The West’s Border Closure Reflex Comes With a Cost

The West’s Border Closure Reflex Comes With a Cost
Advocates for migrants’ rights light candles in front of a banner that reads, “309 dead on the France-U.K. border since 1999,” during a gathering outside the port of Calais, northern France, Nov. 25, 2021 (AP photo by Rafael Yaghobzadeh).
On Nov. 24, two devastating and separate, but ultimately interrelated, incidents took place in far-flung corners of the world. First, at least 27 people perished while attempting to cross the turbulent waters of the English Channel, which separates France from the United Kingdom. The dead were migrants from Africa and the Middle East whose fragile, flimsy raft sank before it reached the U.K.’s shores. This was the deadliest migrant crossing across the channel ever recorded, but it is not an isolated incident. Attempted channel crossings have spiked since 2018, resulting in hundreds of deaths.  On the same day, more than 8,000 miles to the south, scientists in South Africa informed the World Health Organization of a grim discovery: the omicron variant, a new and potentially highly transmissible iteration of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Before the end of the month, nearly 60 countries had closed their borders or initiated strict restrictions against travelers from South Africa and many of its neighboring states in sub-Saharan Africa, a knee-jerk reaction that has been decried by many as racist, counterproductive and dangerous. These two incidents are, at first glance, unrelated. However, they both highlight a bleak political reality: the readiness of Western countries to react to global catastrophes by shutting their doors. Border closures by developed countries, and the political and humanitarian crises they cause, are hardly a new or uncommon phenomenon. Over the past several years, after making significant efforts to discourage and limit legal migration, the U.S. has grappled with an increase in irregular crossings on its southern border, including by caravans of migrants and asylum-seekers from Central America. Across the Atlantic, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko—“Europe’s last dictator”—has created a new border crisis that uses Poland’s hostility to migration as a weapon against the European Union. By threatening to send thousands of Middle Eastern migrants across its border with Poland, Belarus hopes to pressure the EU to lift its sanctions on the country, which were ramped up earlier this year to censure Lukashenko’s regime for political repression. Each of these examples is accompanied not only by political instability, but devastating human costs. Human rights violations now plague interactions between border officers and migrants on the southern border of the U.S., while concerns abound about the reported mistreatment and abuse of migrants currently trapped on the Belarus-Poland border. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis on the English Channel has had geopolitical effects, fostering mistrust and frustration between the U.K. and France over their respective responsibilities for stopping the boats from launching, as well as for caring for any migrants who make it across. The politicization of those seeking asylum and better living conditions across borders is a reactionary reflex to a myriad of political problems—and almost always comes with racist implications. After the WHO raised alarms over the omicron variant, the U.S. promptly restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries in Southern Africa. Israel, Japan, Canada, the U.K., the EU and dozens of others also announced immediate travel bans and restrictions against several African states—some even stricter than those implemented by the U.S. 

The politicization of those seeking asylum and better living conditions across borders is a reactionary reflex to a myriad of political problems—and almost always comes with racist implications.

As it stands, the U.S. ban only applies to those eight, Southern African countries, even though several of them have not yet reported cases of the omicron variant. Yet travelers from other countries that have reported omicron cases—including Belgium, Canada and Australia—have not been banned from entry.  The singling out of African countries is especially galling given that there is limited evidence that travel restrictions and border closings are even effective in stopping the virus from spreading. Public health officials have noted that these restrictions set an alarming precedent, while offering little benefit. In fact, the WHO’s guidelines from 2019 on dealing with the spread of pandemic influenza list border closures as a measure that should not to be taken “under any circumstances.” The WHO has since repeatedly warned states not to institute hasty travel bans against the coronavirus, including last month in response to the omicron variant.  In fact, public health officials have widely noted that the best response to this new version of an old threat is precisely the opposite of this isolationist instinct. Rather than shutting each other out, scientists have recommended that states address vaccine inequity across the globe and encourage transparent information-sharing between public health officials in different countries.  Certainly, a variety of domestic issues plague the quest to vaccinate lower-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, including public skepticism of vaccines and weak infrastructure. But a large share of the blame falls on developed countries, which have failed to assist poorer ones in acquiring vaccines and whose corporations refuse to share the scientific information that would allow them to manufacture vaccines locally. The proliferation of coronavirus mutations is directly related to the lack of vaccines worldwide. A truly global solution to this problem does not lie in enforcing barriers between nations, but in removing them by increasing international cooperation.  Simply put, closing borders has an economic cost: Border closures are thought to be at least in part responsible for much of the economic hardship the world faced in the early stages of the pandemic. It has a scientific cost: Many have warned that recent travel bans could disincentivize transparency regarding COVID-19 developments. And it has a human cost, including for migrant workers whose livelihoods, families and social safety nets rely on open borders.  And these costs exist not only when it comes to the coronavirus and conflict, but on a variety of global issues. For instance, as climate change continues to spur mass migration from countries bearing the brunt of rising sea levels and extreme weather, the instinct to close borders will only increase human suffering—as it did for the 27 souls who perished last week in the English Channel. In response to the omicron variant, U.S. President Joe Biden stated that closing the borders “gives us time.” One can only wonder what it takes from us, in return.

Mel Pavlik is a guest columnist filling in for Candace Rondeaux every other Friday. She is a doctoral student in political science at Yale University, where she researches and writes on repression, political violence and international security. You can find her on Twitter at @mel_pavlik.

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