On October 19, as part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI), the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) at Brookings hosted an expert panel discussion to reflect on challenges to international mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moderated by CUSE Visiting Fellow Célia Belin, the panel featured Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Meghan Benton, research director for the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program and Migration Policy Institute Europe; Elizabeth Collett, special advisor to the director general at the International Organization for Migration; and Thomas Wright, CUSE director and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.
Belin began by asking panelists for their perspective on the “scope and the reach” of migration and travel restrictions from the last year and a half. Benton described the impact on human mobility as “unprecedented,” offering two takeaways: the failure of international coordination and the realization that free movement is not an unconditional right. Collett noted that different strategies were adopted around the world based on various governments’ prior experiences – or lack thereof – with health outbreaks. Alden expanded on Collett’s point, citing the absence of a risk management framework across the globe. The resulting dichotomy between closed and completely open borders, he noted, “created a lot of unnecessary human suffering.” According to Wright, governments found leaving restrictions on mobility in place to be “easy” and, having “no real political constituency for easing travel restrictions,” preserved the status quo.
The discussion then transitioned to compare travel and trade over the course of the pandemic. Alden observed that a system of rules for international trade was promptly handled, keeping trade “remarkably robust during the pandemic.” On the other hand, no such set of norms existed for the movement of people. Benton argued that this absence of rules was itself a pandemic management strategy, raising the challenge of creating a coherent framework for mobility in future crises. Collett agreed, cautioning that certain cases of cross-border mobility, such as cross-border workers in sectors where supply chains were at risk, were attached to trade rather than the “health and cross-border mobility conversation at large.”
Belin picked up on the reference to future outlooks, asking Wright about the likelihood that travel restrictions and vaccine requirements would lead to incompatibilities between different regions across the globe. Wright agreed that such policies do create a two-tier world that mirrors geopolitical and socioeconomic lines and “turbocharges global inequalities.” Benton similarly predicted a scenario in which travel bubbles would “pave the way for more regional agreements.” Collett stressed the importance of vaccine equity, noting that the “dominance and in some cases exclusive criteria” of vaccine status as a condition for movement is extremely limiting. She advocated for less exclusive criteria, such as immunity certification, to greater increase equity for international mobility.
Who should try and create these rules? Wright reiterated that the issue should be discussed at future summits of world leaders, much like other issues connected to globalization. While Alden agreed that mobility should be a “high-level political concern,” he echoed Wright’s earlier point that “the constituency for open trade and travel is actually fairly small.” This, he continued, makes him less optimistic that the issue will be taken up at the international level. Collett agreed that it is “difficult to accept that there is a small proportion of people who are necessarily constituents in this,” nonetheless expressing hope to “continue this conversation and deepen it.” Benton observed that, given the uncertainty of disease variants, “if we want to move forward, we need better evidence on how to manage [them], especially as we shift to vaccinated travel” over travel regimes that rely on testing.
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