Our view

The right to belong somewhere

Everybody should be free to stay where they want to stay.
Migrants crossing a river in the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. picture-alliance/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Fernando Vergara Migrants crossing a river in the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama.

This simple sentence refers to a complex reality. Throughout history, human beings have not necessarily stayed where they were born or raised. People have always tried to escape from war and disaster as well as from persecution for political, religious or other reasons. Wherever human rights are abused, people have ample reason to flee. In our times, moreover, the climate crisis is making an increasing number of places uninhabitable.

People also migrate to earn more money somewhere else or to at least find a job. Young people study in foreign countries, and some stay there.

According to international law, fleeing is the kind of migration that serves survival. This definition is not crystal clear however. Does it apply to the young Kenyan woman who works as a household help in Oman and sends money home to ensure her family’s survival? Does it apply to the young Afghan woman who would like to go to university, but can only do so by risking her life and disguising as a male student in her home country? Or does it only apply to the Ukrainian woman whose country is being ravaged by Russian soldiers?

Migration itself can be life-threatening. In the hope of a dignified life, people try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in tiny boats. Others travel by foot through the jungles of Central America or Southeast Asia.

According to right-wing populists, high-income countries are at risk of being overwhelmed. In truth, it is countries like Turkey, Colombia or Uganda that give shelter to the largest numbers of refugees. The biggest refugee camps are not on Lampedusa or Lesbos, but in Kenyan deserts and Bangladeshi wetlands.

At the same time, high-income nations desperately need skilled migrants – not only, but especially in the health sector. Right-wing populists deny this truth. By implication, they are undermining their countries’ economic and social future. They are also undermining domestic peace because their aggressive rhetoric attacks anyone who has immigrated, who descends from immigrants and even those who simply feel comfortable with having immigrants as neighbours.

Almost every family has a history of migration

It is often ignored that almost every family has a history of migration. In particular, the Republicans in the USA seem to forget that their nation was built by immigrants. Perhaps it matters that these immigrants slaughtered the indigenous people in genocidal action.

According to market-liberal theory, four freedoms are important: free traffic of goods, services, capital and persons. The international community lacks competent rules for the fourth of these freedoms. In particular, high-income countries must make immigration easier and trim down useless and bloated bureaucratic procedures. It bears repetition that strict border closures breach human-rights principles.

Reducing inequality within and among countries is number 10 among the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs). The agenda explicitly spells out that orderly, safe, regular and responsible mobility must be made easier.

Everybody must have the right to belong to somewhere of their choice. And that somewhere must stay inhabitable, be peaceful and offer opportunities of prosperity to all residents. Where a person chooses to stay, he or she must enjoy equal rights and not have reason to fear discrimination.


P.S.: The EU is now planning to handle asylum applications along its external borders, promising fast decisions. Accepted asylum seekers would then be granted the right to stay in a particular member country, but would not be allowed to travel to others. The idea is that such an approach deters human trafficking.

EU leaders seem to miss the point that such action reinforces the message that people from other continents are not really welcome – which flies in the face of their need to recruit more skilled workers from those continents. For obvious reasons, Germany's Federal Government has recently decided to be more generous in regard to accepting foreign degrees and diplomas. However, a generally welcoming attitude matters as well.

Update: The P.S. was added on 5 May 2023.

Katharina Wilhelm Otieno is a member of D+C/E+Z’s editorial team.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.