This week, the emergence of a new coronavirus variant potentially more contagious than the dominant delta strain caused widespread panic, as governments across the world closed their borders to travelers from Southern Africa, where the new variant was first identified. Named omicron, it contains even more mutations to its spike proteins than delta, causing some scientists to worry that it could also reduce the effectiveness of the currently developed vaccines.
For now, the data is preliminary, and most of the alarm is based on speculation and the principle of precaution. But the rush to seal borders serves as a reminder that closure has increasingly become a reflex reaction among states, particularly in the West and Global North, in response to the pandemic, but also to refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, violence and conflict.
The shift to closure after several decades of increasing openness during globalization’s “Golden Age” predates the pandemic. It is in some ways a symptom of the rise of populist and far-right parties that are hostile to immigration and often embrace a nativist brand of identity. Its impact can also be seen in the emphasis on sovereignty and national interest over multilateralism that is on display in everything from skepticism toward free trade to vaccine nationalism. But above all, it has had a corrosive effect on the international laws and norms governing the rights of asylum.