Publication Western Europe - Corona Crisis COVID-19 Is Grist to the Border Regime Mill

Could a new era for EU border control be on the horizon?



July 2020

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German police patrol the Greek-Albanian border as part of a FRONTEX mission. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Flickr/Migrants in Europe

Months after the coronavirus outbreak turned into a global health crisis, it is still unclear how the pandemic will affect social inequalities, economies, and migration movements in the mid and long term. However, economic distortions and social tensions have already accelerated at an alarming rate in many countries around the globe. Whereas some observers still argue in an appeasing manner regarding possible future impacts of COVID-19, others continue to frame the pandemic as a major event of world history and predict the collapse of entire economies due to upcoming social and economic upheavals and repercussions of the health emergency. The historian and professor at the Free University of Berlin, Paul Nolte, even referred to the crisis as a “turning point” and compared its magnitude with that of “9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall and World War II”, a claim strongly dismissed by a German newspaper. It asserts that Nolte’s “enumeration is revealing. It clearly shows what turning points constitute: they change the political power fabric in the world.” Coronavirus, however, does not fuel political developments but numbs them, Die Tageszeitung argues in a sobering op-ed.

Sofian Philip Naceur works as an independent journalist in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, writing for, among others,  junge Welt, taz, and Der Standard.

It is indeed doubtful that the pandemic will change the world’s political power fabric. Yet COVID-19 certainly fuels political developments. So far, the crisis appears to be an accelerator for already pre-existing political and social developments and trends. But the pandemic is also being deliberately exploited for political gains. Certain actions and policies, promoted and enforced by governments and supranational actors in the slipstream of the crisis, would have triggered significantly heavier public resistance in the absence of such a health emergency. Hence, their enforcement would not have been possible at their current pace. EU migration and border externalization policies are being severely affected by such dynamics, as COVID-19 serves as a justification for the EU and some of its member states to push for more restrictive border control policies and to test new practices, aiming at tackling the health crisis and, at the same time, further fortifying the EU’s external borders.

Border Control Policies in the Context of Pandemics

The so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015 was already a powerful catalyst for expanding the EU border regime. Sealing off Europe’s external borders and decreasing irregular migration have been political priorities for years but they have been pursued in a more aggressive manner since 2015. The EU Commission proudly stated in 2019 that “more progress” had been made in migration management and border security “in the space of four years than was possible in the 20 years preceding them”. The COVID-19 crisis is further accelerating this trend and provides the EU with even more leeway to further escalate corresponding policies, for now most notably in the Mediterranean.

Since Malta and Italy declared their ports as “unsafe”, both states have been experimenting with so-called “floating hotspots”. The Italian government continues to block civil rescue ships in Italian ports on flimsy grounds, and meanwhile live ammunition was fired at people fleeing to Europe at the Greek-Turkish border. Malta’s government contracted private fishing trawlers to return people rescued at sea to war-torn Libya, creating a precedent that violates and threatens to further undermine international refugee and maritime law. Alarm Phone, a collectively-run hotline for people in distress at sea, fiercely slammed those measures: “European authorities have used this health crisis to normalize the already existing practice of non-assistance at sea”, the collective said in a statement. Thereby, “a dangerous rescue gap is actively being created” in the central Mediterranean.

“The tightening of measures, aiming at sealing off Europe’s borders, is currently justified through the rationale that one’s ‘own’ populations must be protected in the face of the pandemic. The entry of potentially infectious people who could possibly and directly endanger their own population should thus be prevented at all costs. This strategy will continue to be consolidated, also because there is continuity regarding this policy”, Dr Maurice Stierl from the University of Warwick in the UK tells RLS. After the COVID-19 crisis, this hard-line approach is estimated to be further exacerbated sooner or later, despite the fact that the easing of the health emergency in Europe this June corresponds to the mitigation of certain restrictive practices promoted by Italy and Malta, and the return of civil rescue vessels to the central Mediterranean. Historical analogies are evident, however, illustrating that intensifying border controls has been an essential part of governmental pandemic control policies for centuries.

