The Migrant-Citizen Nexus in View of the Coronavirus Pandemic: Can We De-Migranticize Responses?

Par Janine Dahinden

The world has been confronted by not only the coronavirus pandemic, but also a surge of national(ist) responses to it. By closing their borders and introducing a travel ban for the Schengen Area, European countries have retreated into national fortresses that nonetheless remain highly unequal internally, prioritizing their own citizens’ needs over those of foreigners. 

Bridget Anderson (2019) challenges the simplistic opposition between “migrant” and “citizen”. She adopts the lens of “migrantizing the citizen” to explore the many connections between the formal exclusion of non-citizenship and the multiple exclusions within citizenship. Building on her insights, I propose the lens of the “migrant-citizen nexus” as a way to scrutinize citizenization / migrantization as entangled processes. Analogously to Bridget’s argument that citizenship does not make a citizenry equal, I argue that migrancy is also not equal and can be more or less citizenized. How can the migrant-citizen nexus help us make sense of Europe’s nationalist reaction to COVID-19 and its consequences? Using the lens of the migrant-citizen nexus, I present some alternatives to these nationalism-based policies and measures. I focus on the Swiss case as a specific example of a more general pattern in Europe as a whole (and beyond).

1. A Foreign Virus and the Nationalist Lockdown

On March 13, 2020, the Swiss Federal Council held a news conference and announced a partial closure of the border to Italy in order to ensure that healthcare infrastructure in all cantons could deal with the projected volume of COVID-19 cases. In the words of the Federal Councilor, “these measures are intended to protect the population of our country, namely the functioning of the healthcare system so that we have the capacity to treat our patients. We need to prevent people from Italy from coming here to be treated in our hospitals, especially in the border cantons of Ticino, Valais and Grisons”. The Federal Council indicated that these restrictions also applied to asylum seekers coming from Italy and claimed that this was in accordance with both the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Convention (see Daniel Thym’s blog for a legal analysis). Restrictions on entry from France, Germany, Austria, Spain and all non-Schengen states followed soon afterwards and were then extended to all remaining Schengen states except Liechtenstein. Exempted from these restrictions are Swiss citizens, persons with a Swiss residence permit and persons who have to travel to Switzerland for work-related reasons or because of an emergency.

2. “De-Nationalizing” the Pandemic by Framing it as a Global Crisis Requiring Non-National Solidarity

Like the Swiss government, European governments have culturalized and racialized the virus by framing it as foreign. But is closing borders to people from “risk areas” and “foreign countries” in order to protect “our” citizens the most effective way of dealing with this pandemic? I argue that citizenizing the pandemic instead would have entailed going beyond nationalist closures, emphasizing solidarity and adopting non-national – local and international – measures.

Based on the universal right to health, access to healthcare can be reframed to protect all who need it. Border controls – not closures – might be useful when implemented independently of the nationality of the border crossers (see Constantin Hruschka’s blog). The screening of all arriving and departing persons, distribution of information material, isolation of individuals suspected of being infected and transfer of the sick to healthcare facilities would be a very effective strategy. Instead of migrantizing people, such an approach would citizenize them. This could circumvent the migrantizing effects of travel restrictions for migrants who are unable to return to the countries where they work, or to return home to care for their families, as many scholars including Lorenzo Piccoli have argued.

Some exceptional efforts hint at a universalizing citizenship regime: Switzerland and Germany, among others, have taken a small number of patients from France and Italy. Additionally, instead of preventing Italians living near the Swiss border from being treated in Swiss hospitals, Switzerland could have done more to facilitate the exchange of patients between cantons when some, because the virus arrived there earlier, came under strain.

3. Filtering the Borders for Nationalist Purposes: Reinforcing Inequalities

Ironically, the Swiss healthcare system relies on the very high number of (now “system-relevant”) and often poorly paid foreign workers from neighboring countries. They have been citizenized in the sense that they are still permitted to cross the borders while, cynically, their families and friends cannot receive treatment in Swiss hospitals. As Van Houtum (2005) has argued, bordering processes are always entangled with ordering and othering, and border regimes always filter individuals according to particular criteria. This has become almost absurdly obvious during the pandemic: we let others enter as long as it is for our benefit – an attitude observable throughout Europe, especially in regard to agricultural and hospital workers.

4. Racialization and Culturalization: Überfremdung Reloaded

While similar mechanisms are observable elsewhere (see Bridget’s post), the virus has been culturalized and racialized in a particular way in Switzerland. A prominent Swiss geographer has claimed that the virus spreads faster in the “Latin-speaking space” of Italy, Spain, France and Italian- and French-speaking Swiss regions because social distancing is a culturally determined phenomenon, and that German-speaking Switzerland therefore needs to be cautious about adopting “Latin measures”. This is not only an untenable culturalization, but also based on problematic calculations of various variables. However, a populist journalist picked up his argument and explained the differing rates of infection in French- and German-speaking regions by their specific, historically grounded “mentalities”, especially regarding state benefits and economic responsibility.

