A personal defence of more open borders

In a couple of days I will be pledging my allegiance to Australia. With this, my nomad journey is complete, that or my identity crisis takes on another dimension. To mark the occasion of finally attaining some stability I thought I would articulate why I am such a strong advocate for more open borders. And, in this one instance, I will deviate from my usual econo-rational self and make the bleeding-heart case.

About 50 years ago, my dad took the trip of a lifetime. He, with the help of some family members, gathered enough money to buy a boat trip from Mumbai to Bahrain where some of his cousins were already working. He hoped that this move would secure for him a decent income so he could provide for his family back home. You see, my dad grew up on the streets of Mumbai. He showed me the exact location recently. It was a 6x4 ft. space on the pavement, not too far from the sea at the time. That space, covered with blue tarp, was their home — him and all six of his family members. My mum had it only a bit better. Her six siblings and their parents lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, also in Mumbai.

The opportunities for development in India seemed sparse to my dad at the time; opportunity abroad beckoned. It was the 1970s and the Gulf countries had discovered oil, their economies were booming and opportunities for young hard-working people abounded. My dad spent two years in Bahrain before moving to the UAE to work at the International Airport in Abu Dhabi. My mum joined him not long after and they both had long careers working in Abu Dhabi before retiring to India.

They built a life for themselves. They saved and sacrificed a lot to be able to send my brothers and me to university abroad. They enabled us to create our own lives. To speak of them is to speak of tremendous spirit and dedication, a common characteristic in migrants.

My parents’ story is not unique. It is the story of hundreds of millions of other migrants and the children of migrants world-over. Opportunities to develop and progress are ripe for those who take the risks that confronted my parents.

Because of my leaning and my background as a migrant, I have read extensively on the benefits of migrants, the effect of migrants on the wages of the host country, segmented by whether or not they were high skill or low skill, the effect of brain drain, the sustainability concerns. In a series of blogposts to be released over the course of the next few weeks, I will discuss each of these in turn.

As a country, we seem concerned with foreign development and aid that is delivered to other countries as gauged by our government aid budget (presently at 5 billion AUD a year). This amount doesn’t include the private spending of Australians on various international aid organisations. I think it’s safe to infer, from the furore that surrounds decisions to cut spending on foreign aid, that Australians care about the development of other nations. If that indeed is the case, then a more open and transparent migration system should be a seriously policy consideration in this area.

In addition to being able to financially assist with my brothers and my futures, my parents, in the form of remittances, eased the financial pressures of the family they left behind in India. Clemens et al estimate that the volume of remittances generated is three times the total foreign aid budget

Many have extolled the benefits of Australia’s skilled migration system. The system funnels the best and the brightest into our country. Indeed, intellectuals in other countries are starting to take note of the benefits of skilled migration arguing that the benefits of high skilled migration to the host country exceed the benefits of low skilled migration.

My issues with the focus on skilled migration are twofold. The first is based on my personal experience — a skilled migration system would not have accepted people like my parents. My parents weren’t university educated, there’s no way they would have met the requirements of any skilled migration points test. My parents were, what is now the much-demonised and maligned group, economic refugees. Second, the net marginal social benefit (MSB) from low-skilled migration is larger relative to the net MSB accruing from the intake of high skilled migrants. That is, the arguments against migration pale in comparison to what the movement offers– an opportunity for a better life in spite of the risks. This is the search for better and the hope that it exists.