A world cordoned off

February 05, 2020


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

WHILE the world has been busy absorbing the terrible news from China, with individuals, governments and airlines all weighing the risks of the coronavirus, the Trump administration has issued another set of travel curbs. The new restrictions, which apply to an additional six countries, will be added to the already existing ones. Included are Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Eritrea.

Read: Countries tighten travel curbs to virus-hit China

The total number of countries facing the US travel ban (which was held up by the US supreme court) now numbers 13. In addition to these countries, the US is also blocking travel to the country by any foreign nationals who may have visited China in recent days. Chinese citizens are still permitted to travel to the US, although it is reported that several of the country’s major airports will undertake special screenings of passengers arriving on these flights. They will be looking for increased body temperature, coughing and shortness of breath. Health personnel in the US have been schooled in special procedures should they receive any persons exhibiting these symptoms.

While these health precautions may prove temporary as China tries to contain the virus, there is a general feeling, especially in light of America’s tightening of immigration, that borders and bans are gaining an increasingly prominent place in the scheme of things. As far as the latest US travel restriction is concerned, the addition of six new countries to the list underscores the premise that certain kinds of people are particularly repugnant to the white nationalists that now control US immigration policy.

Whether it is due to disease or outright discrimination, a picture emerges of a world wrapped in knotted barbed wires.

African countries, which President Trump has talked about so very disparagingly, are first, followed by Muslim countries and now also some Central Asian countries. The particularities of the bans ensure that visas issued prior to Feb 22, 2020, will be valid. Student visas and some other non-immigrant visas may also still be given (although one can be sure that these too will face extra scrutiny). No immigrant visas will be granted to any citizens from these countries, leaving those who are in line to migrate to the US stuck and suspended.

While it is said that the reason for the restrictions is inadequate screening measures implemented by the countries in question, it is not a stretch to assume that the real reason is to throttle non-white immigration to the US. In addition, all of these countries, small and lacking much international clout, have virtually no means to protest against the ban. The consequence is that thousands of Nigerian Americans and Tanzanian Americans, amongst others, will suddenly face swift estrangement.

If you add these restrictions, imposed by a global superpower, to the curbs necessitated by the recent health concerns, the immediate picture is of a shrunken world wrapped in barbed wire. The toughest knots exist over regions such as Africa and South Asia, the labour exporters whose youth inevitably await visas to the western world in order to make a future and a life for themselves. With the UK out of Europe, and the US wrapped up in travel bans, the prospects for those who leave home to earn their fortunes in foreign lands is particularly bleak.

A throttled world is likely to birth even greater hatred. For instance, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Asian people living in Europe and the US already report facing discrimination. At one level are the steps dictated by the reality of disease. Many airlines are not flying to or from China to the West. China itself has imposed a mandatory quarantine on millions of its people. It is likely that many more will face a similar quarantine in the coming days if the virus spreads. At another level, while there might be valid reasons for China to check its travellers at this point, it is unfortunate that there is a tendency for such health alerts to fuel racist sentiment internationally.

The world where people moved freely, where fortunes could be sought far and wide, seems already to be a thing of the past. The more populous half, largely brown and black, faces the ignominy of visa queues, rejections and the humiliating beggary of western immigration procedures that impact relationships, lives and more. The other half sets up bans and borders with just as much persistence. The US is likely to continue to add to the list of travel-ban countries, since it does not see any point in permitting individuals from poor, black and/ or Muslim countries to cross its borders.

Whether it is pandemic or discrimination, it is the poor who will suffer. Countries such as Pakistan and India that have borders with China and lack the kind of sensitive screening equipment possessed by Western nations could be impacted.

The world of today seems a terrible one to hand to the coming generations. It is not that the world of the last millennium was much better or particularly peaceful or tolerant. But it was less beset with the current scourges of unforgiving climate change, pandemic, racially based exclusion, in fact, the open persecution of any group unlucky to be a minority. Most of these are large structural problems whose solutions seem too forbidding to consider at the same time; the failure to take action is pushing us all towards a catastrophe.

Pakistan is not yet subject to a US travel ban. At the same time, Pakistanis must know that it is a distinct possibility that it could be, particularly if Donald Trump wins his re-election bid. As there is in Nigeria today, there will be an outcry; pleas to ask the US to reconsider are to no avail. The world of walls and barbed wire, of war and plagues, is here to stay.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2020