The border shutdowns enforced after the COVID-19 outbreak follow “a playbook centuries old, dating back to at least the Black Death of the 14th century. In fact, countering disease was one of the main justifications for early border controls”, Charles Kenny points out in an article for Politico. However, “the history of disease-driven border lockdowns has some sobering lessons. One is that, border controls tended to long outlast whatever crisis they were supposed to prevent, at the expense of trade and free movement”, he argues. “More recent disease eradication efforts, and the broad path of the coronavirus itself, show that prolonged border controls are more an expression of xenophobic policy than an enduring solution to an infection threat”.

And indeed, xenophobic agitation is already on the rise around the globe amid the COVID-19 crisis. Some measures, imposed against people on the move in the name of containing the virus—or the refusal to take action—are not only highly questionable in terms of containing and controlling infection risks but outspokenly capitalize on xenophobic rhetoric. Whereas Malta’s government has orchestrated illegal push-backs (forced returns) of refugees to Libya—despite being aware that upon being returned, they face indefinite imprisonment in detention centres where neither infection prevention nor adequate healthcare is guaranteed—the refusal of EU countries to immediately engage in the evacuation of tens of thousands of people held in Greek refugee camps instantly increased the risk of a further spread of the virus. Xenophobic harassment and cheap propaganda against refugees have escalated in Malaysia, and hundreds have been rounded up by authorities who explicitly justified the arrest campaign as being a response to the health emergency. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, government officials have likewise openly instigated xenophobia against refugees in the wake of the pandemic and even called for mass deportations of people on the move. This list could easily be extended. Correlating actions and events have been observed in EU states and countries like Egypt, where xenophobic sentiments against Asians have been strongly on the rise since COVID-19 turned into a global pandemic.

A further aggravation of such hostile rhetoric against people on the move appears to be only a matter of time. The far right is still largely absent in today’s mainstream discourses in Europe but far-right parties will sooner or later try to capitalize on the crisis more aggressively. They could and most likely will incorporate the health risks of COVID-19 into their xenophobic propaganda against people on the move and, thereby, back demands to further exacerbate anti-immigration policies across the continent. An interplay of such right-wing populist exploitation of the coronavirus crisis and health-related calls by the centrist strata of society for stricter border controls amid the pandemic would have a massive impact on Europe’s immigration policy. A more distinct coronavirus-driven rhetoric against newly-arriving people on the move would most likely have catalyst effects on EU border control policies similar to those recorded in the aftermath of the 2015 “refugee crisis”.

Given such potentially looming developments, this paper aims to offer an outlook on how the EU migration and border externalization policy could be modified after the crisis. The border regime has been gradually but systematically expanded for decades. Its techniques and practices, however, will be significantly altered and redesigned in the wake of the pandemic and increasingly incorporate health-related considerations and biopolitical facets. This paper illustrates how the momentum of a global health emergency has been used to test new border control practices and to push for an even tighter EU border regime. A closer look at a series of articles recently published by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) subsequently provides an outlook on how and by which means “regular” and “irregular” migration into the EU might henceforth be regulated, and how entry and travel regulations might be tightened very soon. A historical retrospect, ultimately, shows that stricter border controls have been imposed amid pandemics for centuries, highlighting the continuity of such trends. In looking back, the intention is to point out how the expansion of the EU border regime could be justified after the coronavirus crisis, and draw attention to what might lie ahead.

Malta Outsources Push-Backs

Since the coronavirus crisis’s inception, the EU has increasingly escalated its migration and border control policies. Countries such as Germany have been consistent in their refusal to accept a common European asylum and admission policy regarding people on the move rescued in the Mediterranean, while Malta and Italy are systematically pushing operational and legal boundaries beyond what was deemed acceptable before COVID-19 in the slipstream of the health emergency—in part to increase pressure on other EU countries to assume more responsibility. New border control practices, above all promoted by the governments in Italy and Malta, threaten to further undermine international refugee and maritime law. A new reality in the central Mediterranean is looming.

In early April, both states declared their ports as “unsafe” in order to prevent or at least hamper the disembarkation of people fleeing Libya by boat on their respective territories. The governments of both countries said that they currently have no capacity to take in or host refugees, given the COVID-19 pandemic. “In a health emergency, this country is not a safe port for migrants”, Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela said. “It is counterproductive to close ports and airports for tourists but then open ports for irregular migrants”, he added, bluntly comparing tourists and people fleeing abuse and war in Libya. One action in particular adopted by Malta’s government illustrates that authorities were determined to prevent the disembarkation of people on the move at any cost.

