In this blog post, two Protect researchers share their reflections on border control and pandemics. Professor Elspeth Guild reflects upon how shutting Europe’s internal and external borders amidst the Covid19-outbreak might pose a threat to human rights. Professor Frank Caestecker looks at how pandemics throughout history have led to stricter border control and xenophobia.

Do Europe’s shut borders pose a threat to human rights?

By Professor Elspeth Guild, Queen Mary University of London

Pandemics, border control and xenophobia throughout history

By Professor Frank Caestecker, Ghent University

In Europe the reintroduction of border controls within the Schengen zone seems to be a symbolic of national policy aiming at reassuring the population that their interests are taken care of. However, the virus does not care about national borders.  

Keeping out foreigners at the border rather confirms the dangerous idea that the virus is due to foreigners. Refusing the entry of foreigners at the national border, be (s)he a European citizen or a third-country national, and to allow the national citizens who were abroad to return home does not serve public health protection. Rather, health risks may even arise when a large number of people are assembled in disarray at the border due to restrictive access. Chaos at the border can, in particular, affect refugees who have nowhere to return to. 

Contagious diseases have often been an excuse to blame the stranger. In the European Middle Ages pogroms against Jews started at the time when a deadly virus seemed not to affect the Jews. The Jews were accused of creating the disease. That the Jews acquired some protection by ritual washing was not understood yet. 

Blaming the foreigner for contagious diseases has also been a powerful impetus to restrict immigration policy in modern times. After the outbreak of cholera in Russia in 1892 it spread to Germany and 8000 died due to cholera in Hamburg, which had not heeded the advice to focus on dirty water disposal. In New York a twenty-day quarantine on all steerage passengers was imposed on vessels originating from infected European ports, passengers in first and second class were not worried. The wealthy immigrants and tourists could disembark without any problem. Poor Russian immigrants on the other hand, some of them fleeing persecution and pogroms became stigmatized as a health threat The American immigration restrictionist movement gained momentum using this threat to public health by poor immigrants. The supposed health threat which immigrants, also refugees posed offered American nativist forces leverage to push through restrictive legislation. The US to became the trendsetter in protectionist immigration policy in the North Atlantic world denying access also to those fleeing persecution. 

For more information: 

Fairchild, Amy L. Science at the Borders: Immigration Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2003. 

Lüthi, Barbara. Invading bodies. Medizin und Immigration in den USA 1880-1920. Frankfurt: Campus, 2009. 

Markel Howard. Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892. Baltimore, London: John Hopkins University Press, 1999. 

Caestecker Frank & Torsten Feys. East European Jewish Migrants and Settlers in Belgium, 1880-1914: A transatlantic perspective. East European Jewish Affairs, 40,3, 2010, pp.261-284.