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Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Author: François Gemenne

In an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, many governments have closed their borders, some with more force than others. A number of studies have questioned the utility of this, since countries that suspended flights to and from China, for example, did not report lower infection rates than those that did not. What is certain, however, is that such border closures have put many Europeans (and other westerners) in a situation they have never before experienced: they are not welcome.

Europeans have been forbidden to fly to the US, have been expelled from Tunisia or Mauritania, are personae non gratae in China, and have been quarantined in many other countries, including Australia. In normal times, a European passport enables its bearer to visit about 180 countries and territories without requiring prior authorisation. Now, Europeans’ mobility is restricted like never before. And ironically, such restrictions are comparable to those that Europeans have been imposing for years on people not fortunate enough to be born on the northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

The reason why Europeans – and most westerners – are not welcome is simple: they might bring the virus to places that have been spared so far, or worsen it in places where infection rates are slowing.

And it’s not just international movement that is affected; there are limits on moving within the borders of some countries. Before the lockdown was imposed across France, more than a million Parisians had fled to the countryside: they were accused of being irresponsible parasites. They were blamed in exactly the same way that migrants have been in the past: they were accused of bringing diseases, of being a burden on health systems, and simply of representing a danger to society as a whole. It does not matter that research shows that migrants are usually in better health than the population of their host country: diseases ought to be imported.

As a matter of fact, COVID-19 was not transported by migrants, but rather by those who feel at home everywhere: business travellers, tourists and exchange students. As for the migrants, no one has really paid them much attention in the midst of the crisis: they have been left to themselves, crammed in camps where the virus can spread more quickly than fake news on Facebook, often without access to health services. Immigrants, who have so often been accused of transforming their host communities, have become invisible again. That is, until one realises that refugee camps and migrant settlements are also potential infection clusters. Our blindness is the most powerful sponsor of extremism and nationalism.

This article was written by François Gemenne, and was first posted here on the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law website.

François Gemenne is a FNRS senior research associate at the University of Liège, where he is the Director of the Hugo Observatory, University of Liège, Belgium.

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