I was sad and disgusted last week to see the highly-respected New York Times declare that “America is stealing the world’s doctors”.

That article approvingly cites a horrific proposal to put recruiters of health workers on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. This is breathtakingly misguided. Recruiters do not ‘steal’ people. They give information to people about jobs those people are qualified for. The professional ambitions of those people have equal value to yours and mine, and those ambitions cannot be realized without information. International recruiters allow African health workers the chance to earn ten to twenty times what they could make at home. In other words, recruiters allow them access to professional opportunities that people like me and Times journalist Matt McAllester take for granted by luck of birthright citizenship.

Did the person who told you about the job you hold now “steal” you? No? Why are African doctors passive property owned by others, but you are an active agent who owns yourself? Why does it sound natural to say that America “imports” doctors from Africa, whereas if you decided to move to a good job in Australia, you’d scoff at anyone who said you’d been “exported”?

This “stealing” idea pops up frequently and makes me sick every time. I’ve explained my nausea before:

“It is illegitimate to assume that it is possible for anyone to ‘steal’ a human being. The very concept of such an act requires it to be possible for human beings to be owned by others. The notion that health workers may be owned […] is offensive. It is also illegal […]. People, including health workers, who voluntarily leave their countries are not passive objects of others’ acts of ‘stealing’; they are active agents exercising a right guaranteed them by Article 13.2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

In other words, coercively blocking the unconditional right of a health worker to emigrate—such as by declaring her to be owned by a government and prosecuting her recruiter at The Hague—is a crime against humanity.

I elaborate on my objections in this guest-post on Chris Blattman’s excellent blog. I further discuss the health aspects of international health-worker migration in this article for Global Health, and the purely financial aspects in another post. In this longer read, I discuss what radically different policy implications we arrive at once we start thinking of health workers not as human resources, but as human beings.