Cameron resists ‘inevitable’ open borders

The prime minister’s proposed EU reforms focus heavily on immigration controls. But the shadow chancellor says people will soon be able to move freely around the world. Do we need borders?


That was how the UK shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described the world’s borders on Sunday. ‘Inevitably in this century we will have open borders,’ he said. ‘We are seeing it in Europe already.’

As he spoke, the prime minister was trying to make crossing borders less attractive. David Cameron had entered an ‘intensive’ round of negotiations over Britain’s relationship with the European Union. One of his main aims was to restrict the movement of people within the EU.

Yesterday, Cameron’s spokesman said there had been ‘a significant breakthrough’. EU leaders had suggested an ‘emergency brake’, which member states would be allowed to use to restrict in-work benefits paid to migrants.

Immigration has become particularly sensitive in the UK since 1998, when net migration to the country rose from 48,000 to 140,000. That figure now stands at 330,000, and surveys suggest the topic is British voters’ most significant concern.

Meanwhile, the number of people trying to enter Europe from the Middle East and North Africa is rapidly increasing. Over 55,000 migrants, including large numbers of Syrian refugees, arrived in January alone. Others were less fortunate: the month was by far the deadliest January on record in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Human migration is millennia old; some of our earliest ancestors first left Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. Since then, people have moved to pursue economic opportunities, for religious or cultural reasons, or to flee war or persecution. In 2015, 244 million people were living away from their country of birth.

Levels of international migration have risen by 50% since 1990, partly as a result of population growth, cheap air travel and faster communication. Technological changes have previously made movement quicker and easier; the invention of steam power, for example, helped 50 million Europeans to emigrate to the Americas during the 19th century on steam ships.

On board

Campaign groups such as No One Is Illegal say national borders are artificial and divide people unnecessarily. Nobody should have more right to live in a prosperous, peaceful country as a result of an accident of birth. Abolishing borders would open up economic and cultural opportunities for all. The earth’s citizens should be allowed to go wherever they want.

That would be anarchic, respond critics. It would mean overloaded services, exploited workers and irreconcilable social tensions. Getting rid of borders would make it impossible for governments to do their job of protecting their people’s interests and security. And the existence of nations — natural communities of like-minded people — would be destroyed.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to move to another country one day? Why, or why not?
  2. Should nations have borders?


  1. Watch the trailer for the film Elysium (under Become An Expert). Discuss: do you agree with its message about national borders?
  2. Research a period in history when a major migration took place and write a factfile on it, answering the following questions: Why did people leave one area? Why did they go to another? What impact (positive and negative) did it have on the places affected?

Some People Say...

“One day, nations will not exist.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does migration affect me?
At some point in your ancestry you will be descended from migrants. In areas with high levels of migration, you may have noticed the changes that this can bring — new people usually bring new customs with them. You may also have made friends with people from different backgrounds and learnt things from them. But even if you live in an area which seems largely untouched by recent international migration, there may have been a knock-on impact — for example, local people may move as a result of new arrivals.
Will Cameron’s measures be well received?
Advocates of open borders see them as unfair, arguing that migrants should be treated like anyone else. But others say they do not go far enough, given the high number of immigrants Britain has accepted in recent years.

Word Watch

Cameron is also keen to limit Britain’s commitment to being part of an ‘ever closer union’, gain greater powers for national parliaments to block EU legislation, and ensure countries outside the eurozone are not disadvantaged.
This would allow countries to prevent migrants from claiming benefits for up to four years. The relevant country would need to prove to other EU members that their public services were too stretched to cope with demand.
Net migration
The number of people who migrate to the UK minus the number who emigrate from it.
Most significant
In January, 46% of respondents to a poll carried out by Ipsos/Mori said immigration was one of the ‘most important’ issues facing the country. Healthcare came second, with 38%; the economy, with 26%, was third.
The International Organisation for Migration says over 280 people died in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in January. In January 2015 82 died.
244 million
This is according to the UN. More people have migrated to North America, Europe and Australasia than have left them; elsewhere, the trend is reversed.

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