Human dignity is central to the self-understanding of western democracies.Footnote 1 It plays a major role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.Footnote 2 International statements around migration are often framed in terms of dignity – for example, the United Nations Secretary-General’s 2016 Report on the topic is titled, In Safety and Dignity. Likewise, refugee statements draw attention to denials of dignity – for example, when inmates of the camp in Lesbos protest, “We are not animals.”Footnote 3 Although many western countries condemn human trafficking and “modern slavery” as severe violations of dignity, they have also developed ever harsher policies against immigration. While trafficking into forced labour is certainly a gross violation of a person’s dignity, we argue that this focus obscures, rather too neatly, other violations of dignity relating to migration.

Philosophical and public debates often refer to a Kantian understanding of dignity. This tends to focus on our duty not to instrumentalize people: we should not treat others as tools or things. In this article, we highlight another serious violation within a Kantian framework: active exclusion. A single person may be able to instrumentalize another. By contrast, it “takes a village” – or more often, a state – to exclude. We suggest that exclusion offers a better way to capture the dignity violations so many migrants face. A politics of territory, borders and “hostile environments” frames migrants as, at best, recipients of undeserved largesse; at worst, as unwelcome intruders or competitors for scarce resources.

Throughout, we focus on the situation of (im)migrantsFootnote 4 who have arrived in western democraciesFootnote 5 but have not been granted some sort of settled legal status. That is, we do not discuss the policies by which western states hinder potential migrants from reaching their borders (Fitzgerald 2019); we only stress the vulnerability these policies create, insofar as they lead migrants into the hands of traffickers and smugglers. In addition, we do not draw distinctions based on the reasons people have left their homelands, such as oppression, conflict, or poverty. Some may have fled persecution and be seeking asylum on that basis; some may have entered by legal means but lack a legal right to remain; others will have entered via irregular or illegal means, such as smuggling or trafficking. Most of these people face uncertainty concerning possible expulsion from the country they have reached. They lack many rights that citizens take for granted – for example, rights to undertake paid work.Footnote 6 In one or more respects, these people face a “hostile environment,” to use the term made famous a decade ago by Theresa May, then the UK’s Home Secretary (Griffiths & Yeo 2021). A Kantian framework demands exactly the opposite: as a core requirement of cosmopolitan law, those who visit from another country have a right not to be treated with hostility (Kant 1996 [1795], 329 [8:358]; Kant 1996 [1797], 489 [6:352]).

The article proceeds as follows. First, we explain our focus on dignity and briefly outline a Kantian conception of dignity violations. Second, we examine the idea of “modern slavery” and note two disanalogies with historical slavery. Third, we consider institutional violations of dignity in receiving countries, focussing on enforced detention (e.g. in refugee camps) and denials of legal rights to participate in economic activity (e.g. paid work). These are not problems of instrumentalization but rather exclusion. As we stress, exclusion is closely connected with prohibitions on acting instrumentally for others. These exclusions and prohibitions violate migrants’ dignity, denying their equal moral status and a social status that allows them the chance of a decent life.

Dignity violations within a Kantian framework

As mentioned, questions of migration are often framed in terms of dignity. Coercion, exploitation, and detention are readily understood as violations of dignity. Statements like “We are not animals” or “Don’t treat us like animals” clearly also refer to violations of dignity. Here, dignity does not refer to ideal justice. Instead, it highlights how existing social institutions systematically insult people’s equal moral status and capacity to lead a life in self-respect. Kant’s ethics inspires this framing and helps articulate its basis.

Dignity violations are often related to Kant’s famous Formula of Humanity: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant 1996 [1785], 80 [4:429]). Following these words, using people as mere means is generally taken as the paradigm violation of this imperative. Severe instrumentalizations like slavery obviously violate a person’s dignity (cf. Kleingeld 2020, 389; Kleingeld 2012; Kerstein 2013).

However, there are dignity violations that do not involve instrumentalization. The general requirement in Kant’s formula is to treat others as ends in themselves. As such, it is possible to deny a person’s dignity by not treating her as an end in herself, though without using her as mere means (Wood 1999, 143). For Kant, other persons are the “supreme limiting condition” of my own particular ends (Kant 1996 [1785], 81, 86 [4:430, 4:436]). For example, if I could easily rescue someone in dire peril, my discretionary ends (buying an ice cream, getting to an appointment on time) must be limited by her status as an end in herself. Allowing a person to perish is not to use a person as a means. Nonetheless, it violates that person’s dignity. All too brutally, we declare that the dying person does not count for us – indeed, is useless to us.

