International Migration, Border Controls and Human Rights by Antoine Pécoud and Paul de Guchteneire — A Summary

Pécoud, Antoine, and Paul de Guchteneire. 2006. “International Migration, Border Controls and Human Rights: Assessing the Relevance of a Right to Mobility.” Journal of Borderlands Studies 21 (1). Routledge: 69–86.

This is actually not a summary. Barring the small additions to improve grammatical flow which have been put in square brackets, the rest are extracts.


Is it possible to envisage a right to mobility?

Trends in Contemporary Border Controls

International migration has become one of the central issues of our time.[1] As a consequence, international migration is now high on the agenda of the international community and of many countries.

A largely shared feature of contemporary migration policies is their restrictive nature. Migration is commonly understood, in security terms, as a “problem” and many countries feel the need to protect against this “threat.”

[As such,] the borders between Western countries and their less-rich neighbours have become fortified. External controls at the border are accompanied by internal controls meant to identify undocumented migrants after entry. Another way of controlling migration lies in co-operation between countries.[2]

Controlling migration is costly.[3] [But] although it is difficult to measure their deterrence effect on potential migrants, the persistence of undocumented migration illustrates how even sophisticated forms of controls do not really stop people. [This is because] migration is now structurally embedded in the economies and societies of most countries whether in the form of remittances, cheap labour, or domestic services. Moreover, migratory movements, once started, become self-sustaining.[4] Controlling immigration is particularly difficult for liberal democracies [as they are constrained by] market forces and the philosophy of human rights. In practice, this means that civil society, human rights groups, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) can contest government measures and sometimes have them opposed by courts.

Border Controls and Human Rights

Contemporary border policies are accompanied by several challenges to human rights.

First, the measures meant to stop irregular migration have direct consequences on the asylum principle.[5] The confusion between asylum-seekers and economic migrants[6] leads not only to endless and unmanageable procedures to “prove” the existence of persecution, but also to human rights abuses and suffering for both “genuine” and “fake” refugees.

The second human rights challenge involves trafficking and human smuggling. The more difficult it is to enter a country, the more necessary the reliance on smugglers and the more profitable the business. This [not only] fuels human rights violations [but also amplifies calls for] strict border control policies.

The third challenge relates to the human cost of migration controls for the migrants themselves. The most tragic and obvious illustration of this cost lies in the number of people who die on their way to receiving countries.

Borders have thus become the site of major ethical challenges, and four observations can be made about them.

First, a tension between security and human rights preoccupations pervades the response to these phenomena. Migration has increasingly been understood as a security threat. This leaves little space for human rights. Indeed, the most frequent concern seems to be the difficulty of conciliating the trade-based openness of borders with their security-based closure, a debate in which people’s rights and dignity hardly play a role.

Second, these different phenomena attract various levels of attention and are treated in a differentiated and isolated manner. Human trafficking has been clearly acknowledged as a human rights’ violation and combating it has become a priority for many governments. Asylum also draws substantial attention but is treated in a largely national manner. By contrast, “deaths at the border” are largely ignored; even though they regularly make headlines in the media and draw the attention of a few NGOs. The connections between restrictive asylum policies, human smuggling, and migrants’ vulnerability are not recognized.

Third, addressing the relationships between border controls, migration policies, and human rights is difficult because of the moral complexity at stake and the ambiguous set of causalities between governments, policies, and human agency. Who, for example, is responsible for the death of migrants?

Fourth, the question is not simply what is happening at borders. Current migration and border policies may ultimately represent a threat, not only for migrants, but also for the human rights and democratic principles that lie at the core of Western states. Tough border control measures may not be compatible with the harmonious functioning of democracies. The values that guide societies cannot stop at their borders.

Toward a Right to Mobility

With governments unable to match their proclaimed ambition of controlling their borders, restrictive policies are not credible. A right to mobility may usefully reinforce an ethical and rights-based approach to migration and border controls. Having the right to leave one’s country is meaningless as long as one cannot enter another country. Emigration and immigration inextricably complement each other.