Immediately after the port closures in April, Alarm Phone was informed about a boat in distress at sea. The boat was carrying 63 people who had set sail from Libya, and so Alarm Phone subsequently notified Maltese, Italian, and Libyan authorities and called upon them to immediately launch rescue operations. The boat was monitored for days by aerial assets of the EU border agency Frontex, though the coast guards of the three states did not respond to calls for rescue actions. Eventually, private fishing trawlers rescued the survivors and returned them to Libya. 12 people drowned or died of thirst during the odyssey, three of them on board of a fishing trawler shortly after the rescue. The 51 survivors were transferred to a detention centre in Libya’s capital Tripoli where they are reportedly still detained today.

After two weeks of speculation about the exact course of events, Abela finally admitted that his government had commissioned private vessels to return the 51 people to Libya. The Maltese Prime Minister insisted that it was a “rescue mission”, not a push-back. “Malta’s ports are closed but it coordinated this rescue and ensured that the irregular migrants were taken to the port that was open”, he said. The New York Times reported about a total of three private vessels that had been commissioned by the Maltese government for such return operations. The boat in distress had been detected in international waters but within the Maltese search and rescue zone (SAR). According to international maritime law, Maltese authorities were responsible for the rescue. However, the government in Valletta denies exactly that and claims it was only bound to organize the rescue but not to take in the people rescued in distress.

The Abela administration has been heavily criticized for this move ever since. “The government tried to circumvent the law by deploying non-state assets to assist or coordinate the push back”, a legal expert told the Times of Malta. The government is now accused of assisting in the return of people to a country where they face death and abuse or inhumane treatment by third parties. Malta did not ratify the 2004 amendments to the SAR and SOLAS conventions but is still bound to bring people rescued in distress at sea to a “place of safety”, according to a study published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. This does not necessarily have to be their own—in this case Maltese—territory, but Malta was obliged to find a “place of safety” for the 51 survivors. However, Libya is by no means considered “safe”, the study says. Therefore, the return operation violates international law and the non-refoulement principle, enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. Malta has signed and ratified both treaties.

In May, the German government declared in its reply to a written inquiry from the parliamentary group of the left-wing party Die Linke in the German lower house of parliament (Bundestag) that “Malta has fulfilled its obligations under international law by giving instructions to a Maltese merchant vessel through the Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to rescue people in distress at sea”. The federal government in Berlin is, thereby, explicitly backing Malta’s recently tested practice of commissioning private actors for push-backs of people rescued in distress in the Mediterranean and its attempt to circumvent international maritime and refugee law.

Quarantine Practices and “Floating Hotspots”

Meanwhile, people on the move continue to regularly arrive in Malta and Italy. Both countries are experimenting with so-called “floating hotspots” in the slipstream of the pandemic. Whereas Italy accommodates newly arriving people for a two-week quarantine on boats in Italian ports before allowing them to disembark, Malta holds people indefinitely on boats outside of its territorial waters and refuses to take them in even after a two-week quarantine—with the exception of some women and minors. 425 people in total have been held this way for up to five weeks before authorities allowed some of them to disembark in early June. This was after protests had intensified on at least one of the four vessels initially used as floating hotspots. Both governments have so far referred to this measure as an “interim solution” but it is uncertain whether this practice will be effectively abandoned after the pandemic or whether it might be resumed at a later stage under a different pretext.

Dr Paolo Cuttitta, from the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, discusses the compulsory quarantine imposed by Italian authorities upon new arrivals. He notes that at the beginning of the crisis, the quarantine had been solely enacted upon people on the move who had been rescued by NGO ships at sea. “Back then—in March—compulsory quarantine was only applied for those who were ill or tested positive for COVID-19. There was no such compulsory quarantine for other people who entered Italy from abroad”, Cuttitta explains. Additionally, the expert on EU migration and border externalization policies believes that setting up floating hotspots is a dangerous precedent, “since this practice could become the norm after the pandemic”.

