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The Impact of COVID-19 on asylum and migration in Europe

05.02.2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact across most aspects of EU asylum and migration policies. Among others, it has impacted remittances from Europe, seasonal workers, access to asylum and resettlement, and highlighted the disproportionate barriers migrants face in accessing healthcare and basic rights.

Author: Olivia Sundberg Diez

Across the board, however, the pandemic has also served two key roles in informing future policy. First, COVID-19 has highlighted the structural weaknesses of the Common European Asylum System. No government could have responded seamlessly to an unprecedented health emergency such as COVID-19. However, ‘pre-existing conditions’ in EU asylum and migration management systems restricted governments’ room for manoeuvre and made the impact of the pandemic worse than it had to be. This should serve as a valuable stress test, and a prompt to address systematic vulnerabilities in anticipation of future crises. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a policy lab to test new ideas in real time. Policy responses that had previously received limited consideration – such as large-scale regularisations of undocumented migrants, expansions of the right to work, or releases from immigration detention – entered the public debate more seriously than in the past.

On both fronts, nine months after the pandemic started in Europe, several lessons can be drawn from COVID-19. Two key policy areas were reception conditions for asylum seekers, as well as detention and return. From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, it was clear that asylum seekers and migrants in irregular situations would be the most vulnerable to both COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as side-effects of lockdowns and other policies to curb the pandemic’s spread.

First, across Europe, asylum seekers in often overcrowded reception centres faced significant challenges to maintaining social distancing and complying with hygiene recommendations. Despite states’ substantial measures to, for example, establish quarantines for new arrivals, create emergency shelters, and develop hygiene precautions within accommodation facilities, their ability to react effectively to the challenge posed by COVID-19 was limited by the state of reception systems before the start of the pandemic. The systematic failure to invest into adequate reception capacity, the persistence of regional blind spots with very poor reception conditions, and the overreliance on ad hoc emergency accommodation all made reception systems highly vulnerable to pressure.

As a result, reception systems in Greece, Italy, and Spain, for example, quickly became overwhelmed and unable to provide a dignified standard of accommodation in compliance with public health guidelines. In Italy, the government relied on the controversial use of ‘quarantine ships’ due to the lack of space in its hotspots, which analysts warned amounted to unlawful detention at sea. In Spain, new arrivals to the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla, for example, were placed in informal camps (such as in the Arguineguín pier), bullrings, sports halls or warehouses. In Greece, the government ordered the prolonged lockdown of migrant camps, even when similar restrictions were not applied to the rest of the population. Across Europe, migrants warned that residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 were not being isolated from others, rendering reception facilities a petri dish for the spread of the virus.

Second, and similarly, several factors made migrants in pre-return detention vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks. Among them are the congested spaces within detention facilities, limited hygiene and access to health care, and the constant flow of staff and new arrivals in and out of the centres. These poor conditions, together with the difficulty of conducting returns at the height of the pandemic, led to significant legal challenges to immigration detention across the continent. States’ responses were mixed: some, like Spain, rapidly coordinated the evacuation of all migrants from pre-return detention and into alternative reception accommodation. By May 6, 2020, it had successfully emptied and closed all its detention centres. Others, like Italy, France, and Belgium, only conducted slow and smaller scale releases without a moratorium on new detention orders. Among those remaining in detention, anxiety, protests, hunger strikes, and attempted self-harm were common. Meanwhile, NGOs warned that those released were not receiving sufficient support, but rather being left on the street.

As above, the state of national detention systems restricted governments’ capacity and room for manoeuvre in responding to urgent health needs. The trend in Europe in recent years has been towards an overreliance on immigration detention, despite questions over its effectiveness or necessity in increasing returns. More detention centres, longer detention periods, and an expanded scope of who can be detained have all led to growing numbers of people in pre-return detention. By contrast, states continue to invest insufficiently into alternatives to detention – such as community and engagement-based alternatives – and considering this option seriously and systematically. Spain, which has the shortest time limits on pre-return detention in Europe and a framework for close cooperation with civil society on alternative accommodation, was thus more capable of reacting as needed and protecting vulnerable populations.

Overall, countries’ responses to the pandemic varied widely, including in the context of migration and asylum. However, the challenges above were visible across Europe and were neither new nor surprising. Thinking about the future, extra capacity is needed, be it due to further health emergencies or due to increases in arrivals. Therefore, European states will have to take investing into reception systems and alternatives to detention seriously. If not, the same fragility in Common European Asylum Systems will continue to arise.

This expert comment was developed within the framework of the World after COVID-19: Migration and Mobility Project expert organized by the Făgăraș Research Institute in partnership with 4Change (Portugal) and Cromo Foundation (Hungay), and financed by the International Alumni Center Berlin and the Bosch Alumni Network. All views presented in the publication belong to the author and do not represent the official position of any of the partners or funding organizations.

Departments: Society, Crisis and Rezilience Program, Center on Global Affairs and Postdevelopment (C-GAP), Department for Policy Analysis and Outreach, The World after COVID-19: Migration and Mobility Project

Regions: Europe

Themes: COVID-19, European Union, Migration and Diaspora, Public Policy

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