A right to mobility would counterbalance the uneven access to mobility[7] among peoples and nations. Restrictions on mobility are difficult to reconcile with the liberal egalitarian perspective according to which people should have equal opportunities. The issue of mobility opportunities is particularly relevant in an era of globalization, at the heart of which lies issues of circulation and international border crossing.

[Besides,] elaborating a right to mobility is not about adding one more right to a long list of rights; rather, it is about fostering respect for existing human rights. In a world of economic globalization and gross socioeconomic inequalities, the human right to free choice of employment (Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and to an adequate standard of living (Article 25) are hard to achieve in the absence of migration opportunities.

World Justice

Critics of neo-liberalism argue that if people flows were deregulated and exclusively market driven, the absence of state intervention would not lead to more equality but to the exact opposite. The only fair policy is development aid, foreign investment and trade.

[But] so far, they have not proved able to reduce the gap between rich and poor countries and, therefore, it may be time to try something else. [In fact,] migration might not only be the most efficient way of reducing inequalities between countries but also, and contrary to widespread perceptions, the most acceptable solution. Development also encourages migration rather than substitutes for it.[8]

Social Cohesion

Migration is often described as a threat to social cohesion. The arrival of newcomers destabilizes receiving societies and jeopardizes the sense of belonging and common identity that lies at the core of community life. [This argument] should be discussed with a particular focus on the institutions and mechanisms that ground social cohesion (welfare states, citizenship, and democracy)

 Mobility is a major challenge to the welfare state. [Their] logics are contradictory: a right to mobility is about openness and circulation, whereas welfare systems are based on closure. [But] the correlation between increased migration and the deterioration of welfare schemes is not straightforward. Moreover, far from being the main challenge to welfare states, migration is only one factor among many.

Along with welfare, citizenship, and democratic participation constitute key features of social cohesion. [There is a need to] unpack citizenship and distribute its different components (political, civil, social, family and cultural rights, notably) in a differentiated way. Migrants would initially receive a first set of rights (civil rights and fundamental social rights), and only later would they receive, in a step-by-step manner, full welfare entitlements or political rights. By avoiding the binary logic of inclusion/exclusion, this approach ensures that migrants are not “rightless” (as undocumented migrants tend to be) while enabling high mobility and addressing the reluctance of nationals and long-term residents to share their privileges with newcomers.

From a cultural perspective, migrants are often believed to integrate imperfectly, thus threatening the socio-cultural foundations of destination countries, creating tensions with the native population, and fostering racism and xenophobia. [The argument therefore goes:] if states do not control migration, people will do it themselves through more-or-less violent rejections of foreigners. [But] fundamentally, border controls indirectly feed racism by reinforcing the idea that foreigners and foreign-looking people are undesirable. [Also], control policies absorb funds and energy to the detriment of integration.

In short, social cohesion is about far more than migration; the role of migrants should not be ignored but neither should it be overwhelmingly emphasized to the detriment of other major challenges to social cohesion.

Economic Wealth

A frequent argument in favour of unrestricted mobility is of an economic nature. Free movement is advocated on the grounds that restrictions on the mobility of people are counterproductive. Free migration would [actually] reduce inequalities at the world level, hence, diminishing the necessity to migrate.

However, comparing flows of people to flows of capital, information, or commodities neglects the social complexity of migration. (see above)

Security and the Governance of Migration and Borders

A third way between open and closed borders could be a system of multilateral governance of migration flows whereby states would coordinate their migration policies for their mutual benefit, just as they do with flows of capital, commodities, and goods.

[However,] security arguments mitigate against such interstate co-operation. Today, faced with terrorism-related threats, states respond with a “rebordering” process. Internationalization of most national economies implies heavy cross-border movements of people, vehicles, and shipments. To truly control these flows would be so costly and time-consuming that it would harm economic growth.

