Covid-19: migration, social distancing and incarceration

There is a tendency in the commentary on the current Covid-19 pandemic to remark on the unusual similarity of disparate experiences. That 20% of the world’s population is in lock down or 87% of the world’s students cannot attend classes due to school and university closures. But as geographers, after years of thinking through the ways in which apparently universal experiences mask inequalities and erasures, we should be wary of the imagined standardisation of experience. Through the analysis of statistics, the mapping of space and the tracing of embodied experiences we are perhaps more interested in the differences: that the political response to the threat of Covid-19 has prompted widely varying responses between and within different states. It may be that this differentiation is itself a cause of the pandemic’s spread, where the lack of global coordination and information-sharing in the early spread of the disease limited effective preventative measures.

While the geopolitics of Covid-19 responses will be discussed for some time to come, and we obviously don’t know the full extent of the final toll of this illness, it is also vital to trace how differentiated responses to the virus have been within individual states. A particular concern that has risen to prominence is the plight of asylum seekers and people on the move who have found themselves at particular risk of contagion in the face of unusually punitive governmental measures. As lock down has become the device to foster security for rights-bearing citizens, the lock up in asylum centres and prisons has become the source of precarity and bodily threat. For this reason, Detention Action launched litigation against the UK state seeking the safe release of those subject to the UK immigration detention system though this was ultimately unsuccessful.

The vulnerability of people on the move has been felt acutely elsewhere in the world. Reports emerging from Bosnia and Herzegovina speak of the forced incarceration of 2000 migrants in a newly-formed camp near the Croatian border. Just as the distancing of human bodies is recognised as the primary defence mechanism against contagion, the camp forces migrants into close proximity within just fifty tents to house the population. As Border Violence Monitoring suggest:

Breaking up existing squats and cramping thousands of people (by force) into a large tent settlement has occurred before, but now comes at a time when members of the public are being told to maintain social distancing. Instead the decision actively places vulnerable groups into a mass site with inadequate sanitation, no recourse to self-isolation, and a lack of access to institutional medical support.

The social distance presented here is not between one body and another, but between citizen and migrant. It reveals a state tactic in a situation where threats are unknown and law by decree is justified as a necessity in a ‘time of war’. But as David Runciman notes “in a war, the enemy is right in front of you. During this pandemic the disease reveals where it has got to only in the daily litany of infections and deaths. Democratic politics becomes a kind of shadow boxing: the state doesn’t know which bodies are the really dangerous ones.” In the absence of knowledge state power resorts to some old tricks, connecting threat with vulnerability, security with incarceration.

Alex Jeffrey

March 2020

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