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Coronavirus

COVID-19, A Dangerous Pretext For Permanently Closing Borders

A strategy for fighting the pandemic, national confinement morphs into a dangerous ideology if it uses the pretext of health protection to target migrants.

At the border between Belgium and the Netherlands on March 23
At the border between Belgium and the Netherlands on March 23
François Héran*

-Analysis-

PARIS — For some, the main lesson from this health crisis may be that we should have closed the borders a long time ago. But close them to whom? To migrants alone or to all international travelers? In our brains, the opening or closing of borders has automatically been associated with migration policy.

Yet, we see that this virus makes no difference between a migrant and a tourist or business traveler. It has no ideology, it obeys the law of large numbers and one basic fact: that immigration accounts for a tiny proportion of border crossings — less than 1%. A policy of national confinement that would use health protection as a pretext to target migrants while neglecting 99% of border crossings would be repeating the mistakes of the past, well described by historian Antonin Durand in an article in the online journal De facto.

In 2018, the total number of border crossings worldwide for stays of less than one year reached 1.4 billion, according to the World Tourism Organization. Despite the boom in telecommunications, this number has increased by 50% in ten years. A large part of the travel is for leisure, but also includes visits to relatives, study trips, pilgrimages, business trips (internships, missions, seasonal work). Unsurprisingly, half of all border entries are concentrated in Europe. However, the world record is held by France: More than 89 million people have entered the country in 2018, migration not included. France is followed by Spain (83 million), the United States (80 million), China (63 million) and Italy (62 million).

Without foreign customers, entire sectors are bound to suffer.

It's more difficult to estimate the number of entries for permanent migration, but the order of magnitude is one hundred times smaller. Each year in France, approximately 540,000 entries are due to migration, which is very little considering the total of 90 million temporary or permanent entries: only 0.6%. Even with a large margin of error, this is an indispensable figure for health control. Border controls aimed at slowing the spread of epidemics are legitimate, but there is no justification for reserving them for migrants only, when there are 140 to 200 times more international travelers. We can't disguise migration policy as a health policy.

Yet, such confusion is common. In a recent interview for Le Figaro, Philippe de Villiers rejoiced: The epidemic has sounded the death knell for globalism. As if globalization was to blame for "four deadly crises: health, migration, economic, and soon financial." Clearly, the ideology of national confinement is not a matter of genuine national interest.

The crisis made us realize that professions with a high social utility mobilize immigrants more than others. It is also clear that, without foreign customers, entire sectors are bound to suffer. The 89 million entries in 2018 produced 140 million overnight stays by non-residents — just as many as the number of overnight stays made by French customers! The Louvre would not be the world's leading museum if it did not sell 75% of its tickets to foreigners. And so on and so forth.

The dream of a world closing its borders to all foreigners is a ruinous nightmare.

Did you dream about a world flawlessly applying the ideology of "national confinement"? The border closures brought about by the epidemic give you an empirical proof: A world without migrants and foreign visitors is a world at a standstill. It is a world in which citizens of Northern countries — a bitter irony — can in turn become undesirable foreigners in Southern countries.

It is good that sovereign states seek to guarantee certain strategic productions on their territory for defense and health. But any hint of nationalism reaches its limits when it meets the ruinous effects of national confinement and sovereign decisions of other countries. We do not lose our independence if, instead of baking our own bread, we buy it from a baker; we become interdependent and this is what we call the market, involving cooperation, exchange and regulation. The same applies to international relations, including European integration or international conventions on mobility, migration or asylum.

The tendency to constantly and increasingly cross borders is neither a fad nor an anomaly. It is a groundswell. Under what pretext would we want to dissuade young people, workers or retirees from traveling the world? Migration, on its modest scale, is part of this movement. This mobility must be regulated, it is inevitable, but it is hard to see how we can reverse the increasing globalization of international travel, unless we dream of perpetual confinement.

The dream of a world closing its borders to all foreigners is a ruinous nightmare. Once restrictions end, the world will continue to move — and there will be everything to see.



*François Héran is a sociologist, anthropologist and demographer, holder of the chair of migrations and societies at the Collège de France, former director of the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) from 1999 to 2009, moderator of the Institut Convergences Migrations. Latest published works: "Avec l'immigration. Mesurer, débattre, agir", (La Découverte, 2017) and "Migrations et sociétés' (Fayard, 2018).



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