As states have increasingly hunkered down to stop the spread of COVID-19, they have imposed increasing restrictions on the movement of people across borders. Airlines began by cancelling flights from China; then, US President Donald Trump banned incoming flights from Europe; and then, leaders began encouraging their citizens to come home immediately or to make plans to spend extended periods abroad. One little-noticed casualty of these closures is the route to safety for asylum seekers, whose only way to access safety from civil war and oppressive governments is to cross borders.
For would-be asylum seekers, these closures are causing irreparable damage. The response to the spread of COVID-19 demonstrates that there are movement rights to which there are no exceptions.
The view that borders should be maximally open is typically defended in one of two main ways: for some, to be truly free means that we must have the right to cross borders, and for others, movement across borders must be protected so that those who are poorest can have a chance to travel to wealthier and more stable countries to access the benefits they provide.
When political theorists consider the merits of open borders – and many political theorists defend a variant of this view – there is agreement that there are at least some cases where borders can legitimately be closed or where individuals can legitimately be denied the right to cross them. To take just one relatively uncontroversial example: even the most ardent defenders of open borders agree that known terrorists can be denied the right to cross borders. In Joseph Carens’ well-known defence of open borders, he tells readers that although there are very view justifiable reasons to close borders, one potential reason is the threat to public order that might travel with certain forms of large-scale migration. Even this “public order” exception is criticized as potentially allowing unjust denial of movement by critics who cite the long history of racist policies that denied entry to migrants whose racial or cultural distinctiveness were believed to threaten public order. Nevertheless, the view that movement can, under some conditions, be restricted persists.
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However, present circumstances are vindicating an under-appreciated, and perhaps under-defended, dimension of the open borders view: although the view that borders should be fully open, at all times, may not be entirely defensible, this pandemic demonstrates that borders must always remain a little open.
Here are some vivid examples of what happens when attempts are made to close borders as fully as possible:
- Many hundreds if not thousands of refugees have been identified as priorities for resettlement to third countries, but resettlement has effectively stopped. Resettlement states are not receiving new arrivals, and as resettlement remains closed, the long list of those in need of resettlement will only get longer. Those who are prioritized for resettlement are those most in need of it in order to protect their safety; delays put them in significant danger. Earlier this week, a gay Ugandan refugee in Kenya killed himself after failing to find the support he needed from the UNCHR.
- Asylum seekers fleeing renewed violence in Syria in early 2020 have arrived in Europe, only to find themselves detained or contained in spaces with hardly any access to what they need to protect themselves against the spread of COVID-19. Other detainees who are, in principle, waiting to have their cases adjudicated are likewise housed in dirty and crowded conditions, which encourage the spread of COVID-19. In Singapore, a country touted for its efficient and effective initial response to COVID-19, the failure to be attentive to the living conditions of their foreign labour migrant population has led to a resurgence of the disease. These migrants are not asylum seekers, of course, but this devastating situation highlights how many blind states are to the specific risks faced by the wider group of vulnerable migrants inside of their borders, as they combat the spread of disease.
- The plight of asylum seekers travelling to, but not yet docked in, Europe is just as desperate. Citing COVID-19, Italy closed its ports to boat arrivals; rescue boats carrying migrants seeking asylum are no longer being permitted to dock on Italian soil. Malta has done the same. Many of those rescued at sea are now being sent to Libya, where intense fighting among rival forces continues, and whose abysmal record in respecting asylum seeker rights is well-known.
- Would-be asylum seekers are being denied the right to leave oppressive regimes, in search of safety and which they are legally permitted to do. Others, including those travelling from the United States to Canada, are being denied entry and returned to the United States where they face possible deportation to human rights abusing countries. Their right to non-refoulement, the right to not be returned to a country in which one faces serious threats to their life, is being undermined.
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These examples highlight that while reducing travel, including across borders, to stop the spread of deadly disease is of the utmost importance, the movement of refugees and asylum seekers can never be restricted. Along with essential supplies that continue to flow across borders, accompanied by extra public health screenings, the movement of the most vulnerable, who face imminent harm, must be permitted to continue.