As my government sends armed troops to the border with Mexico to prevent a caravan of Central American migrants from entering the country, I was struck by a story in the New York Times written by Algerian author Kamel Daoud entitled “Can It Be Illegal to Leave Your Country?” As an international lawyer, this seemingly simple question intrigued me, because the answer is both a resounding “no,” but also a quiet, muted “yes.”
Daoud’s op-ed is about the trans-Mediterranean migration route, one of the most ancient migrant routes in the world, both through, and out of, Algeria. It seems that the Algerian government is disturbed by number of Algerians leaving their native land for the dream of a brighter future in Europe. So many decades fighting a bloody war for liberation from France and now scores of young Algerians are displacing themselves to Europe, singing as they go.
According to Daoud, the government of Algeria has criminalized non-authorized emigration. And, of course, the European Union essentially been criminalizing non-authorized immigration for a long time. In fact, while it is unusual for states to criminalize emigration, the widespread criminalization of immigration is so common, it’s easy to forget that the international system of passports only came into being a hundred years ago. Today, it is common as dirt to find immigrants locked up in jails all over the world.
Under international law, the right to leave one’s country is well established. It is upheld in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and many others. That’s nice. It’s nice that we have the right to leave our countries. Otherwise, our countries risk becoming giant, open-air prisons. Unfortunately, the right to leave your country is of little good if you can’t enter any other country. Perhaps it might be good for people who wish to float on an artificial island in the middle of the ocean.
For the rest of us, the right to leave one’s country carries with it few benefits if it doesn’t bring with it the right to enter another country. And the means by which one can freely travel from one country to another are disappearing. Borders are becoming more secure. The paperwork used to authorize movement has become more invasive. Biometrics are now the norm, promoted even by the UN. Global instruments that ensure the right to cross borders without prior authorization, like the 1951 Refugee Convention, have become ever more circumcised.
Meanwhile, the list of inanimate objects that can move freely between countries only grows: money, cars, toys, clothes, weapons, drugs. All of these things pass with fewer and fewer restrictions. News and information fly across the world in an instant. No one seems to know how to get Russian military intelligence out of my Facebook feed. Yet, I cannot go to Russia without a visa and many Russians couldn’t come here, ever. Each year, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico and back to Canada. But that caravan of migrants will likely never reach the United States.
Governments tell us that borders, biometric ID cards and movement restrictions make us safer. Do you feel safer?