What evolution of asylum policies in European countries since 2015?
Subscribe nowReceive every three months the new issue of European Insights in your mailbox Subscribe
Asylum seekers are being severely affected by the COVID-19 health crisis in Europe
In Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the adoption of new measures in relation to migratory policy, with direct consequences for the lives of asylum seekers.
Since the beginning of March, and at a time when thousands of people were rushing at the gates of Europe after the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision no longer to keep refugees on Turkish territory, a number of European governments used fear of the disease as justification for changing their migratory policies, mainly involving the closing of borders. Whereas on 1st March the Hungarian government closed its “transit camps”, the only places in the country where it was possible to submit an asylum application, the Greek government used the coronavirus argument to explain the introduction of new closed centres. On their side, on 18th March the Turkish authorities finally announced that checkpoints on the border with the Hellenic Republic, which had opened on 27th February, were going to be blocked as a precautionary health measure after the increase in the number of sick people in Turkey.
This was the situation when, on 16th March, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which to suspend refugee resettlement journeys in collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), reminded governments that although it was possible for them to regulate their borders, this should under no circumstances disrupt access to applying for asylum. Indeed, access to asylum applications have been suspended in many countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Romania. Faced with the aggravation of the health situation, both the UNHCR and the IOM have also been working on a collective strategy and have called for donations in order to strengthen their COVID-19 preparation, prevention and response activities. In Europe, both organisations have emphasised the need for migrants to have access to health services on the Greek islands, where the UNHCR has increased water and sanitation capacity and has provided medical areas for screening, isolation and quarantine purposes.
The dramatic consequences of the health crisis are also being felt in the Mediterranean. Whereas many exiles are still trying to get to Europe, in particular to flee the renewed violence in Libya, almost all of the sea-rescue NGOs have decided to halt their activities, in order to preserve the health not only of their own staff but also that of the migrants themselves. Charities looking for somewhere to land after rescuing people en route to Europe – as was the case with the Alan Kurdi in early April – came up against refusals from a number of countries who claimed that the health conditions were too dangerous. Italy declared her ports to be “unsafe” in a decree dated 7th April, following in the footsteps of the Maltese authorities. People who managed to get to one of these countries by themselves are actually forced to undergo a period of isolation. On 9th and 16th April, the IOM and the Council of Europe called upon European States to abide by international law and to cooperate with NGOs so that people rescued at sea could be allowed to land safely.
This text compiles various articles originally published in French in “Veilles Europe” by France Terre d’Asile in recent months: see the editions of 1–15 March and 1–15 April 2020 (here, here and here).