This culturalization and othering comes at the cost of ignoring systems of dominance and echoes concerns over what has been referred to as Überfremdung (“over-foreignization”) in Switzerland. At the core of Überfremdung is the fear that too much or certain forms of immigration will compromise Switzerland’s cultural identity and national integrity. Initially targeting European “migrants”, the focus of this culturalizing and exclusionary discourse had shifted to Muslims and persons from non-European countries. However, the coronavirus seems to have paved the way for a renewed othering of groups that had come to be seen as “like us”. The pandemic has also been used to revitalize imagined differences between Swiss German and French speakers. Similarly to their function in most European countries (Phillips 2010; Hall 1997), such essentialist and reifying forms of culturalization have often been mobilized to secure socio-economic and structural privileges, be it for the Swiss or among the Swiss-German-speaking majority.

5. Migrantization of the European Principle of Free Movement

The Swiss example points to a migrantization of the EU principle of freedom of movement, which, according to Barbulescu and Favell (2020), had already been transformed into a specific form of “immigration” and a way of restricting access to welfare to EU citizens before the coronavirus pandemic. Governments’ reactions to the crisis have increased this migrantization of EU citizens to a previously unimaginable extent.

Remarkably, the severe restrictions on cross-border movements in Europe have rarely been accompanied by restrictions on domestic mobility. While Switzerland has closed its borders and imposed international travel restrictions, people are in principle permitted to travel within the country. Because traveling between Geneva and St. Gallen is not necessarily less dangerous than between Zurich and Munich, a regional instead of a national approach would probably make more sense, perhaps by limiting mobility in the most heavily affected regions.

6. Asylum Seekers: From (Partial) Human Rights Protection to Migrantization

Some of the rights afforded to asylum seekers by the UDHR are currently under attack. Border closures also deny entry to people seeking protection, which Hruschka deems a violation of international law. The situation in refugee camps in Greece and elsewhere is catastrophic and Europe is failing to show any solidarity. But also in Swiss asylum centers, social distancing is mostly impossible, as grassroots organizations have argued. In other words, we can observe a de-citizenization and a reinforced migrantization the context of the asylum system.

7. A Plea for Citizenizing Measures in the Face of the Pandemic

Examining the current situation through the migrant-citizen nexus reveals a tendency within Europe to simultaneously migrantize some people, mainly the most vulnerable, and citizenize others, mainly the most privileged, but also those deemed “system-relevant”. In other words, established gendered, racialized and class inequalities are being reinforced. I have outlined some avenues towards a less nationalistic and unequal response to the coronavirus pandemic, namely a move towards a citizenized approach. The arguments I have raised are partly well established and may now have a chance to break out of the academic echo chamber. Therefore, I reiterate my earlier argument that migration scholars must reach out to policymakers, grassroots solidarity networks and wider audiences and contribute to the creation of a world of citizenship rights unrestricted by nationality.

This blog is part of a wider debate between Bridget Anderson and Janine Dahinden that will be published in 2021 in the Swiss Journal of Sociology 47(1).

– Anderson, Bridget (2019). New Directions in Migration Studies: Towards Methodological DenationalismComparative Migration Studies 7(1).
– Barbulescu, Roxana, and Adrian Favell (2020). Commentary: A Citizenship without Social Rights? EU Freedom of Movement and Changing Access to Welfare RightsInternational Migration 58(1), 151-65.
– Fischer, Carolin, and Janine Dahinden (2017). Gender Representations in Politics of Belonging: An Analysis of Swiss Immigration Regulation from the 19th Century until todayEthnicities 17(4), 445-68.
– Hall, Stuart (1997). The Spectacle of the Other. In: Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices, 225-79. Milton Keynes: Open University.
– Phillips, Anne (2010). What’s wrong with Essentialism? Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 11(1), 47-60.
– Van Houtum, Henk (2005). The Geopolitics of Borders and BoundariesGeopolitics 10(4), 672-9.

– Swiss Federal Council (2020). Press conference from 13.03.2020 – BR Sommaruga, Berset, Parmelin, Keller-Sutter on: Coronavirus (COVID-19) (own translation from original German/French).

Article initialement publié le 12 mai 2020 sur le blog du NCCR On the move
Pour aller plus loin écouter Janine Dahinden sur radio RaBe

Janine Dahinden est Professeure ordinaire d’études transnationales au Laboratoire d’études des processus sociaux (LAPS) et directrice de la Maison d’analyse des processus sociaux (MAPS) à l’Université de Neuchâtel. Elle est également présidente de l’Association Suisse pour les Etudes Genres et participe au NCCR – On the move. Elle enseigne et effectue des recherches sur les thèmes de la migration, de la mobilité, de l’ethnicité, de la culture et du genre.