De-confine Borders: Towards a Politics of Freedom of Movement in the Time of the Pandemic

Published 9 July 2020 / By Charles Heller

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Throughout history, human mobility has repeatedly been singled out as a major factor in the spreading of infectious diseases. But it also often been particular mobile subjects – racialised, classed, gendered – that have been targeted by popular resentment and state sanctions alike. The new coronavirus pandemic is no exception in this respect. In early March 2020, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared: “We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus, there is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement”. The analysis of epidemiologists suggests however that it is less the insecure movement of racialised and illegalised migrants – the primary targets of Orban’s wrath – that contributed to the global spread of the virus than the mobility of privileged travellers – those with the right passport and the right amount of cash – jetting across global transport hubs for business and tourism. While high connectivity has long been a marker of power and privilege within a highly uneven world order, it had now become a source of increased vulnerability.

If the relation between global mobility and the spreading of the virus is recognised, the closing of borders to contain a pandemic is a highly contested measure among epidemiologists. The WHO has advised against travel restrictions with the exception of very specific circumstances, and Meier and his colleagues have argued that travel restrictions violate international law. Generally, limitations on travel are considered a double-edged sword that should be wielded carefully by weighing positive and negative effects, and always as part of a broader range of measures. Crucially, the consensus among experts is that drastic lock down of borders can only be effective if they are implemented early on, before a virus has been introduced into the population. This means that while the swift closing of borders across the African continent appears to have contributed to delaying the initial spread of the virus, because in Europe these measures were introduced after the continent had become the epicentre of the pandemic, they had limited effect. Border closures in Europe and elsewhere have mostly served a performative function, allowing states to demonstrate their resolve through the spectacular exercise of their sovereign power, even as the spread of the virus demonstrated their weaknesses and failures at so many other levels.

The stringent measures of border closure have however had a dramatic impact on the lives of illegalised migrants – those with the wrong passport (meaning often also the wrong skin colour and religion) and limited financial resources. While the privileged classes who have benefited the most from global mobility could protect themselves by staying immobile within the confines of their homes, this was not a luxury that migrants from the global south seeking protection and a better life in Europe could afford. While the EU Commission’s statement on the application of “temporary travel restrictions” contained exceptions concerning “persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons”, these have not been used to keep pathways open. Instead, like Viktor Orban, several EU states seized upon the occasion of the “war against the virus” to legitimise and intensify the war against migrants they had been waging for years. Violence against migrants has intensified across the internal and external borders of the EU. Across the Mediterranean frontier in particular, new practices of calculated abandonment and privatised push-backs have been consolidated, extending the list of more than 40,000 deaths that have been documented at the EU’s borders over the last 30 years.

Instead of blanket closure which are ineffective and have a high human, social and economic cost, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advocates for accompanying international travel with a number of measures to mitigate the risk of infection. These start with information to travellers before departure about the risks and symptoms of COVID-19; the application during travel of all the standard measures of physical distancing, hand hygiene and face masks; and upon arrival, the screening passengers who may be quarantined if a risk has been identified. The ECDC’s recommendations suggest that the modalities of international travel can and must be transformed, without limiting the right of people to move.

However because the current form of collective transport infrastructures has been shaped by the imperative of carrying the highest number of passengers in the smallest possible space, which makes it very difficult for travellers to avoid physical proximity and confined spaces in the course of their mobility, the risk of infection will remain. As such, those who are able to limit their travel should do so, for sanitary reasons, but also ecological ones. While in continuity with colonial discourses, the movement of populations of the global south is today framed as “excessive”, it is in fact the privileged citizens of the global north who have exercised their freedom to move at an excessive cost for the environment. High-speed carbon intensive air travel – which accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, is one more manifestation of the destructive consumption of the privileged that must be challenged. A collective process of self-limitation of polluting movement should be accompanied by state regulations and taxes on polluting fuels, and investments into alternatives to air travel, such as rail systems.[1]

If the movement of the privileged should be limited, the people of the global south who today are illegalised must be granted the right to move across borders. In an interconnected world marked by sharp inequalities and crises of all sorts, the question is not whether migrants will exercise their freedom to move, but at what human and political cost. State policies can only create a legal frame for human movement to unfold and thereby partly organise it, they cannot block it completely. Granting all migrants access to legal and safe means of travel is all the more urgent today, since without this access adopting the precautionary measures recommended by the ECDC is far more difficult – if not impossible. How can one imagine illegalised migrants adopting physical distancing in overcrowded boats, or wearing face-masks after they have been deprived of everything for months by their Libyan captors? It is the very illegalisation of migration that puts migrants’ lives at greater risk in general, and of infection of the COVID-19 virus in particular. Unable to protect themselves, they are less able to protect the people they encounter.

In this sense, adopting policies founded on the freedom of movement of all people should be a measure we demand of states now, not in some distant (post-COVID) future. Likewise, granting legal status and the right to stay to irregular migrants already present, as has begun to be initiated in countries such as Portugal and Italy, are essential measures to guarantee that they have access to health care and welfare. Recognising migrants’ right to move and stay, and ensuring that they are able to exercise their social and labour rights as well as their right to health is the condition to protect migrants and sedentary populations alike.

Radically de-confining borders on the one hand, that is going beyond the lifting of temporary travel restrictions imposed by states in response to the pandemic to undo the enduring limits imposed on the movement of populations of the global south, and, on the other hand, limiting the excessive mobility of the privileged which has contributed to ecological destruction and spreading the coronavirus, are measures which can simultaneously contribute to containing the pandemic and to forging a more just and sustainable world.

Read the full COMPAS Working Paper: De-confine Borders: Towards a Politics of Freedom of Movement in the Time of the Pandemic

Charles Heller is a Research Fellow at Centre on Conflict, Development & Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and co-director of the Forensic Oceanography project based at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is co-president of the Migreurop network. Contact:


[1] The Green New Deal for Europe. 2019. “Blueprint For Europe’s Just Transition”. The Green New Deal for Europe, December 2019. See also Stay Grounded. 2019. “Degrowth of Aviation: Reducing Air Travel in a Just Way”. Stay Grounded, December 2019.