Europe’s border responses to COVID-19 in the global context | Articles | Europe in the world

“Covid-19 Greece airport” by Mark Hodson Photos, licensed under CC BY 2.0

In response to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Europe has seen most of its borders closed internally and all of its borders closed to the rest of the world. Many data collection projects have sprung up to capture countries’ responses to the pandemic, but few have focused on borders and immigration policies. To allow researchers to examine the impacts of these closures, I launched the COVID Border Accountability Project (COBAP) to document the timelines for international border closures introduced in 2020-2021.

COBAP organized a database showing when each country introduced a border closure in response to COVID-19, whether the border closure was full or partial, and, if partial, which access points and / or populations of countries were affected by the shutdown. Originally released as blog post in the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) at Stanford University, the results of this mapping project were recently published in the Nature portfolio Scientific data. Havard Dataverse hosts our open data for researchers, and our project site ( visualizes data interactively for non-university users. Here I am focusing on the countries of the Schengen area, a transnational agreement within the European Union (EU) that abolishes border controls between its member states. The closures and pandemic border controls have thwarted the fundamental Schengen principle of free movement. Yet they have also resulted in unprecedented levels of institutional cooperation related to travel across Europe, with political impacts that remain unknown.

There are 26 Schengen member states, most of which are also part of the EU. Before the current pandemic, citizens of Member States and foreigners entering the Schengen area could move freely there, without going through border controls. However, throughout the 2020-21 pandemic, 25 of the 26 Schengen countries have introduced internal border closures. Inbound travel to the EU was very limited. This article (1) serves as a point of comparison on how the Schengen institution and the Schengen countries have responded to the pandemic in the context of the rest of the world and (2) highlights the need for further research into whether Schengen border closures were necessary to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Compared to the rest of the world, the Schengen area response to COVID-19 was unique. Their ‘Reopen the EU’ platform of border closures and controls, launched in July 2020, has been updated over time based on the number of cases reported, as most countries have announced. closures and reopenings on a more ad hoc basis. The reopening of the EU used a “traffic light” system with recommended measures for travelers from specific countries organized into “red”, “green” and “yellow” lists. These lists corresponded to the reported spread per 100,000 people in the last 14 days from the country of origin. Travelers from Green List countries could enter without additional restrictions. Additional measures were in place for arrivals from countries on the yellow list, such as proof of a negative test result. Those arriving from Red List countries were subject to the most severe restrictions, including a total entry ban.

The closures and pandemic border controls have thwarted the fundamental Schengen principle of free movement. Yet they have also resulted in unprecedented levels of institutional cooperation related to travel across Europe, with political impacts that remain unknown.

Most countries outside the EU that are typically major international travel sites, such as the United States (US), have not introduced national-level responses to the cross-border movement pandemic. Instead, the United States introduced a series of targeted bans throughout 2020. First, he announced a ban on travelers from Wuhan, China on January 31, 2020. Then, then-US President Trump banned travelers from Wuhan, China. Iran on February 29, citing both the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak and the country’s “history of malicious activity”. Then, he banned entry to travelers on March 13 from the entire Schengen area, citing “the free movement of people between the countries of the Schengen area”. The United States did not set criteria for ending the bans, but instead said they would be in place “until lifted by the President.”

Russia implemented a series of targeted bans that were remarkably similar in timing and countries of focus to those introduced by the United States. introduced a series of restrictions on travel to / from Europe. The notable difference between the two countries’ initial approaches was that, unlike Russia, the US restrictions on travel from China made an exception for travel to / from Hong Kong. Turkey, like the United States and Russia, has introduced a series of border policies targeting travelers from Iran, China and several European countries. It is not clear to what extent these countries cooperated or imitated each other’s first targeted bans.

COBAP card of travel restrictions linked to Covid-19
An overview of the policy map, produced by the COBAP team and available on the project website.

