Kevin Ip

International migration today is highly selective and stratified. Affluent countries often roll out the red carpet to desirable migrants such as highly-skilled professionals and wealthy investors. Is that morally permissible?

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

Imagine the following scenario: There are two societies separated by an artificial border. On one side of the border people—call them Richlanders—enjoy prosperity and abundance; but on the other side people—call them Poorlanders—live in poverty and destitution. Let’s assume that this difference is either a result of brute luck or the legacy of historic injustice committed against Poorland.

The Richlanders care little about the fate of those living on the other side. Instead of helping their poor neighbuor, the Richlanders build a wall with razor wires to keep them away. One day the Richanders make an offer to the Poorlanders, saying “you could come to live on this side but you have to prove yourself to be an asset to our society.” As a result, many productive and talented Poorlanders migrate to Richland, leaving behind those who are relatively fragile and unskilled.

So, is what the Richlanders doing morally permissible? If you find this imaginary case morally troubling, perhaps you should feel the same way about the immigration policies of most affluent countries. International migration today is highly selective and stratified. Affluent countries often roll out the red carpet to desirable migrants such as highly-skilled professionals and wealthy investors.

In the late 19th century, English moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick argued that “a state must obviously have the right to admit aliens on its own terms, imposing any conditions on entrance or tolls on transit, and subjecting them to any legal restriction or disabilities that it may deem expedient.” Sidgwick’s view would find little support today, as it is now widely believed that selecting immigrants according to their race or religious background is both discriminatory and indefensible.

Sure enough, these governments are simply pursuing their respective national interest. However, most of us would believe that morality constrains our freedom to pursue our interests, whether individually or collectively. Consider a hypothetical example: Bob is sunbathing on a beach while a child is drowning in the water nearby. It seems obvious that Bob is obligated to save the drowning child, even though his interest in enjoying the sunlight is legitimate in itself. Similarly, states have a legitimate interest in selecting economically productive (or simply wealthy) migrants, but this interest can be outweighed by other moral considerations.

What are these moral considerations? For starters, affluent states should not take advantage of an unjust situation. Doing so will exacerbate the existing injustice by creating even more underserved benefits. The current situation of global poverty is morally shocking: 1.3 billion people still in the world live in extreme poverty. In the developing world, nearly one in four children younger than five are stunted as a result of malnutrition or infection. Most OECD countries, are giving less than 1% of their gross national incomes (GNIs) as overseas development aid. More important still, the global history of slavery, colonialism, exploitation and imperialism implies that most affluent states are not entitled to their current levels of economic resources.The current regime of international trade in oil and other resources also imposes significant harm on the global poor as the affluent states and multinational energy corporations are effectively paying dictators to steal their country’s natural resources. Instead of meeting their obligations to alleviate global injustice, most affluent states continue to enjoy the discretion to select immigrants as they see fit. In this sense, the affluent states are actively seeking to benefit from the prevailing unjust distribution of social and economic opportunities to further their own economic interests.

Another consideration is the net effects of high-skilled migration on the sending countries. For example, medical “brain drain” is undermining the already fragile healthcare systems in sub-Saharan African countries as their domestically trained doctors and nurses move to North America, Britain, or Australia. A recent WHO report suggests that such migration contributes to 20 to 40% of the estimated critical shortages in healthcare personnel in many developing countries. Worse still, recruitment agencies from the affluent countries actively recruit healthcare professionals from African countries, providing them with legal advice on immigration and moving expenses.

Yet, it may be objected that abolishing skill-based migration programmes would unjustifiably restrict the fundamental liberties of high-skilled workers to migrate. The fundamental liberties of these individuals—their occupational liberty and freedom of movement— are now at stake. However, let’s not forget that low-skilled workers possess these fundamental liberties as well. It is unclear why the moral force of occupational liberty and freedom of movement should depend on a person’s productive skills and talents. Actually, my arguments would call for more inclusive immigration policies.

The conditions for permissible immigrant selection set out in this paper are surely demanding but selecting immigrants for economic reasons is not inherently wrong. Perhaps if the world becomes reasonably just and fewer persons need to escape poverty or oppression, the pressure of immigration facing the affluent states will be much less overwhelming.