March 4, 2020 – 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).

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).

Unintended Effects

Aside from failing to achieve their public-health goals, these measures may also lead to unintentional perverse outcomes. Heightened screening may not deter travel from outbreak zones, but instead incentivize travelers to evade detection (for instance by masking symptoms or lying about recent travel). This is particularly worrisome because, ultimately, the only real asset we have in a public-health emergency is people being willing to come forward to disclose their symptoms. Also, enacting blanket travel bans (for example for migrants to the United States coming from China and Iran) 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. And travel restrictions also cut the other way: they can prevent needed health-care workers and supplies from getting in.

The bombastic rhetoric (and in some cases, action) around closing borders is taking public attention away from where it is better spent: measures that actually work to stop the spread of disease. Some of the solutions are not rocket science—essentially limiting contact with exposed individuals and being able to contain outbreaks as they occur—but these are the very things undermined by overzealous enforcement policies. Symbolic responses that make a big splash can give false confidence that ultimately backfires if governments miss a critical period for targeted interventions that do work.

Governments need to find a way to respond to legitimate public concerns without scaremongering, which risks eroding already weak public trust. And while the urgency of containment often sparks a “nation first” approach, 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 started—to help find solutions. This spring, as the international community prepares to come together to discuss issues such as how to rethink borders in an era of unanticipated spontaneous flows, a series of grounded flights may necessitate a rethink of how countries approach protracted challenges where we all have a stake in their resolution.

Republished with permission from the Migration Policy Institute. Link to original article:

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute seeks to improve immigration and integration policies through authoritative research and analysis, opportunities for learning and dialogue, and the development of new ideas to address complex policy questions.