Abstract The ways border regimes affect migration patterns remain ambiguous. Closed borders may constrain migration but also encourage migrants to pursue alternative migration channels and destinations. While open borders may be associated with higher migration, oftentimes they promote circulation and return. To clarify how different border regimes influence migration patterns, this article examines the impact of open and closed border regimes on migration outcomes in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana in the 1950s–1980s period, when all three gained independence or non-sovereign status and colonial ties were strong. The article proposes a conceptual schematic model that can accommodate varied post-colonial political and border regime transitions and explains changes in the timing, destination and composition of migration. The analysis finds that, counterintuitively, closed borders can lead to high emigration while open borders can encourage people to stay. The proposed model also illustrates the relevance of three dimensions of time: the historical juncture, the sequence of change and the time span. In sum, rather than preventing migration, border regimes yield important effects that lead to migration diversification.