The horrible history of travel bans

Restrictions on movement were once the sole preserve of countries like North Korea - Getty
Restrictions on movement were once the sole preserve of countries like North Korea – Getty

A travel ban is no small thing. That’s why governments in democracies are loath to introduce them and, when they do so, are inclined to use stealth.

In the UK, the right to free movement at home and across borders, during peacetime, was enshrined in article 42 of Magna Carta. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 contains the first post-Second World War expression of the right to travel. “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

But governments are permitted, under international law, to invoke security, public order, public health, morals or the rights and freedoms of others, to curb the free movement of their citizens. They’ve been doing this for centuries – stopping people coming in, preventing natives from leaving, and using travel as a tool of social and political control.

As we face weeks, perhaps months, of restrictions, we thought we’d look back on the tumultuous history of travel bans.

Xenophobia and barbarians

In ancient Greece, most city-states, including Athens and Corinth, welcomed travellers as a source of economic benefits and a way of building “reputation” – what we might call today, “brand value”. Being welcoming to foreigners – philoxenia – is championed in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

But barbarians – non-Greeks, including Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians – were not welcomed, and differences in dialect, education and culture could come between people from the same region. In the 5th century BC, Dorians were prohibited from entering Ionian sanctuaries.

Militant, xenophobic Sparta was an exception, summarily expelling overseas visitors at certain periods to keep foreign ideas out. The word “xenelasia” was coined to describe this act of expulsion.

The Romans erected walls and employed natural barriers to keep out barbarians. It’s just as likely, however, that places like Hadrian’s Wall were used to raise taxes from those wanting to cross into Roman territory.

Hadrian's Wall - Getty
Hadrian’s Wall – Getty

Disease and stigma

The Black Death, cholera, smallpox and influenza epidemics all prompted bans on travel, and led to the closure of ports and overland routes.

From China to Brazil to Hawaii, people suffering skin conditions such as Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy) have been forbidden from travelling and integrating with society.

Since the 14th century, quarantine – in the wider sense of restraining the movement of persons or goods on land or sea because of a contagious disease – has been the cornerstone of disease-control strategy. In 1377, the Great Council of the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) passed a law requiring that ships arriving from plague-affected areas be isolated for 30 days – known as trentina. The policy was adopted by other cities including Marseilles, Pisa, Venice and Genoa, the isolation extending to 40 days (quarantina) – though in practice the number varied from port to port.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, Gunnison County, Colorado, remained free from cases by erecting fences and barricades on main highways and placing signs encouraging motorists to drive through without stopping. Train stations were also closed. Anyone who left was unable to return except by undergoing “voluntary” quarantine.

A health warning in 1918 - Getty
A health warning in 1918 – Getty

According to UNAIDS, in 2019, 48 countries and territories – including Australia, Belize, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, New Zealand, Russia and Singapore – imposed “some form of HIV-related restrictions and mandatory HIV testing that prevent people living with HIV from legally entering, transiting through or studying, working or residing in a country, solely based on their HIV status.”

Trade and taxes

Tacitus records that emperor Augustus banned senators from visiting Egypt without a permit, anxious to prevent even far weaker rivals from accessing an important source of grain and taking territory that a small army would be able to defend.

Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate – a feudal military government that lasted from the 17th to the late 19th century – operated its Sakoku (“closed country) isolationist policy for 214 years, severely restricting foreign relations and trade between Japan and other countries. Nearly all foreign nationals were barred from entering Japan and ordinary Japanese people were stopped from leaving.

US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry meeting with the Imperial Commissioners at Yokohama in 1854 - Getty
US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry meeting with the Imperial Commissioners at Yokohama in 1854 – Getty

Religion and politics

Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimages to as part of sweeping moves to eradicate the pre-Reformation church.

From medieval times into the modern era, Muslim rulers in Western Europe would ban the hajj due to an “unstated desire to keep his subjects and their resources at home”.

Almost anyone over the age of 40 will have powerful memories of learning that ordinary people in the USSR and parts of the Eastern Bloc were unable to move around freely. Stories of ballet dancers, athletes and writers defecting and asking for asylum while on tour became part of free-world folklore. Inside the USSR, internal passports were obligatory. If foreign travel was banned so Soviet citizens didn’t realise things were so. much better abroad, domestic travel was forbidden so that they didn’t realise how awful things were in their own Communist “paradise”.

Following the coup in 1973, Augusto Pinochet Ugarte forced 200,000 Chileans into exile; until 1988 they were forbidden from returning to their homeland.

A child in Chile during the aftermath of the 1973 coup - Getty
A child in Chile during the aftermath of the 1973 coup – Getty

On September 24, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order restricting travel to the United States as well as the admission of refugees from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, and North Korea – the first six of which are Muslim-majority. On January 21, 2021, President Joe Biden ended the ban.

From Burma to the West Bank and Gaza to Cuba and North Korea, freedom of movement is restricted for many people.

Gender and social control

Traditionally, women in Japan were not allowed to climb mountains sacred to the Shinto religions. Mt. Sanjō (aka Omine) still has a ban on women.

Some Shinto sites still restrict women from visiting - Getty
Some Shinto sites still restrict women from visiting – Getty

Saudia Arabia, infamously, banned women from driving until 2018. In August 2019, a law was passed allowing women over the age of 21 to apply for a passport without authorisation, enabling them to travel overseas.

In 2016, eastern Libya banned women under 60 from travelling overseas unaccompanied, for alleged security reasons.

Until the Eighties, most Chinese people were unable to travel overseas. As recently as 2019, millions of “discredited” Chinese travellers were unable to buy plane or train tickets as part of the state’s “social credit” system, which aimed at improving behaviour. Not surrendering a reserved seat could be enough to get you banned.

Originally published