The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of two things: the ‘challenges of globalisation’ and the ‘significance of borders’. The current pandemic is teaching border agencies important lessons about operational preparedness in times of crisis.
- Dr. Rajeev Kumar
Borders, in the human history of movement, became crucial elements in an increasingly global system of states with globalisation permeating the notions of deterritorialized and borderless worlds. In a world of unimpeded global flows, especially flows of capital and information, borders were considered as being redundant. Concomitantly, borders remain the most sensitive elements of territorial states; the sites where preventive actions are taken in the face of threats. As the threat level increases, so also is the pressure on border regulation and management. In the present scenario, when Covid-19 pandemic has triggered an unprecedented chain reaction of border closures around the world in an effort to stop the spread of virus, the message seems clear: the borders need to be redefined within the framework of security not only from traditional threats (security implications of migration, international trafficking and terrorism) but also from non-traditional threats like the Corona virus. This is simply because of the fact that these threats, knowing no borders, are defined in cross-border or trans-national terms.
Thus, the recent economic/security discourses propound contrasting visions of the border as agents of national policies, one striving to ease restrictions to strengthen economic prosperity, the other aspiring to impose more stringent restrictions as a means of strengthening security and safety. This has become more evident in the form of present global crisis, i.e. Covid-19 pandemic. The whole concept of borderless world with minimum barriers and interconnected markets across borders has, somehow or other, been at stake imminently.
‘Re-imagining’ Border Regulation
The location of the border has been shifting for decades when it comes to regulating mobility and access. This is part ‘of a strategy that strives to ‘push the frontier out’ as far away from the actual territorial border as possible. This involves screening people ‘at the source’ or origin of their journey—not the destination—and then again at every possible checkpoint along the way’. The conventional static border is, thus, reimagined by the governments as the last point of encounter, not the first. Responses to the global pandemic have accelerated this trend worldwide, i.e. identifying and addressing threat at the earliest possible point and not at the actual border. This becomes pertinent in the prevailing situation when most of the countries around the world are closing their borders indefinitely, thereby raising the question of whether border controls/regulation of pre-Covid days will prove to be effective in containing such outbreaks in the post-pandemic world; and on the preparations of the border agencies for such exigencies.
The primary task when it comes to reinforcing borders in response to the corona virus is to keep the movement alive together with balancing the health risks. Such bold measures may be justified today as a matter of urgency to combat a global pandemic. But they also ‘reveal deeper patterns that disrupt and test assumptions about waning sovereignty, while also revealing the limits of the populist push for border-fortification. The shifting border not only extends the reach of sovereign authority to regulate movement far beyond the country’s actual territorial edges, it also bleeds into the interior. As part of a major reform to U.S. immigration policy in the 1990s, a procedure called “expedited removal” was introduced into law. This legal provision permits frontline officers and border agents both to expeditiously return undocumented migrants at the border and to review the legal status of individuals detected up to one hundred miles away from any U.S. land or coastal border, in effect “moving” the border into the territorial interior’.
The corona virus Covid-19 makes us ask once again if the border should be viewed as a protective shield. Is it still such a good idea to erect borders against the spread of this new and currently untreatable disease? Now borders must be defined differently: as a health and safety mechanism of the utmost importance.
The border is not, thus, dissipating but rather metamorphosing. Far from the dream of a borderless world, today we witness not only more border walls but also the rapid proliferation of “movable” legal barriers that may appear anywhere but are applied selectively and unevenly, with fluctuating degree, intensity, and frequency of regulation. Instead of waning and disappearing, states have engendered a whole new legal cartography of control over borders and movement. No longer a static and immovable barrier, the border has transformed to become a mobile, agile, sophisticated, and ever-transforming legal construct—a shifting border, which can be planted and replanted in myriad locations, with dramatic implications for the rights and protections of those falling under its remit.
Technology comes to the Rescue: ‘Saving’ Mode
While most of the countries are turning inwards for fighting this pandemic, the use of technology becomes an essential part of it; saving lives of people not only by direct use of it but also by recognizing the ‘other’ and thereby restricting the mobility of the population. The use of artificial intelligence could, thus, help avoid physical contacts in situations when physical distancing is required for the prevention of infections. Increased use of contactless equipment (fingerprint scanners, facial recognition cameras, etc.) and robotic voice commands would enhance the health security of both border guards and travellers.
Technology could also help solve some of the conflicting objectives of border security agencies, which must not only reconcile secure but speedy border checks and ensure cost-effectiveness but also the convenience for travellers. There will be a need to add additional parameters, e.g. by equipping e-gates with body temperature measuring devices and expand their installation to arrival halls at border crossing points. Such e-gates would provide an early warning system to take the necessary precautions in a timely manner.
With the spread of Covid-19, a growing number of countries are also turning to cyber-tech measures, viz. deploying surveillance tools, for regulating the movement of their own citizens. The once-fixed territorial border is, thus, not just shifting inward and outward, but also multiplying and fracturing. Government officials foresee a future whereby arriving and departing passengers will not require any travel documents. Instead, the body will become the ticket of admission as biometric borders expand their reach. Australia, Japan, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates are leading the way. The current crisis has, thus, led to the reimagining of national sovereignty and international cooperation. Borders will have to fit in the same parameters.
Borders post COVID-19: A Line to ‘link’ or ‘separate’?
