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*


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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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