Refugees trudging through Macedonia from Greece  AP/Boris Grdanoski

Both economic migrants and refugees find themselves in a uniquely vulnerable position. Bereft of many of the ordinary protections and securities of full-fledged citizens, they often have to jump through arcane bureaucratic hoops to regularize their documentation. They can be re-patriated on a technicality, sometimes due to an oversight by the host country itself; and they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers because of their limited labour mobility.

The UN Global Migration Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, concluded a few weeks ago by 164 nations, was therefore a golden opportunity to solidify an international consensus around the need to bring greater regularity and due process to the situation of migrants, and to present an even-handed and clear-headed discussion of the challenges surrounding migration policy in an increasingly globalized world.

But the UN has squandered this opportunity, producing a document that, in spite of some sound policy aspirations, such as the need to coordinate the fight against human smuggling, is mired in irrationally utopian principles of non-discrimination that would, on their face, eviscerate any meaningful distinction between migrants and citizens. It is no surprise, then, that many nations, including the United States, Australia, Israel, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Poland, have withheld their support from the pact.

Some of its defenders have pointed out that its commitments are not legally binding and that it explicitly acknowledges the sovereign right of nations to set their own migration policies. But this response assumes too quickly that non-legally binding documents are inert in the policy arena.

The agreement is non-legally binding, but it constitutes a joint commitment to a “cooperative framework” for global migration policy, in which the terms “commit” and “commitment” occur over 80 times. Therefore, the principles and language contained in it, legally binding or not, are likely to condition and shape the discourse and decisions of policymakers for years to come.

There is one clause of this pact that is extraordinarily sweeping and consequential, yet has received limited attention in the international media: a commitment by signatories to “eliminate all forms of discrimination” against migrants.

The fact that “discrimination” has come to be understood by high level diplomats as unjust without qualification suggests that our political elites are under the sway of an uncritical and unrealistic conception of inclusion and equality.

While discrimination has become something of a “bad word” in the lexicon of many modern citizens, there are many perfectly benign forms of discriminatory treatment that reflect the fact that social order is built on a wide range of particularist bonds and affiliations, from families and social clubs to cities and nations.  

Now, it is unlikely that the countries that signed up to this global migration pact seriously intended to bring about a world completely free from discriminatory border controls. However, that would be the logical implication of the pact’s unqualified opposition to “all forms of discrimination” against migrants.

To explore the limits of an absolutist philosophy of non-discrimination, we might imagine a world in which discrimination against non-citizens is a thing of the past, a world in which the privileges of citizenship must, in principle, be extended to all takers as a universal right.

This uncompromisingly egalitarian vision is captured poetically in the lyrics of John Lennon’s song Imagine: “Imagine all the people living for today, imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too, imagine all the people living life in peace… I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

The great myth behind the idea of a borderless world is that all human beings, being equal, must, just on account of their humanity, be equally well-equipped to live in a free society, and to uphold and serve its institutions, irrespective of their upbringing, cultural background, or personal history.

This is the kind of naïve, universalist cultural anthropology that propped up the disastrous attempts to transplant Western democratic institutions to Iraq, a country in which the democratic habits of give-and-take germane to constitutional democracy had not evolved under the despotic rule of Saddaam Hussein.

Those inclined to celebrate a borderless world would do well to remember that the virtues of civility and responsible citizenship are cultural achievements which many societies have failed to realize. Democratic habits are not genetically transmitted, but consolidated over generations in specific social, cultural, and historical contexts.

This is not to say that constitutional democracy is the only valid way to organize a society. But it is the system we have inherited and its underlying values of equality before the law, a free and diverse press, impartiality of public officials and judges, and individual responsibility, do not “grow on trees”; they must be nourished and maintained by a certain type of culture.

Like it or not, group and cultural dynamics vary dramatically across the globe and do not uniformly support a liberal democratic way of life. Although individuals may reject inherited wisdom and are not simply cultural “products,” people do nonetheless tend to carry the conventional wisdom of their culture and social groups with them.

Consequently, if you indiscriminately tear down the borders between cultures and societies, what you get is not universal peace and harmony, but a socially destructive clash of attitudes, languages, expectations, and habits.

Those immersed in cultures which lack a strong work ethic will not learn a Germanic work ethic by the mere fact of crossing the German border. Those educated in cultures in which blasphemy is considered a crime deserving hanging will not become religiously tolerant just because they have crossed into a liberal jurisdiction. Those brought up to believe that women are inherently inferior to men will not suddenly recognize the political equality of women just because they have crossed into a more egalitarian jurisdiction.

Inevitably, in pointing out the fact that individuals are deeply influenced by their cultural background, and that not all cultures are equally friendly to values such as personal liberty, equality of the sexes, religious tolerance, and economic responsibility, I will be accused of being xenophobic or having a “neo-colonial” mentality.

But it is hard to see how acknowledging the cultural foundations of democratic life and the fact that some cultures are less hospitable to its values than others is tantamount to hatred or contempt for anyone, including people brought up in anti-democratic or intolerant societies.

We must face the cold, hard truth that Western political correctness will not permit us to utter in polite company: the peculiar blend of constitutional democracy, welfare provision, and free market institutions that is the inheritance of Western nations probably only works well for those who have the requisite mindset and habits.

This means that those whose mindset and habits are formed in profoundly illiberal, misogynistic, or intolerant cultural milieus, whether inside or outside the boundaries of established constitutional democracies, cannot become good citizens of liberal democracies without overcoming habits and attitudes hostile to the basic tenets of a free and equal society.

A small number of people with habits and mentalities forged in an undemocratic, intolerant, fundamentalist, or deeply misogynisic culture may join a democratic society and leave its ethos more or less undisturbed. But the influx into a democratic society of a large number of people who have imbibed intolerant and authoritarian attitudes from an early age may put the cultural infrastructure of their host society in jeopardy.

Thus, the idea of a borderless world, far from fulfilling Lennon’s dream of “people living life in peace,” is, at bottom, a dystopia of social chaos and political collapse, in which millions of migrants would arrive in Western countries unprepared to take on the customs and norms of a democratic culture, and would inevitably clash with those who have imbibed that culture with their mother’s milk.

These considerations emphatically demonstrate that the absolutist interpretation of the principle of non-discrimination championed by the Global Migration Compact represents a strange caricature, not a true reflection, of the principle of equal dignity.

Equal dignity means treating all human beings with full consideration and respect, in accordance with what they are owed as a matter of justice. The duties of justice are not invariant; on the contrary, they vary according to the relationship of the parties involved. I owe special duties of solidarity to other family members; yet other duties to my immediate neighbours; others to my fellow citizens; and others to temporary residents and migrants.

Of course, we ought to make the migration process as humane and respectful as it possibly can be, and give due weight to the claims of migrants, and in particular the claims of genuine asylum seekers. Furthermore, it is hard to underestimate the cultural and economic gains associated with international trade and mobility.

Nonetheless, once we accept that democratic citizenship is not encoded into the human genome, but a singular cultural achievement, we have every reason to reject the view that a borderless world with “no countries,” would be anything other than a political and economic nightmare.

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society.