Coronavirus Is Spreading across Borders, But It Is Not a Migration Problem

As public-health officials race to keep the coronavirus (COVID-19) from becoming a full-blown global pandemic, governments around the world have been dipping into the migration management toolbox to demonstrate decisive action. Border closures, travel restrictions, and prohibitions on arrivals from certain areas are among the leading policy responses. The United States, for example, has banned entry to certain arrivals from China and Iran; arrivals from Italy face 14-day quarantines in Taipei, Hong Kong, Iraq, Macao, and other countries, and have been outright banned elsewhere.

The pressure to contain and isolate the virus is fierce; yet in a globalized world where millions of people cross borders every day, hermetically sealing one country off from its neighbors is next to impossible. According to a recent estimate, the longest flying time between two airports worldwide is 36 hours, shorter than the incubation for most infectious diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that blanket travel bans from affected areas rarely achieve their goals. Protectionism may disrupt social and economic ties, but do little to halt an airborne threat or truly serve the interests of public health.

The Wrong Tools for New Threats?

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 is like trying to catch water with a sieve. It has little chance of netting the real threat.

The first hurdle is a practical one. Effective screening is nearly impossible to execute on a large scale considering the sheer volume of traffic at airports and ports of entry and the fact that disease detection tools (such as forehead thermometers) are of limited effectiveness (they may flag some who are not infected while missing those who are). Meanwhile, the first line of protection against communicable disease—physical distance from others—is the very thing undermined by long screening queues.

It is also unclear whether tools such as border controls and visa restrictions—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 have had no recent contact with Iran. Meanwhile, passengers getting on an airplane are checked against criminal and terrorist databases, but 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.

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 are closing borders. Austria and Germany, for example, have begun imposing checks on trains and vehicles arriving from Italy. While denying these are border checks, these contribute to a broader debate about the future of the Schengen agreement (already strained by the emergency border controls of the 2015-16 migration crisis) and there have been calls for the European Union to suspend it entirely.

And in the U.S. context, the coronavirus-related travel ban imposed by the Trump administration is far more sweeping than anything ever undertaken by the U.S. government in the context of a public-health threat. Never before has a U.S. administration pursued such a comprehensive travel ban, vetting individuals across the migration continuum: when they apply for visas, before they board planes, and at physical borders.

Weaponizing Fear

Bold measures taken in the name of containing the spread of disease 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. Greece and Hungary, for example, have announced they will refuse to accept asylum seekers for a month. President Trump has suggested he is considering closing the U.S.-Mexico border, despite the fact that there are far more reported cases in the United States than in Mexico. 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 for asylum seekers who reach Greek shores (essentially detention centers).

Populist politicians who rail against migration are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and refugees and the outbreak, in face of no evidence to support this. Italy’s former interior minister, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, traced his country’s outbreak of coronavirus, without justification, to the docking of a rescue ship with 276 African migrants in Sicily. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared a “certain link” between the spread of the virus and unauthorized migrants.

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 1993 amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act made it so and the ban was not lifted until 2010).

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Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, Meghan Benton, and Susan Fratzke