The Panama Papers and the return of refugees: Two stark reminders that borders still matter

At the fence between Greece and Macedonia, March 2016.
At the fence between Greece and Macedonia, March 2016.
Image: Reuters/Marko Djurica
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Borders are becoming less relevant to many of us, in a world of rapidly developing networked communication. At Quartz, we work in a global team that collaborates and communicates constantly online, with geography and time zone only an incidental concern—a model we see across organizations including governments, taxi firms, and clothing retailers. Low-cost airlines facilitate international travel. The nation-state and physical borders matter less and less.

But today brings with it two reminders of how borders matter, both of which cut very deeply into the notion of a post-national world.

In the south of the European Union, refugees and migrants today are being returned to Turkey, their point of entry to the EU, under a new policy. From there, reports say, some are likely being forced back, across borders, into the war zones they have tried to flee.

At the same time, a massive leak of data contains evidence that some of the world’s richest people—including politicians, monarchs, sports stars, and actors—have used national borders to shield chunks of their massive wealth from other countries’ taxing authority.

In both cases, borders operate as barriers. For both billionaires and refugees the power of national boundaries remains intact even in a globalized world—but in very different ways.

Many of the people fleeing Syria are doing so because their lives are in danger. By accidents of birth and geography, they find themselves facing violence from their own government, foreign bombs, terror groups, or rebel factions. The egress has coincided with, and exacerbated, a clamping-down in Europe of its borders. Refugees from Syria and asylum-seekers from other oppressive regimes are intermingled with economic migrants, and the numbers—hundreds of thousands—have overwhelmed the scant resources and diminishing goodwill for dealing with their needs. Borders have been closed and fortified across eastern Europe in the same way borders were closed for years: walls, razor wire, guards with guns.

But money, the Panama Papers show, moves far more freely. Those national borders offer it a place of safety, far from the grasp of tax collectors. A host of nations—including Panama, the focus of the current leak—have set themselves up to easily welcome and coddle cash.

Much of this movement of money is above-board. “Having an offshore company isn’t illegal. For some international business transactions, it’s a logical choice,” notes the consortium of journalists that first published the leaks.

For humans, crossing a border is not illegal if you’re doing it to escape persecution—indeed, it is protected under international law. Doing so, to protect your own life and those of your family members, is often also a “logical” choice.

The difference is that one action is the result of crisis, and the other of opportunity. And the world is much, much better at supporting the latter.