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Travel travails

Visa backlogs for non-immigrants have yet to be absorbed, and they continue to impede travel. According to a researcher associated with the Brookings Institute, the number of visas issued by American embassies across Europe has dropped dramatically compared to pre-Covid times

Statesman News Service | Kolkata |

The latest surge in Covid-19 cases in Europe has brought back the stresses emanating out of travel restrictions to the USA from the continent that were thought to be ebbing at the beginning of this month. Starting 8 November, travellers from 33 countries including Europe’s 26-nation Schengen Area were finally allowed to enter the USA provided they were vaccinated.

The reopening came as a relief for Europeans in particular, who were banned from travelling to the USA beginning March 2020. Though Europe reopened to Americans in June 2020, the lack of reciprocity caused frustration in the EU with officials worried that the “travel ban” might last till the end of 2021 and prove to be yet another irritant in a US-Europe relationship already strained by trade tariffs and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Biden Administration, however, as it scrambled to contain the fall-out of its spat with France over the AUKUS trilateral submarine deal, moved quickly to provide a trans-Atlantic palliative by declaring in end-September that fully vaccinated Europeans would soon be able to travel to the USA. The decision was a major relief for long-separated families and the Europeans were mollified. Yet, mobility across the Atlantic and beyond remains far more restricted than in preCovid times.

Visa backlogs for non-immigrants have yet to be absorbed, and they continue to impede travel. According to a researcher associated with the Brookings Institute, the number of visas issued by American embassies across Europe has dropped dramatically compared to pre-Covid times. In the first six months of the Biden Administration, February to July 2021, the number of non-immigrant visas issued to French and German citizens was less than half those issued over the same period in 2019. Italy saw a more than 60 per cent drop.

This ongoing under-issuance crisis comes on the back of 2020: Across the Schengen zone, the number of non-immigrant US visas issued in 2020 was half what it was in 2019, a drop of 178,000 visas over 12 months. Some of these may be due to a drop in applications, but anecdotal evidence also points to an accumulation of applications stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

Now, with the fresh coronavirus surge in Europe ~ Austria is in a 20-day lockdown and Holland and Germany are implementing partial lockdowns with many other countries expected to follow suit ~ the murmurs have begun again. President Biden, under pressure after recent electoral setbacks for the Democrats, is holding out as of now but calls for reimposing a travel ban are getting louder.

Simultaneously, anti-vaxxers on both sides of the Atlantic, who may well be in a minority but are a very vocal one, are protesting vaccine mandates on the streets. Policy establishments in Washington and European capitals need to recognise that human mobility is a freedom worth defending while being unsparing in the use of state power to enforce vaccine mandates to ensure that the pandemic does not ravage humanity. They need to strive to restore for all to travel in this Covid-19 era and beyond.