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measure. While the evolving situation of a pandemic requires the strict state measures to control the epidemic and is not to be questioned but the nature and extent of the measures need to be scrutinized. Everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and governments are under the obligation to ensure that in the times of epidemics and other exigencies under international law. Open borders are must to ensure this uninterrupted standard of health to be maintained. But is the price going to be too high or not is the question that looms large?
The corona virus Covid-19 makes us ask once again if the border should be viewed as a protective shield. Is it still such a good idea to erect borders against the spread of this new and currently untreatable disease? Now borders must be defined differently: as a health and safety mechanism of the utmost importance. Are border closures an effective way to protect public health? This question is undoubtedly going to arise. Once again, nations must reassume control of their borders in order to protect the health and safety of their populations. Let us not talk about closing national borders, but rather specific measures for when they are crossed. In order for these measures to be effective, careful coordination is required. Strengthening checks on people crossing the border becomes essential. Essential to this new discourse, and constituting a remarkable change, is the systematic control of every person entering a nation via its external borders. The borders are now “viscous”, so that infected people can be caught and isolated. The free movement of information can also be seen in the search for a treatment for Covid-19. The lack of a convincing response from liberalism (and the somewhat more effective response from the authoritarian regime in China) suggests that it may be time for systemic change, taking into consideration the negative consequences of ‘full globalisation’.
The rapid onset of the global pandemic, from one Chinese city to the whole world, underscores the need for controls at the border. Travelers quickly carried the virus to practically every corner of the globe, and many governments were forced to shut down borders in order to contain the outbreak. Border authorities are faced with the daunting challenge of stopping the virus at the border while allowing trade to flow without impediment. Though pandemics are the spillovers of globalisation, but to harvest the benefits of globalisation, one has to manage the risks. The biggest job to be done in the world ‘post COVID-19’ will not be to build walls or impede global integration but to make globalisation work for more people than ever before. At the same time, the regulation of entry must happen in transit hubs that may be located miles away from the actual border.
While extraordinary measures such as restrictive mobility, social distancing, and even preventive quarantine appear to be the necessary call of the hour, we will also need to proactively undo the draconian surveillance and control measures that this virus has unleashed without hesitation.
COVID-19 and India
India is one of the worst affected countries in terms of spread of the virus and overall number of cases. Though India has succeeded in managing the pandemic better than many well-equipped and developed nations; the current extraordinary situation calls for severe measures as the virus is having an enormous impact on safe, orderly and regular migration and cross-border mobility. Migrants and mobile populations are heavily affected and are finding themselves in vulnerable situations. The preparedness and response efforts of the Indian government, therefore, must include assessment at the country’s land, sea and air border crossing points. Monitoring border movements together with countries sharing open border with India, e.g. Nepal, has become a necessity now. The process of reverting to regular mobility across international borders will take time as states will gradually assess the extent to which the corona virus is contained.
The rapid onset of the global pandemic, from one Chinese city to the whole world, underscores the need for controls at the border. Travelers quickly carried the virus to practically every corner of the globe, and many governments were forced to shut down borders in order to contain the outbreak.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of two things: the ‘challenges of globalisation’ and the ‘significance of borders’. Though the border performs the dual role of a line that links as well as a line that separates; as of now it seems to separate. The current pandemic is teaching border agencies important lessons about operational preparedness in times of crisis. This has implications for the future in terms of training, staffing, cross-border information sharing and the use of technologies. India also must learn the lessons from the current pandemic and work towards securing the borders from all kinds of threats in the foreseeable future.
In times marked by trends as diverse as economic globalization and COVID-19 pandemic, the efficient handling of borders has become an issue of political priority across the world. It is widely agreed that in a globalizing world, borders should be as open as possible; yet in the post-corona days, world governments would understandably be more anxious than ever to ensure that their frontiers are secured against external threats, especially threats like Covid-19 which know no borders. Thus, recognizing that goods, services and lawful citizens need to flow freely across borders, an increased level of vigilance and interdiction must be maintained with good border management practices, including technological upgradation, in order to help ensure the sanctity and security of borders whether physical or virtual. Better cooperation between border guards, customs services and sanitary agencies will also be needed.
Better cooperation on early warning and risk assessment, viz. the need to share information across borders, including threat perception and risk analysis, will be quintessential as part of policy-making. Modernisation also needs to happen downstream so that operational staff has better access to virtual platforms to improve the flow of real-time information and raise overall preparedness at the borders.
1.Ayelet Shachar, ‘Borders in the Time of COVID-19’, Ethics & International Affairs, Carnegie Council, March 2020. URL: https://www.ethicsandinternationalaffairs.org/2020/borders-in-the-time-of-covid-19/
3. Houssem Ben Lazreg and Wael Garnaoui, ‘Reversal of (Im)mobility Privilege and Borders during COVID-19’, E-International Relations, 18 May 2020. URL: https://www.e-ir.info/2020/05/18/reversal-of-immobility-privilege-and-borders-during-covid-19/
4. Borut Eržen, Monika Weber and Sandra Sacchetti, ‘How COVID-19 is changing border control’, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 16 April 2020. URL: https://www.icmpd.org/news-centre/news-detail/expert-voice-how-covid-19-is-changing-border-control/
5. Op. cit. (end note i)
6. Frederique Berrod and Pierrick Bruyas, ‘European Union: Are borders the antidote to the Covid-19 pandemic?’ The Conversation, 18 April 2020. URL: https://theconversation.com/european-union-are-borders-the-antidote-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-136643
(The author is Assistant Professor of History at Central University of Himachal Pradesh)