Aimee Joe Mathew, an Indian citizen, has not seen her American boyfriend in over six months. Residing in different countries when Covid-19 travel restrictions were imposed, Mathew and her boyfriend are stuck more than 8,000 miles apart and are legally prohibited from reuniting. Their situation may seem unique, yet they are among thousands of unmarried couples separated from each other by government-mandated travel restrictions.
While there are exemptions from travel restrictions for relationships that transcend borders, most countries require a couple to be legally married in order to qualify. This policy has left many unmarried and binational couples separated for upwards of seven months, forcing some to postpone a planned wedding or even to miss the birth of a child.
Given the immense distress that strict travel restrictions have caused, some nations are enact- ing changes to aid couples in this situation. In August, the European Commission asked members of the European Union (EU) to allow unmarried couples to reunite; 12 countries complied and Canada recently followed suit. However, the issue is far from resolved. More countries must acknowledge that even though travel restrictions are necessary, the benefits of granting unmarried international couples an exception far outweigh the public health risks.
Since travel restrictions were put in place, an international grassroots movement using the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism has advocated for these exemptions. However, outside of the EU, most countries have been hesitant to address the movement’s demands, citing a desire to slow the spread of Covid-19. This claim is questionable, as even the most restrictive countries have allowed exemptions for student and business travel. If business and higher education have been deemed essential enough to be permitted an exception, surely the love between separated couples is essential too.
Legal marriage remains an arbitrary criterion for determining whether two people deserve to reunite. Marriage does not inherently demonstrate any more emotional attachment than that between a couple who is living together or engaged. Moreover, this policy completely ignores many LGBTQ couples who may not be legally permitted to marry in their home nations.
Governments only grant exemptions to married couples to ease the fear of relationship fraud. Theoretically, this line of reasoning argues that anyone could claim to have a significant other in a different country in order to gain entry. However, this has not been an issue in practice. Most of the countries offering exemptions for unmarried couples ask for proof, such as pictures, joint bank accounts, or mortgages, showing that an unmarried couple has been in a well-established relationship for at least one year. Even countries that do not require any proof, such as Denmark, have not seen significant abuse of their system.
Most importantly, travel exemptions for unmarried couples would not pose a significant risk of spreading Covid-19 due to the small number of couples who apply. France, for example, received only 600 requests for this type of exemption since it was created, an insignificant number compared to the over 250,000 international students that they welcomed this year. Especially in countries with the resources to enforce testing, contact tracing, and quarantine requirements, health experts tend to agree that the risk is minimal. Marc Van Ranst, a prominent Dutch virologist, recently tweeted on behalf of himself and his colleagues in support of #LoveIsNotTourism.
Binational couples are substantially dependent on grassroots advocacy because they are not equipped with the resources of international students and business travelers, who have powerful institutions to advocate on their behalf. Given this lack of economic and political capital, the most effective advocacy on behalf of this small, diverse, and scattered group has been the stories of separated couples. For example, Canadian officials mentioned the story of Sarah Campbell and her British fiancé when they finally introduced a travel exemption for unmarried couples. Not only did the couple have to postpone their June wedding, but when Campbell was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in July, her fiancé was unable to be by her side during her surgery and radiation therapy. Campbell described the experience as “heartbreaking and devastating,” encouraging officials to make meaningful changes to their nations’ policies.
A country’s response to Covid-19 should not intentionally disadvantage binational couples if harm can be safely avoided. In truth, the symbolic implications of defending love go far beyond the individuals in this situation. Even in the midst of a pandemic, if the international community can choose one human tradition to protect, there are few more important than being physically present with the one you love.