Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem
Editor’s Note: This commentary, first published on March 4, was updated March 20 to reflect the evolving nature of the response to the global pandemic and to add a new section on travel restrictions in the “mitigation” phase in which countries now find themselves.
Governments around the world have been dipping into the migration management toolbox to demonstrate decisive action in the face of a global pandemic. More than 130 countries have implemented border closures, travel restrictions, prohibitions on arrivals from certain areas, and heightened screening. These steps initially were taken to try to block COVID-19 from crossing borders and later as part of a raft of mobility restrictions seeking to mitigate further spread.
While these restrictions failed in their initial goal of preventing the breakout from seeping across international borders—the virus is now in every corner of the world save Antarctica—they may be more effective as governments shift their focus from containment to mitigation.
In a matter of one week, a handful of bans has given way to sweeping shutdowns of international travel, alongside aggressive interior restrictions on movements. Travel bans are a blunt tool to stem spread from one country to another (as authorities struggle to distinguish between affected and unaffected travelers), yet they are a logical part of the toolkit in the context of social distancing and restricting all forms of movement.
The Containment Phase
The pressure to wall countries off from the virus has been fierce; yet in a globalized world where millions of people cross borders on a regular day, hermetically sealing one country off from its neighbors to prevent the arrival of an airborne threat is next to impossible. First, borders are porous, so even the most sweeping legal restrictions will not prevent all crossings. At best, they may delay the arrival of the disease, but this benefit comes at an enormous social and economic cost—essentially grinding international ties to a halt at a time when cooperation to overcome a common threat (including by sharing medical knowledge and allowing health workers to circulate freely) is more critical than ever. And at worst, mobility restrictions may encourage deception (to elude both border and health screenings), which is highly undesirable in a public health emergency where it is paramount to identify and track those who are infected. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that blanket travel bans from affected areas rarely achieve their goals.
The Wrong Tools for Containment?
The threat of a pandemic has spilled over into border closures in more recent history as well. Fear of Zika virus (2016), Ebola fever (2014), and H1N1 influenza (2009) all led to calls for tighter restrictions on international entries in a range of countries. Yet applying border controls to the spread of disease across international boundaries is like trying to catch water with a sieve. It has little chance of stopping all possible threats.
It is also unclear whether tools such as visa restrictions and prohibitions on certain categories of arrivals—designed to screen for “bad actors”—can be adapted to address a very different kind of threat. Targeting nationality, for example, may be a blunt tool in the realm of public health; the Hungarian government banning Iranian asylum seekers, for instance, fails to account for those who may have been living in closed camps in Turkey for years. And airlines do not have systems in place to collect (and verify) even basic contact information that would allow individuals to be traced should they become infected. By some estimates, this technology is more than a year away.
In the containment phase of the novel coronavirus (before WHO acknowledged on March 11 that the new pathogen would likely spread across the globe) attempts to reduce the pool of people arriving from high-risk countries may have had limited effect for a number of reasons, including difficulties reliably screening people on entry. And curtailing some forms of mobility while allowing certain types of travelers (including returning citizens and diplomats) to cross borders—even as these groups, too, have been tied to spreading the disease—can undermine the whole purpose of containment.
Aside from failing to achieve their public health goals at the containment stage, these measures may also lead to unintentional perverse outcomes. Enacting blanket travel bans at the start of a crisis could potentially incentivize more travel from an outbreak zone to get around these hurdles. Under President Trump’s proclamation, Chinese nationals can only apply for visas to the United States from another country; this could incentivize unnecessary travel to a country like Japan.
These measures simultaneously cast the net too widely (snaring some who are not a threat) and far too narrowly (missing those who are). But rather than improve passenger data or information-sharing, countries have been closing borders rapid-fire. The United States, for example, in early February banned the entry of certain arrivals from China and Iran. Colombia closed its border to Venezuelans, as well as to arrivals from Asia and Europe. And in an early precursor to more significant European border closures, Austria and Germany began imposing checks on trains and vehicles arriving from Italy in early March.
Bold measures taken in the name of containing the spread of disease across international boundaries are often fig leaves for broader aims: reducing “undesirable” migration and curtailing the openness that has been blamed for uncontrolled movements of asylum seekers and migrants. Announcing the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to nonessential travel, Trump described the border restrictions as necessary to stop “mass global migration.”
