International travel restrictions introduced during the pandemic constrained our freedom to travel. To understand how, we must look at the interaction between immigration status, citizenship, employment, and place of residence, write Lorenzo Piccoli, Jelena Dzankic, Timothy Jacob-Owens and Didier Ruedin
To contain Covid-19, every government in the world has introduced restrictions on international movement. From late January 2020, these restrictions initially targeted travellers from China. But they quickly expanded to other East Asian countries, then to Iran, Italy, and soon to the entire world. We can see these policies as part of a global ‘regime of mobility’, wherein states have the power to halt movement across international borders.
But the measures did not affect everyone equally. In our project, Citizenship, Migration and Mobility in a Pandemic, we discuss four ways government restrictions to contain SARS-CoV-2 had unequal effects on different groups and individuals.
As a result of widespread travel bans, many people were stranded abroad at the start of the pandemic. Some got help from the governments of their home countries, who organised evacuations and provided other forms of consular assistance. Several countries evacuated only their own citizens, while others included those citizens' families, as well as permanent residents.
For example, Canadian evacuation flights from China included only citizens of Canada. By contrast, evacuation of South Korean citizens from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February 2020 included one Japanese spouse. A month later, an evacuation from Iran repatriated 74 South Koreans and six Iranian family members; the evacuation organised by the German government from Wuhan rescued 102 German citizens and 22 residents.
Entry restrictions across the world meant that standard travel documents were no longer sufficient to cross international borders. This change had the greatest impact on citizens of countries in the Global North, who previously had far more extensive mobility rights than those in the Global South.
For example, our study finds that the number of countries you could travel to with a Japanese passport without the need for a visa dropped from 117 to 11 following the 2020 travel restrictions. For South African passport holders, the equivalent change was down from 63 to 11. In this way, the pandemic has had an equalising effect on global mobility.
Most states made exceptions for certain categories of people, allowing them to continue to cross their borders during the pandemic. These exceptions typically included citizens abroad, settled foreigners and their families. Exceptions were also frequently made for diplomats, medical professionals, and cross-border workers in key sectors, such as agriculture.
Conversely, almost all states abruptly suspended asylum procedures, making it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to legally cross international frontiers. They also shut their borders to tourists (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Seychelles) and international students (although universities have sought to devise strategies to allow foreigners to return). These categories of traveller remain largely excluded from international mobility more than a year after the pandemic's emergence.
Discussions about personal electronic coronavirus vaccination certificates are currently ongoing. But many countries have already introduced medical documentation and other requirements as conditions for border entry. For example, most EU countries currently demand proof of a negative Covid-19 test, medical screening, quarantine, self-isolation, and contact tracing as a condition to cross international borders.
These measures have increased scrutiny and data surveillance at borders. Police, airline operators, and healthcare professionals are becoming increasingly involved in the management of international mobility.
While Covid-19 travel restrictions have been a global phenomenon, their impact has varied hugely, depending on an individual’s immigration status, citizenship, employment, and place of residence.
It remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, these measures will outlast the pandemic and establish a ‘new normal’ for global mobility.