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Interview: Kieran Oberman

It’s a week before Christmas. Somehow, I’ve contrived to be back in the Social Sciences Library – I blink ferociously, attempting to extract myself from this nightmarish hallucination. No use, this is really happening. At least there is a good reason for it – I’m meeting Kieran Oberman, a Jesus D.Phil student who shares my current geographical predicament. He also happens to share my view on immigration controls – namely that there shouldn’t be any. There the similarity ends, because unlike me he should know what he’s talking about, given that he’s about to publish his thesis on the matter.

Extreme anti-immigration and nationalist voices don’t seem have much traction in Oxford, but an open border policy would probably seem just as radical to many. I want to know what the basis is of Kieran’s position. The question is met with a chuckle – “My position, first of all…?”

“People have a human right to international freedom of movement. “

Luckily, he seems willing to elucidate. “My view is that we should treat international freedom of movement in the same way that we treat domestic freedom of movement. You can go anywhere and live anywhere inside the UK, and the government would violate your human rights if it stopped you. That is a human right recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as a number of other documents. I think that people have a human right to international freedom of movement on the same grounds.”

As Kieran later tells me, his argument immigration controls is based on ethical, rather than economic or practical, concerns. If he believes that it is an ethical requirement that we have freedom of movement between London and Oxford, a border isn’t going to stop him asserting that the same is true between London and Paris. On this basis, his disdain for any difference of treatment between domestic and international freedom of movement makes perfect sense. The borders are irrelevant. The question then, is why we should be ethically compelled to allow freedom of movement to as great a degree as possible. For Kieran, it is a matter of basic human existence.

“This is what human rights are about.”

“We need to be able to move in order to see who we want to see, associate with who we want to associate with, practice different religions, express ourselves as we want to, marry who we like, be with who we want to be. All these things are the most important things about our lives. This is what human rights are about.”

As a child of immigrants, this seems immediately appealing to me. My parents came from South Africa and the United States, had they fallen foul of immigration controls I probably wouldn’t exist. Still, for those few not immediately converted by the prospect of my non existence, I know there are questions to be raised. Even Kieran seems to concede this, admitting that there are circumstances where immigration controls would be appropriate, even required – “If there are criminals trying to move around the country , or terrorists, or there is an environmental problem such as foot and mouth disease, then we can place restrictions on (domestic) freedom of movement, and the same goes for international freedom of movement.”

As our discussion continues, I begin to wonder if cultural threats, as well as material threats, would justify immigration controls to Kieran. In particular, I’m interested in the example of Native Americans, whom are almost universally acknowledged to have had some sort of ‘right’ over their lands, before outsiders exercised their ‘international freedom of movement’ .

“The question is -why? Why would a state or a domestic community, like native peoples in North America- why should they have this right to exclude people? The kinds of grounds I might accept are: “Our culture is under threat, our way of life will be totally destroyed”- really extreme situations – “we will be oppressed.” That describes the situation of native peoples in North America, they’ve gone through a period of genocide, they live in small communities- if they were swamped by outsiders there is a good chance their culture and way of life would be destroyed.”

At this point, I am about to spring the trap that I had thought I was cleverly setting. “So, Mr. Oberman, would you not accept that to some modern immigration into the UK constitutes a similar cultural threat?” Unfortunately, Kieran pre-empts my question, and the answer is no.

“That isn’t the situation for most states. States like the UK, like France, like America, they’re enormous political communities, they can take millions of people, people have already come and more people could come without their way of life being threatened. “

“The history of immigration restrictions has been closely tied to the history of racism.”

It’s beginning to seem unlikely that Kieran is going to convince the BNP. It’s difficult to tell someone their culture isn’t under threat when their definition of what constitutes a threat is their Tesco local becoming a “Polski Sklep”. I ask Kieran if he feels that much of the opposition to his position is down to xenophobia and racism.

“The history of immigration restrictions has been closely tied to the history of racism and the subordination of other human beings. If you look through the history, its only until recently that there’s been a norm established that you can’t, at least explicitly, say that immigration is just for white people. Australia has ended its explicit white Australia policy. Nevertheless, if you look at who is granted visas, who is not granted visas, who can move around freely, who can’t… It’s absolutely appalling, it reminds you of apartheid. Having said that, I don’t think that anyone who argues for immigration restrictions is racist.”

“In one hundred years time there might well be international freedom of movement. ”

Racists aside, even I’m not entirely convinced that large states like the USA are immune to the effects of mass immigration, and if I’m not convinced I have difficulty seeing Kieran’s ideas gaining broad support. I ask Kieran if he genuinely believes that abandonment of immigration controls is a practical possibility.

“It depends what you mean by ‘practical possibility’ – if you mean is it going to happen – Politically, can we persuade politicians and the public and those in power to do it? In the short term the answer is no. If you mean “could we bring this about without devastating consequences”, well, yes, we could at least raise immigration restrictions significantly without bringing about devastating consequences. On the political front I’m not totally pessimistic. I think in one hundred years time there might well be international freedom of movement. If you take the European Union, it’s absolutely incredible, you’ve got a situation that you didn’t have 25 years ago, in which members of the EU can go and with very few restrictions live in any other state within the European Union. “

Of course, opening your borders to Europe is not equivalent to opening your borders to the world. The drain on public services and the stress increased population could bring in general is probably the greatest argument against relaxation of immigration controls in the UK. Kieran accepts that, for a single country like the UK, it’s entirely possible that an open border policy would be ruinous. Still, he doesn’t accept that it would be necessarily.

“No one has a clue what the effects of abandoning immigration controls would be.”

“It depends on what the empirical evidence is, and the empirical evidence- no one has a clue what the effects of abandoning immigration controls would be. We know that lots of people would come, the question is how many would come. I think its entirely plausible that in the UK there would be so many people that would want to come from poor states that at some point there would be devastating consequences. If that is the case then to stop those consequences you can impose immigration restrictions. But you can’t do that now- you can only do that when you’ve admitted so many people that admitting more would trigger these devastating consequences. It’s a bit like having a lifeboat and saying “we can’t take any more people in because our lifeboat will sink” when half the seats on the lifeboat are empty.”

It would seem then that Kieran is fairly optimistic, and being a UK citizen why wouldn’t he be? He is, after all, already in the lifeboat, and what is more, he can go pretty much wherever he wants. He quickly points exactly why he wouldn’t be. Firstly, his privileged position come at the expense of those “billions of people around the world” living in “desperate poverty”. Secondly, he, I, and most anyone else still faces vast restrictions on our international freedom of movement.

“Almost anyone in the UK will have no problem getting tourist visas for almost any state in the world. But still, even for people in the UK- you go to America, you fall in love with an American and your tourist visa runs out and you can’t stay there. Unless you get married, or you lie, or do all the kinds of things that people try and do to get around immigration restrictions. Immigration restrictions constantly destroy people’s relationships, and get in the way of our lives.”

With that said, I thank Kieran for his rather limited time, and in a valued exercise of my domestic freedom of movement, get the hell out of the SSL.

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