It is undeniable that the effects of COVID-19 are wide-ranging across the world, and its effects on the UK border are no exception. The pandemic has influenced the UK Border by highlighting that the country’s borders are open to holidaymakers, but remain closed to people seeking asylum. And the perceived greater ‘threat’ to the UK border – seemingly caused by COVID-19 – has been used as justification by the UK government to hold people in barracks.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the role of “necropolitics” – a term coined by J.-A. Mbembé explaining how each nation exercises its power on the border by selecting who lives and dies. The bodies of people trying to reach Europe on European tourist islands is perhaps the clearest example of border-necropolitics.
In the UK, border-necropolitics was illustrated in March 2020 when the Home Office used COVID-19 to halt their refugee relocation scheme for eight months until November 2020, meaning that refugees who had been promised sanctuary in the UK were left stranded.
Yet, simultaneously, the government worked to resume holiday travel.
Here lies the problem: COVID-19 was temporarily ‘solved’ for holidaymakers but remained a problem for people who required the opportunity to legally cross the UK border.
Mbembé’s theory appears especially apt: the UK border was porous for holidaymakers but totally impermeable for refugees.
It is, of course, too early to accurately assess the consequences of the government’s refugee relocation scheme freeze but “boundary making and breaking” is widely regarded as a political act and this example is no exception.
The government used the coronavirus pandemic as justification for utilising Ministry of Defence sites due to the “pressure on the system” that COVID-19 caused.
The sites – Napier and Penally Barracks – are both located on the borders of the UK, serving as a geographical reminder of the undesirability of people seeking asylum in the eyes of the government. The Home Office state that, “whilst there remains significant pressure in the system, we have been exploring further options to accommodate asylum seekers.” This claim strongly suggests that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to be employed as a means of justification for ‘accommodating’ people seeking asylum in barrack accommodation. Anthropologist Shahram Khosravi writes that governing through crime is strongly linked to the criminalisation of migration, as powers “create criminals to be able to punish them”, and the Napier and Penally Barracks have been used to criminalise people seeking asylum.
The coronavirus pandemic has been used to exaggerate the argument that some borders are under threat, while others are not. In particular, for UK authorities, the UK-France border must remain closed and guarded against migrants but must become more open for holidaymakers. The barrack ‘accommodation’ is an indication of the punishment for successfully crossing the UK border, and seems to have widened in scope as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 has influenced the UK border by restricting access to the border against people seeking asylum: a border that was once very difficult to access has been rendered almost impossible to cross by COVID-19.