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Has the Pandemic Become an Excuse for Curbing Visitors from the Global South?

Prof. Mehari Taddele Maru

Prof. Mehari Taddele Maru

Prof. Mehari Taddele Maru is a Part-time Professor at the Migration Policy Centre and Academic Director of the Young African Leaders Programme at School of Transitional Governance, European University Institute. He is also a Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies in Bruges, Belgium.

Restrictive policies introduced to contain the spread of Covid-19 may now be conveniently applied to contain mobility from the global south to the global north. These Covid-19-related restrictions should have been reviewed pari passu with vaccination and infection rates, and with other mechanisms employed to slow down the spread of the virus. However, in many countries, the revision of laws and policies still lags. Guardian columnist and author Nesrine Malik succinctly encapsulates this emerging trend in her recent piece: “It’s hard to shake the impression that there is a desire not to return to normal rates of ebb and flow, but to use this opportunity to make it permanently harder to move around, particularly if your starting point is in the global south.”

Would-be travelers from developing countries face multiple barriers 

With limited access to vaccines and a slow pace of vaccination, most people in the global south will not be able to travel to the global north for the foreseeable future. Even those fortunate enough to be vaccinated will face additional bureaucratic restrictions and requirements when they need to travel. The time required for securing travel documents has risen sharply and the immigration process at ports is more complicated. For those in the global south, access to transportation and immigration services is limited. Covid-19-related testing rarely meets the standards required by countries in the global north and various airlines.

The gap in travel freedom continues to widen 

The loss of income and employment related to the pandemic will further curtail the freedom of people to travel to the global north. Travel costs, including ticket prices, accommodation and meals during quarantine, and fees for frequent Covid-19 tests and certification are rising. The necessary outlays may well be out of reach for the vast majority of travelers from the global south, limiting their capability to travel.

Ordinarily, the poorest migrate to places closest to them, while an increasingly mobile elite travel to more distant destinations including the global north. However, in this time of pandemic, even the mobile elite in the global south must be cost-conscious and wary of the risks associated with traveling, further widening the gap between the global south and global north when it comes to being able to travel freely. The type of vaccine has become critical in determining where a person can travel to. For example, travelers who have received vaccines that are not authorized in the EU will not be able to travel to the bloc.

Containment of travelers from global south predates pandemic

The rationale behind the restrictions on travelers to and from the global south is not necessarily related to vaccination and infection rates. Travelers from the latter are often subject to quarantine requirements, whether they are vaccinated or not. Examples of countries imposing such restrictions are Australia, Turkey, and the UK. Restrictive measures are becoming a permanent feature of migration regulation from the global south to the global north. The signs of this are already emerging in vaccine passports, which serve as a green pass, for example, in the form of the EU Digital COVID Certificate in Europe.

The global north has been enforcing aggressive migration containment strategies for some time now through the rigid application of border controls, undermining the movement of persons in various ways. For example, the EU has been employing a mix of persuasive and coercive measures to compel African countries to stop or contain migration to the EU zone. Development projects and local integration schemes have been funded as part of the migration containment. Certain transit countries (for example, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Sudan) host a growing number of stranded migrants and asylum-seekers, while facing an acute shortage of resources to provide protection and humanitarian assistance in their jurisdictions.

Ethiopia’s new refugee law a result of migration diplomacy 

Some legislation developed for African countries by the partners is so restrictive and out of touch with realities on the ground that it has required several amendments. Ethiopia, for example, has amended its migration-related proclamation and policies more than three times since 2007. The revised refugee law is expected to bring a shift in policy towards local integration as one of the durable solutions. As part of its 2016 pledges, Ethiopia committed to ensure that refugees benefit from and participate in infrastructural, education, health, and natural resource development. Accordingly, the government pledged to allocate 10,000 hectares of land for refugees to engage in agricultural cultivation. It is also set to offer jobs to refugees in the Dire Dawa Industrial Park. Vital statistics and registration certificates, banking services, driving licences, property-related rights, employment rights, and freedom of movement equal to non-Ethiopian residents are also under consideration. Local integration in groups or individually within the country has also been considered for a few years now.

An outcome of repeated intensive and relentless migration diplomacy, the revised refugee law was introduced to confer legal standing to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and other pledges Ethiopia has made to the EU, the UN, and other development partners. These pledges and partnership agreements require the revision of the 2004 Refugee Proclamation, which did not provide the local integration of refugees as a major durable solution. While the legislative intention of the revision is to offer sustainable solutions to Ethiopia’s large refugee population, it mainly focused on legalistic measures of deterring secondary migration. The EU policy of containment of migration through development projects is behind the push for a durable solution.

Strong presence of EU immigration officials in major African hubs

The EU border agency Frontex is increasingly operating and securitizing migration deep in African jurisdictions and undertaking taking border control, which is normally an act of a sovereign state with effective control. Immigration officials from European destination countries, or on the payroll of private immigration agencies hired by those countries, are stationed in major African air transport hubs such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi.

The new EU Visa Code makes it more complex and more expensive to secure Schengen visas for nationals of countries that are failing to readmit their nationals who arrive in Europe irregularly. Students, investors, and public servants from the global south now face further restrictions due to these stringent containment measures.

Current restrictions a new tool of migration containment

The migration containment strategy of the global north has been instrumental in creating the restrictive, legislative-led migration management currently prevalent in Africa. In effect, these are being turned into ‘migrant containment countries’. Consequently, the EU has externalized its borders. This has meant that migrants are contained in countries of origin and transit, a process administered by state and non-state actors such as immigration departments, airlines, private security companies, and international organizations. For those wanting to travel to the global north who do not have the EU green pass and who cannot spend more resources to take multiple tests and quarantine, many countries remain closed. Covid-19-associated travel restrictions are new additions to the toolbox of migration containment instruments employed by the global north to curb mobility from the global south.

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