Meanwhile, Italy’s government continues to impede the work of sea rescue NGOs, yet partially eased its restrictive policy when the health emergency relaxed in June. For months, authorities prevented the Alan Kurdi, run by the German NGO Sea Eye, from leaving the port of Palermo after its latest rescue operation. Authorities have barred the ship from leaving the port since the people rescued during that mission disembarked. Italian authorities claim to have found technical and operational deficiencies on the boat during an inspection of the vessel in early May, and even fundamentally questioned its suitability for sea rescue operations, according to Sea Eye. The Spanish rescue vessel Aita Mari has also been stuck in an Italian port since April. Although the Alan Kurdi was released in June 2020, it might be forced to dock in Spain henceforth. The NGO now faces financial difficulties due to the ongoing blockade. All these measures have effectively created a “rescue vacuum” in the central Mediterranean, Stierl explains. This applies particularly to international waters off the Maltese and Italian SAR zones, he says.

However, the sea rescue vessels Mare Jonio, Sea Watch 3, and Ocean Viking, run by Italian and German NGOs, have again set sail for the central Mediterranean in June 2020. The rescue gap, a consistent problem for many weeks prior, has been closed—at least for now. Yet Italy’s handling of people rescued by these boats is inconsistent and raises questions, while uncertainties remain about how authorities might handle civil sea rescue operations from this point on. The 67 people rescued in distress by the Mare Jonio were immediately transferred to a quarantine centre on land, though the 211 people rescued by “Sea Watch 3” have been quarantined on a boat in an Italian port.

Expanding the Border Regime in the Mediterranean

Therefore, the status quo in the central Mediterranean that was established in 2015 could be irrevocably over, as the EU is escalating its border control policies under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. Malta and Italy in particular are proactively undermining international maritime and refugee law and are even pushing people on the move towards each other. Malta’s coast guards reportedly supplied a refugee boat with fuel and GPS data and instructed its passengers to head to Italy. Both countries have exploited the pandemic, partly on purpose, in order to effectively reinforce their border regimes and create a new reality in the Mediterranean by adopting increasingly rigorous border control policies.

The health emergency provides both governments with the backing and cover necessary to push for and adopt even highly controversial measures without facing large-scale resistance from a broader public. Malta’s former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Italy’s former interior minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League (Lega Nord), had already in 2018 temporarily closed the ports of their respective countries for refugees rescued by NGO vessels. Today, there is an appreciably higher level of acceptance within the population for such policies, which according to Stierl significantly simplifies their enforcement. The policy of non-assistance and systematically neglecting rescue obligations was already evident under Salvini. Stierl emphasizes, however, that this approach is gaining unprecedented momentum in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Given the recent weeks-long absence of civil rescue vessels in the central Mediterranean, this also implies that there are far fewer witnesses to the impacts of EU policies at its external borders, he explains.

Stierl expects that the border regime will be expanded even further after the coronavirus crisis. Air surveillance in the Mediterranean by Frontex and the recently-launched EU military mission “Irini” (Greek for “peace”) is estimated to be upgraded while maritime assets will be continuously withdrawn. Arming and equipping North African states—especially the so-called Libyan Coast Guards, but also Tunisia—is likely to be reinforced as well. In April, EU member states agreed to provide Libya’s coast guards with an additional 15 million Euros. The funds have been allocated as part of a multi-billion Euro financial package, aimed at tackling the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis. Even though this additional funding for Libyan authorities is only a preliminary account, the fact that it was allocated in the first place clearly illustrates that the EU considers border control and externalization as an essential part of its COVID-19 crisis response.

Meanwhile, Cuttitta evaluates the Italian government’s motives in a slightly different manner and does not believe that the administration deliberately exploited the coronavirus crisis with the goal of tightening the border regime. The seizure of the rescue vessels “Alan Kurdi” and “Aita Mari” by Italian authorities has been sore, he says. However, he believes that this measure is “to a lesser extent an indication for the crisis’s exploitation rather than a reaction to the crisis. The government is afraid that more and more people will arrive—either by rescue or by arriving with their boats in the port of Lampedusa. This could not only have practical but also politically unpleasant consequences.”

