When the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, there was an immediate response. Three hundred forty-eight countries worldwide closed their borders, completely or partially, to protect against the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation. Nearly a month later, 91% of the world’s population lived in a restricted travel area. The bans enacted were targeted bans against groups of people who lived in affected areas (China, Iran, and the US faced these exclusionary bans) or broad bans to land and air borders. Nearly 100 countries relied on targeted bans to keep the population safe. Of these countries, almost half had a targeted ban on all visa seekers, including those seeking asylum.
Refugees have few freedoms; the ability to seek safety in another country is small and often unrecognized liberty permitted to them. Global flows of migration rely upon recognizing that a person can cross international borders to seek a better situation. In this article, I will use two examples to demonstrate how border restrictions are being manipulated to justify the harsher treatment of refugees, disallow them from seeking a better situation, and put a strain upon vulnerable nations.
Refoulment in Greece
Greece has long been at the tail-end of the European Union’s snake-like policies concerning the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Economic vulnerability within Greece means they rely on monetary payment from the EU in exchange for being the central and primary country in which refugees are placed. In December 2019, Greece was hosting “190,000 people of concern”. Despite these figures, there has been a significant lack of “coherent and humane” policies that offer substantial protection to those people of concern in Greece.
These policies were tested in February 2020, before the declaration of a pandemic, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened up his borders to Europe. This political move led thousands of refugees to head to Europe, with their primary destination being Greece. In response, Greece suspended all asylum seekers and refugee claims processed until May 18 and responded with physical and aggressive push-backs at the border, intending to send ships back to Turkish territorial waters, so there could be no asylum claims. The conscience of the Turkish coastguard proved better than that of Greek coastguards. A report by Relief Web claims that there were credible accounts of the Greek coastguard ignoring ships in distress. Even worse, beyond the sea border, the Greek authorities carried out a collective refoulment of more than 1000 refugees, mid-2020, from islands around Greece. Above and beyond these apathetic actions towards asylum seekers, Greece also stopped assisting recognized refugees; worldwide, pandemic responses pioneered varying cash assistance responses. In Greece, however, refugees were refused any further cash assistance after one month.
A pandemic response has enabled harsher action towards refugees and asylum seekers who wind up within or around the borders of Greece. Greece’s vengeful act against Turkey has been allowed to continue because of this global shutdown of borders and migration. Disallowing people to claim asylum and seek reasonable protection is a malicious action disguised under border protection methods that claim to protect against Covid-19.
Closure of Borders to Boat People in Bangladesh
In 2017 the Myanmar military infamously doomed the Rohingya ethnic group and carried out genocidal attacks. Since then, Bangladesh has been left to provide for the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees that fled these condemnations. In Bangladesh, the average national income has recently risen to USD 2000 a month; this is compared to the $48,000 annual average income that North Americans earn. 21% live below the poverty line, with 9.2% living on $1.90 a day. Though Bangladesh is becoming a fast-developing and industrious country, these statistics demonstrate a limit to the protection the government feels it can offer.
This limit was found in mid-April 2020 when a boat of 390 Rohingya refugees was rescued after reportedly floating in the sea for two months and being denied entry into Malaysia. Before the rescue, over 100 people were estimated to have died on the boat. Following this incident, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen said, “I am opposed to allowing these Rohingya in the country because Bangladesh is always asked to take care of the responsibility of other countries”. Furthering his statement, Foreign Minister Abdul Momen added that due to Covid-19, “we have no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees”. Since this boat was found, many more fishing trawlers were left to float in the Bay of Bengal, waiting on rescues from passing international ships.
In a statement, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch Brad Adams acknowledged the effort of Bangladesh; “Bangladesh has shouldered a heavy burden as the result of the Myanmar military’s atrocity crimes”. He furthers this statement by pleading with Bangladesh to continue to “preserve the international goodwill it has gained”.
Like Greece, Bangladesh is an economically vulnerable country that should not be expected to shoulder a humanitarian crisis. Countries under these strains have used Covid-19 border closures and travel restrictions as a moment of relief from humanitarian entrants. However, the refugee crisis is a global, not a national issue, and therefore deserves a global and empathetic response.
Border restrictions are indeed fundamental in slowing the devastating effects of the virus. Global streams of movement have worked against the globalized world by establishing a fast-moving pandemic in a matter of months. However, these global streams of movement also provide valuable protection for refugees. The humanitarian crises that prompt displacement have not ceased within the last year; therefore, the world should use this opportunity to contain the movement of refugees and participate in a global effort to defeat both the virus and the harsh conditions faced by displaced people daily.
All countries should maintain their international obligations to provide non-discriminatory humanitarian assistance. As can be seen in the case of Bangladesh, unnecessary deaths have been caused under the guise of protection. The lives of those who are displaced should be considered parallel to those under the protection of their citizenship.