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COVID-19 and its effects on refugees and asylums seekers How will the Virus affect future European migration and asylum policy?

The outbreak of the novel COVID-19 virus has quickly escalated into a global pandemic, resulting in crisis that affects people worldwide. The measures taken by States and State actors heavily implicated restrictions on individual mobility and basic rights. The vulnerability of certain groups and the overcoming of the global crisis are the justification of such measures, but how do these policies affect refugees and asylum seekers? And even more so, how do these steps shape future migration and asylum policies? A recent COVID-19 update of the UNHCR identified around 12 million people of concern, with 6.6 million being refugees and 1.2 million asylum seekers (1).  The following text will examine policies and measures implemented by member states to tackle the virus and will discuss the possible consequences. 

As mentioned in a report by the European Asylum Support Office, measures that were taken in the Spring of 2020, mostly shutting down asylum and migration procedures, need to be closely assessed to decide about the reversal (2).  Because the measures taken did largely restrict mobility and individual freedom, the risk for stricter migration and asylum policy can be seen. The following text will discuss actions that were implemented to fight the COVID-19 virus and might affect future migration and asylum policies. 

The UNHCR identifies five areas of intervention to ensure the protection and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers (3).  The aspect of protection plays a vital role and discusses access to countries and their respective reception centers. As of the end of July, most countries have lifted travel restrictions and opened their borders. Especially the countries of the Schengen system have lifted travel bans and thereby ensure the freedom of mobility. However, the current report indicates that mobility is threatened in certain cases. People transiting through South Eastern Europe have been reported to suffered pushbacks and entry bans due to overcrowded reception facilities. Asylum claims are not registered under these circumstances. Pushbacks on land and at sea have also been reported at the Greek border with Turkey.  A new law in Hungary is restricting access to the country for refugees and asylum seekers, people were returned to neighboring countries and are insisted to apply for asylum at Hungarian consulates and embassies. While in some countries, such as Spain or Italy, application procedures have been reopened, waiting periods were prolonged up to 6 months. However, the reopening of borders in the Schengen area lead to the continuation of the Dublin agreement. 

A second area of intervention is the health and well-being of refugees and asylumseekers. The inability to implement a hygienic concept for most reception and identification centers (RICs) has led to the prolonging of quarantines. In Greece, two RICs in Lesvos were able to welcome new arrivals. However, some individuals had to stay in the facility for nearly two months due to new arrivals and people being tested positive for COVID-19. Reports show that refugees and asylum seekers are especially experiencing vulnerability at entry points and RICs. The improvement of processes and the relocation of individuals should be the next priority for state actors to prevent the overcrowding of RICs and thereby the low health standards that derive from logistical problems. The report states that even though the total number of asylum seekers at RICs in Greece has dropped to 26,900, the overall capacity is that of 5,400 individuals. Hygienic standards remain insufficient. 

A positive momentum could be gained on the front of e-services. Meetings and applications were moved online to facilitate ongoing processes that were stopped because of the pandemic. While interviews still take place face-to-face, more simple procedures can now be handled via portals. The digital infrastructure in some RICs has improved, for example through the establishment of a WIFI-network in the Spanish Ceuta and Melilla. The current report of emergency measures by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has identified opportunities regarding automatization of processes, registration and lodging an application, video tools and remote interviewing (4).  However, the quality and depth as well as data protection of remote interviews can not be judged as of now, because of the innovative character and novel use. The EASO recommends legal assistance as an intermediary to mitigate the risks of those new solutions. 

While the circumstances under which refugees and asylum seekers in RICs live are currently insufficient, individuals in first or second instance of the application process are being cared for in many aspects. Legal counsel, e-governance, relocation to less affected regions, the re-entry of the Dublin Accord and information regarding the current situation in their mother tongue are being made available. The phasing-out of restrictive measures will impact the process of applications positively and will ensure the continuation of migration and asylum policy. However, there are some risks. As mentioned above, remote interviews and the limitation of face-to-face contact might result in the application process to become strictly bureaucratic, judging people only on a piece of paper. The narrative of refugees transmitting COVID-19 is being used by right-wing and nationalist actors to form a hostile point of view regarding migration and the closing of borders and re-enforcement of them poses the threat to a more restrictive asylum and migration policy. It seems, that the future of policy regarding refugees and asylum seekers is currently highly affected by the measures taken to tackle COVID-19. To what extent positive momentum will be used or in how far the above-mentioned risks will become threats, depends on state actors and their ability to include refugees and asylum seekers in their national as well as international strategy against COVID-19. 

Christian Kutzscher

1. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2020): COVID-19 Emergency Response. Update # 12 Regional Bureau of Europe. URL: https://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Europe%20COVID-19%20Regional%20Update%20-%2019JUN-1JUL20.pdf [last access: 23.07.2020].
2.  European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (2020): COVID-19 emergency measures in asylum and reception systems, Issue No. 1. URL: https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/covid19-emergency-measures-asylum-reception-systems.pdf [last access: 23.07.2020]. 
3. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2020): COVID-19 Emergency Response. Update # 13 Regional Bureau of Europe. URL:https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/77944 [last access: 30.07.2020]. 
4. European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (2020): COVID-19 emergency measures in asylum and reception systems, Issue No. 2. URL:https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publications/covid19-emergency-measures-asylum-reception-systems-issue-2.pdf [last access: 31.07.2020].