The need to go beyond strictly national policies cannot be contested, [but] the issue is the nature of these goals: states can and should co-operate, but with what aims in mind? Migration can be “managed” in a very repressive way and it is easy to imagine a situation in which interstate co-operation would merely perpetuate current restrictive policies.

Tight control policies, whether nationally or multilaterally implemented, create situations of illegality and mistrust that make co-operative border management even more difficult.

[Also,] border controls do not really stop people but rather incite them to go underground [providing] smugglers and traffickers with enhanced business opportunities. Tight migration policies generate undocumented migration, smuggling, and trafficking, which then prompt calls for more control. In the meantime, the values of control policies impact social relations and people’s attitudes, not only creating a perceived need for increased control but also undermining the cross-border human ties that would make interstate co-operation possible. In this context, a right to mobility may be a way to break this vicious circle by helping to shed a critical perspective on the notion of “management” or “governance” in fields such as migration or security.


A right to mobility is ethically defensible and usefully complements the human right to emigration. It can serve as a stimulus, not only to elaborate fairer migration policies, but also to question the moral, cultural, and political foundations of contemporary practices. A right to mobility may appear as a naïve utopia. However, it is equally utopian and naïve to believe that minor arrangements of contemporary policies will provide sustainable answers to the challenges raised by international migration.


[1] In 2005, the number of migrants worldwide was estimated at 185 to 192 million, representing approximately 3 percent of the world population.

[2] Sending states frequently resent the way in which their illegally migrating citizens are treated by destination countries, but they are nevertheless incited (and financially supported) to contribute to migration controls by stopping their outflow of undocumented migrants or reaccepting those who have been expelled. Transit countries are also asked to better control their borders.

[3] According to an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report, the twenty-five richest countries spend 25 to 30 billion dollars per year on the enforcement of immigration laws.

[4] Through migration, countries are connected via networks that span the globe and facilitate more migration. Lobby groups, such as employers, can also impose domestic constraints on governments to allow migration for labour-market reasons.

[5] The asylum principle upholds the idea that all human beings are entitled to seek protection from persecution.

[6] Economic migrants posing as asylum seekers.

[7] Citizens from developed countries may travel and settle down almost anywhere in the world, while their fellow human beings from less-developed countries depend upon the uncertain issuance of visas and residence permits to migrate. Trained workers are sought and enjoy a greater level of mobility than their unskilled compatriots.

[8] The development process leads to economic restructuring, which forces people to find new jobs and creates incentives to move, from rural to urban regions or abroad.



“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol by Arnold Wolfers — A Summary

Wolfers, Arnold. 1952. “‘National Security’ as an Ambiguous Symbol.” Political Science Quarterly 67 (4): 481–502.

  • The divisions are my own.
  • If the use of the term ‘security’ in this summary, as in the paper, seems inconsistent and extremely loose, it is because that’s exactly the point that the paper is trying to make.

National Security as National Interest

Do the terms “national interest” and “national security” that statesmen, publicists, and scholars often harp about mean anything concrete and precise? The first word ‘national’ makes it quite clear in that the terms relate to the nation rather than individuals, sub-nations or mankind. But the words ‘security’ and ‘interest’ convey very little meaning.

In the period between the World Wars, American foreign policy was largely driven by the economic interest. Today, foreign policy is driven by the security interest. This shift from economic to a security interpretation of the national interest is understandable. The Cold War and threats of aggression loom large whereas the threats of depression and social reform are relatively minimal. The important question is whether this formula of national security can be a meaningful guide for securing national interest.

(I)t would be an exaggeration to claim that the symbol of national security is nothing but a stimulus to semantic confusion, (but) closer analysis will show that if used without specifications it leaves room for more confusion than sound political counsel or scientific usage can afford.

Statement of Facts in Security Policy

Demand for foreign policy guided by the consideration of national security assumes that nations have indeed made security their goal. The problem with this assumption, this “statement of fact”, even if it is true, is that “the term ‘security’ covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security.”