Kant’s formula insists on the equal dignity or humanity of all persons. It leads him to emphasise both mutual respect and self-respect, and to condemn failures to affirm both our own and others’ dignity. We therefore propose an account that incorporates two aspects of dignity.Footnote 7

First, dignity may refer to the equal moral standing of persons, corresponding to Kant’s usage in the Groundwork:

In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity. (Kant 1996 [1785], 84 [4:435])

Second, many contemporary authors also use dignity to refer to the ability to lead a decent life. This is understood as a life in self-respect (e.g. Margalit 1998, Rawls 1971) where a person does not depend on others in ways that degrade or humiliate her (e.g. Schaber 2011). Here self-respect goes together with respect by others.

Kant also offers such a view. As he puts it in the Doctrine of Virtue:

just as [someone] cannot give himself away for any price (this would conflict with his duty of self-esteem), so neither can he act contrary to the equally necessary self-esteem of others, as human beings, that is, he is under obligation to acknowledge, in a practical way, the dignity of humanity in every other human being. Hence there rests on him a duty regarding the respect that must be shown to every other human being. (1996 [1797], 579 [6:462])

We see the same idea at work when Kant insists that when we help someone, we should try not to “humble the other in his own eyes” (572 [6:453]) or place him “in the inferior position of a dependent in relation to his protector, which is contrary to real-self-esteem” (577 [6:459]).

The wrongs that violate dignity, we suggest, deny someone’s equal moral worth by undermining respect in social relations. Sometimes these violations are interpersonal. Often they are institutional. As Kant’s mention of relations between “dependent” and “protector” suggests, social structures may undermine respect by rendering people inferior or powerless, hence unable to live without humiliation or exploitation. For example, severe poverty is often at odds with dignity. Legal frameworks and economic opportunities foster vulnerability and dependency, such that some people do not count as full members of society.Footnote 8 We suggest below that meaningful opportunities to act with and for others are central to social relations that affirm the dignity of all persons.

Although we have set these ideas out briefly,Footnote 9 we hope to make them more plausible by showing how they illuminate central problems in the context of immigration. Migrants are often exposed to serious dignity violations, institutionally and not just interpersonally. These violations go beyond instrumentalization.

Why a focus on non-instrumentalization can mislead: the category of “modern slavery”

Many people attempt immigration to western countries because of poverty, oppression, conflict or persecution. Alongside ever tighter border restrictions, these circumstances make migrants vulnerable to traffickers. Traffickers are interested in their victims merely as means: for abuses like prostitution and exploitative labour. So it may be tempting to regard trafficking as akin to slavery,Footnote 10 insofar as “people are stripped of agency, choice and dignity, treated as mere ‘things’, objects to be sold, bought, used and disposed of as chattel” (O’Connell Davidson 2017, 157). There can be no question that such abuses, like all forms of slavery, must be outlawed.Footnote 11 Nonetheless, modern migration raises many other problems.

Widespread western perceptions of individual migrants as passive victims of abuse or active criminals engaged in trafficking hide two important facts concerning modern immigration. First, most migrants today seek to move and work intentionally. This activity is a manifestation of their agency and personhood – in sharp contrast to slaves abducted and deported against their will, or born into slavery. Second, the emphasis on protecting migrants from abuse by individual traffickers sidesteps the fact that migrants are often obstructed in their journeys to the West, and denied protection should they ever arrive there. They may lack not only a general right to remain, but also effective rights to legal protection against abuse. Those regimes also deny them civic and economic rights, so that they can only survive through charity, begging, or even crime. This leaves them highly vulnerable. Traffickers or other criminals may continue to exploit and abuse them, safe in the knowledge that migrants have no legal recourse or lawful means to support themselves.

