Borders in the Time of Coronavirus: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Upended the Global Mobility Paradigm

Published 20 March 2020 / By Gilda Borriello and Asli Salihoglu

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Countries of the Global South are closing off their borders to travellers from the Global North, mainly from the European Union (EU). In these paradoxical yet ironic times, Europeans must confront national frontiers once again, a reality that they have long felt had become obsolete.

Neoliberal globalization has called for ever more permeable borders to enable the efficient circularity of goods, ideas and people. Nevertheless, this came with a caveat: as borders disappeared for the privileged few, they were erected higher for the vast majority of the world’s population.

And yet, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have turned the global mobility paradigm on its head. Not only has the outbreak hit economies in the Global North the hardest, but also Europe—a region which heavily regulates the mobility of travellers from the Global South—has been designated as the new epicentre of the pandemic by the World Health Organization.

A “Selectively Permeable” Europe

Borders, for the most part, are irrelevant to modern-day European travellers. Internally, the Schengen Union and the EU have over time torn down economic, political, and cultural frontiers in the region. Internationally, citizens of EU member states enjoy visa-free access to many destinations outside the continent.

While borders have disappeared for European citizens, the EU has introduced increasingly selective checks at the frontier of the Schengen zone.

For non-immigrant travellers, two EU visa lists, revealingly titled as the “white” and “black” list prior to the 2010s (van Houtum 2010), categorize non-member nationalities according to their visa requirements. Nationals of countries on the “white” list are exempt from visa requirements while those of countries placed on the “black” list—a list in which developing countries are over-represented (see Annex I in EC No.539/2001)—are subject to visa and security checks.

At the same time, to deter or outright deny entry to those fleeing persecution, the EU has increased its maritime security presence while signing readmission agreements with countries located on its southern periphery. The arrangements with the Libyan coastguard and the EU-Turkey Deal come to mind as prime examples of the EU’s externalization efforts in the migration domain. Even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that interception-at-sea operations violated the non-refoulement principle, as recently as three weeks ago, the Greek coastguard was filmed intercepting a dinghy carrying migrants in the Aegean Sea, forcing them to return to Turkish shores.

Tables Turned

The novel coronavirus, the culprit behind the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, used the same entry channels as those used by “legal” or “regular” migrants. Starting its journey from China, the virus travelled through airports, open trade routes, and business handshakes. It was largely undetected by border control agents and European government officials who were instead busy raising the alarm over a “refugee invasion” in Europe yet again.

On March 8, 2020, Italy, which has recorded the largest number of coronavirus cases after China, closed all internal borders of the Northern Lombardy region and 14 other provinces in the North. The night before, hundreds of Italian workers and students, who had originally left the mostly rural and job-scarce South for the northern regions in search of better life prospects, poured into the Milan Central Station, trying to catch the last train to the southern city of Salerno. This spectacle of reverse mass migration was in response to rumours of an incoming decree on mobility limitations.

Italy is characterized by a significant economic gap between its southern and northern regions. Massive emigration from the southern provinces to Northern Italy and other EU states has led to an ageing population and a negative net migration rate in the South. As internal and EU migrants do not need visas or work permits to move across national or international frontiers, those who had migrated to the North had never confronted borders, work, or travel restrictions before March 8. Their reaction to the regional quarantine measures is best captured in a video interview by an Italian online newspaper: one of those trying to catch the last train to the South declares that he “feels like a refugee.”

On March 9, realizing that regional quarantine measures were not enough to suppress internal mobility, Italy put the entire country on lock down; more than 60 million people unexpectedly found a new border right at their doorstep.

Meanwhile, international containment measures against the spread of COVID-19 were taken as quickly as those "containing” travellers and migrants from the Global South at the EU’s borders. However, this time around, countries of the Global South were the ones restricting the mobility of EU citizens.

Uganda was among the firsts to restrict travel to and from European countries on March 10, sending back 22 European citizens who refused to comply with its border control measures - that is, to spend two weeks in quarantine. This was followed by Turkey, Jordan and several other countries. Out of the blue, borders had materialized for some of the most privileged passport holders, and immobility had become their new reality.

Whose Passport is the Strongest Now?

Border control mechanisms produce and reinforce discourses on immigrant illegality and “invasion” (De Genova 2011). Exclusionary mechanisms upheld by visa requirements and said discourses are not always readily visible to passport holders in the Global North since they rarely engage with restrictive border regimes.

Fears create borders and reinforce negative discourses around them. In these unprecedented times, what Ruben Andersson has called the “border-security complex” seems to have been turned upside down. While fear continues to be central to legitimizing strict border control regimes, the ‘Western’ border-maker and the ‘Eastern/Southern’ migrant have swapped roles at least momentarily.

This paradoxical inversion of roles between the Global North and the Global South allows us to contemplate the relative everyday significance of borders for nationals of most countries, something the Global North has long taken for granted. This begs the question: whose passport is the strongest now?

About the Authors: Gilda Borriello and Asli Salihoglu are both Migration Studies Doctoral students at the University of Oxford.