Security denotes protection of “acquired values”. It is then a value which a nation can have more or less of. Objectively, it measures the absence of threats to acquired values, and subjectively, it measures the absence of fear of threats to acquired values. This discrepancy between the objective and subjective connotations of security is significant.

Different nations react to the same threats differently. Nations that experienced attacks in the recent past or suddenly find themselves in danger after prolonged security are most sensitive to threats. Also, nations are not all or constantly faced with the same degree of danger. The point is that nations will therefore differ in their efforts to obtain more security.

Nevertheless, the generalisation that “most nations, most of the time have shown, and had reason to show, an active concern about some lack of security and have been prepared to make sacrifices for its enhancement” remains undeniable. This does not however make it a cardinal rule. It has been the case that efforts to increase security through, say, more armaments, even when the payoffs are certain, face serious obstacles as they introduce uncomfortable costs. Also, very few, if any, nations have started preventive wars on the grounds of security whereas there have been numerous wars fought for other, even trivial, reasons.

A different hypothesis stating that nations will seek to minimise their efforts to increase security as it is, after all, a negative value i.e., “the absence of the evil of insecurity” might offer a better understanding.

In any case, together with the extent of the external threats, numerous domestic factors such as national character, tradition, preferences and prejudices will influence the level of security which a nation chooses to make its target.

But nations are not free to choose the amount of effort they put into security. To this objection, it may be replied that ‘pure power politics’ is not the reality and that survival — one of the main justifications for security — has only exceptionally been at stake. Security policies then become more a function of what nations want than what nations are compelled to do by others. And there are values other than security that nations desire to secure and, ceteris paribus, “the efforts for security will vary with the range of values for which the protection is sought.”

What constitutes this ‘range of values’? There may appear to be considerable uniformity regarding these values as every nation wants to preserve its ‘core’ values of “national independence and territorial integrity”. That’s not disputed. But nations seek protection of other ‘marginal’ values too, e.g., markets and investments, which often become crucial on the security agenda even to the extent that many West European countries have become weary and distrustful of rearmament seeing it as a threat to other cherished marginal values.

Any policy for security cannot be determined by its end, i.e., security, alone. The means adopted have to be taken into account. The same end could, for example, be pursued through active rearmament or meticulous neutrality. The general propensity is to assume that the former path will be chosen, but that’s not always the case. This tendency is understandable given the fact, supported by historical reading, that security is being sought against violence — external or internal — which demands mobilisation of coercive power in order to respond appropriately, i.e., with violence.

But then again, such a tendency does little to advance the understanding of security. The takeaway is that, “in the matter of means, the roads which are open may lead in diametrically opposed directions”. This is exemplified in the treatment of Germany after the World Wars I and II: in the former case retaliatory, and in the latter conciliatory.

The choice in every instance will depend on a multitude of variables, including ideological and moral convictions, expectations concerning the psychological and political developments in the camp of the opponent, and inclinations of individual policy makers.

Little, then, is left of the sweeping generalization that nations, guided by their national security interest, tend to pursue a uniform and therefore imitable policy of security. There are plenty of reasons to say and historical examples to prove that they differ very widely in their policies which run the entire gamut from “complete indifference to security or complete reliance on nonmilitary means, … (to) insistence on absolute security or complete reliance on coercive power.”

Normative Judgments in Security Policy

(The following paragraph appears right after the first section but is being produced here for the sake of continuity and clarity. Why this is the case will be clear as you read pages 483 and 484 of the paper.)

“The demand for a policy of national security is primarily normative in character. It is supposed to indicate what the policy of a nation should be in order to be either expedient — a rational means toward an accepted end — or moral — the best or least evil course of action. The value judgments implicit in these normative exhortations will be discussed.”


