Everyone who upholds the values of liberty has denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are trying to help Ukrainian refugees in one way or another. Through watching the news, we can see the help from EU countries, particularly those neighboring Ukraine, such as Poland, Slovakia, and Romania.
But on the other side of the world, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas and other refugees of different ethnicities from Myanmar have been reluctantly accepted or even denied entry and shelter in neighboring countries.
So what could explain these two very different case studies, and why does freedom of movement matter?
Freedom of movement is inherently libertarian
Libertarians stress the autonomy of the individual, so it makes sense that no state should say where any person should live.
Freedom of movement is also key to human prosperity. Much like with goods and markets, the free flow of talent and information helps us all.
Over the past decades, especially following the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy and capitalism have become triumphant.
Global trade has boomed. Different regional blocs have been trying to integrate politically, economically, socially, and none has been more successful than the European Union, with its four basic freedoms including free movement of people.
This freedom has brought about not only economic growth and innovation, with the Europeans having the opportunity to find the jobs that suit their talents and interests, but also the essence of peace and tolerance among different Europeans, which is extremely important in an age of rising nationalism.
Freedom of movement saves lives
When it comes to humanitarian responses, we often talk about providing humanitarian aid such as funds, meals, clean water, shelter, and hosting refugees coming from war-torn or conflict-prone neighboring states, in order to mitigate the disastrous consequences of humanitarian crises and human suffering.
But one overlooked response is the importance of keeping the borders open and ensure free movement of people.
What if complicated procedures at the borders hindered affected communities’ access to basic necessities? What if rigid immigration policies implicitly cost the lives of innocent civilians fleeing from foreign aggression or totalitarian regimes?
The most important aspect of saving lives is removing people from danger. If we hinder freedom of movement, we condemn individuals to death, and what libertarians would we be if we did?
Countries have opened their borders to Ukraine
Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the numbers will only rise. Amid the deaths, civilian casualties, injuries and destruction of infrastructure around Ukraine, there is also some hope for those fleeing.
EU member states and countries bordering Ukraine, such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova are welcoming refugees with open arms with plans to house them in different accommodations.
This is despite the typically harsh stance towards immigration in many of these countries. Nobody can predict how this humanitarian crisis will unfold, but this free movement of people provides a safety net for those in dire conditions.
The closed borders around Myanmar have worsened conditions
In Myanmar, there are currently over 800,000 displaced people, a year after the military coup. Most of them are from areas populated by ethnic minorities where poverty was a severe issue even before the coup.
This is not to mention at least 900,000 stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The junta’s atrocities only pushed these displaced people to seek shelter abroad, particularly in neighboring countries, such as Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Unlike the Ukrainians, the displaced Burmese have received the cold shoulder from their neighbors, and freedom of movement is severely limited or even denied.
Flows of aid are arbitrarily restricted, and the refugees are not allowed to move further inland at the Myanmar-Thailand border, while Bangladeshi authorities failed to ensure security in Rohingya refugee camps.
They even pushed for repatriation into the hands of Myanmar military authorities, who are primarily responsible for this humanitarian crisis with killing, torturing and forced migration of the Rohingyas. These actions of their neighbors did nothing but contribute to Burmese people living in fear, misery, and more danger under the junta.
Freedom of movement should not be a mere lip service, but a tool to be used in the toolkit of humanitarian responses. We need action, backed by a strong political will, to make sure that every refugee can live in peace and dignity, and free movement of people should be the first step towards this goal.
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