Like most Australians, my wife and I have spent much of 2020 unable to visit family and loved ones. International borders closed first, cutting us off from our newly married US-based son and his wife. That was soon followed by the closure of state borders, and even the imposition of borders within states, narrowing our family circle to two.
Reopenings have allowed some travel, of course, though always with the fear that we might be stuck on the wrong side of a border by a renewed outbreak. But we have been lucky compared to the many people separated from their spouses and young children.
That's only one of the costs imposed by the current travel restrictions. Intending migrants and temporary visitors who had accepted job offers here have been unable to take them up, while Australians working overseas have been stuck there, unable to get a flight home. Regrettable as all this is, most of us accept these measures as necessary. The alternative, after all, is a mass tragedy like that we see in so many other countries.
Britain has been among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic. The discovery of what appears to be highly contagious new strain of the coronavirus has brought even tighter restrictions on travel to and from that country, right at the moment when the country is about to leave the European Union. The era of free movement between Britain and the rest of Europe is at an end, inevitably causing many more separations of the kind families have experienced in the pandemic year.
Young people who formed relationships on holidays or during study overseas will have to navigate a thicket of visa requirements if they are to live together and perhaps marry. Even being married is no guarantee: Britain imposes an income test (currently about $32,000 a year) on spouse visas.
One of the cruellest effects of the pandemic has been to separate elderly parents, sometimes ill and dying, from their children. But Brexit deliberately has the same effect. Take the case of a British citizen, living in Europe and with a European spouse and children, who has sick parents in England. Before Brexit, the family could move there to look after the parents in their final years, taking up a job and paying taxes. Now they face not only the income test but the prospect that the non-British partner may be unable to work.
The British government has long sought to discourage migration by creating what several former home affairs ministers called a "hostile environment" for anyone who falls outside its increasingly Byzantine rules. Now those barriers will extend to other members of the European Union.
While Britain has been particularly hostile to migrants, similar policies apply almost everywhere, including Australia. But with the pandemic having given most of us a taste of being separated from loved ones by impassable borders, it is worth reconsidering whether stringent restrictions on movement across national borders are really justified.
On examination, many of the most common reasons are either flimsy or frivolous.
In the flimsy category, the most notable is the claim that immigration reduces wages and job opportunities for low-income workers. The evidence is mixed, but even the estimates pushed hardest by restrictionists imply relatively small negative effects, which could easily be offset by changes to tax and welfare policies.
It's also important to remember that the governments most keen to limit freedom of movement have also been the ones pushing policies - from regressive tax cuts to anti-union labour market reforms and resistance to increases in minimum wages - that harm low-income workers.
In this context, it's worth noting that the strongest support for Brexit (more than enough to account for the margin by which the referendum was carried) came from retired people over 65, for whom the threat of competition for jobs was irrelevant. Young people, who actually had to weigh the benefits of excluding competition from foreigners against the costs of being locked out of work in Europe, overwhelming voted to remain in the European Union.
An equally flimsy justification for hostile borders is the argument that migration creates problems of urban congestion. Those who use this claim to justify keeping family members apart are rarely willing to support modest but politically contentious measures to reduce congestion, such as road pricing and urban consolidation.
At the frivolous level, but probably among the most significant sources of support for immigration restrictions, is the discomfort felt by many about people who look, live and pray differently from the ones they are used to. Quite simply, this discomfort has no moral standing.
But the most frivolous justification of all is "because we can" - or, to put it in the grandiose language of national sovereignty, "we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come." The rush to turn immigration departments, here and in other countries, into absurdly costumed "border forces" is an illustration.
The weakness of these claims does not imply that immigration should be unlimited, a position often described as "open borders". In reality, we are nowhere near having open borders. On the contrary, borders operate on the default presumption that no one should be allowed to cross them, unless they fall into some special category. We have all experienced the operation of this presumption during the pandemic.
The number of people who actually want to migrate for personal and family reasons is limited. At some level, migration would have clear and substantial effects on wages, but we are unlikely to reach that level under any rules designed to make family reunions easier.
For the moment, even repatriating Australians stranded abroad seems beyond the capacity of our government. But when international travel finally resumes, we should ask ourselves whether it makes sense to keep families separated in order to maintain arbitrary quotas or pander to nativist prejudice.
- John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland and a regular columnist for Inside Story, where this article also appears.