Coronavirus: border control to stop the virus or migration?

The novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak appears to strengthen xenophobia and refuels the migration debate, especially as right-wing politicians try to link the novel Coronavirus to African migrants and refugees coming to Europe. The virus has already infected more than 500 citizens in Europe at the time of writing and new cases are reported every day. In order to prevent the outbreak of the novel virus from becoming a pandemic, travel restrictions have been put in place. Flights to China, Iran and South Korea are cancelled by several countries. Towns in Italy have been ‘put in quarantine’, closed off from the outside world. Some politicians and experts argue stricter travel restrictions are necessary within the Schengen area and want to increase border control. Others state that a travel ban would not help to fight the virus and accuse populist parties of using the outbreak to promote anti-immigration policies.

Fear of foreigners
Because of its Chinese roots, the novel Coronavirus caused a sudden increase in the exclusion, discrimination and violent attacks against Chinese people in Europe. While most of this xenophobic movement is directed to the Chinese population, it seems a broader fear returned; the anxiety of foreigners bringing diseases to Europe.

On February 11, Italian politician Francesca Galizia brought the attention to African migrants during a debate on the Coronavirus. She wondered whether African migrants and refugees that arrived in Italy by boat could be spreading the virus because of the economic links between several African countries and China.

Yes, says Italian Former Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini. Migrants and refugees from Africa bring the virus to Italy, claims the former minister. Therefore, borders need to be defended and Italian harbours need to be closed for refugee boats. “It is simply insane that the landings [from African migrants and refugees] continue as if nothing had happened, this government is every day more reckless and unspeakable,” Salvini Tweeted.

Border control
Far before the Corona outbreak started, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – among others – argued that European Union’s internal borders should not be open if the external border is not strong enough. This would allow asylum seekers to enter the EU ‘illegally’.

Now, populist parties call again for extreme travel restrictions; such as closing harbours and banning free travel in the Schengen zone. “The free circulation of goods and people, immigration policies and weak controls at the borders obviously allow the exponential spread of this type of virus,” claimed Aurélia Beigneux, member from France’s right-wing National Rally.

Most health experts are not convinced that closed borders help to control the virus. “Travel restrictions don’t work: people find another way around it, it might only slow the virus down,” said Clare Wenham, assistant professor at the London School of Economics Global Health.

European officials, involved in the topic of migration, stress this gives populist parties the chance to highlight the importance of border control. The virus “could offer a reason to kick the can down the road, avoiding a thorny subject bound to cause division,” some officials said, according to The New York Times.

Right wing support
The Coronavirus in Europe is an ideal way for Salvini to gain support for his anti-migration policies, says politics professor Cecilia Emma Sottilotta. “The very nature of the crisis we are witnessing plays into his narrative, because it’s about controlling the movement of people, which is what he’s been arguing for in the first place”, Sottilotta states.

COVID-19 has only been confirmed so far in relatively isolated cases in Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria. Still, Salvini and others are creating an “implicit link’ between refugee boats arriving in Italy and the virus. Salvini plays on racist rumours that emerged a few years ago about migrants carrying diseases, Sottilotta argues.

Marie De Somer, Senior Policy Analyst at European Policy Center, mentions another challenge: “The checks would need to be lifted according to the rules, when the threat from the virus goes away,” which would be an additional political hurdle.

It all comes back to solidarity
“Solidarity’’ is necessary to win the battle against the Coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Yet, a recent report of ‘The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’ underlines the “[i]ncreasing influence of ultra-nationalistic and xenophobic politics across Europe.”

During the Munich Security Conference, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director of the WHO stated: “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.”