Other countries seeking curbs on immigration, Greece and Hungary, for example, have announced they will refuse to accept any asylum seekers for a month. And in some cases, governments have exploited public health concerns to expedite plans in morally gray areas. For instance, the Greek government has leveraged fears about the spread of coronavirus to justify its controversial plan to build “closed” camps (essentially detention centers) for asylum seekers who reach Greek shores.
Yet even countries historically friendly to immigration are taking sweeping measures, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, announcing that Canada would cease to accept asylum seekers from the United States at unofficial crossings.
Populist politicians who rail against migration are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and coronavirus, in face of no evidence to support this. Italy’s former interior minister, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, traced his country’s outbreak, without justification, to the docking of a rescue ship with 276 African migrants in Sicily. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared: “Our experience is that foreigners brought in the disease, and that it is spreading among foreigners.”
Migrants have long been scapegoated for the public health concerns of the day. Cholera was nicknamed the “Irish disease” in the 1830s. Ellis Island screenings in the late 19th century would send people back for contagious diseases such as trachoma and ringworm. In the 1980s and early 1990s there was vigorous debate in the United States over whether being HIV-positive should disqualify prospective immigrants (a ban imposed in 1993 was not lifted until 2010). And today a definitional battle is taking place over COVID-19, with some insisting on referring to it as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan flu.”
Nativist politicians across Europe and the Americas have found they can score easy points by casting the blame for society’s ills on the “other,” and by stoking moral panic for political gain. Fear is being weaponized. And these fears are taking root in fertile ground: facts are being questioned like never before, and today’s social media environment is rampant with conspiracy theories (such as the idea that the coronavirus is a bioweapon engineered by the Chinese or even the CIA).
The Mitigation Phase and an Effective Way Forward
The actions, and in some cases bombastic rhetoric, around closing borders are taking public attention away from where it is better spent: measures that actually work to stop the spread of disease once it is in the community. In the mitigation stage, curtailing travel to limit human interaction may prove effective precisely because all other movements are similarly restricted under a larger social distancing strategy.
The mutual agreement between the United States and Canada to close their common border to nonessential travel, for example, is a logical extension of steps both countries are taking to encourage people to stay home. Some of the measures taken within the European Union, where several Member States have temporarily reintroduced border controls, are sensible extensions of domestic decisions to limit movement.
However, it is essential to implement these measures in ways that advance public health goals—which means not stopping at restricting travel, but aggressively testing, tracking, and limiting exposure. Enhanced screenings at airports that put large crowds into very close physical proximity for hours, as occurred recently at a number of U.S. airports, flouts these principles and increases the risk of transmission. Failing to obtain travelers’ travel and contact details (given the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission) or letting individuals come from high-risk destinations without any medical screening at arrival likewise may undermine any benefit gained from restricting movement.
Governments are under huge pressure to place the bulk of their resources on the most visible measures, including at borders. But these controls are only one piece of the puzzle. Many communities are already at risk of dire outbreaks (particularly those with individuals of precarious legal status who may fear coming forward to authorities or feel pressure to continue work despite symptoms), so these controls must be combined with other interventions. Among them, medical testing, limiting contact with exposed individuals, outreach to vulnerable populations, and ensuring everyone has access to medical care in the event of infection.
There also are broader philosophical considerations, including whether immigration enforcement operations, and widespread detention of asylum seekers and other migrants awaiting immigration hearings, may conflict with other public interest imperatives during this crisis. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for example, has wisely decided to temporarily suspend most nonurgent enforcement actions (committing not to arrest people at health-care facilities, for example). However, lingering fear and mistrust within unauthorized communities, and contradictory messaging from government authorities, may still keep people from seeking care.
Governments need to find a way to respond to legitimate public concerns without scaremongering, which risks eroding already weak public trust. And while a threat that has now reached global pandemic proportions has sparked a “nation-first” approach in many countries, the solution to complex transnational challenges facing our societies must by necessity be an international one. Rather than focusing inward on protecting their own, countries should be reaching out to other countries—including those where the virus first surfaced—to help find solutions.