Not everyone is happy about the Olympics

Protesters march against the corporate takeover of the Games.

It's a bright, sunny July afternoon and the descendants of victims of a 19th-century genocide march while performing their traditional “sreedom joug” dance to the beat of a protesting drummer. Glowing banners dance to a cacophony of horns, whistles and furious chants.

 
The Olympics are in town, and not everyone is happy. From Occupy London to the Green Party, over 35 organisations and 400 people marched across East London on Saturday against a range of issues linked to the games – from the militarisation of London to the corporatisation of the games and the building of future Olympic sites on the graves of genocide victims.
 
The diversity of the crowd's demands mirror the crowd itself: Refugee networks, environmentalists, charity workers and anti-war campaigners were among those fighting to be heard. Emily Coats, 24, a campaigner with environmentalist group UK Tar Sands Network, opposes the corporate sponsorship of the games by what she claims are unethical companies such as BP. “BP really has no right to be called a sustainability partner yet the Olympics gives it a great opportunity to try and convince the public that it's a really green, sustainable, good company.”
 
The government's austerity programme figures in protesters' objections, too. Mary Stuart, 54, an English tutor, said: “People are killing themselves every week because their benefits are being cut. I'm furious about it, and that's why I'm here.”
 
Civil liberties are also a concern, with more than 18,000 troops deployed for the games. Andreas Speck, 48, a campaigner for War Resistance International, takes issue with the restrictions on civil liberties during the Olympics. “I am here today to protest against the Olympics and the restrictions on our civil liberties which we have seen.” While Haci Ozdemir, 36, a campaigner with the Refugee Workers Cultural Association, marches against what he claims is corporate profiteering at the expense of local Londoners. “The local people will not benefit from them [the Olympics] when huge businesses are making money.”
 
Later in the afternoon, the protesters are herded together by police. They stop the protest on Vincent Road in Bow, to ensure that protesters do not spread too far apart when marching at different speeds. The marchers are peaceful, and cooperate with the them. Yet the marchers maintain solidarity when one of their comrades is stopped and searched by the police. Four officers, surrounded by around 40 protesters, form a cordon around the man while he is searched next to a wall. The marchers towards the rear of the crowd stop and wait for the man to be released.
 
“Let him go!” roars the crowd repeatedly. After a few minutes, a police officer announces to the crowd, “This man will be returned very shortly.” A protester shouts “the march will wait for him!” And wait it does. The man, who calls himself "Danny", says of the search:  “It was fine. I didn't really mind too much to tell the truth.”
 
Counter Olympics Network spokesman David Renton thinks the peaceful nature of the protest explains why it received “vast” coverage from international media but scant attention from the British press. “This demonstration has been entirely peaceful. Because there hasn't been a fight it stands against the way our media culture reacts to demonstrators: if there is a fight, there is a story, if there is no fight then no story." The international media presence is humbling – journalists from different organisations clashes while trying to interview the same people. The world hears the marchers.
 
But not all protesters marched solely against London 2012. NoSochi2014 is an organisation of Circassians opposed to the 2014 Winter Olympic stadium being built in Sochi, the city in their ancestral homeland which they occupied before the 19th-century Russian genocide against them. NoSochi2012 claim the site will be built on the grave sites of their murdered ancestors.
 
Lisa Jakarsi, an activist with NoSochi2014, says the group is at the protest to raise awareness about the 2014 games. “We're here to raise awareness about our plight. Basically they are building the [2014 Winter] Olympic stadiums on the graves of the Circassian genocide.”
 
Campaigning Labour MP John McDonnell for Hayes and Harlington marches alongside the activists. “I am in favour of the Olympics. I support sport. I enjoy sport. I enjoy the Olympics. What I am against is the corporate exploitation of the Olympics." McDonnell says he wanted the march to raise awareness. “I want people to start understanding the issue and debating the issue – about what the Olympics are all about.”
Protesters in east London marching against the Olympics on 28 July (Photo: Getty Images)
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The economic and moral case for global open borders

Few politicians are prepared to back a policy of free movement everywhere. Perhaps they should. 

Across the world, borders are being closed, not opened. In the US, Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and to cap the number of refugees at 50,000. In the UK, the Conservative government has reaffirmed its pledge to end free movement after Brexit is concluded. In Europe, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept a mandatory share of refugees.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has followed the rightward drift. Its general election manifesto promised to end free movement, and Corbyn recently complained of the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe”.

Among economists, however, a diametrically opposed conversation prevails. They argue that rather than limiting free movement, leaders should expand it: from Europe to the world. Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, likens the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk”.

Economists estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent. A doubling of GDP (a $78trn increase) would correspond to 23 years of growth at 3 per cent. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund estimates that permitting the entirely free movement of capital would add a mere $65bn.

The moral case for open borders is similarly persuasive. As the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman writes in his recent book Utopia for Realists: “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.” An unskilled Mexican worker who migrates to the US would raise their pay by around 150 per cent; an unskilled Nigerian by more than 1,000 per cent.

In his epochal 1971 work A Theory of Justice, the American philosopher John Rawls imagined individuals behind a “veil of ignorance”, knowing nothing of their talents, their wealth or their class. It follows, he argued, that they would choose an economic system in which inequalities are permitted only if they benefit the most disadvantaged. The risk of being penalised is too great to do otherwise. By the same logic, one could argue that, ignorant of their fortunes, individuals would favour a world of open borders in which birth does not determine destiny.

Yet beyond Rawls’s “original position”, the real-world obstacles to free movement are immense. Voters worry that migrants will depress their wages, take their jobs, burden the welfare state, increase crime and commit terrorism. The problem is worsened by demagogic politicians who seek to exploit such fears.

But research shows that host countries gain, rather than lose, from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute far more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than merely “taking” jobs, migrants and their children create them (Steve Jobs, the son of a Syrian immigrant, is one example). In the US, newcomers are only a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A Warwick University study of migration flows between 145 countries found that immigration helped to reduce terrorism by promoting economic development.

In a world of open borders, the right to move need not be an unqualified one (the pollster Gallup found that 630 million people – 13 per cent of the global population – would migrate permanently). Under the EU’s free movement system, migrants must prove after three months that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system” – conditions that the UK, ironically, has never applied.

But so radical does the proposal sound that few politicians are prepared to give voice to it. An exception is the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who argued in 2016: “Inevitably, in this century, we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century, so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.”

At present, in a supposed era of opportunity, only 3 per cent of the global population live outside the country of their birth. As politicians contrive to ensure even fewer are able to do so, the case for free movement must be made anew.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear