Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Crimmigration: A Lens for Public Health Securitisation at the Border?



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Guest post by Asher Websdale. Asher is a Junior Research Fellow at the European Institute of Policy Research and Human Rights. His current research focuses on the violation of human rights occurring through internal-border police checks in the Schengen Area. Asher can be found on LinkedIn.

In 2006, Juliet Stumpf coined the term “crimmigration” to describe the merging of criminal and immigration law.  Since then, the field of crimmigration has continued to grow, but few examples of the apparent merge are cited as frequently as September 11th. The events of 9/11 had an unequivocal, global impact on the management of border control. They fuelled existing discourses that migrants, and people of colour more generally, are criminal and necessitate stringent policing at and within borders. As COVID-19 forces governments to implement unprecedented limits on mobility in the context of an interconnected world, will the merging of public health securitisation and immigration policy equally work to limit mobility in the future?

Temperature checks being conducted at Milano Linate.

In reality, public health securitisation at the border is nothing new. In 2014, many countries shut their borders to the worst affected nations in reaction to the Ebola epidemic. In addition, customs officers around the world screen incoming goods on a daily basis for public health threats. Neither is this pandemic the first time that disinformation about migrants or ethnic minorities has spread widely among society in relation to disease. Donald Trump’s persistent description of COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ shockingly mirrors the contextual use of the term “Jewish” disease to describe Tuberculosis.

Whilst 9/11 certainly disproportionately affected the mobility, migration, and integration of Muslims, it did not affect Muslims exclusively. One may thus expect COVID-19 to not solely affect the mobility, migration, and integration of individuals from China—though geo-political tensions with China may continue to exacerbate negative stigmas towards people of Chinese descent. Rather, countries are likely to use the COVID-19 pandemic to exclude specific members of society. In 1918, a deadly pandemic, which we now commonly call the “Spanish flu,” struck the world. But before that name caught on, highlighting the apparent easiness of framing a disease, Brazilians coined it the “German flu,”  Senegalese named it the “Brazilian flu,” and Poles called it the “Bolshevik disease”. By naming a disease after a specific identity marker, such as nationality, religion or political affiliation, these identities are coupled directly with the cause of disruption - the disease. This works only to blame and subsequently exclude these people. The potential to exclude selected members of society today is made all the more easier by the global spread of COVID-19 in a transnationally connected world. Whilst we may not witness various examples of colloquial renaming, it is easier today to portray specific migrant routes as avenues for bringing public health threats across the border.

The suggestion that the pandemic may grant justification for nations to keep “undesirables” away from their borders is not an unfounded speculation. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank focused on monitoring, reporting, and responding to extremism, detailed that both the Greece/Turkey border and the Mexico/US border are being blamed for facilitating the continued spread of the disease. Within Europe, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has reported that EU Member States are refusing the entry of asylum applicants. For example, Cypriot coastguards pushed back a boat with approximately 175 Syrians seeking asylum, including 69 children. Moreover, a news outlet targeting Greek Diaspora has portrayed Greece as protecting the European border from “invaders”. In March, Greek authorities responded with aggression in order to keep refugees from entering its territory. The merging of existing anti-migrant discourses and the public health threat has fuelled these responses. Similarly, in the UK, many news outlets have sought to draw attention to the arrival of migrant boats despite the pandemic and the The Telegraph published an article bearing the title 'Illegal migrants with coronavirus 'inevitably entering the UK'". This is where crimmigration can lend its lens to the current crisis. The logic behind marrying migration with crime is to alert the population of an imminent threat arriving at, or living within, the border. The same logic is being applied to the infectious pathogen and its potential human vectors, rendering the justification of tighter border controls possible.

Legally, the European Commission has reassured Member States that they may refuse entry to non-resident third country nationals if they are considered a public health threat. Whilst the Commission has expressed that these powers are not to be utilised in a discriminate manner, discrimination within European border management is already pronounced. As European Member States begin to ease their lockdowns whilst many African countries still face the peaks of their epidemics, it is likely that the attitude of “fortress Europe” will strengthen. As the fear of crime serves as a justification for stringent controls at both Europe’s external and internal borders, public health threats may act as an equally credible justification in the upcoming future. In addition to outright exclusion, migrants from specific countries may be subjected to disproportionate quarantine requirements on arrival. Further, much like random-security checks tend to disproportionately affect particular populations, the same may happen regarding the temperature checks and inspection of passengers during their travels.

In the US, conservative newspapers have bolstered Trump's claims that building the wall on the US/Mexico border is of key significance due to the pandemic. A ­Fox News article even cited a specific example of an "illegal migrant" crossing the border and later testing positive for COVID-19 - an obvious merge of one's legal status and health. Additionally, in March, the U.S' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order suspending introductions of "certain persons from countries where a communicable disease exists". Despite the order applying to both Canada and Mexico, Canada is only mentioned 24 times compared to Mexico's 48 mentions (not including footnotes). Trump's claims that the wall is needed "more than ever" is a blatant attempt to turn his "America First" border policy into reality. By utilising fears about the infectious disease, Donald Trump could continue to use the COVID-19 pandemic to exclude citizens of specific nations from travelling to the US in the same manner he utilised anxieties over Islamic-extremism to implement travel bans on a selection of Muslim-majority nations.

(Pre-pandemic) President Trump viewing prototypes for the southern wall.

What this article has sought to do is highlight the parallels witnessed between the behaviour of states and their borders in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and those uncovered by crimmigration. Epidemiologists around the globe have warned that we may be living with this virus for years to come, and thus the need for regulating mobility may be required in the absence of a cure. Worldwide, many nations have been battling populist, anti-immigration discourses both before and during this pandemic. We must ensure we avoid the merging of these anti-migrant sentiments and public health securitisation at the borders that may discriminate against or selectively exclude individuals based on their ethnicity and/or nationality in the way crime and terror have managed. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Websdale, A. (2020). Crimmigration: A Lens for Public Health Securitisation at the Border?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/crimmigration [date]

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