International travel restrictions in response to Covid-19

The lockdowns and quarantines that have been implemented in numerous countries around the world not only impact those whose working lives depend on leaving their homes, but also of researchers. In particular, migration scholars, who study the impact of mobility, are suddenly confronted with a world where the overwhelming majority of countries have imposed international travel restrictions in response to Covid-19. As a result, they have moved their attention from analyzing mobility patterns to the types of travel restrictions that are in force – including self-isolation, the need to carry medical certificates and entry barriers.

A new research project by the European University Institute and the University of Neuchatel provides daily updated information on exactly these topics, based on data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and government sources. Their database tracks which countries have imposed travel restrictions from 1 March onwards. While most countries have by now imposed a blank travel ban for all countries, the database conveniently shows how this was a gradual process that started with travel bans for targeted countries such as China and Italy.

The researchers note that the most important feature of the database for research purposes is a description of the exceptions that have been granted when declaring the travel ban. It turns out that almost all countries grant exceptions to their own citizens as well as long term residents; both categories are allowed to travel back home. This is in line with international norms which state that persons should be readmitted to their “own country”. In the global pandemic, this is apparently interpreted broadly by most countries by including long term residents.

While both residents and citizens are given the right to return, the research also shows that governments only make active attempts to bring back their citizens by means of repatriation initiatives. This is interpreted by the researchers as a “thickening of citizenship”. A small minority of countries, including China, Jamaica and Romania, have explicitly asked their citizens not to return to the country due to public health considerations.

Also noteworthy is that while migration fluxes have come to a halt, statelessness has remained as great a problem as ever. As a different group of researchers has noted, the plight of stateless persons might even have worsened because their invisibility implies that they are not being prioritized in the Covid-19 rapid response funds that countries and donors have put together. Their precarious position is not only a personal tragedy but constitutes a risk for societies at large, given that stateless people are routinely excluded from state relief and economic packages. Living without citizenship cards, stateless people in many countries will not only be denied access to food support and equal access to healthcare, but also be reluctant to go to hospital due to fear of being detained.


Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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