COVID-19 and the Erosion of Europe’s Asylum System


Europe emerged very early on as one of the world’s first COVID-19 “hotspots.” Initially, a series of haphazard policies, including uncoordinated lockdowns and border closures, and even nations refusing financial and medical assistance to their neighbors, garnered considerable criticism from the international community. More recently, however, the tide has turned for the European Union member states, with case numbers and casualties trending downward, lockdown restrictions easing, borders opening, and the economy gradually recovering. Just days ago, EU leaders even agreed to a monumental joint borrowing package to help ensure the EU’s post-Coronavirus recovery. By now European states are being widely lauded for their handling of the crisis. Yet, there is still one arena in which Europe’s post-COVID response is unlikely to receive praise anytime soon: the treatment of asylum seekers. In fact, the sheer proliferation of policies that negatively target asylum seekers already in the EU and those still hoping to come raises serious doubts about the future of asylum in Europe altogether.

Prior to the outbreak in 2019, the UNHCR estimated that roughly 123,633 refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants entered the European Union, coming predominantly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The vast majority arrived via the Mediterranean Sea route into Spain, Italy, and Greece while a much smaller number entered by land through the Balkans. However in the first half of 2020, and just as the pandemic began to ravage Europe, the estimated number of refugees entering the EU dropped significantly to 31,834.

It is not just the entry of asylum seekers that has slowed since the start of the pandemic, but also the number of asylum applications being filed. According to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), just 8,730 asylum applications were made in April of 2020, representing an 87% drop from January. More worrying still, this is the lowest number of asylum applications registered in the EU since 2008.

This drastic decrease in asylum entries and applications, however, is not the result of a global decrease in demand for international protection. Rather, it reflects the reality that Europe itself is no longer as accessible.

The basis of international refugee law is the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and subsequent 1967 Protocol), which stipulates that a refugee is any person crossing an international border in order to seek protection “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted” (Article 2). But what if international borders are closed? What if countries refuse to accept asylum applications? This is precisely the situation that has raised alarm bells for humanitarian agencies, as roughly 170 countries sealed their borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 57 of those making no exception for refugees.

As part of this global response to virus transmission, by mid-March, fortress Europe had also fortified its external borders. And while EU governments managed to organize chartered flights to shuttle in citizens, residents, and even essential migrant laborers working on the frontlines or in agriculture, no such exceptions were made for those waiting at Europe’s gates to seek asylum. The first major blow for Europe’s asylum seekers came in February when Turkish President Erdoğan announced that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers from attempting to enter the European Union via Greece. Prior to this, the EU agreed to pay Turkey for keeping asylum seekers on their soil and only sending pre-vetted refugees into Europe. Turkey was no longer willing to act as a “clearing house” for the EU. In response, Greece closed its borders and announced it would no longer consider any asylum claims from irregular entrants. Thousands of asylum seekers were left stranded on the land border, and according to reports by Amnesty International, Greek border guards have been accused of using tear gas, water cannons, and even live ammunition to keep migrants out.

In early April, Italy made the unprecedented move of declaring its own ports “unsafe”, citing the country’s high infection rates. This prevented not only boats of undocumented migrants making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing from Libya from docking, but also any rescue boats carrying migrants whose boats had capsized in the journey. On similar grounds, Malta issued a no-disembarkation order for ships carrying migrants. Malta’s Prime Minister Robert Abela also found himself under investigation for criminal inaction following the death of five migrants in a boat whose distress signal off Malta’s coast in April went unanswered. In May, Hungary declared an “indefinite” closure of their borders to migrants and started mandating any asylum application be submitted in neighboring countries, before entering Hungary.

The problem with these border closures is not just that they are patently unethical, but that they appear to stand in violation of international laws. For example, crossing an international border is often a necessary step in the asylum application process, so closed borders seriously dilute a migrant’s rights under the 1951 Convention. Sending migrant boats to drift out of European waters is also a clear violation of non-refoulment, which forbids states from returning migrants to unsafe circumstances (Article 33). And the violence that migrants face at the hands of border patrols across Europe challenges standards set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Europe’s own human rights laws.

What about asylum seekers who are already on European soil? Unfortunately, things are not much better. Although the European Union is built on the idea of free movement across its internal borders,17 of the 26 Schengen states reintroduced border closures, which greatly complicated the refugee situation. For example, after closing internal EU borders on public health grounds, many countries have denied asylum transfers from other EU countries as stipulated under the Dublin regulation. The Dublin system requires asylum seekers to apply for asylum in their country of first entry and is despised by the overburdened countries on EU’s external borders where most migrants enter.

Many European nations also put a temporary halt to the registration and determination of asylum applications. In other words, migrants could not even submit documents to claim asylum. In practice, this meant that any asylum seekers in Europe irregularly were unable to access any of the reception conditions normally afforded claimants, such as housing or food, or even the legal status of “asylum seeker.” The risk of increasing numbers of legally vulnerable people living outside the system, and in utter destitution, is a real concern. In France, the highest court in the country eventually ordered the French government to recommence the registration of asylum seekers to avoid this issue specifically.

Those trapped in Europe’s refugee camps are among the worst off. Camp overcrowding makes social distancing impossible, and limited access to medical or hygiene facilities can quicken the spread of any virus. For example, the Moria Camp in Greece was built to house 3k refugees, but instead houses 20k, and it is estimated that there is one water tap available for every 1,300 inhabitants. Coronavirus has already spread like wildfire in other camps, like the Ellwangen refugee camp in Germany. Investigations into the conditions of migrant detention centers confirm that detainees could face similar risks, in terms of overcrowding and limited access to medical care.

To be fair, some countries have eased a few of the least defensible policies. For example, Sweden, Italy, and Belgium have opted to release select migrants from detention centers, in order to allow for greater social distancing. Portugal has gone further than most by granting temporary access to citizenship rights for any migrant with a pending citizenship or asylum application, allowing them equal access to health services and welfare benefits. But these practices are exceptions to the rule.

Whether or not the EU will be able to return to its prior, albeit imperfect, system of processing asylum seekers, is still very much an open question. Rethinking a new, fairer system maybe even less likely. After all, for many European politicians, the pandemic offered a convenient opportunity to finally push through the long-debated border and migration restrictions on the grounds of protecting public health. The biggest fear of all is that these temporary restrictive measures could easily become permanent.

Probably one of the most sobering realities exposed during this crisis is just how flawed the system is. Not only does the EU not have competencies in the domain of public health, but so many of the areas in which the EU should have authority seemed to be easily swept aside in the scramble to lockdown. Similarly, access to public health and welfare services at the national level is often closely tied to legal (and sometimes financial) status and certainly excludes clandestine migrants. Since the virus itself does not make such distinctions, any practice that marginalizes and discriminates against the vulnerable represents a threat to public health and will continue to haunt Europe’s efforts to curb the virus.

The American historian Frank Snowden once remarked that epidemics are like mirrors that allow societies to view themselves; they expose our vulnerabilities, political priorities, and our humanity. The question now is whether we like what we see.  

Article by Amanda Garrett, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University in Qatar.

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