International Migration: Open versus closed borders

'The nexus between migration, border controls and policing pose critical challenges and opportunities to across section of interest groups. As regional trading blocks are being considered as viable alternatives to individual country approaches and political integrations are being crafted, the discourse on border controls has acquired some sense of urgency in many regions of Africa, not only because of the need to lower travel barriers aimed at easing the circulation of people, goods and services but also because of the real and imagined implications such policies may have on borders, international security and cross-border crimes'.

by Dulo Nyaoro

Since border controls are inextricably linked to broader tenets of sovereignty, national territory and bounded population, any discourse concerning borders will of necessity have a bearing on issues of national security, trade, identity and public services governments are expected to provide to their citizens and those within their borders. Tight border controls have always been justified as way of rationalizing migration, trade and security yet most governments have not successfully imposed complete and absolute controls over borders that can stop migration. However it is worth noting that forces of globalization are constantly challenging these long held nations. A great deal of transnational commerce, exchange of information and movements of people is taking place beyond border controls.

Not all borders are the same

Practical realities therefore invite us to revisit the border discourse. This article advances the argument that it is possible to have open and secure borders which benefit all those involved without necessarily compromising national security. Several reasons are advanced to support this position. First and foremost, not all borders are the same in terms of demographic composition, political and economic importance (imagined or real), economic activities and preferences. Most African countries with exception of a few countries in the great lakes regions, are sparsely populated which means that the reach of the central governments are not as extensive as in Europe. However there are border areas which are considered important either because of the volume of trade passing through them such as Busia between Kenya and Uganda or Namanga between Tanzania in Kenya. It is therefore practical to find heavy presence of border police, immigration officials and customs officers in such borders. Borders for example between Kenya and Somalia assume importance because of political and security reasons. Besides the fact that Somalis have had historical designs of claiming parts of Kenya, the current conflict in Mogadishu is a constant source of worry for government officers. Therefore is a continuous presence or armed forces near such borders. While concerns for security are real yet much more may be achieved through collaboration rather than closing borders the way Kenya has consistently done.

No evidence that borders are more insecure than other towns

Secondly, besides situations of conflicts, there is no evidence that these border towns pose more threats to national security concerns and practices and than other towns- a position normally advanced by central governments to justify having heavy security personnel in border areas. Research does not confirm the fascination central governments tend to have with border points. Indeed Johannesburg, Kampala or Nairobi, are much more insecure places than border towns say of Nkomazi in South Africa, or Malaba of Kenya and Uganda.

Transnational community interested in Safe Borders

Three, local people who benefit from open borders have interest in keeping borders safe and secure so that they can conduct their business safely, continue visiting their kith and kin without hindrance from security officers and migration officers. Because most borders generally and much of Africa in Particular are arbitrary they are characterized with transnational communities straddling the common international borders. It is practically difficult and politically explosive to attempt to stop people visiting their relatives across borders. Indeed when governments facilitate these movements rather than restrict them, they tend to flow freely without much confrontation. In Kenya for example when the border with Uganda was closed, Kenyans were forced to acquire Ugandan passports to visit relatives. This of course defeated the whole purpose of closing the border and encouraged corruption.

Closed borders are expensive

Four, closed border systems are both expensive and impractical to police given the limited human and material resources available to both national and local authorities. Given their sheer length and extent most borders in Africa are extremely porous. Many governments simply do not have resources to man such borders. Attempts to do this like in a apartheid South Africa simply proved futile while also endangering the lives of the would be migrants. Free border points served with government officers and right information reduces the need to carry out unnecessary and expensive surveillance. Internal dynamics such as demand for labour may also undermine central governments' attempts to close borders.


Photo: Noborder Network/flickr.