Can any security policy said to be “generally expedient”? This is problematic because while the goal of security is not decided based on expediency, it is difficult to conceive of security itself as an end — the implication being that if security is not an end and merely a means to “more ultimate ends”, the question of expediency becomes relevant. Today’s followers of Machiavelli will of course maintain the security of the nation is an end in itself. However, there is growing opinion disagreeing with the Machiavellians. Why else do we — Americans — condemn Nazis and Communists for defending (the security of) their totalitarian regimes? Why else, in Asia and Europe, is there the apprehension that military security measures would make no sense it they came at the cost of basic liberties and welfare?

Can a specific level of security be generally expedient? One could say that the sky is the limit. But maximum security cannot be an expedient level of security. For one, every increment in security must be paid for by additional resources, i.e., by sacrificing other values. After a certain level, the gain in security will not be able to compensate the loss in other values. This is crucial as absolute security is out of the question. For another, while the problem of the “security dilemma” makes absolute security equal to absolute insecurity — in the language of game theory, a non-zero-sum game — in practice, this vicious circle can be broken through well-crafted diplomacy, self-restraint and moderation.

Can certain specific means of attaining security be generally expedient? It depends. There can be no one answer that fulfills the requirements of every case. Strong countries will have options that weak countries cannot muster. The “power of resistance” cannot be said to be generally expedient given the nature of security. If a nation’s security is understood in its objective sense, the subjective attitudes and behaviour of those nations that threaten it become paramount. But no strong recommendations can be given.

“…it will clarify the issue to sketch the type of hypotheses which would link specific security policies, as expedient, to some of the most typical political constellations.”

One can think of nations lined up between the two poles of maximum and minimum “attack propensity” … wherever the issue of security becomes a matter of serious concern, … an attack must be feared as a possibility, even though the intention to launch it cannot be considered to have crystallized to the point where nothing could change it. If this be true, a security policy in order to be expedient cannot avoid accumulating power of resistance and yet cannot let it go at that. … (in other words,) security policy must seek to bring opponents to occupy a position as close to the second pole as conditions and capabilities permit.

Such a twofold policy presents the greatest dilemmas because efforts to change the intentions of an opponent may run counter to the efforts to build up strength against him. The dangers of any policy of concessions, symbolized by “Munich”, cannot be ·underestimated. The paradox of this situation must be faced, however, if security policy is to be expedient.


Can any security policy considered to be moral? Any advice on national security will unavoidably be based on moral judgments. The framing of security policies then entails weighing the good and evil of values. As an example, a policy that favours greater military spending at the cost of healthcare carries the implicit judgment that the good of increased security is worth the evil of decreased social welfare.

It is easier to argue for the amorality of politics if one does not have to bear the responsibility of choice and decision!

There are two extreme positions that can be taken regarding the moral issue. One extreme is that national security is at the top of the value pyramid and that it trumps all other values. The other extreme is that coercive power is an absolute evil that must be shunned at all costs. For any other position in between these two, the issue is anything but simple. The line between protection of security and the preservation of other values has to be drawn. Where to draw that line is the perennial problem.

Decision makers thus have to navigate the moral labyrinth of which values to protect, what level of protection to be ensured and what means to adopt in order to achieve that level of protection. Policies of national security far from being all good or all evil can be either praiseworthy or condemnable, or praiseworthy and condemnable.

“This wide range of variety which arises out of the multitude of variables affecting the value computation would make it impossible, and in fact meaningless, to pass moral judgment, positive or negative, on national security policy in general.”


“In conclusion, it can be said, then, that normative admonitions to conduct a foreign policy guided by the national security interest are no less ambiguous and misleading than the statement of fact concerning past behaviour which was discussed earlier. In order to be meaningful such admonitions would have to specify the degree of security which a nation shall aspire to attain and the means by which it is to be attained in a given situation. … Because the pendulum of public opinion swings so easily from extreme complacency to extreme apprehension, from utopian reliance on “good will” to disillusioned faith in naked force only, it is particularly important to be wary of any simple panacea, even of one that parades in the realist garb of a policy guided solely by the national security interest.”