Italy’s government is currently responding to the crisis by implementing “drastic measures”, above all, “out of fear that the former Minister of [the] Interior Salvini would otherwise once again rail against the ‘smuggler-friendly government’ on a daily basis and, thereby, quickly gain popularity and support in opinion polls”, Cuttitta believes.

Regardless of the government’s particular motives, a number of new practices could set new norms. These practices include the use of floating hotspots, outsourcing forced returns to Libya to private actors, the tightening of disembarkation procedures for people on the move rescued in the Mediterranean, and deliberately hampering civilian sea rescue—the German government amended two laws regulating the operation of private ships in March and, thereby effectively prevented smaller vessels run by German NGOs from setting sail again. Although some of those new practices were eased considerably in June, it is likely that they will be deployed again should the coronavirus return to Europe in full swing. Malta’s recently tested new return practice is likely to be challenged in European courts. But even if such a legal initiative succeeds, the EU’s border externalization policy has been proven extremely adaptive over the past 30 years and will continue to be expanded significantly under the pretext of COVID-19—even if Malta is to be sentenced in court.

Global Mobility and the EU Border Regime after COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is currently subsiding in Europe. Restrictions are being loosened or even lifted. Yet the health risks of COVID-19 have not been averted, as a second infection wave is predicted to materialize sooner or later. The virus is currently spreading massively across Africa and South America. Many of the imposed restrictions on travel are thus predicted to persist in the mid and even long term. The pandemic could, thereby, fundamentally change the framework and conditions for global mobility for the foreseeable future. This will not only have a significant impact on entry regulations but also on “regular” and “irregular” migration. Its handling will be strongly affected by preventive approaches regarding health and subjected to a multitude of new control mechanisms and restrictions, increasingly geared towards health-related requirements. COVID-19 is grist to the mill of Europe’s border regime and might pave the way for the EU and its member states to further expand migration and security-related cooperation with African countries. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, preventing “irregular” migration is no longer only justified by identitary or regulatory reasons, but also by health concerns.

It is uncertain which medium and long-term effects the coronavirus might have on travel regulations, border controls, and the EU border regime. However, a series of articles recently published by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) allow insights into how these issues could be affected by COVID-19. The ICMPD’s outlook should be taken very seriously as the Vienna-based organization, established in the 1990s, is considered an influential think-tank in matters related to EU border externalization and migration policies. Germany joined the organization as the 18th member state in May 2020, while on its website the ICMPD explicitly praises its own expertise in border management, “preventing and curbing irregular migration”, as well as expertise in “return and readmission” and labour migration. The organization offers consultancies and coordination services and is a key player for the EU regarding the implementation of border control and management projects in Africa. The ICMPD plays a leading role in implementing projects funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), is in charge of border externalization programmes in Morocco and Tunisia, and was involved in EU projects that provided Libya’s coast guards with training and equipment.

Migration and Biopolitics: A New “Iron Curtain”?

The first article published in this ICMPD series has already drawn attention. “The world economy is crippled by a global mobility shutdown” and “the road back will not be easy”, the ICMPD consultant Hugo Brady wrote in early April. He outlines a future scenario in which the conditions for “regular” and “irregular” migration will be turned upside down. According to Brady, “a new era of biosecurity is dawning that will change how people move in the future”. Even post-vaccination, states will increasingly rely on precautionary measures such as “risk assessment, digital contact tracking, ex ante clearance for travel, and disease surveillance.” He believes administrations might link “travel authorization to the voluntary declaration of health information” and possibly “demand to ‘trust, but verify’ foreign assurances on testing, infection rates and risk in return for relaxing border controls or visa requirements”.

“With visa processes frozen worldwide, mobility between the developed and developing world will be akin to a new Iron Curtain ... This will lead to fresh demand for smuggling services by irregular migrants. But people smuggling will now become far riskier, more expensive and subjected to zero-tolerance by authorities”, he predicts. “For those who arrive spontaneously, border and asylum procedures will now be more onerous and confined”, with Brady also expecting “a re-emphasis on enabling shelter close to the country of origin”. Most recent policies carried out by Italy, Malta, and Greece, and the mutating rhetoric of European officials, clearly indicate that Brady’s predictions are no distant dystopia but outline how the recent tightening of EU border control policies might henceforth affect Europe’s border regime as a whole. The first actions and policy adjustments which correlate with Brady’s outlook have already been recorded.

