Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Navigating the Paradoxes of Selective COVID-19 Border Closures



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6 Minutes

Guest post by Sharifah Sekalala and Belinda Rawson. Sharifah is an Associate Professor in the School of Law at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on global health law and equity. She has worked with several international organisations such as ILO, UNAIDS and the WHO on health and human rights related issues. Belinda is a Solicitor and Associate Tutor at the School of Law, University of Warwick. Her research interests include human rights, migration, and the legal, socio-economic and cultural implications of the COVID-19 health crisis. This post is part of our themed series on border control and Covid-19.

"Borders are scratched across the hearts of men. By strangers with a calm, judicial pen, And when the borders bleed we watch with dread, The lines of ink across the map turn red." ~ Marya Mannes

The mobility of people across borders has been impacted around the world as countries close their borders to curb the spread of COVID-19. The Pew Research Centre reported that 91 percent of countries had border closures at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even regions that were predicated on open borders, such as the Schengen region, suddenly closed their borders despite advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) that this was in violation of the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR). However, although COVID-19 border closures felt universal, just like the artificial construct of the ‘border’, many of these borders remained open to individuals deemed ‘desirable’ in the pandemic context, and for the movement of goods. Examining some paradoxes around COVID-19 border closures illustrates how the politicisation of migration has been amplified by the pandemic.

‘Desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants

The COVID-19 health crisis has reinforced the narrative of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ migrants. When President Trump closed United States borders to migrants from across the world, a tweet from the US State Department was going viral on Twitter in most African countries. In this call, doctors and other health professionals who had experience in treating COVID-19 and similar conditions were asked to contact their local US embassies in order to apply for an American visa. The European Commission also encouraged entry to health care professionals, health researchers, and elderly care professionals. Cuban health workers were heralded as heroes when they went to Italy to assist the COVID-19 health response. In the United Kingdom, the government bowed to public pressure to remove the NHS surcharge for public health employees and it temporarily extended visas and relaxed some visa requirements for specified categories of health workers. In practice, these concessions excluded migrant workers whose visas did not expire prior to 1 October 2020 and essential workers such as cleaners who are critical to ensuring that public health services function during the crisis. These measures illustrate the narrative of the ‘desirable’ migrant. Temporary relaxation of visa requirements during the pandemic for certain types of ‘desirable’ migrants potentially creates a false sense of security as it does not guarantee continued exceptions or pathways to citizenship when the crisis has been alleviated.

The paradoxes of desirability in relation to health workers were also illustrated by the fact that many migrant health workers had been forced into low paid jobs such as driving taxis or factory work because the process of converting their foreign qualifications is often drawn out, onerous and expensive. However, at the height of the crisis, countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States appealed to these previously excluded unlicensed foreign doctors with Germany appealing to Syrian refugees, to join their coronavirus fights.

US Government tweet referred to above

The second category of ‘desirable’ immigrants were seasonal workers in agricultural industries. At the height of the crisis, it soon became evident that despite strict border closures, there was a real need to open borders for fruit pickers and other seasonal workers on whose labour many West European farmers depended. It is reported that major agricultural companies and charities chartered special flights to get migrant agricultural workers from Romania and Bulgaria into Germany and the United Kingdom to prevent national food shortages during the pandemic. Despite acknowledging that they are essential to critical infrastructure during a pandemic, migrant workers in agricultural settings do not enjoy the same benefits or protections enjoyed by others. Many migrants who were brought in during the crisis complained of poor working conditions and anxieties about being exposed to COVID-19. Paradoxically, a number of countries that have had a surge in demand for these categories of migrant workers have a penchant for implementing immigration policies that directly discriminate against those very same ‘low-skilled’ workers.

COVID-19 has, among other things, demonstrated the pliability of immigration policies and how the ‘desirability’ of certain types of migrants can be transformed according to the current needs of receiving states.

Redefining ‘home’ for some: Exclusionary policies of pandemic repatriation

The right to return to one’s own country is fundamental to an international system that focuses on the concept of nationality. Many governments put in place national COVID-19 repatriation programs aimed at bringing their citizens ‘home’. However, in practice, systems of repatriation ripped families apart and resulted in a number of cases of discriminatory treatment leaving individuals stranded abroad. Due to a lack of recognition of dual citizenship, China prevented nationals with multiple passports from being evacuated during the pandemic. This meant that spouses and dependents with Chinese citizenship were unable to be evacuated with family members who were citizens of other countries and who met repatriation criteria. The approaches of Australia and New Zealand in refusing to allow many temporary visa holders from re-entering those countries during the pandemic also demonstrates that the border was selectively open based on citizenship rights.

Citizenship rights as a pre-requisite of entry into certain countries during the crisis was always going to be problematic given the fact that affluent people can purchase multiple citizenship to ensure safe and unobstructed entry to countries that have safer or greater quality health care systems. During the COVID-19 crisis, we also saw people travelling to second homes on private jets, opting for the seaborne isolation of yachts or on Mediterranean islands, which were not infected, in the knowledge that the borders to their home countries would always be open to them.

“The border is closed” but not to Amazon

One of the curious things about the IHR is that they attempt to contain the spread of infectious diseases in order to ensure unobstructed access for trade. In some ways, this has always been the case, quarantines in ports began as way of containing diseases that sailors contracted when sailing from colonial outposts. Similarly, while borders remained closed globally, there was a desperation amongst many governments to retain the migration of goods and services. Goods were talked about in the form of critical infrastructure such as food and medical supplies (including medicine, diagnostics and personal protective equipment). In reality though, e-commerce giant Amazon (which is not essentially a public health supplier), for instance, successfully continued to move many different types of non-essential consumer goods across borders throughout all stages of the pandemic. It was reported that the fortune of Amazon’s CEO, already the world’s wealthiest person, grew by £24 billion during the pandemic partly due to a surge in demand. Despite scrutiny, particularly in France where a court ruled that the company had to stop selling non-essential goods until coronavirus safety measures were put in place, in many countries, its operations were largely unobstructed by border closures. Amazon also became an essential supplier of diagnostic kits because its global supply chains that enabled the migration of goods despite border closures were still up and running. Paradoxically, Amazon relies on cheap migrant labour to drive its profit margins.


There is a saying in global health that infectious diseases ‘know no borders’ and while this is true, in the way in which COVID-19 has rapidly spread, it is evident from examining the categories of people for whom borders remained open that pandemic-related border closures are deeply politicised. Certain categories of migrants became highly ‘desirable’, although there was often a temporal nature to this desirability. Pandemic repatriation of citizens was deeply exclusionary and enabled the super wealthy to circumvent border controls. Furthermore, we see the public health crisis did not really lead to any fundamental rethinking of production. The demand for consumer goods remained unabated and in fact helped to boost the profits of e-commerce giants such as Amazon as they became entrenched in public health supply chains thereby enabling them to transport goods across closed borders without any significant limitations.

 This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council Warwick IAA grant ES/T502054/1.



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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sekalala, S. and Rawson, B. (2020). Navigating the Paradoxes of Selective COVID-19 Border Closures. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/07/navigating [date]

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