COVID-19 served as a reminder that boundaries and rights are not fixed. The lockdowns introduced by governments worldwide curbed mobility rights across both international and internal borders. In our recent article Mobility During Pandemics: Moving Borders and Citizenship into Uncharted Territories, we analyse how the governance of human mobility affected the concepts of borders and citizenship in the first six months of the pandemic (March to August 2020). We focus on select policies from countries in the European Union (EU) and South America, given that, before the outbreak, both regions offered more fluid intraregional mobility compared to other areas of the world. Our evidence is drawn from government websites, newspaper columns, blogposts, the International Travel Restrictions in Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak Dataset (GLOBALCIT/nccr – on the move), and reports from both the European Migration Network (EMN) and the OECD on coronavirus-related immigration policy changes in the EU-27 countries.
Citizenship, Borders, and Mobility Rights
While the concepts of citizenship and borders have always been subject to political reinterpretation, they have never changed so rapidly and on such a global scale as during the pandemic. Some short-term responses may have long-term effects, such as additional documentary requirements and increased use of biometric data.
During the pandemic, nationality continued to be one of the most important bases determining rights: those holding citizenship of a state were typically allowed to return, even when borders were closed to almost everyone else. In addition, migrants with long-term or permanent residence visas often continued to enjoy mobility rights since they could stay or return to their countries of residence (or return to their country of origin). However, migrants holding temporary visas, especially those outside their country of residence after borders closed, faced more restrictions.
The pandemic also saw new categories emerge to define mobility rights, such as the ‘essential worker’. This designation entitled people to enhanced mobility, either within a national territory or across international borders. Interpretations of what constituted an essential worker varied significantly, ranging from first responders, such as medical personnel or fire brigades, to supermarket cashiers, machinery repairers, transport workers, and so on. On the advice of the European Commission, some EU member states, such as Finland, treated seasonal workers from third countries as essential workers. As compared to the status quo before the pandemic, this migrant group therefore gained mobility rights. At the individual level, this allowed them to stay economically active, even if they risked their health. At the state level, ethical dilemmas emerged related to keeping the economy going while also striving to reduce COVID-19 cases.
While the virus could infect anyone, regardless of their passports or visas, governments nonetheless had the power to encourage (im)mobility depending on nationality and migrant status. Allowing third-country nationals to continue working in essential sectors transferred a political risk (experiencing public backlash for high number of cases) to a personal risk (contracting COVID-19). Enforcing lockdowns and working from home was more feasible where financial subsidies were available, as in much of the EU and South America. Even so, not everyone was eligible for such subsidies: for example, Argentina required two year’s residence and a formal application, which resulted in blocking 80% of immigrants from accessing the subsidy, despite it being intended to help vulnerable groups. As Brumat and Finn report, Brazil implicitly included immigrants in their emergency help fund, while other countries, such as Chile, included immigrants on paper but not in practice.
During COVID-19, internal borders also fluctuated or were constructed. Documentary requirements, such as holding a passport, have long been the norm for accessing international mobility. Requiring documents for internal mobility also became standard during the first months of the pandemic. For example, depending on the country, individuals needed a permit or government authorization to leave their home, neighbourhood, city, or region, with states including Italy introducing different ‘coloured zones’ depending on infection rates. In South America, people also became stuck between borders, for instance between Colombia and Venezuela. Areas lacking government restrictions saw community responses, such as in Brazilian neighbourhoods implementing their own COVID-19 precautions. Some Chilean municipalities erected barricades to block people coming from other municipalities, most notably from the capital of Santiago, fearing they would bring the virus with them. Subnational regions thus constructed new notions of ‘outsiders’, not along the migrant-national divide but rather based on perceptions of health linked to local residence.
Transforming Social Rights in Pandemic Times
The pandemic had much more diverse effects on foreign residents’ social rights. For instance, Portugal granted temporary residence to all immigrants and asylum seekers with pending applications. In effect, it granted them equal socioeconomic rights, including health, social support, employment, and housing, until the official end of the pandemic. Many EU member states extended migrants’ residence permits which would have normally been terminated due to loss of employment. Some member states, such as Belgium and France, also made access to unemployment benefits easier. This was particularly important, as migrant workers were often in the most vulnerable position in terms health and safety, as well as socioeconomically.
Several states, such as Estonia, Italy, and Portugal offered automatic residency extensions to visa-holding immigrants already in the country, while others, like Slovakia, temporarily scrapped the minimum income requirement for residency. Migrants would in any case have had difficulty leaving, given that international travel virtually came to a halt. In South America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru all extended the expiry dates of temporary residence permits to avoid physical proximity at normally overcrowded visa offices. Meanwhile, Uruguay maintained scheduled visa-related appointments. These responses nonetheless seemed to be more convenient for the governments themselves than for migrants, as it alleviated the pressure on backlogged migration authorities.
How long will the visa extensions and access to additional social rights last? Will changes adopted during COVID-19 shape the political landscape for migrants in the post-pandemic scenario? Differences in access to mobility rights are echoed in differences in access to vaccination. For instance, only some Latin American countries include immigrants in national vaccination plans. Since early 2020, most governments have imposed two or three additional waves of mobility restrictions to combat the spread of the virus and its new variants. They have implemented new border crossing surveillance tools, such as PCR tests and antibody certificates, vaccinations passports, and health declaration forms. The trends seem to be pointing towards increased collection of health data, in addition to personal and mobility data, biometric information, and fingerprints, all of which may complicate mobility and further stratify who can move and access social rights.
Short-term responses at the start of the pandemic may have long-term repercussion in terms of migration governance and justifications for immigration control. In South America, migrants’ rights have been under increasing pressure since at least 2015 because of a turn to the political right, a non-cohesive regional response to the ‘Venezuelan exodus’, and now Covid-19. In the EU, we initially saw quick fixes to help those at risk of becoming ‘irregular’ migrants, but the situation changed soon after the first wave. The COVID-related restrictions might now affect the free movement of EU citizens with new requirements for border crossings, such as vaccine passports. States across the world have also expanded their ability to control people’s movement not just within their territories, but also beyond, with new data and especially during states of emergency. Additional documentary requirements for international mobility have the potential to increase undocumented migration. Decisions taken under the flag of public health may create yet another selective mechanism to filter ‘desirable’ from ‘undesirable’ migrants before, at, and across international borders.
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