South Africa introduced a travel ban on foreign nationals from “high risk” countries, suspending existing and future visas for people from Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain , Germany, USA, UK (UK) and China (March 15, 2020). Brazil closed all its land borders on March 18 (except with Uruguay) and introduced additional screening measures at airports for travelers from a large number of countries. Australia first implemented targeted bans, then completely closed their borders to inbound and outbound travel on March 20, instituting one of the most restrictive movement-related responses to the pandemic. China suspended entry to most overseas travel on March 28. The UK, then still part of the EU, initially did not introduce any border closures, relying instead on a national lockdown, recommendations against inbound travel, additional screening measures at airports and compulsory quarantines at the entrance to the country.

What makes Schengen’s response to the pandemic particularly crucial for studying in both the biomedical and social sciences is that the introduction of border closures broke with its fundamental principle of no border controls. , but at the same time provided one of the most comprehensive and consistent responses to COVID. -19 in the world. With clear criteria for how it would adjust and reverse border restrictions, Schengen’s response provided affected populations with consistent and objective recommendations. Answering the question of whether Schengen member states have consistently implemented these recommendations requires a review of case studies. For example, several Schengen countries have pursued a dual strategy of following the EU’s reopening recommendations for closures and the introduction of additional closures. An exception to travel advice based on EU cases was the recommendation that countries open their borders to travel from the United States in preparation for the summer tourist season. This recommendation came despite the continued high number of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the United States throughout 2021, amplified by the delta variant. Most of the Schengen countries followed this advice and tourist travel from the United States began.

I hope that our careful mapping of the European context will allow current and future analyzes to determine whether border closures make sense in the event of a pandemic and, if so, for how long, of what type and when.

Studies on whether closing EU borders have reduced transmission of the virus (and whether the exceptions made for tourist travel have reversed those gains) remain limited by problems with data availability. However, this research is critical and possible because the testing capacity of Europe was relatively high. As such, the studies are particularly viable for analyzing the effectiveness of their health impacts around critical policy introductions, as well as for weighing the socio-economic impacts of bans. For this reason, the COBAP database includes both EU / Schengen travel recommendations and individual border closures of Member States. (For our full list of EU-related terms and database inclusions, see our open source project guidelines.) I hope that our careful mapping of the European context will allow current and future analyzes to determine whether border closures make sense in the event of a pandemic and, if so, for how long, of what type and when. .

In summary, Europe’s response to the pandemic both threatened its internal Schengen agreement and, at the same time, was particularly consistent when it came to closing borders to the rest of the world. Addressing the question of whether the public health gains from the closures were worth curbing Schengen is an urgent and yet unanswered question.

Further Recommended Reading on the Subject

  1. Sergio Carrera and Ngo Chun, “On behalf of COVID-19: An assessment of Schengen internal border controls and travel restrictions in the EU, ” Policy Department of the European Parliament for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, September 2020.
  2. Sofian Philippe Nacuer, “COVID-19 is flour at the border regime factory, ” Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, July 2020.
  3. Mary A. Shiraef, “Closed borders, travel bans and interrupted immigration: 5 ways COVID-19 has changed how – and where – people move around the world, “The conversation, March 2021.
  4. Mary A. Shiraef and. Al. “The COVID Border Accountability Project, a hand-coded global database of border closures introduced in 2020, ” Scientific data, Nature Portfolio, September 2021.

About the Author

Shiraef Headshot 300x Web

Mary A. Shiraef (@ Mary-Shiraef) has a PhD. Political science candidate at the University of Notre Dame, founder of the @COBAPTeam, and recent Nanovic scholar. Her work examines the processes of migration and identity politicization, with an emphasis on how collective memory takes shape in authoritarian regimes. His thesis project is located on the border between Albania, EU member state, and Greece, EU member state.

Lukas Feddern (@lukas_feddern), Yashwini Selveraj (@YeshwiniSRaj), Paul Friesen (@Paul_Freezy) and the COBAP team (@COBAPteam) contributed research for this article. The sources of the referenced policies are archived in the COBAP team database. The sources are easily accessible by clicking on a country via our project site.

Amanda J. Marsh