If we ignore these two factors, as Julia O’Connell Davidson argues, the “modern slavery” framing can amount to complicity with unjust immigration policies. It focuses on traffickers’ instrumentalization of migrants, but ignores the policies that lead migrants to rely on illegal traffickers and illegal work. This situation promotes wider perceptions of migrants as second-class persons, denying them social status and infringing on their moral dignity (O’Connell Davidson 2017, 171; see also Broad and Turnbull 2018).

In this section, we approach O’Connell Davidson’s sociological analysis from a Kantian perspective. Alongside instrumentalization, there are good textual and philosophical grounds to consider hostility and exclusion as denials of dignity. More positively, recognition and inclusion are vital to upholding the dignity of contemporary migrants. Moreover, they require that people be able to act as means – though not, of course, mere means – for one another.

The difference between human trafficking and human smuggling

“Human trafficking” is generally used to describe the forced transport of human beings over borders. Human smuggling, by contrast, tends to take place with the consent of, or at the request of, the person who is transported.Footnote 12

Although the terms may be conflated in public discourse or cross over in practice, two differences are decisive. First, trafficking involves deception or coercion or both; human smuggling involves consent. Second, trafficked persons are victims of wrongdoing; smuggled persons may be accused of doing wrong by states they arrive in.

From a Kantian standpoint, human trafficking represents an interpersonal dignity-violation while human smuggling does not. In the first case, the trafficker either seizes a person or, more likely, deceives her – for example, telling her that she will be doing regular work in a new country when she will actually end up performing forced labor. This is wrongful instrumentalization. It involves the core wrongs of deception or coercion or both (cf. O’Neill 1996, Ch. 6.6). It plainly breaches requirements of consent (cf. Kleingeld 2020, 391).

Smuggling is quite different. It may be consensual, non-deceptive and non-exploitative. The prospective migrant seeks the smuggler’s help in crossing borders. Usually this is in exchange for payment, either directly or in the form of debt, most likely to be discharged by the migrant’s future work. While deceit and misapprehension are clearly possible, both sides may have a reasonable awareness of the risks and costs. As Elizabeth Ashford notes, while many smugglers “are ruthless profiteers,” others “are willing to accept significant risks in order to help victims complete the dangerous journey… out of concern for those victim’s vital intersts” (Ashford 2013, 150). In that case, the wrongs are juridical rather than ethical or interpersonal, insofar as states declare that the smuggler offers an unlawful service or the smuggled person wrongly crosses borders. This presupposes that states have rights to exclude migrants in the first place, in contrast to Kant’s “cosmopolitan right” to visit and not be treated with hostility (Kant 1996 [1795], 329 [8:358]).Footnote 13

At least in theory, it makes no moral difference whether the migrant pays directly or undertakes a debt, even where the debt is to be discharged by work. Kant clearly distinguishes between the normative impossibility of slavery contracts and the legitimacy of contracts to let out one’s active powers for a limited period (1996 [1797], 472, 431ff [6:330, 6:283ff]). Remarkably, the UK Modern Slavery Act elides this critical distinction between trafficking and smuggling. It explicitly states that the “consent” of the victim “does not preclude a determination that the person is being held in slavery or servitude, or required to perform forced or compulsory labour” (Modern Slavery Act 2015), Part I, Art. 1 (5)). Since those judged to be victims are liable to face deportation, just like those who are judged to be voluntarily engaged in illegal work, this disregard for consent reinforces a hostile environment. As we discuss below (4.2), indebtedness may muddy the line between smuggling and trafficking; agreements may be deceptive or degenerate into coerced labour. Nonetheless, the distinctions are important: between trafficking and smuggling, between slavery and indebted work, and also – as we now discuss – between “modern slavery” and its historical counterparts.

Differences between transatlantic slavery and “modern slavery”

As Pauline Kleingeld notes, Kant’s prohibition of instrumentalization “has been invoked in struggles against slavery and other forms of exploitation… It is widely understood to mean that there is an absolute moral limit to what we may do to one another (and ourselves) in the service of our ends” (Kleingeld 2020, 389; see also Kleingeld 2012). While slavery relies on the agency of its victims – that is what makes them useful as means – it also objectifies and commodifies a person or, in Kantian terms, uses her as a thing.Footnote 14 Both modern slavery and the slavery of Kant’s day involve this fundamental violation of human dignity.

