War II, when millions of people were still displaced, and borders were being reaffirmed. In many countries Soviet-style communism was clamping down on the simple human wish to travel within or beyond the state in question.


1 Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State

2 Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country

Seems reasonable. The core idea is not to set arbitrary or unjust limits on the right of people to move.

But read that Article closely. It says that you have the right to leave and return to your own country. It does not give you the right to enter any other country you choose to visit. Nor does it give you the right to stay in that country as long as you like, or to get citizenship of that country if you opt for that.

In other words, you do not have the right to migrate in general and to immigrate in particular. Is this any different from the common-sense idea that of course you have the right to leave your current house and to look for a new house, but you don’t have any right to enter my house and then stay there indefinitely as if it were your own?

This way of looking at the ‘human right to immigrate’ is deemed unsatisfactory by an odd alignment of socialist-leaning human rights academics and wild-haired libertarians. The arguments go something like this:

  • Human rights have to work in real life: it makes no sense to have a right on paper that’s meaningless in practice
  • Thus, when you have the UDHR right to leave your state, you (by implication) must have a right to enter another state
  • And once you have entered that state you have the right to equal treatment under the law. No discrimination! Why should you be denied the benefits and privileges of that state’s citizens?
  • This includes the right to apply for and be granted full citizenship in a reasonable time
  • The argument that local citizens might be ‘swamped’ by foreigners who get citizenship sounds pretty … racist? Why should existing citizens who live there by (let’s face it) accidents of history be privileged over future citizens?
  • That analogy of you entering my house is specious. A state is not a private house. Its borders do not ‘belong’ to any arbitrary category of people
  • We are all equal free citizens of a borderless world! Deal with it!


To all of which the principled answer is: Stop talking drivel.

Back in real life (that sensible if at times cynical place where states themselves rather than academic socialists or libertarians decide the rules of international law), no state will open its borders and citizenship to anyone who shows up. To do so would open the prospect of that state’s very existence being determined by people from anywhere on earth with no historic stake in that state or even any family connection to it.

Take, for example, Hungary. Hungary like a good number of other countries in Europe and beyond faces a worrying demographic future. Its population of some ten million people is ageing and declining. Hungarians are not producing enough people. Why not import people?

What if Hungary boldly throws open its borders and citizenship to all-comers? Within a few years five million Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners and British Brexit refugees move there more or less permanently to look for better living conditions.

Even if Hungary does not give these people citizenship, the practical character of Hungary for local people whose cultural and linguistic roots go back centuries will be changed beyond recognition by such a population surge, within just a few hundred weeks. If Hungary does give them all citizenship, and they start voting for the laws and benefits they want, those people who now proudly call themselves ‘Hungarians’ will soon be a political minority in their own country.

No policy even hinting at an outcome like this is likely to be popular with those Hungarians. They might take the view that even if they do not formally ‘own’ Hungary in the way someone owns a house, their ancestors have built modern Hungary over centuries and so have their own rights over that space and what’s now in it. Why should any foreigner’s supposed ‘right to immigrate’ trump (sic) their own patiently accumulated legitimate expectations? Isn’t there a human right to safeguard one’s own cultural and national identity?

Hence the painful public disagreements in the European Union about how far the EU space should admit non-EU migrants, and where they should go once they enter the EU space. Migration patterns and the post-modern multi-culturalism that supposedly suits Germanyand Francemight not be seen as a wise way forward in (say) Hungary or Poland.

Hence too political tension in the United States over the Wall. Yes, the modern US was built by immigrants. Does that now mean that any would-be immigrant who shows up at the border gets treated as if she or he were a US citizen? If not, what are the criteria for admitting some migrants and turning back others? How in fact to enforce those criteria? Even if there is a Wall, what if thousands of people a week simply climb over it? What about all those people who fill in US visa forms and wait in line at US immigration airport checks? They politely follow the rules – are they stupid?

The case of the United Arab Emirates is instructive. The UAE authorities are relaxed about people visiting, and even staying for extended periods. Dubai booms away. There are more non-Emiratis in the UAE than Emiratis. Are Emiratis a minority in their own country?

In numbers terms, yes. In legal terms, no. Emiratis keep an iron grip on citizenship.  It’s next to impossible for a non-Emirati to get Emirati citizenship and so gain a formal say in who sets the UAE’s rules. The UAE generously lets you enter and stay. But it sets tight rules about what you can or can’t do while you’re there and will briskly send you on your way if you don’t behave. You don’t agree with those rules? You think they breach human rights? Fine. Don’t come!


Every state needs to keep control of that state’s borders and its citizenship. A state needs a defined space and a robust mechanism for setting the rules within that space. Anything less than that, in a world where mobility is now so easy, directly challenges that state’s authority and very existence. If you want more of the general wars that shattered the twentieth century, calling into question all international borders and dissolving all rules is the way to set things moving nicely.


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