Mobility in crisis: can global governance get the world moving again?

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

By Christopher Szabla
CES-Mellon Fellow, Council for European Studies
PhD candidate, Cornell University
Former Visiting Fellow, Global Migration Centre, The Graduate Institute

Synopsis: The outbreak of Covid-19 has closed borders around the world, appearing to have deepened a crisis in globalization that has challenged the mobility of people, goods, and services between countries and even within them. Can global governance norms and institutions play a role in restoring or even improving movement in a post-Covid world given an ongoing hostility to them? History provides an indication that such a crisis may be as much of an opportunity to rearticulate an international regime as it is a potential hazard for it.

Keywords: Mobility, migration, trade, disease control, globalization, nationalism, Covid-19

The year after the devastating 1892 cholera outbreak wrought havoc on Central Europe, Germany convened an international conference to address its consequences of the catastrophe for trade and movement. As news of the deadly epidemic had spread, not only countries but individual towns closed themselves off from one another. The subsequent gathering, held in Dresden, resulted in guidelines that ensured commercial life would no longer be so disrupted during such calamities. Migrants were subject to heightened scrutiny by the agreement – yet facing lobbying by passenger shipping companies, the German government interpreted it in a way that granted them continued mobility as well – because Berlin deemed their movements, too, a vital component of commerce. Other states followed Germany’s lead.

Disasters of all types – wars, climate events, pandemics – can turn societies inward, seeking to protect their own. The Black Death, Miri Rubin has recently written, unwound medieval cities’ growing diversity. Even more famously, the intensified border controls that accompanied the First World War remained long thereafter. Will borders tightened by Covid-19 – which in some instances, as in 1892 Germany, even extend to internal divisions within countries – remain a part of the post-pandemic world?

There are reasons to believe that they could remain sealed for some time. Most immediately, societies’ inward turn has resulted in radically different approaches to fighting the virus. While some East Asian states have adopted a “test-and-trace” approach, Sweden has taken its chances with the consequences of laissez-faire, and other North Atlantic societies are in partial or full lockdowns. States with more rigid controls will be unlikely to trust inward movement from those with fewer guarantees – at least not without long and strict quarantine periods.

Permeable borders have, moreover, arguably been on the decline for years. Tensions over tariffs and migration have raised walls – both pecuniary and literal – against cross-border movements of both goods and people. Brexit and Donald Trump’s immigration and trade policies are among the apotheoses of these developments. Yet even as the corona crisis arrived, Greek security forces fought pitched battles with migrants seeking to enter the country from Turkey, the latest episode of the European Union’s (EU) ongoing struggle to control its southern frontier. Even within the EU, states have frequently invoked emergency exceptions to suspend free travel across the nominally passport-free Schengen Zone since the “migration crisis” began.

“crises can both entrench existing difficulties as well as present new opportunities to solve them”

These trends have been invoked to demonstrate how global governance systems are failing as nationalism has arisen again, motivated by economic and cultural fears. Commentators decry the state of the World Trade Organization (WTO), either abused or ignored by the US or China in the course of their commercial spats. The larger Bretton Woods system of economic governance has long been under fire as a tool to impose “neoliberal” strictures – criticisms that intensified during the European debt crisis. Norms governing refugees and migration appear under assault as states disregard the United Nations (UN) Refugee Convention and as the new Global Migration Compact has prompted political opposition, resulting in states’ withdrawals from that accord.

Given the damage these controversies have wrought on international collaboration, how could global governance address the shock to mobility produced by Covid-19? As the response to the 1892 outbreak demonstrates, crises can both entrench existing difficulties as well as present new opportunities to solve them. Before that epidemic, cities defended themselves not only against disease, but also against passing migrants. After, the severity of the crisis helped provoke new standards designed to facilitate all mobility between both cities and states. It was not a lone example. For decades a series of International Sanitary Conferences like the one at Dresden sought to balance disease control and commercial imperatives as pandemics collided with demands for more rapid commerce, resulting in more efficient ports and less militarized frontiers.

Unlike the late nineteenth century, a larger toolkit of international institutions and standards now exists with which to help restore and even improve mobility in the post-Covid world. Doing so can draw on lessons learned during the crisis and help demonstrate the need and significance of these embattled structures. The pandemic points to trade bodies’ potential to adopt emergency health protocols to facilitate better cross-border movement and fair distribution of medical equipment, which have fallen victim to interstate competition. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) credibility may be damaged, but it has an opportunity to regain trust in that no other organization exists to coordinate health policies across states to ensure that each can trust movements between them – a role that, if played well, could ensure disruptive border closures are less likely in future outbreaks. The economic consequences of the pandemic also demonstrate the need to articulate a better balance between disease control and human mobility, perhaps involving closer coordination between the WHO and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to determine international standards for how border screening can function with minimal friction.

Improved disease controls may even lay the groundwork for improving rights – or existing rights’ observation – at the international level. New disease control measures used to mitigate the seeming risk of migrants’ ongoing mobility after 1892 felt heavy-handed, leading their advocates to seek guarantees beyond the right to cross frontiers alone – movements ultimately contributing to treaties and International Labour Organization (ILO) standards focused on conditions migrants face. Rebalancing disease control and movement today may raise questions – about data privacy, for example – that will require discussing new global norms. It could also challenge such practices as housing foreign workers in crowded dormitories like those in Singapore that allowed Covid-19 to rebound in that country.

A reaction to Covid-19 that improves the rights of migrants – normally vulnerable to increased discrimination in crises – may not seem natural. Yet the situation places many people in positions refugees and migrants frequently face. With citizens of many countries stranded overseas, they find themselves strangers in societies sometimes uninterested in caring for them. Others have seen opportunities afforded by a world of relatively open borders – conferences, exchange programs, business deals – disappear. And all travelers – even those driving between New York and Rhode Island – now find themselves under suspicion for carrying the disease. As with German shipping companies in 1892, migrants’ and others’ needs are now intertwined. There may be no better time to articulate the universality of migrant rights – and to make mobility function both better and more fairly for all.

This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis”.  To read the other articles, click here.

Image credit: “Immigration” by lcars is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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