However, the institutional and juridical dimensions are quite different. Historically, legal frameworks enabled the transport, ownership and sale of enslaved persons. Laws prohibited slaves’ attempts to escape from their owners (marronage).Footnote 15 As such, it would be misleading to frame transatlantic slavery primarily as a wrong committed by individual slavetraders and slaveholders. The central injustice consisted in slaves’ inferior legal standing, which positively enabled others to instrumentalize them.

Those who speak of modern slavery highlight the grotesque dignity violation of reducing a person to mere means by confinement and brutality. O’Connell Davidson (2017) points to another parallel, much less comfortable for the self-image of Western democracies. Just as laws controlling slaves’ movement supported their instrumentalization, democratic states’ policies toward migrants render them vulnerable to oppression and abuse. Historical attempts to escape slavery resemble many modern attempts to migrate: both are voluntary efforts to flee violence, oppression and poverty. Even the human trafficking that leads to modern slavery often follows from people’s voluntary – determined, desperate – attempts to flee unbearable conditions. Like slaves who fled, these are active human beings, albeit heavily constrained by borders and other legal structures, as well as those who would prey on their vulnerability.

In other words, “modern slavery” is enabled, at least in part, by the laws that purport to prohibit it. Rather than being directly enforced by states, modern slavery is enforced by the back door: by robbing persons of lawful options to secure their own existence and depriving them of meaningful legal recourse if others abuse or exploit them. Although these measures do not directly degrade persons to the status of property and “mere means,” they exclude those persons from rightful relations with others. Migrants’ dignity is violated by the hostile insitutional and juridical environment of receiving countries, which denies them equal standing and the ability to lead a decent life.

“We are not animals”: refugee camps and exclusion from society

For the majority of migrants who enter western democracies, their case is not trafficking (although this is one risk), but rather smuggling. Partly because of western countries’ efforts to obstruct their journeys, many migrants face extreme risks. If they reach their intended destination, they still face a desparately uncertain future and legal forms of exclusion. Detention represents a material form of exclusion. Those who are not detained may nonetheless be excluded juridically and economically. We will especially stress the lack of legal opportunities to earn a living, as a forcible exclusion from social and economic life.

The indignities of detention

One risk facing migrants is confinement in refugee camps (such as Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos) or detention centers (such as the Napier barracks in the UK). In the abstract, detention may seem preferable to indebted and even forced labour at the hands of traffickers. In practice, it may be harder to weigh the balance.

Writing in 1943, and reflecting on decades of (compelled) migration that had broken the legal frameworks of Europe, Hannah Arendt commented sardonically on the plight of stateless persons: “Contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends” (2007, 265). Brutality and poor conditions are commonplace; some profit-making, privatized detention centres involve coerced labour (Booth 2020; Law 2018). Even where conditions are relatively adequate, people are still confined. As Margalit expresses the point, this represents a distinctive insult to people’s dignity:

Taking away a creature’s control by tying or locking it up is clearly… a manifestation of cruelty to animals, but what is unique to loss of control as a way of humiliating humans is not merely the cruelty of physical confinement but the symbolic element, which expresses the victim’s subordination. (1998, 146f)

Detention represents an indefinite, sometimes interminable period of physical and legal limbo. This is accompanied by the permanent possibility of statutory deportation – that is, a person’s involuntary return to whatever dismal conditions she was originally fleeing.

Consider, for example, a hopelessly overcrowded refugee camp like Moria. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that it meets basic needs to food, shelter and health care, confinement makes people into mere recipients of overstretched charity and patchy state welfare, systematically violating their dignity. Originally active seekers of a better life, of interaction and commerce,Footnote 16 migrants have been forced into the role of recipients. They must endure an inferior legal status and degrading physical conditions that enforce their passivity. Although they may leave the camp for very short periods, if they do not report back as required, they are forced into a situation of illegality, where they can only survive by begging, irregular labour or outright criminality.