Whether the escalation of Europe’s border control policy merits the term “new era” is, however, dubious—at least for now. But COVID-19 is clearly a catalyst for these policies and paves the way for a drastic upgrade of border control infrastructures whose equipment will rely even more on high-tech surveillance technology and data collection in the near future. Brady outspokenly calls for such further modifications of border control techniques, writing: “To get back to freer circulation, sharper global standards will be required for health screening and disease surveillance at ports, airports, in the travel industry and custom operations.”

Another article from the ICMPD series argues even more distinctly in favour of a significant technical upgrade of borders, border controls, and ID documents, and calls for an increased digitization and storage of personal health data. The coronavirus clearly illustrated the need for a better involvement of health inspections in border management, the article argues. “The base-level cooperation between border guards, customs services and sanitary agencies must improve.” The article’s authors explicitly advocate for an accelerated modernization of border controls and equipment, but also of working methods in border management which should increasingly rely on “virtual platforms” and the expanded use of “real-time information”. The incorporation of artificial intelligence into border management, contactless equipment for identity checks (contactless fingerprint scanners, face recognition cameras etc.), and e-gates, upgraded with body-temperature measuring devices, are also suggested.

Additionally, the ICMPD asserts that “the current crisis might even fuel developments in the area of travel documents, with a move from the traditional paper passport to a smartphone-based one possibly being the next step”. The article goes on to suggest that digital passports would allow authorities to integrate medical records such as vaccination history, in addition to biometric data already stored on passports or IDs. Such a control-driven upgrade of border entry and identification regulations—camouflaged as a health-related, non-politically motivated “modernization”—would make the “voluntary” disclosure of personal health data compulsory for border crossings. Furthermore, the expansion of information exchange between authorities charged with border control would lead to further significant restrictions for people moving “irregularly” between countries, and even fuel “irregular” migration. People moving “irregularly” would be further disadvantaged in comparison to people moving “regularly”. Redesigning travel documents in such ways is by no means unrealistic, since the modifications suggested by the ICMPD are in line with the digitization of ID documents which EU countries have been pushing for and pursuing for years. Biometric data is being increasingly stored on such documents, also by non-European states in Africa. Respective upgrades of population data collection projects outside Europe have often been financed by the EU and implemented by European companies, and are clearly in line with the EU’s systematic policy of enabling and supporting the collection of biometric data of third-country nationals in European and non-European databases.

The EU is already responding to health-related considerations amid the COVID-19 crisis by changing entry requirements for third-country nationals. Through the ETIAS visa waiver programme, a platform under development and set to be launched towards the end of 2022, third-country nationals will be forced to have their entry into the Schengen area authorized prior to arrival. Justified by COVID-19, the EU has already modified ETIAS stipulations as applicants are now required to additionally provide information about their personal health once the platform is officially launched. The new regulations explicitly grant European authorities the power “to block individuals or certain groups” from entering the Schengen area when coming from an area affected by epidemics and pandemics, as a means to prevent their diffusion.

Pandemics and Border Closures

Travel restrictions and border closures, imposed almost worldwide in order to contain the spread of COVID-19, have been repeatedly labelled as unprecedented. Border closures, however, have been used by governments and states as a tool to control pandemics and diseases for centuries. “A historical retrospect clearly shows that there have been repeated attempts to contain pandemics by restricting people’s mobility”, Gerda Heck, professor at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tells the RLS. These are, first of all, virologically-motivated steps, “though they often had and have racist connotations”. The question of who introduced a certain disease into a country is not only discussed in public debates from a virological point of view, but is deliberately mixed up with stereotypes about certain groups, she says.

Charles Kenny mentions in this context the massive increase in discrimination against Asians since the inception of the coronavirus pandemic, which illustrates that diseases are not only associated with international travel and migration but also with foreigners. Plenty of examples can be found in recent history. Heck and Kenny both refer to instances from the United States. Kenny points to the 1891 immigration act which “was increasingly used to selectively exclude ethnic groups considered undesirable” for several years after its adoption. “From 1898 to 1915, the proportion of immigrants denied access to the United States on medical grounds climbed from 2 percent to more than two-thirds”, he writes.

