Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, it was clear that asylum seekers and migrants in an irregular situation would be disproportionately affected. International organisations raised the alarm that migrants’ precarious living conditions, especially in camps, reception centres, and those in detention, amplified the risks of COVID-19 outbreaks. Several months into the pandemic, Europe has had a mixed track record in responding to these risks – and it owes much of this to structural weaknesses in its asylum and migration systems.
To begin with, overcrowded reception centres with poor hygiene and little scope for physical distancing continue to be the norm across Europe. It is no surprise that centres across Europe have had to be quarantined due to COVID-19 outbreaks. In Spain, for example, over 1,400 migrants have spent months in a closed reception centre in Melilla running at twice its capacity. In Greece’s notoriously overcrowded Aegean Islands, NGOs have long raised fears that a COVID-19 outbreak could have devastating consequences, yet measures to evacuate and protect residents have been largely limited or counterproductive.
In multiple cases, the lockdown measures and poor conditions were met with protests and hunger strikes. Migrants and staff in locked-down centres also warned that protection was insufficient and that those who tested positive were not being isolated. In the Canary Islands, the poor reception conditions may have acted as a ‘petri dish’ where diseases could spread unchecked.
Similar risks exist for migrants in detention. Given the risks of outbreaks in congested detention facilities, and the difficulties in carrying out returns amid COVID-19 border closures and restrictions on air travel, calls to release migrants from pre-return detention began to mount across Europe. Several countries began conducting (small scale) reductions to their detained population, such as the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Italy – although questions were raised about whether migrants were receiving adequate support after release. Spain, notably, successfully vacated all its migrant detention centres by 6 May. However, it remains to be seen if this may prompt a longer-term shift away from immigration detention and towards engagement-based alternatives. Spain, for one, has already stated that detention will resume as soon as returns become feasible.
The COVID-19 pandemic was, naturally, entirely unprecedented. It caught asylum systems off guard and, in doing so, it shed light on their vulnerabilities and the overall failure to invest wisely into a Common European Asylum System. Several systemic deficiencies in reception and detention, for example, amounted to ‘pre-existing conditions’ that made the impact of COVID-19 on migrants in Europe far worse than it needed to be.
For example, reception systems for asylum seekers in the EU are chronicallyunderstaffed and underfunded. This has left them poorly prepared to deal with sudden surges in arrivals or, in this case, to comply with public health and human rights guidelines.
At the same time, the prolonged deadlock on questions of responsibility-sharing in Europe and the absence of systematic relocations have exacerbated the pressure on southern European states. Despite the dire humanitarian emergency in Greece, which long predates COVID-19, it has continued to rely on voluntary relocations. While necessary and praiseworthy, these have barely made a dent in the numbers.
The lack of long-term investment into alternatives to detention, similarly, made it difficult for states to release migrants from pre-return detention, even though upholding detention posed challenges both on public health and legal grounds.
A New Pact on Asylum and Migration is expected to be released in the coming weeks. This is an opportunity to address the pre-existing vulnerabilities that exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 in Europe. Structural investment into reception systems and alternatives to detention, as well as a meaningful and systematic solidarity mechanism, will be critical to boosting the resilience and human rights compliance of Europe’s asylum system.
This commentary was written for and first published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on 17 September 2020.