These circumstances encourage existing prejudices against migrants. Their legal and social status as supplicants and recipients removes all opportunities to make a life for oneself in a new country. When refugees describe their life in camps as being treated like animals, their point is partly the sheer indiginity of detention and dependency, and the thoroughgoing exclusion that fences, camps and policing enact. They may not be locked up by individual wrongdoers (or gangs), like the victims of modern slavery – which no doubt is hell for many, though sometimes preferable to the conditions a person was fleeing (cf. Patterson & Zhou 2018, 412). But they are confined to a limbo, locked up and locked out from any possibility of establishing a new life.Footnote 17

The indignities of economic exclusion

While camps and detention centres make exclusion especially palpable, receiving societies have many other ways of excluding immigrants who have crossed their borders.

We will not dwell on the strongest forms of juridical exclusion, where a person is officially liable to immediate detention and deportation. In this case, she lives only by evading all contact with official authorities: she is utterly dependent on private individuals’ good will; most likely, she depends on their willingness to exploit her – thus the evils of modern slavery. Jeremy Waldron (2012, 2013) has stressed the broader connections between dignity, legal status and citizenship. Here the converse applies: juridical rightlessness spells every sort of indignity.

Many more migrants, however, will have an unclear juridical status, or a provisional one (e.g. their cases are under appeal). They still have good grounds to fear eventual deportation and to mistrust official authorities. In particular, most lack rights to earn a living and hence to establish themselves as “useful members” of society. At best, they are reduced to mere recipients of beneficence, a condition of enforced dependency. At worst, they are exposed to systematic hostility and effectively deprived of rights to a decent life.

In addition to formal prohibitions, many western governments have taken aggressive measures to clamp down on irregular employment of migrants. For example, according to the UK government, the 2016 Immigration Act is supposed to: “introduce new sanctions on illegal workers and rogue employers… prevent illegal migrants in the UK from accessing housing, driving licences and bank accounts… introduce new measures to make it easier to enforce immigration laws and remove illegal migrants” (Immigration Act 2016). In other words, migrants without a recognized right to remain are cut out of the legal economy, both in terms of essential services and in terms of abilities to support themselves. Rather than putting fences round them, fences are erected around all the things that, in modern socities, provide people with dignity and personal security.Footnote 18

Elsewhere (Mieth & Williams 2022), we have drawn attention to Kant’s ideal of social interaction as expressed in the Kingdom of Ends Formula of the categorical imperative:

[The kingdom of ends is] a systematic union of various rational beings through common laws… [that] have as their purpose… just the relation of these beings to one another as ends and means. (Kant 1996 [1785], 83 [4:433], our emphasis)

All Kant’s readers are familiar with the wrong of using a person as a “mere means.” Most forms of enforced labour break this prohibition, with slavery at the extreme. The gravity of this wrong should not, however, divert our attention from the importance of people acting as means for one another.

In the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant refers to this as follows: each of us “has a duty to himself to be a useful member of the world, since this also belongs to the worth [Werth] of humanity in his own person” (Kant 1996 [1797], 565f [6:445f]). Note, first, that this worth is partly constituted by its instrumental aspect: we should be useful, or act as means, for others (Wood 1999, 143).

Second, Kant frames this as a “duty to oneself,” rather than to other people to whom one might be useful. As such, this duty does not correlate with rights on the part of others.Footnote 19 Other people may not dictate to us how to make ourselves useful – that would return us to the evils of slavery and coerced labour. (We set aside possible exceptions in emergencies.) This duty also implies that others may not prohibit all channels by which we might contribute. If I have a duty, then others cannot have a right to prevent my fulfilling it.Footnote 20 For us to relate “to one another as ends and means,” and to do so on shared terms (“common laws”), each must have opportunities to act as means for others. A person violates a “duty to himself” if he does not make himself useful. A person violates a duty to others if she renders them useless – or in other words, makes them dependent on others. On a Kantian view, human dignity can be undermined when people are excluded from opportunities to act for and with others – or in other words, to act as means toward others’ ends.

At the same time, individual duties to enable others’ contributions, like those of beneficence, are imperfect. Positively, Kant’s Kingdom of Ends Formula points to the need for institutional frameworks which allow people to participate as contributors to a shared world, not merely to exist as abstract persons or needy recipients. To admit people as ends in themselves means that they must have meaningful opportunities to act as means for others. (Within the scope of their abilities, of course.Footnote 21) Only then can they play an active role in social cooperation, neither merely exploited, nor sheerly disregarded, nor rendered passive by dependency or confinement. This corresponds to the intuitive point that we do not respect persons merely by meeting their needs or providing physical safety. Welfare and charity can address need; detention may, just possibly, provide temporary security. But a decent life requires more. Self-respect and social dignity depend on playing a meaningful role in social cooperation.

