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Global Vaccine Inequity Could Make Migration Harder Than Ever

Despite the fact that the coronavirus is still rapidly spreading across the United States, a semblance of pre-pandemic life has returned. Similar scenes of everyday life can also be seen across Europe, which has caught up to the US in terms of vaccinations and has done a better job of controlling the spread of the virus. What has not returned to its (already abysmal) normal, but instead has gotten worse, are the draconian restrictions nations are imposing on migrants and refugees across the world, using the pandemic as a pretext to keep them out of new homes where they might find safety. As the West debates the merits of using vaccine passports domestically, we are overlooking the ways in which the pandemic and global vaccine inequity are further restricting the movement of migrants and asylum seekers globally.

Restrictions on migration are not new—migrants from Central America, Haiti, and countries as far as India have sought asylum at the southern US border in the past few years, driven by climate change, gang violence, political instability, among other reasons. The Trump administration responded to this with cruel and inhumane policies, from separating children at the border from their parents (some of whom continue to be separated to this day) to implementing the “Remain in Mexico” policy in 2019, which required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until they had their court date. Recently, the Supreme Court reinstituted that policy after the Biden administration tried to end it. Migrants have also been traveling to Europe, often by sea, since 2015, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and other nations. Like in the United States, this has become politically contentious—with far right leaders like Viktor Orban “building a wall” across Hungary and some social democratic leaders like those in Denmark, seeking to revoke residence permits for Syrian refugees.

But the pandemic has spurred the United States and European nations to become even stricter about admitting asylum-seekers. Here in the US, the Biden administration has maintained the policy, first imposed by Trump, to use Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act to expel asylum seekers at the southern border. This order applies to those arriving at formal points of entry and those who are intercepted crossing irregularly. Title 42 allows the surgeon general of the United States to “prohibit the introduction of persons and property” under the pretenses of keeping out contagious diseases. During the pandemic, Title 42 is being applied exclusively to adults and families seeking asylum at the Southern border and not to others seeking to enter the United States (though others may be subject to other, less harsh, restrictions). As of the beginning of August, the United States has expelled close to 1 million people since March 2020. A report by the nonprofit Human Rights First has documented how these expulsions of migrants have led to rapes, kidnappings, and assaults. The Biden administration has also used controversial expulsion flights to pack migrants into planes and fly them all the way down to southern Mexico, putting migrants at risk and spreading the virus to other nations.

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