The European Commission (EC) decided to apply a temporary restriction for non-essential travel from third countries into the European Union or in other words, closed the Schengen external borders. The EU hoped that the decision would enable the lifting of internal border controls. However, such controls have already been applied by several member states in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. Some have criticized the EU’s lack of a unified response and clear message; and some countries, like Hungary and Italy, justify their anti-migration policies by using the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus.
The European Commission restriction
The EC communicated that the closing of the external borders was implemented to protect all Schengen states against COVID-19 which has become, through globalization and international movements, a global health crisis. The restrictions do not apply for “persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons”. Despite the border closure, the pressure on Europe’s borders “remains high” according to Frontex.
The Commission hopes that this travel ban “would also enable the lifting of internal border control measures”, which have already been introduced by several member states, but this has not proven to be the case.
Sergio Carrera from the Centre for European Policy Studies argued that, while the European Commission sounded skeptical about the necessity and effectiveness of closing borders at first, it gave a “sort of quasi green light for introducing border controls”. Although the measures have an impact on the rights and freedom of EU citizens, many EU member states have proceeded with closing their borders, like Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain. Public opinion on such measures has been favourable, but some critics have argued that the EU has lacked a coordinated response. Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris, writes in The Guardian that the lack of a coherent EU-wide response to the pandemic is undermining one of the most important achievements of the EU: the Schengen area. Alemanno believes that a more coordinated EU-wide response would make the border restrictions unnecessary. Maurizio Massari, the Italian permanent representative to the European Union, said that the EU needs to “go beyond engagement and consultations” and devise “emergency actions that are quick, concrete and effective”.
Hungary used COVID-19 to close its borders
Some countries and politicians will seek advantage in the chaos or will scapegoating community groups, particularly migrants. One of the most striking examples can be found in Hungary, according to Alexandre Dayant, a Research Fellow at the think tank Lowy Institute.
As the first novel coronavirus patient was reported in Hungary, the government quickly fell back to its anti-migration communication. The first patient happened to be an Iranian student – studying legally in Hungary – but it led to the narrative that “migration is responsible for the spread of epidemic”, according to a report by euobserver.
According to Gerald Knaus, founder of the think tank European Stability Initiative, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to abolish the right to asylum in Hungary. The national security advisor to the prime minister, gyorgy Bakondi, announced on March 1 that “Hungary has indefinitely suspended access to border transit areas for asylum seekers” because of the risks related to the spread of the COVID-19”. Bakondi also said that they “observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants”.
Italy blames migrants
In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the former Minister of the Interior of the far-right League party, called on the Italian Prime Minister to resign, accusing him of promoting the spread of the epidemic by accepting the landing of humanitarian ships in its ports. Salvini said that “[t]he government has underestimated the coronavirus. Allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible”.
The EU’s lack of a single and unified response allows for such criticism, which can lead to the coronavirus becoming a political tool used by some countries to blame migration.
Trump sends migrants back
This trend cannot only be seen in Europe but also under the Trump administration in the United States of America. The Trump administration has closed the northern and southern borders to many non-citizens, with some exceptions, including those entering the US for commercial purposes. Asylum seekers are not on this list of exceptions. The New York Times reports that, according to four administration officials at the Trump administration, Donald Trump plans to immediately send back all asylum seekers and other foreigners trying to cross the southwestern border illegally, saying they cannot risk allowing the coronavirus to spread through detention facilities and among Border Patrol agents.
Call upon kindness
The uncertainty in connection to COVID-19 leads to fear in individuals and countries. The message sent by countries that shut down their borders and order a lockdown can be interpreted as one where survival depends on (social) distance alone.
However, many argue, there are ways to fight this virus without abandoning our international obligations and our humanity. Survival also depends on kindness and taking care of one another, which is what we need most in times like these.