We may make ourselves useful to others in many ways – as parents who care for children, or adults who care for aging parents; as volunteers or citizens or activists; as participants in a culture or in economic relations. When we consider the situation of migrants, we see how severely these opportunities are limited, and not just by the most brutal forms of confinement or juridical vulnerability (e.g. liability to immediate deportation). Many migrants will, of course, be doing their best to care for family or community members. But their powers to do so are severely limited by their inability to participate in the other channels just mentioned, and the lack of means at their disposal. In addition, much social and cultural life is closed to them by linguistic and other barriers. (Although most such barriers are temporary, or artificial results of preconceptions, and can be overcome with a reasonable will to do so – thus many activities of migrants and host-country activists in support networks and organisations.)

Without meaning to oversell the merits of paid work, we especially emphasize how damaging are legal (and other) barriers to normal economic activity. In modern societies, work and trade represent crucial channels by which we make ourselves “useful members.” Payment represents a tangible, empowering form of reciprocation. People act as means for one another; both thereby gain. When it is decent, employment enables the worker to achieve two things: to earn a living and to serve others’ ends. Someone who contributes to shared projects is freed from the charge of parasitism; someone who is paid a fair wage is freed from needless dependency. Both are fundamental conditions of self-respect and social dignity. Not least, adequate payment creates the freedom to buy goods and services beyond the bare necessities, increasing one’s ability to help family or friends or community members. To deny someone the right to engage in economic activity largely disables his or her participation in reciprocal social cooperation.

Of course, much employment does not live up to these promises. There are many well-justified critiques of injustice and indignity at work, even within the regulated labour markets of wealthy social democracies. Wages may be inadequate and hours too long; work may be unsafe or treatment demeaning. Alongside obvious economic injustices, one may argue that Western labour markets have exclusionary effects: in terms of age and disabilities for example, not to mention the relegation of caring responsibilities. To the extent that these criticisms are valid, our arguments sit squarely in the realm of the non-ideal. But this must be true of any account that takes seriously our contemporary situation – that large numbers of people flee destitution, oppression, and persecution; and that those people righly perceive that western societies offer a much better chance of a decent life.

In addition, note that dignity has a relative dimension – not just in the sense that indignity is a matter of markedly inferior treatment, but also in that dignity remains compatible with many inequalities. Most socially recognised roles bear a certain dignity: it requires organised social contempt (for examples: a caste of “untouchables,” racist segregation, criminalization of sex work) or outright coercion (as in modern or historic slavery) to empty them of all dignity. Even work that is humble and badly paid – for example, cleaning or manual work that does not require fluency in a new country’s language – should involve a minimum of social recognition, participation and purpose, not to mention a right to walk away and recourse against mistreatment. People may and do find some dignity in such roles, even alongside their humiliations and unfairness, just because they make and are seen to make social contributions, and are recompensed for this, however inadequately.

Alongside legal prohibitions, heightened surveillance increasingly makes semi- or extra-legal forms of employment harder to find, more hazardous to engage in, and less likely to accord some degree of dignity. As such, many migrants are forced to depend on charity or handouts, and have few means to help others in their turn. This restricts their ability to lead a decent life insofar as self-respect is diminished by unncessary dependency, insofar as they lack (legal) possibilities to take charge of their own lives and shape their own role in the receiving society, and are denied wider recognition as contributors to the receiving society. Equally, it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and even brutality by illegal employers. If much paid work has its indignities, these pale beside the mistreatments people must endure when robbed of all legal protections.

