A large number of refugees seek safety in Europe, but the lack of legal pathways leaves many stranded on unseaworthy boats while using clandestine routes trying to reach Greece, Italy and Spain. Various international organisations have taken up the responsibility to address the influx of refugees in Europe by aiding governments to implement necessary measures and campaigning for their rights. This article, second part of a 3-series article on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees globally, sheds light on the refugees who have fled to Europe for asylum.
In response to the pandemic outbreak, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) along with IOM (International Organisation for Migration), OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) and WHO (World Health Organisation) called on countries to protect the refugees, migrants and stateless—the world’s most vulnerable populations, stressing that they are at “heightened risk of contracting” the novel coronavirus. They prompted governments to pay heed to the principle of non-refoulement (no forced return) and abide by the 1951 Convention and European asylum law when dealing with preventive measures to tackle the crisis. Though migrants/refugees might fall under the risk group, it does not imply that they are automatically vulnerable to any poor health outcomes, but rather the circumstances related to their migration journey and the dire conditions that most of them dwell in—like overcrowded camps, makeshift settlements and detention centres that severely lack adequate healthcare facilities, hygiene environments, sanitation and clean water—put them in the risk group. The things that the very environment health experts warn us to be cautious against during this crisis are the sad reality for millions that are displaced.
All 49 countries and one territory in Europe are affected by COVID-19 and 17 countries so far have seen confirmed cases among Persons of Concern. Two-thirds of the European countries managed their borders effectively by granting access to asylum and implementing a series of refugee-centric programmes supporting the national asylum systems and adapting them to the current times within the country, before shutting down their borders. Governments across Europe have worked along with UNHCR to address the congestion issue which is a major problem in the camps, especially during a pandemic. Several national assistance programmes in Armenia, Italy, Romania and Belgium have been implemented to create additional spaces to decongest reception/detention centres and expand the capacity of adequate care for those in need. Steps have also been taken to rescue those stranded at sea, continuing life-saving efforts of refugees and migrants facing distress, and granting entry and safety at European borders.
The Greek government, however, has been struggling to address the overcrowding and other distressing conditions within the camps. Presently, the Greek camps on the Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos hold a refugee population over six times their capacity, detaining more than 42,000 migrants and asylum-seekers of the total 1,20,000 in the country. Along with the rest of the nation, the camps—though severely ill-equipped and unprepared—went under lockdown, but as the restrictions eased around the country in May, the lockdown was further extended in the camps, as confirmed cases have been reported in the Aegean and Lesbos island camps. The European Commission announced an aid package of €350 million and an additional €350 million, if necessary, to improve the living conditions by constructing five multi-purpose reception and identification shelters and providing emergency services and essential items within the camps. The Commission also initiated a scheme that would relocate 1600 refugees (mostly unaccompanied children) across the member states. Germany accepted 50 unaccompanied migrant children taken from the overcrowded camps, as the solidarity among the European member states finally came through.
UNHCR along with IOM took various measures to help transfer more than 2000 asylum-seekers of the 20,000, who are in the COVID-19 risk group, from the red zones on the island to temporary housing in hotels and apartments for 15-90 days. Steps are being taken to transfer more than 5000 applicants in the following months. This does not decongest the population in the camps and is a temporary fix. Neither does it deal with the lack of basic amenities; however, the initiative made possible with the EU funds is a step in the right direction to control the spread of COVID-19 within the camps. Not soon after they were transferred, 148 refugees tested positive for COVID-19 with all of them being asymptomatic. The confirmed cases were observed in Ritsona and Malakasa camps; Ritsona, hosting a population of 2700 refugees went under strict quarantine for two-weeks to limit the spread, and Malakasa followed soon after. Riots and fires broke out within the camps in the Greek island of Samos and on Chios due to an internal conflict fuelled by the congested and dire living conditions, leaving 500 refugees from Samos camp homeless amid the pandemic outbreak, delaying the relocation process.
The EU-Turkey Refugee deal, to ease tensions on the Greek-Turkish border and help relocate, return and resettle refugees, has been put on hold due to the sudden pandemic outbreak. Turkish authorities quarantined the camps at the border and soon cleared them in March by opening up its borders to Greece and suspending the asylum programme. The new influx of around 1,30,000 refugees further burdened the Greek authorities, leading the Greek government to also suspend its intake of new asylum applications for that month. Though the government insists that it did not infringe on the rights of the refugees and the international law, UNHCR denounced the move stating that neither the Refugee Convention nor the EU refugee law allows any legal leeway for Greece and Turkey to suspend the right to asylum and the reception of refugee applications. So far, Greece and Turkey have turned away hundreds of refugees on separate occasions. The poor conditions at the camps and the harsh treatment of the refugees motivated a people-powered social movement, ‘Europe Must Act’ and #CitiesMustAct, launching an open letter to the EU leaders that appeals for the relocation of refugees from camps across the Aegean islands to countries in the EU. The letter was signed by 160 grassroots NGOs, 1,00,000 individuals and 10 Members of the European Parliament. The campaign led to 10 European countries, among them were seven cities that denied joining the relocation scheme announced by the European Commission stated earlier, pledging to take in the refugees and resettling them in their countries.
The Ellwangen camp in Southern Germany, holding 606 refugees from 26 countries, observed confirmed cases among more than half of the occupants in the camp. Refugees fear that the government is not taking any measures to protect them, as they are still forced to share facilities with others in the overcrowded camp. Other refugee centres in the country also reported virus outbreaks and the lack of hygiene and protective gears. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor alerted Europe on the alarming harsh living conditions of the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African refugees in Albania. The insufficiency to meet the bare minimum has forced the refugees to beg on the streets making them targets of gang violence. The shutting down of the detention centres has also left many out in the cold. The only way to completely eradicate the effects of a pandemic is by providing people around the globe access to healthcare assistance in the prevention, testing and treatment of the illness with no discrimination.
International migration is viewed as a COVID-19 risk and is likely to be further restricted, which in turn will have a huge impact on refugee resettlement. Though some countries like Hungary, Belgium and Germany are still reluctant to open up their borders to refugees by indefinitely ceasing their asylum registering operations, Denmark and the UK are taking steps to resume asylum and stateless processing procedures. UNHCR believes that measures taken during the adversity to adapt to the changes will conversely contribute to a much more resilient asylum system within Europe in the future. Moving forward, global health security agendas must form a key component while developing migration policies, focusing on a more intersectoral, participatory approach with an accountability network to manage diplomacy.
Juanita Justinis Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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