Want People to Be Free? Abolish Tourist Visas

(Bloomberg News) -

If the U.S. and Europe truly want to support the causes of freedom and global integration that hundreds of thousands of protesters are defending in Kiev, there’s one simple thing they could do: Abolish tourist visa requirements for Ukrainians. And while they’re at it, for Turks, Russians and everyone else in the world.

Hang on, you might ask: What would happen to migration flows if visas were abolished? Wouldn’t wealthier countries be inundated by people trying to become permanent immigrants? Nobody knows for sure, but the available evidence suggests that nothing much would change.

“It seems quite difficult to prove a link between the lifting of visa requirements and a subsequent increase of illegal migration,” a 2004 study ordered by the European Commission admitted. “Experiences have been different and seem to show that there are several other factors which can come into play in favor of or against an increase in flows.” This could be interpreted to mean that visas in and of themselves do not have a clear effect on illegal immigration, or that there is not enough information to decide one way or the other.

In 2012, the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Center studied the potential consequences of abolishing EU visas for Ukraine and neighboring Moldova. The “visa regime has been used as a labor policy tool,” the study said. “However, it has not been particularly successful in protecting national labor markets. Certainly, visas have not stopped the flow of irregular workers from Ukraine and Moldova.”

The study found that in 2010, 687,967 Ukrainians and 197,856 Moldovans stayed legally in the European Union, while assessments of illegal immigration from these countries ranged between 1 million and 2 million for Ukraine and 200,000 and 500,000 for Moldova. A vast majority of the undocumented immigrants obtained tourist visas but still did domestic, construction or agricultural work. Some overstayed their visas.

Ukrainians and Moldovans are not alone. Visas generally do not work as an entry barrier. The largest immigrant groups in the U.S. and U.K. — Mexicans and Indians — have both achieved that status despite visa regimes designed to limit their entry.

In the EU, negotiations to abolish visas with Russia, Ukraine and Turkey have dragged on for years. Turkey’s road map toward a visa-free regime with the EU includes so many pointless steps, checks and requirements that it looks even more unnecessarily humiliating than the actual visa application process.

Things move easier and faster when political will is present. In October, the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee voted to abolish visas for Colombia and Peru at the request of their major trading partner, Spain. In late November, visas were abolished for Moldovans, a reward for choosing closer integration with the EU over a customs union with Russia.

Now, some European politicians favor encouraging Ukrainians’ European leanings by letting them travel freely throughout the EU. On Dec. 12, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on EU institutions and member states to “commit to a broad opening towards Ukrainian society, in particular through a swift agreement on a visa-free regime.”

EU officials, though, are reluctant to waste such a valuable gift on the corrupt, incompetent and inconsistent government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are no great friends of Brussels, either, which explains their countries’ protracted negotiations on visa-free regimes.

The people of these countries should not be punished for the shortcomings of their leaders. If the EU welcomes them as guests, they will repay the kindness by spending considerable amounts in crisis-ravaged European countries. The U.S., too, would lose nothing if it scrapped tourist visas. Certainly, the move would give Ukrainians a much bigger lift than would listening to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) carry on about their bright future.