Arash Abizadeh

Arash Abizadeh is a political philosopher who looks at democratic theory (examining the definition and meaning of the concept of democracy). Some of his most interesting work asks whether democratic states can justify their use of immigration controls that exclude potential immigrants.

Democratic states often argue that they should be able to control who can and can’t enter their territory. They argue that they have a right to exclude potential immigrants because this act of exclusion is done to protect the citizens already living within their borders. The ‘social contract’ model of democracy seems to require such a bounded state because in this ‘contract’ the demos (the people of a state) agrees to sacrifice some individual freedoms and to submit to the laws of the state if the state, fulfilling its side of the bargain, uses its power and these laws to protect the demos (through immigration controls in this example). The state therefore argues that to protect the demos it needs to restrict immigration, because the demos, it is argued, would not be able to live as a coherent community with a strong sense of unity and a common identity if new citizens kept entering.

Abizadeh’s work is interesting because it unpicks this argument. He argues that if we take democratic theory seriously, we would probably have to argue against immigration controls. He does this by pointing out that the whole argument above revolves around who we see as the demos. Normally, the demos is seen as all those people who are coerced by the state’s law (and who have therefore given up some of their freedoms to fulfil their side of the ‘social contract’ bargain). This is therefore taken usually to mean only people inside the state. Yet Abizadeh points out that state laws also coerce individuals outside the state. Individuals who are not yet members of a state (including potential immigrants) can still be coerced and controlled by its laws through acts of state force like detention and deportation but also through the threat of these things. If this is the case, he argues, then these migrants are in fact part of the demos and so should be given the right to participate equally in the making of the state’s immigration laws. If they were given this right, Abizadeh argues, they would of course vote for fewer border restrictions and so democracies would not be defined anymore by the implementation of tight immigration controls.

Selected Readings and Resources

See the article where Abizadeh presents this argument: Abizadeh, A. (2008) ‘Democratic Theory and Border Coercion No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders’, Political theory, 36(1), 37-65.

He has also written a shorter version of his argument here in The Critique:

And he has also spoken on this subject on Public Ethics Radio:


Published by Discussing Displacement

Discussing Displacement is a blog dedicated to explaining some of the key ideas and arguments within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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