Covid-19: emergency travel bans raise immigration concerns

Jennifer Venis, IBA Multimedia JournalistMonday 30 March 2020

Several countries have closed their borders to contain and delay the spread of Covid-19, the coronavirus that has affected over 700,000 people worldwide so far. What began as a series of restrictions focusing on travel to and from outbreak zones has morphed into a global trend towards rapid isolationism that has left foreign workers stranded and violated international human rights norms.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, told Global Insight that ‘some authoritarian leaders are using this opportunity to introduce laws that are oppressive, under the guise of the public interest’.

The World Health Organization (WHO) ‘continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing Covid-19 outbreaks’, as it says they are not usually effective but can have significant economic impact. By 27 February, however, 38 countries had reported measures that interfere with international traffic, including visa restrictions, denial of entry and quarantines.

Some authoritarian leaders are using this opportunity to introduce laws that are oppressive, under the guise of the public interest

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Director, IBA’s Human Rights Institute

Many countries initially focused on testing travellers from China and nearby countries on arrival, or placing them in two-week quarantine. This was quickly replaced by outright bans on travel from outbreak zones, with the only exception being citizens who needed to get home. As of 24 March, several countries, including Spain and the United States, have closed their borders to non-essential travel, limiting the movements of citizens as well as non-nationals.

The WHO states travel restrictions are only justifiable at the beginning of an outbreak, to give countries a few days to implement preparedness measures, and must be ‘proportionate to public health risk [and] short in duration’. But many of the restrictions brought in so far do not have a limited duration and have been implemented when the country already has a significant number of national cases.

On 11 March, US President Donald Trump announced 30-day travel restrictions from the European Schengen area, which soon extended to the United Kingdom and other areas. The restrictions were brought in despite the US having, by that point, almost as many cases of Covid-19 as Europe. When European leaders criticised the Trump administration for bringing in the ban without consulting them, President Trump blamed their inaction in closing their own borders for the spread of Covid-19 throughout Europe and into the US. He defended the ban as the ‘most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history’.

Highlighting the US President’s repeated positioning of the virus as ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’, Baroness Kennedy raises concerns about the plight of foreign workers and ethnic minorities. ‘It’s very easy for populist leaders to present this virus as something that is foreign, that the indigenous homogenous population has been contaminated by the introduction of outsiders, and that therefore the borders have to be made tighter and stronger,’ she says. ‘They call for more isolationism and it also means that the people who are already in the country become suspect’.

For Anne O’Donoghue, Co-Chair of the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, ‘the US administration can be seen to have used concerns of public health surrounding the coronavirus to fuel President Trump’s agenda for travel bans and stricter border security.’

O’Donoghue suggests that, while restriction of movement between countries and areas where many people have been infected may reduce the spread of the coronavirus, severe and unnecessary restrictions can also have the adverse consequence of escalating fear and stigma.

In late February, Matteo Salvini, leader of the League party in Italy, decried the Italian government for allowing a boatload of African migrants to dock in Sicily, stating: ‘Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible’. At the time, the only African country with a confirmed case was Egypt, with just one case, while Italy at that point had over 200.

Ahead of mutually closing the US borders with Canada and Mexico, the US government brought in strict measures at the Mexican border. Asylum seekers were to be turned away without due process, in violation of basic international norms.

‘This strict new border control will put asylum seekers in even more danger than before,’ says O’Donoghue, who is also Managing Director and Principal Lawyer at Immigration Solutions Lawyers in Sydney, Australia. ‘Given that the Trump administration has previously tried to push through a policy that would deny asylum to migrants who have crossed the southern border outside of legal entry points, these new policies implemented on the basis of the coronavirus threat may be perceived as achieving the President’s own immigration agenda.’

Baroness Kennedy agrees that the US ‘is tearing up international commitments and the protections that we provide people who are fleeing persecution,’ and highlights the vulnerability this creates for society as a whole. ‘President Trump has been vitriolic about “illegals”. And so those “illegals” are going to be even more fearful about doing anything about getting medical help,’ she says. ‘The whole of society becomes more vulnerable with policies like that’.

But the US isn’t alone in flouting international human rights standards in the face of this pandemic. Between February and late March, Turkey stopped blocking migrants and refugees trying to leave for the European Union. As a result of the influx, Greece suspended the right to asylum in March.

Felipe González Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, expressed concern about the violation of the principle of non-refoulement and reports of use of excessive force at the border.

Rights organisations have also called for migrants held in detention centres around the world to be released in light of the lack of sanitation and appropriate hygiene conditions that make such centres particularly vulnerable.

Greece initially locked down some of the existing migrant camps to restrict movements and humanitarian visitors, but has since bowed to pressure from the EU to move some of the most vulnerable migrants out of the camps.

‘You just know that prisons and detention centres have poor health facilities at the best of times and at the worst of times they’re going to be the most vulnerable’, says Baroness Kennedy.