Migrant Futures

The many facets of pandemic vulnerability

While health matters, what good is the safety of the physical body when all rights are lost to our collective political body?

Alison Mountz
17 April 2020, 12.01am
Syrian refugees that were on the Turkey- Greece border are now living in the bus terminal in Izmir, Turkey due to coronavirus measures. April 14, 2020
Picture by Emre Tazegul/Depo Photos/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

We are living a sudden, seismic acceleration of bordering. This acceleration unfolds not only along national borders, but within them: between states and provinces, around cities, care homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, cruise ships, apartments, bodies – two metres, to be precise. Spaces of confinement proliferate as our bodies become islands. And as John Donne’s famous poem says, we carry on, interconnected yet socially-distanced.

And yet for many, these spaces of confinement are not new. Border acceleration continues trends that were well underway before COVID-19 hit: hardened security, the spread of confined spaces, and criminalization of mobility. Incarcerated people, whether confined by the bars of state prisons or detention facilities, are among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Decades of scholarship that attended to globalization, global integration, and transnationalism now requires an abrupt pivot. We must pause. This is neither speculation nor argument, but a call to ask questions and raise concerns. Crucial questions will determine our collective futures. What new forms of bordering will we live? How long will governments attempt to preserve their new island-like status?

Fear of contagion has long driven fortified bordering practices, but now accelerates to a feverish pace. In one recent week, Canada issued emergency warnings to people returning from Florida as Floridians banned New Yorkers and the Trump administration prepared to send military forces to the Canada-US border. One week later, each country threatened to halt the supply of life-saving medical supplies and life-saving medical personnel in each direction.

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COVID-19 drives not only the fear of contagion, but concerns about demands on health care systems as the pandemic overwhelms hospitals. Citizenship holds value over life and death as authorities move to protect their own at home and abroad. But the question remains: what happens to everyone else?

As authorities closed borders around the globe, they communicated quickly with citizens at home and abroad: we will protect and assist you, come home. Citizenship, these days, is a shrinking category, with non-citizens living out proliferating forms of precarity and exclusion. With so much talk about the multiple ways in which people are more or less vulnerable to COVID-19 – age, gender, “underlying conditions” – we must talk about race, immigration, and legal status.

While no one is immune, many grow more vulnerable due to class, race, geography, legal status, and place in the labor market. It is no coincidence that Elmhurst Hospital in Queens is one of the hardest hit in New York City. Elmhurst is a neighborhood of diverse immigrant communities where many working-class people continue jobs deemed essential, some living in close quarters and without adequate access to isolation, healthcare, or livelihoods that afford the possibility and privilege of isolation.

COVID-19 strikes at the historic height of global refugee flows. What will become of 70 million refugees displaced by war, famine, and upheaval, 84% of them in lower-income regions, several million among them in refugee camps and dense urban areas with limited capacity and medical infrastructure?

Geographical location lies at the heart of this denial of rights, whether people find themselves spatially confined in a detention facility or turned back at a border

States party to the Geneva Conventions relating to refugees took rapid measures to turn back asylum seekers asking for protection, including Canada and the US, while stating that these changes may not be permanent. The pandemic, almost overnight, ushered in stunning new restrictions amid the notion that the health of citizens trumps the rights of non-citizens. Geographical location lies at the heart of this denial of rights, whether people find themselves spatially confined in a detention facility or turned back at a border.

This pandemic strikes when we are living the height of detention globally, as facilities proliferated in more countries than ever before. The US, for instance, is hit hardest by the pandemic at the same historical moment when it operates the largest migrant detention system in the world. While some concern for prisoners and early releases ensued, little was said publicly about the fate of people imprisoned in detention centres, and less about the most precarious among them, including children, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions, now subjected to ideal conditions for the virus to spread. This pattern sacrifices the lives of marginalized people – working and detained – to protect the privileged.

People in detention are not the only communities leading daily lives separated from families. Wealthier workers and diasporic peoples the globe over suddenly feel the distance from home more acutely. Families of every socioeconomic status find themselves geographically divided. My own family in the US remains tantalizingly close, yet farther away than ever before, across a border celebrated for its openness only weeks ago, now closed for all but essential business.

International students feel their precarity. In Canada, Migrant Students United organized, asking whether international students qualify for new income supports, healthcare, and immigration assistance, and discussing what border closures will mean for longer-term separation from their families.

Our liberal society lives a core contradiction: the freedom of mobility of capital, but not people

The idea of “permanent temporariness” circulated in migration research long before the pandemic, as temporary foreign worker visas proliferated by the hundreds of thousands around the globe – a way to ensure that the global economy was fueled by cheap labor in sectors from manufacturing to agriculture and health care. Temporary status not only leaves people in limbo, but precarious due to seasonal migration and potential loss of livelihood and legal status. In India, recent images show thousands of migrant workers crowding bus and train stations as they tried to make their way home in response to lockdown orders.

Immigration and borders will not likely re-open to business as usual. What new restrictions will be imposed? How will health checks be even more deeply incorporated into immigration policies? Who will guard the border guards? How many of these measures are here to stay?

Human mobility has always functioned simultaneously as both privilege and punishment, depending on who and where we are in the world. COVID-19 lays bare how immobility also functions as privilege and punishment, exercising the right to remain, the privilege of sheltering in place, and the violence for people for whom home itself is no haven.

Our liberal society lives a core contradiction: the freedom of mobility of capital, but not people. Amid political posturing and corporate relief, COVID-19 itself moves quickly and reinforces the notion that wealth matters more than life. While health matters, what good is the safety of the physical body when human rights are lost to our collective political body?

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