The COVID-19 pandemic and the right of asylum in the EU

By Florian Trauner (8 May 2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic is a game-changer for asylum seekers seeking to come to, or who are already in the European Union (EU) – certainly so in the short-term but most likely  in the medium- to long term as well. It is becoming increasingly difficult for  asylum seekers to get access to rights and opportunities. However, this is not a claim holding equal value for all EU member states. Portugal, for instance, has provided asylum seekers (and other migrants) with temporary access to full citizenship rights. This temporary status allows them to use the country’s healthcare facilities similarly to Portuguese citizens. 

Still, Portugal is an outlier inside the EU. A turn towards more restrictive practices has become more widespread, starting with the question as to how a migrant seeking international protection may now come to Europe. Resettlement operations allowing refugees to come in a regular way to the EU have been temporarily suspended. Italy and Greece, the countries receiving most migrants arriving in spontaneous ways, have sought to close their borders. Italy has opted for the unprecedented decision to declare its own seaports ‘unsafe’ due to the Covid-19 pandemic, effectively preventing rescue boats with undocumented migrants from landing. The Greek-Turkish border has already been closed for Syrian refugees and other migrants (and, at times, violently defended), since late February 2020 when the Turkish President urged them to leave Turkey and go to the EU. Among the measures taken by Greece was a temporary suspension of asylum applications. Accordingly, the numbers of asylum applications in the EU are heading towards new lows. In March 2020, 18.515 new asylum applications were counted in the EU. This is less than a third compared to the same month a year earlier.  

The coronavirus has not only affected the lives of migrants keen to come to the EU, but also of those already present. More than 38,000 migrants in overpacked refugee camps are not able to practice self-isolation or social distancing – a ‘health bomb’ waiting to explode, in the words of a spokesperson for the Greek government.  A group of seven member states, including Germany and France, agreed to relocate 1,600 vulnerable migrants, mostly children, from Greece. While beneficial for the individuals concerned, this relocation falls short of emptying the camps and reducing the risk for the other migrants on site. The Greek situation is a case in extremis, but a lack of space and overcrowdings also characterises reception places in other member states. Once the virus has entereda refugee camp, an exponential growth of COVID-19 is almost inevitable. In Germany, half of 600 people in a refugee camp tested positive for Covid-19 in April 2020. Police forced the rest to remain inside the site in order to prevent spreading the virus more widely. 

It is an open question whether the EU will manage to return to an ‘ordinary’ asylum system in the medium-term. Some aspects of the EU’s asylum policy, such as transferring asylum seekers back to the point of EU entry under the Dublin system, have been contested for many years. The coronavirus will provide ‘EU frontier states’ with a convenient argument to refuse Dublin transfers due to health reasons.  After the outbreak of the virus in spring 2020, the Dublin system was essentially paused. In about 6,000 cases, the responsibility to deal with an asylum application will shift by 1 June 2020 to the country in which the migrant currently is (instead of the country in which the migrant first arrived). Under the current Dublin rules, this occurs if a migrant stays more than 6 months outside his or her point of EU entry. 

The Dublin system stands for a wider pattern. Will member states be able – and willing – to return to a European asylum system, parts of which have already been quite contested pre-coronavirus crisis? If there is a will, the EU asylum rules can be respected even under the Covid-19 pandemic. The Commission has given a complete list of possibilities on how to do so, for instance by allowing the lodging of asylum applications online and conducting virtual interviews with migrants. 

However, it is a fair guess that some member states will lack this political will. They may be keener to dilute the right to asylum more permanently than to look for practical solutions upholding refugee rights. Hungary announced in March 2020, an ‘indefinite’ entry stop for migrants based on the argument that there would be ‘a clear link between illegal migration and the coronavirus outbreak’. Other countries have also tightened border controls and closed administrations in charge of asylum applications. A historical look at how states have reacted to pandemics, reveal that borders tend to remain closed for a relatively long period of time. They may reopen only in phases and with extra guarantees. We are likely to see the advent of a new ‘biosecurity’-driven governance of migration. Prior-vaccinations, health screenings and checks may become a new norm for those seeking to arrive – or a main argument for not letting them in.