Managing Mobility in the Pandemic Era Requires World to Buy In on Shared Principles
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down global mobility, most countries are now reopening for international travel. Even Taiwan, one of the last zero-COVID holdouts, has announced it will reduce quarantine for incoming travelers, and Australia and Singapore are now open to some tourists. And many countries—from Sweden to the United Kingdom—have lifted COVID-19 restrictions at borders entirely.
Against this backdrop, it is easy to put the unprecedented shock to cross-border mobility out of mind. But governments have not properly reviewed the lessons of the past two years or prepared contingency plans for future variants or pandemics. Despite huge advances in vaccines, treatments, and therapeutics for managing COVID-19, there is no global consensus on whether and how to use travel measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Governments lack evidence-based, well-coordinated, and publicly communicated plans to respond to the next COVID-19 variant without needlessly closing borders. And, in the process of opening up, there is a danger that inequalities in the global mobility system have been deepened—perhaps for good.
Drawing from its research on the disruptions to migration and international travel during the pandemic and the effects of various mobility and public health measures, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has identified four guiding principles to manage borders and mobility in the pandemic era in ways that result in an inclusive and effective travel system. Advancing these principles will require closer coordination and dialogue between health, border, and migration authorities, and between governments worldwide. A promising first step is a side event of the International Migration Review Forum, where key governments, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Health Organization (WHO) will reflect on border policies during the pandemic and paths forward to promote global consensus on mobility in public health crises.
Balancing Health Security and Equity
Travel bans during the pandemic left millions stranded abroad, often without access to services such as health care; forced hundreds of thousands to return to their countries of origin, straining reintegration services and local economies; and prevented would-be migrants from finding work abroad, undercutting their contribution to sustainable development. Travel measures, from bans to quarantines, continue to dampen labor migration, tourism, and some other regular migration flows, including humanitarian ones, even while irregular migration has rebounded in most contexts and in some cases increased.
While most countries have shifted from blanket entry bans to individual-based requirements, such as testing and vaccination mandates, these have imposed costs that disproportionately burden the vulnerable and poor. Many in low-income countries cannot access vaccines needed to travel or afford testing and quarantine, creating a two-tiered mobility system. The hurdles created by the proliferation of requirements—159 countries required quarantine, screening, a negative test, or vaccination to enter as of early May—are compounded by requirements for digital proof of vaccination and testing, which can exclude travelers without smartphones or digital access, or those who lack digital credentials compatible with the ones used by destination countries.
For many in rich and developed countries, it feels as if travel is returning to “normal,” when in fact many continue to be unable to travel. MPI research with the IOM found that more than 100,000 travel measures, from border closures to testing and vaccine requirements, were in place as 2022 began, continuing to make travel harder, less predictable, and less accessible for low-income travelers. For example, just 17 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated, effectively meaning 83 percent are unable to enter many EU countries unless they have an “essential” function.
Health measures—especially testing and vaccination requirements—have paved the way for restarting the engine of global mobility, though the arrival of the Omicron variant and the subsequent knee-jerk responses across much of the world illustrated the fragility of the current state of reopening. But governments must walk a fine line between minimizing public health risk and imposing weighty burdens on migrants, travelers, businesses, and transport carriers that could indefinitely hinder a return to pre-pandemic levels of migration and mobility.
Restoring Predictability in the Age of Pandemics
The challenges to managing borders and mobility in public health crises should be addressed now, before the next variant, and should work to minimize the widening gulf between movers and non-movers. Building an inclusive and effective travel system now can in turn prepare the tools, communication strategies, and networks needed for better responses to the next public health crisis.
MPI is advancing four guiding principles to manage borders and mobility in the age of pandemics: Travel measures, from border closures to testing requirements, should be clear, equitable, streamlined, and future focused.
Clear travel measures are easy to understand and comply with. They should be well communicated to the public, predictable, and based on robust data and metrics. Australia, for example, publicized a simple road map that tied rising vaccination levels to loosening lockdowns and travel measures, which incentivized people to get vaccinated and increased public confidence in the future of travel. In countries across the globe, public communications were contradictory and confusing for much of the pandemic, but later tools, such as road maps, have proven the value of simple and evidence-based communications in responding to future variants and public health crises.
Equitable travel measures do not exclude vulnerable groups. They are low cost (e.g., rapid tests instead of PCR tests), and high costs such as quarantine are covered by the government, rather than the traveler. These measures also include exemptions or alternative systems so all people can travel, meaning those without access to vaccines or testing can still enter, even if they must perhaps quarantine or take a COVID-19 test upon arrival. The United States, for instance, requires most noncitizens to be vaccinated to enter, unless they come from a country with limited vaccine access. These exemptions can promote equity, but they must be simple and easy to comply with, or else they risk making travel less clear for all.
Streamlined travel measures are quick and efficient. Any border closures would be short, switching quickly from country-by-country travel bans to measures that apply to all travelers, such as the European Council’s person-based approach, allowing anyone to enter with proof of vaccination. While many countries are switching to person-based measures, 41 countries, territories, or areas continue to use broad entry restrictions more than two years into the pandemic. In most cases, these entry restrictions serve minimal public health benefits and pose massive socioeconomic costs.
Finally, future-focused travel measures invest in border infrastructure or capacities that can enhance preparedness for future variants or pandemics. This might involve digitizing travel processes, such as the African Union’s Trusted Travel system, which builds digital capacities to prove vaccination or testing status across the continent. Preparing for the next public health crisis also relies on better regional and international cooperation, both to minimize the immediate chaos of emergency response and to quickly shift to a coordinated, safe reopening for travel.
The International Migration Review Forum: An Important Opportunity for Global Cooperation
The May 2022 International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) is bringing together key governments and stakeholders to review the implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. COVID-19 was perhaps the greatest test of the compact since its adoption in 2018, and governments should be keen to agree on a coordinated path forward out of this pandemic and to prepare for future public health crises.
Bringing together the IOM and WHO, along with government and civil-society partners, at the IMRF to kick start discussions on these key principles for border and mobility management is the first step. By bringing together the UN agencies leading multilateral processes on migration and health, as well as actors from developed and developing countries alike, MPI hopes to lay the groundwork for integrating migration and mobility concerns in inclusive ways into global negotiations over a new pandemic treaty.
A more resilient global architecture on borders and mobility is possible, but it relies on leadership. The IMRF represents an opportunity for governments and other stakeholders to commit to pushing forward clear, equitable, streamlined, and future-focused policies.