We can see how vicious this problem is if we return to the case of a migrant who has relied on human smugglers to get into a western country. Very often, she will have incurred debts to those smugglers. Legally, however, she has no way to pay off those debts. Even if charity or benefits meet her basic needs, there will be no surplus for such repayment. Legal prohibitions and increased monitoring – including measures that purport to tackle “modern slavery” – remove the only (semi-)legal ways in which she might become able to repay. For the smuggler, that is already a convincing reason to fear default on the debt. Equally compelling is the fact that the debt has no legal standing, and hence is only enforceable by interpersonal coercion. The logic of both parties’ situation points toward the smuggled person having to work for the smuggler as debt repayment. One obvious danger is outright coercion, so that the case may well shade into “modern slavery.” Alternatively, there might be a sense in which the arrangement remains voluntary. The smuggled person might agree to such an arrangement in advance; if all goes to plan, she might accept its legitimacy as she works to pay off her debt. As noted, even exploitative and onerous conditions may be better than the conditions she was fleeing (again, cf. Patterson & Zhou 2018, 412). That legitimacy will not be visible to state agencies, however. If those agencies find out, they may interpret the case in terms of modern slavery or illegal migrant labour. (Compare the passage already quoted from UK Modern Slavery Act: “The consent of a person… does not preclude a determination that the person is being held in slavery or servitude.” [2015), Part I, Art. 1 (5)].) The smuggled person might be interpreted as the victim of trafficking or as a culprit in her own right – an “illegal immigrant” and illegal worker. Either way, it will make little difference to her fate: deportation to just the place she had fled (Hodkinson et al., 2021).


Western states condemn “modern slavery” while enforcing harsh measures to combat “illegal immigration.” No one can doubt that instrumentalization by traffickers is a terrible violation of dignity. However, a preoccupation with this wrong may obscure a larger problem: that western countries deprive migrants of protections and opportunities alike. These are processes of active exclusion: a combination of institutional hostility and indifference. These policies rarely protect and often endanger; they prohibit some violations while making others more likely; they demean and diminish people who are, most often, not transported against their will, but actively seeking a place in the world where they may act with and for others.

At the heart of Kantian cosmopolitan law stands the right “not to be treated with hostility because [one] has arrived on the land of another” (Kant 1996 [1795], 329 [8:358]). At the centre of Kant’s ethics – hidden in plain sight, so to speak, in the Formula of the Kingdom of Ends – stands the importance of people acting as ends and means for one another. Our wider theoretical aim has been to show the connection between these points – a connection easily overlooked so long as we treat (mere) instrumentalization as the paradigm violation of human dignity. Just like using a person as a “mere means,” hostility and exclusion attack a person’s status as an end in herself. But they operate by denying someone’s place as “a useful member of the world” – that is, a person who is both an end and means for others. Perhaps strange to tell, enforcing uselessness denies a person’s status as an end in herself. Detention in refugee camps represents a refusal to admit migrants, consigning people to a lifeless, useless limbo. Insofar as migrants are denied rights to work, they are forced into dependency and insecurity. Not least, a default policy of deportation ignores how unsafe, abject and violent are the conditions facing so many people in our world today.

Dignity is violated by institutional structures as well as individual abuses. Lack of legal protection, dependency and marginalization fulfil the prophecies of populist rhetoric, that migration diverts resources and fosters criminality. Prohibitions on work may seem to undercut fears that migrants are unwelcome competitors for scarce employment. But their rhetorical effect is to reinforce such fears. Their practical effect is to foster a desparately insecure underclass – people who need not be paid even the legal minimum, who lack any effective rights to safe and decent working conditions, and who can easily be drawn into dangerous or even criminal enterprises. Public policies deny people’s dignity just as more hateful voices deny their humanity. This deepens people’s plights and hinders political debate that might help us respond, as Hannah Arendt put it in a disturbingly similar context, “in a manner worthy of man” (1968, 459).

In this article we have reinterpreted Kant’s ideas to reframe the violations of dignity bound up with the migration policies of contemporary western democracies. This theoretical task still leaves a much larger practical one: what sort of policies would better deal with matters? In a sense, the deep-seated difficulties reflect Kant’s claim about the three forms of public right: right within states, between states, and between states and non-citizens. These forms are, he says, mutually supporting; the lack of one corrupts the others (Kant 1996 [1797], 455 [6:311]). Until the hope for all three is realized, people will be driven to flee poverty, conflict and oppression; every state that aspires to rightful conditions will face serious problems in how to respond. But these challenges cannot justify the unimaginative hostility – “keep them out!” “lock them up!” “send them back!” – which greets so many migrants’ desparate attempts to make dignified lives for themselves.