Haven and hell: How the EU should protect refugees during the covid-19 crisis

Even as it comes under intense pressure during the current crisis, the EU should not fail the most vulnerable displaced persons.  

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The covid-19 crisis has overshadowed the precarious situation of many refugees in the European Union and its neighbourhood, as well as those further afield who are trying to reach Europe. Only a short while ago, the escalating conflict in Idlib and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to open the Turkey-Greece border made migration a top priority of European leaders once more. Although the EU was still working on overdue reforms of its asylum and migration system, and needed to agree on a fair distribution of refugees between member states, key European leaders had at least signalled their intent to relocate the most vulnerable refugees from overcrowded camps – known as “hotspots” – on Greece’s islands. Covid-19, however, has abruptly halted these efforts.

On 16 March, the death of a child in a fire in Moria refugee camp – which hosts around 20,000 people despite having been designed for less than 3,000 – demonstrated the hazards facing those who live in these facilities. Since then, with covid-19 spreading to almost every part of the world, the United Nations and NGOs have warned that overcrowded refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of the virus – with uncontrollable consequences. Due to the nature of the crisis, it is not only the well-being and dignity of the camps’ inhabitants at stake, but also that of the local population, who have only limited access to medical services.

The impact of the coronavirus on refugees goes beyond the imminent risk of infection. The crisis has prompted European states to delay the implementation of their recent decision to receive the most vulnerable refugees. This includes the relocation of 1,600 unaccompanied refugees to Germany and other EU countries, which have temporarily closed their borders. The cancellation of almost all flights across Europe has also contributed to the halt of resettlement operations, including those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The covid-19 crisis has initially reinforced a trend towards national solutions and limited EU-wide coordination. This could seriously undermine the bloc’s already fragile concept of European sovereignty, unless EU member states start to act together in containing the consequences of the crisis. Populists across Europe have rejoiced at border closures and limitations on access for asylum seekers, whom they have systematically demonised for years. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has claimed there is a “link between coronavirus and illegal migration”. The Alternative for Germany has said the “myth of borders that cannot be closed is proven wrong”, while a handful of right-wing extremists have held a demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate under a banner reading “save our borders”.

As European governments try to protect their populations, the resulting restrictions on movement and access hit refugees hard. While refugees still have a legal right to apply for asylum, border closures and the near-stasis of European asylum agencies prevent them from doing so in practice. And NGOs across Europe, as well as their rescue operations in the Mediterranean, are running at minimum capacity as volunteers stay at home due to the coronavirus. Finally, with the world potentially facing years of recession, covid-19 could have a devastating impact on financial support for already-underfunded NGO and UNHCR operations.

Even as it comes under intense pressure during the current crisis, the EU should not fail the most vulnerable displaced persons. The bloc – including the European Commission and willing member states – should demonstrate that it can protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, partly by equipping the authorities and aid agencies with the means to handle the crisis. This emergency response should centre on the following three steps.

As shown by the large-scale operations that EU member states have launched to bring their citizens home, relocation is possible even in the current crisis.

Firstly, the authorities should immediately evacuate hotspots to prevent a disastrous outbreak of covid-19 there, as requested by the European parliament’s civil liberties, justice, and home affairs committee. Ideally, they should relocate asylum seekers to decentralised accommodation on the mainland (including quarantine facilities, if needed) – as the UN demanded before the threat of the pandemic became imminent. Until it makes progress with relocation, Europe needs to urgently improve conditions in the camps and expand medical capacities there. In this, the EU and its member states must support Greece and Italy, whose economies are under particular strain in the crisis. Countries such as Germany have indicated that they are ready to continue with relocation plans even during the crisis – and should do so as soon as possible, to protect the most vulnerable refugees. As shown by the large-scale operations that EU member states have launched to bring their citizens home, relocation is possible even in the current crisis.

Secondly, the EU should provide an emergency humanitarian package to dramatically increase financial support for agencies such as UNHCR and the World Health Organisation – which face significant budget cuts. This would address their immediate funding needs in protecting refugees from covid-19 and improving their overall living conditions. The effort could be financed by the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and the EU’s other funding instruments, as it is in the bloc’s urgent interest to prevent the disease from spreading in refugee camps in its neighbourhood.

Finally, the EU should counter fake news on, and attempts to demonise, refugees and asylum seekers. European leaders need to stress that the ongoing isolation of asylum seekers in camps in Europe creates broader risks for EU citizens. Ultimately, covid-19 provides another a stark reminder that the EU needs a common policy capable of protecting refugees. Substantive action in a time of crisis would signal that such a policy is possible.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

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