Post-pandemic scenarios: do open borders to (better) govern migration

Post-pandemic scenarios: do open borders to (better) govern migration

Giacomo Orsini

The COVID-19 pandemic should have been a dream for anti-migrant politicians – what they had been unable to realize was suddenly possible in the corona crisis. The pandemic succeeded in closing down borders and denying access to asylum. Today, as never before, to close borders – that is, to reduce to a minimum the possibility of migrating lawfully – is regarded as the best tool to effectively control migration, and thus limit the spread of the virus.

Yet, somehow, counterintuitively, empirical evidence suggests that restrictions to international human mobility do little to increase the capacity to govern, control and eventually curb unwanted migration. My discussion here is based on over ten years of field research concerned with the EU governance of migration. I argue that opening borders – that is, allowing people to migrate legally – actually enhances the ability to gain control overs who enters or exits a country. Concurrently, it could solve most of the tensions and issues that migration seems to generate.

Since the nineties, the European approach to governing migration has developed consistently to create an increasingly hostile environment for unwanted migrants wishing enter Europe. One example being the several agreements that European nations have signed with neighbouring countries to tackle unauthorized migration in their territories – e.g. the 2016 (in)famous deal with Turkey. Similarly, new and more restrictive visa requirements for selected groups of foreigners were introduced and/ or entire portions of the external border of the EU was ‘fenced off’ by equipping it with the latest surveillance technologies.

Advocates of closed borders mobilize their followers by arguing that opening the borders of Europe would lead to an uncontrollable “flood of millions of desperate Africans”. Yet, no data supports such a scenario. Figures concerning the African continent show that – as in most other areas of the world – migration happens mainly within the continent. In 2019, almost 90% of the total number of international African migrants moved to another African country.

When deciding to migrate abroad most people prefer to remain close to their countries of origin. In fact, many move only within national boundaries – e.g. rural/urban migration. This is the case also in continents where there is high income inequality across countries but no restrictions to international migration. Africa and Schengen Europe are extremely good examples of this.

Based on available evidence there is thus no reason to think that opening borders will automatically imply a growth in migration from Africa. On the contrary, there is sufficient evidence demonstrating that, at least for Europe, to close borders did not help much in reducing unwanted migration.

While the EU’s efforts to close borders date back to the late nineties, available figures on unauthorized foreigners entering or residing in Europe show no significant decrease. Interestingly, data indicate that most undocumented migrants in the EU arrived with a valid visa and then remained after it expired. This means that it is not at the border where unauthorized migrants can generally be found.

In fact, since the majority of undocumented people entering Europe through the Mediterranean or the Balkans – thus crossing Europe’s external border unauthorized – actually have a right to do so.  This is because, as most of them apply for some form of international protection once in Europe then legally, but maybe also morally ,speaking they had the right to cross that frontier (McMahon and Sigona, 2018). Importantly, as they escape war and prosecution, migration policies do little to stop them searching for better living conditions abroad. This is proved by the frequent arrival by boat of migrants in the south of Italy – even in these last weeks of Covid emergency.

Rather than facilitating control and/or reducing unwanted migration, “closing” borders forces migrants’ journeys to deviate away from safer routes into less patrolled but more dangerous alternatives. In this context people often put their destinies in the hands of smugglers, consequently increasing business opportunities for criminal organizations and insecurity for both migrants and the host societies. More generally, to reduce the legal options for migration makes it harder for law enforcement to keep track of foreigners. After all, when successful, unauthorized migration goes undetected.

To open borders by having access to the identity of everyone crossing them, on the contrary, increases the control that authorities have. In the current situation they could more easily enforce effective health policies, as they would have more information on the people actually present within the national territory. As demonstrated by the recent regularization of migrants in Portugal, allowing everyone to legally access healthcare services is crucial in managing a pandemic. If governments want to control who comes in and who goes out of their country then they need to open the border by providing more – not fewer – options for legal migration.

But opening borders is not just the most efficient strategy to control migration. To remove obstacles to legal migration also produces a series of other positive effects for both migrants and the receiving societies. This is the case, for instance, for the functioning of labour markets.

Another argument which is frequently put forward to sustain the closure of borders is the fact that, without restrictions in place, nationals will suffer from the unfair competition of foreign labour. There is no doubt that, in several parts of Europe, the less attractive jobs are frequently taken by migrants. This is often because migrant workers are less demanding than local labour. Here, foreigners are blamed for the deterioration of workers’ rights and the generalized drop in salaries. However, these criticisms fail to take account of what is actually happening.

It is because people are unauthorized in a country – an effect of closing borders – that they will accept to work in the informal labour market. There is no such thing as a natural predisposition of any specific ethnic or national group, to be exploited at work. It is rather due to the precariousness of their resident permits, that migrants will accept work under any conditions in order to obtain and keep a job and, with it, the right to remain in the country (Lewis and Waite 2019).

If immigration per se does not cause the deterioration of labour markets conditions, closing borders is most likely to do so. To open borders would instead make migrant workers less precarious and exploitable thus, reducing the risks for local workers while facilitating the best match between of labour market demands and the availability of workers. A point which has become evident with the pandemic, as politicians in several countries discussed and/or implemented the regularization migrant workers’ in order to ensure that the necessary workforce would be available in the agricultural and other sectors – e.g. in Italy and many other European countries.

The EU provides a good example here. Since Europeans are given equal rights across national labour markets, the costs of hiring a native or an EU-migrant are the same in every EU country – making it eventually more convenient for employers to hire locals who, for instance, already know the local language.

The situation could be much improved for unemployed but regularized migrants, free to cross borders. They could search for a new job abroad, without having to face harsh legal and administrative costs in order to migrate. Portugal offers again a valuable example here as during the economic crisis non-EU migrants with more secure legal status, dealt better with economic hardship compared to irregular foreigners living in the country. Regularized people could simply emigrate elsewhere in Europe to search for employment (Pereira Esteves at al. 2018).

To conclude, to close borders is a highly ineffective strategy for governing (irregular) migration, which generates human and financial costs for both migrants and the host societies. On the contrary, rather than a being naïve position, opening borders would increase authorities’ ability to control and govern migration. Now, and even more in a post-COVID 19 world, regularising the migration of people would increase migration management capabilities and solve most of the tensions generated through the discourse of irregular migration.

Lewis, H. Waite, L. (2019) ‘Migrant illegality, slavery and exploitative work’. In Craig, G. Balch, A. Lewis, H. Waite, L. (eds.) The Modern Slavery Agenda: Politics, Policy and Practice in the Uk. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 219-242.
McMahon, S. Sigona, N. (2018) ‘Navigating the Central Mediterranean in a Time of ‘Crisis’: Disentangling Migration Governance and Migrant Journeys’. Sociology 52(3): 497–514.
Pereira Esteves, A. I. Cruz dos Santos Fonseca, M. L. da Silva Macaísta Malheiros, J. (2018) ‘Labour market integration of immigrants in Portugal in times of austerity: resilience, in situ responses and re-emigration’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44(14): 2375-2391.


Giacomo Orsini is a sociologist of migration. Since 2008 he has worked in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco, in Malta, Lampedusa, the Canary Islands and the Strait of Gibraltar. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies of the Université Catholique de Louvain. Since 2015 he is also a lecturer of the Institute for European Studies, Université Libre de Bruxelles where he teaches International Migrations in Europe.