In the early days of the pandemic, many countries closed their borders to stop the spread of COVID-19. International travel has continued to be restricted, but with changing caveats, including ‘essential’ travel only, restrictions on travellers from particular countries, and the introduction of vaccination ‘passports’. Most recently, borders have been closed to some travellers with the aim of controlling the Omicron variant of the virus, albeit with little success. The impact of these measures on trade and tourism has been acknowledged. Little attention has, however, been given to the significance of restrictions for migrant families that ordinarily travel to maintain transnational familial obligations, and a sense of ‘familyhood’ across national borders.
For migrant families, travel restrictions present a new layer of ‘everyday bordering’. The term ‘everyday bordering’ describes how policy and media narratives relating to migration affect migrants’ everyday lives and define who ‘belongs’ in a nation state. In the UK, these measures amplify what is described as the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration.
For migrants, the country of origin is imbued with ideas of home and family and many engage in activities – or practices – that sustain relationships with family members in their home country. Visiting home is an important transnational family practice that supports family life across national borders. These trips are important to the wellbeing of family members, and allow migrants to be part of family traditions, religious and cultural festivals, and to fulfil caring obligations for ageing, sick or young relatives.
Pandemic aside, the ability to visit home and family is constrained by a number of factors – including migration status and travel costs – and the impact of these ‘everyday borders’ on wellbeing, transnational family relationships and transnational care practices has been documented. Pre-pandemic, however, visiting the country of origin was relatively simple for some migrants, particularly for those that previously enjoyed ‘freedom of movement’. The introduction of COVID-19 travel restrictions has inhibited and added costly and complex border checks into the everyday lives of migrants, at a time when the need to maintain transnational family caring practices is intensified.
‘Everyday Bordering in the UK’: What we learnt
Our fieldwork for the ESRC funded study, ‘Everyday bordering in the UK’, aims to understand how immigration legislation and broader narratives impact on social care practitioners and the migrant families they support. Within this, using ethnographic methods we explored how families from diverse migratory backgrounds experience bordering practices in their everyday lives. Whilst transnational family practices were not our primary focus, research diaries, interviews, and ethnographic observations highlighted the impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions on transnational family life, supported by our researcher’s auto-ethnography of her travel experiences when visiting family in Italy.
Transnational family members consistently feature in the interview narratives and diary entries of migrant families and confirm the significance of transnational family members in care provision. The importance of transnational visits in this dynamic is, for some, revealed in the remorse expressed at being unable to travel historically due to restrictive visa conditions, or prohibitive flight costs. Interviews and ethnographic observations from an online English class also reveal the impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions on fulfilling care practices. One couple from Poland – whom we call Krystyna and Henryk – now living in the UK, describe disruption caused to transnational family visits. Krystyna was visiting Poland to help her parents ‘with grandparents [that] are getting old’ as travel was inhibited in March 2020. She was unable to return to Henryk in the UK, because flights were ‘cancelled because of coronavirus’. During this time, Henryk described being ‘depressed’ and alone, because ‘my family isn’t here because they are in Poland, so I spent a few days in bed […] it was a very bad experience in my life’. Whilst, at this time, chartered flights returned citizens back to their ‘home countries’ these did not take into account those in Krystyna position – as a Polish citizen – and their transnational caring responsibilities, which are now between two countries.
As travel restrictions change in response to the circulation of the virus, governments and airlines have implemented measures and checks to contain the virus. Examples include the EU green pass, the UK’s passenger locator form, evidence of testing negative for COVID-19, and compulsory quarantine in hotels. Our researcher’s ethnographic notes support this:
“After not seeing my family for over one year, including my mum with a severe disability, we decided to fly to Italy. For the trip, we needed four tests costing £160 per person. Italy required a 48-hour test, and not a postal test. For a person living in London there were more, cheaper options but not for people in rural areas. In Italy, we also had to isolate for five days and get a further pass to access public spaces.”
For two participants in the English class, despite wanting to visit their mothers in Turkey and India, these measures were so costly and “complicated” that they said they “didn’t bother to ask for permission to go visit their families”. They felt that these additional travel restrictions made travel too difficult and, instead, made the difficult decision to not visit home.
The global emergency of COVID-19 has presented myriad challenges for intra-national governance and emphasised the differing needs of populations, including those that are marginalised. As travel restrictions have eased, travel for work purposes has been positioned as essential, but travelling to visit family, is categorised as non-essential. Locally, even when individuals were required to ‘stay at home’, many countries also permitted carers to move between households to provide care. The ‘essential’ nature of transnational care has not, however, been acknowledged.
Whilst international travel restrictions are an important feature of public health responses, in the context of this health crisis, migrant families’ need to travel to maintain transnational care obligations should also be recognised. Health-related boarding requirements should, we believe, be removed in a timely manner, but governments can do more to support migrant families in the short term. The different regulations between countries are currently too complex, costly and contradictory. A move towards international agreements that standardise documentation required to travel, and make processes more streamlined and accessible, would go some way to supporting migrant families maintain familial obligations and reduce the impact of this new everyday border on transnational family life.
An alternative version of this blog originally appeared in The Conversation