Heck, on her part, refers to the US authorities’ response to the spread of HIV in the 1980s: “After the US government introduced entry restrictions against people infected with HIV in 1987, the stereotype of the HIV-positive Haitian migrant emerged in the US, which was also spreading in the US society at that time because relatively many people in Haiti had been infected with the virus”. However, major reservations and prejudices against Haitians had already been evident in the US, yet they were additionally exacerbated by the increasing spread of HIV, she explains. In the early 1990s, the US administration tried to prevent the entry of Haitian refugees by all means available. After the 1991 military coup against Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, tens of thousands of Haitians fled to the US on boats. The US coast guards intercepted about 37,000 refugees in the first year after the coup. However, they were not brought to the United States but to Guantanamo Bay, the US military base in Cuba, where they were incarcerated under catastrophic conditions. Summary asylum procedures were carried out off US soil. While around 10,000 people were granted asylum, tens of thousands were deported to Haiti after their claims for protection had been rejected.

However, those whose asylum applications had been approved in Guantanamo were not allowed to enter the US immediately but were first forcibly tested for HIV. Around 300 HIV-positive Haitians were held in Guantanamo for up to 18 months despite being recognized as refugees. Only massive protests by civil society in the US, as well as court decisions, forced US authorities to grant them access to the country. The detention practice against Haitians in Guantanamo was based on a mix of racism and the prejudice that Haitians had brought the virus to the US, whereas the refusal of entry against recognized refugees who had tested positive for HIV was justified by the entry ban against HIV-positive people. Not only in the US was the virus used to impose entry bans on foreigners or migrants based on health concerns. The United Nations reported deportations, as well as the denial of working visas or entry for people who had tested positive for HIV, in countries including Russia, Thailand, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, among others.

How Diseases are Exploited for Xenophobic Discourse

In April, Daniel Trilling gave an insistent warning in an article in The Guardian that “once the pandemic subsides, and we are left to deal with the social and economic upheavals in its wake, nationalist demands for wealthy countries to turn inwards are likely to intensify. These may well start with demands to exclude outsiders but are likely to turn on ‘undeserving’ citizens too”. COVID-19 has clearly shown that pandemics are not necessarily transmitted from Africa to Europe but also vice versa in the case of the coronavirus, says Cuttitta. “The discourse of disease-carrying Africans was, nevertheless, used in the context of corona—like the quarantine in Italy which was initially only mandatory for migrants rescued in distress at sea”, he highlights. After the coronavirus pandemic had first spread very slowly in Africa, the number of new infections rose massively in many countries across the continent in May and June—a fact that is predicted to be deliberately exploited for political gains sooner or later by parts of the European public, and the far right in particular, in order to back calls for even more rigorous immigration policies. This could pave the way for a return to negative stereotypes of African immigrants based on health and biopolitical attributions.

Plenty of historical analogies—including those regarding ethnic and religious minorities—are to be found here as well. According to Malte Thießen, junior professor for European contemporary history at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, there is a “connection between epidemics and exclusion”. In his 2015 paper for the German Federal Agency for Political Education, he also notes a correlation between the imagination of epidemics and spatial concepts, “with which boundaries are drawn between ‘us’ and ‘others’”. In this context, he refers to the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century since Jews had been stigmatized at that time—and have been to a certain extent ever since—as “well poisoners” or “plague carriers”. Hostilities against Jews were by no means a new phenomenon at that time, yet exacerbated “social tensions and traditional stereotypes”. “The plague—that had been always the ‘others’”, Thießen writes. Outbreaks of diseases are, therefore, “perfect projection surfaces”.

