Travelling within and across the national borders has not only become a tedious affair but a very complex one thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to various aviation and travel analysts, more than 16,000 passenger jets out of about 24,000 planes globally are grounded. This is about 67 percent of the world’s passenger planes. Pictures of parked planes at various airports globally are all over the internet with aviation experts saying it is costing an arm and leg to park and maintain these grounded carriers.
What this means is that the world is at a near standstill and people are either partially or fully locked down in different parts of the world.
About two thirds of the world population is on lock down and unable to move as easily as they would have previously. In this era of globalization where one can travel across the world in less than 72 hours, this is unfathomable.
Countries that would ordinarily be grappling with influx of migrants into their territories are themselves grappling with the lockdown even within their borders and praying that the corona virus ends sooner than later. Words like ‘lockdown’ ‘curfew’ ‘social distancing’ ‘unprecedented’ among others have become clichés in our times.
What does the Covid 19 pandemic portend for migration governance globally? Since 9/11, many countries have been dealing with immigration and international travel majorly from two perspectives- national security and job protection for their citizens. After 9/11, the world changed a lot in terms of movement of people from one country to the other amid increasing visa restrictions, security screening at all airports and even in-flight rules.
Waving bays that were popular in airports not too long ago are now a thing of the past. Getting into airports is now characterized by layers of security screening. Before 9/11, it was easy for a Kenyan to travel to many countries without requiring a visa but now, we need visas to travel to most jurisdictions outside Africa.
For the one third of the world population who are still able to move around, they are doing so with immense caution and restrictions around social distancing.
Governments have suspended international travel to reduce the risks of transmission to their nationals and border officers like immigration, customs port health. This is at the expense of their economies. In Kenya for example, sectors such as the tourism, hospitality and transport sectors are at the rock bottom.
Ordinarily, the Department of Immigration rakes in more than Sh1 billion in visa, passes and permits fees charged to foreign nationals visiting or working in Kenya. It will be a huge achievement if they manage even a quarter of that in 2020.
Similar to how countries reacted after 9/11, we are seeing different countries responding to this unprecedented outbreak in diverse ways. In East Africa, Uganda and Rwanda were quick to go on full lockdown while Kenya and South Sudan imposed partial restrictions as Tanzania and Burundi remained on business as usual mode. South Africa was even more dramatic by cancelling all existing visas and residency for foreign nationals effectively rendering them null and void. Holders will be required to apply afresh.
Some countries have given concessions by allowing foreign nationals to continue living in their countries even with expired immigration statuses as others like United Arabs Emirates automatically renewed immigration statuses for foreign nationals within their country for the remainder of the year.
As the world starts to get out of the coronavirus paralysis, all governments are prioritising public health by allowing international travel to and out of their countries but on condition that passengers are tested and cleared of Covid-19.
Most airlines are making arrangements with hospitals to do rapid testing of all passengers before allowing them to travel while carriers like Emirates are mulling quick pre-boarding tests that can be done in less than 30 minutes as part of the normal checking in procedures.
While this is temporal, the ramifications of Covid-19 to immigration and global mobility will be with us for a long time and could usher in new ways of managing immigration. Even as many government offices remain closed or scaled down in operations, the question around embracing technology in offering services to the public is now more pertinent than ever.
George M. Mucee, Immigration Consultant and Practice Leader at Fragomen Kenya.