Another example illustrates how irrational and misleading such attributions are. In the 1890s, a German newspaper blamed a Jewish immigrant for introducing the smallpox to Berlin, even though the disease no longer posed a health threat at the time—as the paper itself explicitly highlighted. “It was only the projection surface of the ‘Jewish, dirty migrant’ that turned the smallpox into a scandal”, Thießen notes. Epidemic metaphors have also become an integral part of discourses regarding separation and distancing oneself against “others” in the 20th century. In 1983, amid the early spread of HIV, the news magazine Der Spiegel even used the term “homosexual epidemic”, whereas similar epidemic metaphors had an “unbowed and ominous appeal” in the context of the so-called “war against terrorism” following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Thießen notes that this was despite there having been no “epidemiological basis” for this, referring to the Swiss historian Philipp Sarasin from the University of Zürich in Switzerland.

Outlook: Migration and Border Regimes After COVID-19

Not only in Europe and the Global North is COVID-19 an ideal breeding ground for a rhetoric of separation and exclusion. This rhetoric is increasingly based on biopolitical attributions against people on the move, which could go on to significantly shape public discourse in the future. US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “the Chinese virus” rings alarm bells just as much as Salvini’s recent attack on the Italian government for allowing the disembarkation of people rescued at sea by “Mare Jonio” and “Sea Watch 3” in June—especially as 28 people rescued by the latter had tested positive for COVID-19. The externalization of borders and criminalization of “irregular” migration has a long tradition in Europe and has been successively pursued for decades. Yet the coronavirus crisis can be exploited by the EU border regime and will increasingly fuel policies aimed at regulating, controlling, and filtering immigration and migration, and that will in part incorporate economic and political interests.

Cuttitta additionally emphasizes that the pandemic does not only have an immediate negative impact on migrant populations in Europe. He refers to the release of people in detention pending deportation in France or the regularization of “irregular” migrants living in Italy and Portugal, announced by the respective governments. AUC professor Heck adds that such regularization campaigns are absolutely welcome, and are very important and positive steps, even though they have also apparently been pushed forward for pragmatic reasons: “Europe’s agricultural industry relies on poorly paid workers. Given the coronavirus crisis, Europe’s low-wage sectors could face shortages of workers in the next few years as fewer and fewer people might enter the EU. As of this, we are dealing here with a calculated trade-off between the profit interests of the economy and health policy concerns and discourses.”

Indeed, increasingly tightening the EU border regime after COVID-19 will most probably go along with attempts to reorganize and regulate labour migration for certain sectors of the European economy. “Refugees in Europe are now essential to keep societies afloat”, the ICMPD states in one of its recent publications, praising the advantages of integrating refugees into the healthcare sector. In the long run, however, such a partial regularization policy is expected to become particularly relevant for sectors in which low-skilled workers are needed—above all agriculture and construction. Set against this backdrop, concepts of circular migration could once again gain in importance from this point on, but are likely to be pushed forward primarily based on a capitalist logic of exploitation and demand.

Such a transformation of migration and border control policies is likely to go hand in hand with intensifying local, regional, and global injustices post COVID-19, but also political and economic instabilities. Therefore resistance against these restrictive border control policies are more important today than ever before. Yet the pandemic has the potential to stimulate grassroots movements in Europe and the Global South which call and advocate for freedom of movement, and to revitalize corresponding discourses and actions aimed both at raising awareness of EU border regime policies and at making the resistance against those policies more effective. In numerous countries, dependent on imports from the Global North, intense debates about expanding local production of certain goods in order to mitigate structural economic dependencies had been launched months ago, in part fuelled by the fact that urgently-needed medical goods have not been available for countries in the Global South.

Meanwhile, “irregular” migration across the Mediterranean continues unabated. The coronavirus crisis provides a window of opportunity to address the origins of migration and the pervasive division and classification into legitimate “refugees” and non-legitimate “economic migrants” in official and popular discourses, and to challenge such misleading definitions that ignore realities in the Global South. Stierl says: “This discourse—which is in part so powerful as it is mirrored by organizations such as the UN refugee agency UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) who claim to speak on behalf of people on the move—is based on a very narrowed imagination of flight and migration that completely ignores the fact that reproducing this discourse undermines the very right to move”. The discourse needs to be challenged and put into a broader context that recognizes economic reasons for flight and explicitly includes and addresses global inequalities. He stresses that the consequences of trade agreements and exploitative capitalist modes that undermine people’s livelihood, above all in the Global South, need to be addressed.