Covid-19 Society The World After Covid

The World After Covid: The Refugee Crisis

By Loui Marchant

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights groups were warning of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in refugee camps on the Aegean islands. For much of the past decade, the Greek territory has been at the epicentre of the ongoing European refugee crisis. At the close of 2019, a series of horrifying reports detailed overcrowding, abuse, and violence at the camps, which were estimated to be up to five times over their capacity. Deadly fires were spreading and police were responding violently to ensuing riots. 

Fast forward to March 2020; as one-by-one European countries were taking extraordinary lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Whilst Europeans closed their doors, tens of thousands of refugee camp inhabitants, including the elderly, children, and the long-term sick and disabled were left to fend for themselves as life-endangering overcrowding now presented an even greater threat.

EU member states are obligated, legally and morally, to protect the human rights of asylum-seekers. And yet, recent small steps of progress have been accompanied by a broader pattern of easily-flouted and poorly implemented legislation, leaving camp inhabitants further exposed to human rights abuses. 

The Current Legislation

The rights of asylum-seekers in the EU are protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Geneva Protocol in addition to European legal institutions. These rights dictate that nobody should be detained solely because they are seeking international protection. When detention is necessary as a last resort, it should be minimised and follow official judicial procedures without prejudice. Asylum-seekers should be treated with, ‘full respect for human dignity’ in facilities that protect their physical and mental health. The principle of non-refoulement also commits the EU not to return anyone to another country if there is evidence that doing so would risk threatening their life or freedom. 

Over the course of the refugee crisis, EU asylum policy has fundamentally failed to uphold these legal expectations. The current Common European Asylum System is based on the Dublin Regulation, which assigns responsibility for assessing asylum applications, in the majority of cases, to the first EU country entered by the asylum-seeker. This policy has put disproportionate strain on EU countries on common migration routes, such as Italy, Malta and Greece, and meant treatment of asylum-seekers has deteriorated. Experts have long argued that the system has failed.

The controversial 2016 EU-Turkey Statement was arguably born out of the structural flaws of the Dublin Regulation. It stipulates the return of all new migrants without sufficient documentation from the Greek Islands back to Turkey. Human Rights groups have criticised the deal since its inception; it risks violating the principle of non-refoulement, putting asylum-seekers rights and lives in danger. While Turkey hosts more asylum-seekers than any other country in the world, its asylum system means non-Europeans can be denied full refugee status and asylum cases are not given sufficient legal attention. Moreover, the Turkish Government continues to violate international law by returning asylum-seekers to countries where their lives are at risk. 

While initially described as a temporary and extraordinary measure, the EU-Turkey Deal remained in place until March 2020 when, after months of threats, the Turkish Government opened the EU border for refugees to cross. The Greek Government subsequently took the unprecedented step of closing the Turkish border for a month, in a move which arguably sought to prevent further overcrowding but simultaneously risked violating international law and left thousands unable to seek asylum. 

This is not the only controversial asylum policy the Greek Government has introduced in recent months. The International Protection Act (IPA) came into force in January and, along with its May amendment, introduced harsher measures which rely on detention, accelerate asylum procedures and focus on increased returns. This fast-track approach could lead to the denial of asylum-seeker’s rights, reducing safeguards and increasingly endangering people who require international protection.

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Camp Conditions and COVID-19 

Two months after the introduction of the IPA, the COVID-19 pandemic became a significant threat in Europe. Health experts called for the Aegean island camps to be evacuated immediately to ensure that rapid virus spread in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions would not occur. 

Instead, camps were placed on lockdown, and the national asylum system was suspended again. Camp inhabitants have spoken of their devastation that interviews on their cases have been postponed by months or even years. NGOs have warned that these delays could be incredibly detrimental; critical deadlines will be missed, risking the loss of rights and support. In the meantime, asylum-seekers are forced to remain in lockdown conditions without sufficient access to sanitation supplies, food, or medical aid. At the Moria camp, where children as young as 10 have been recorded as attempting suicide, there has been an increase in women reporting sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. Many vulnerable people who have fled persecution are now being subject to greater violence without any opportunity of escaping.

Fortunately, no COVID-19 cases were reported at the Aegean island camps in the first national wave of the pandemic. Despite this, as Greece came out of lockdown, opening businesses, schools and eventually the border to tourists, camp closures were extended until August, without a clear justification as to why. Police are accused of disproportionally enforcing lockdown measures on all asylum-seekers, whether they are camp inhabitants or not. Meanwhile, new arrivals in Greece, including pregnant women and children, have been detained and denied the right to seek asylum in the midst of the pandemic, in violation of their rights. It is thus clear that COVID-19 has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the Aegean islands and, rather than alleviating suffering, government policy has enabled even more rights abuses. 

The New Pact

The European Commission last year recognised the need for EU policy reform by announcing plans to introduce a New Pact on Asylum and Migration. Its publication, which has been significantly delayed but is now expected by the end of 2020, simultaneously presents a risk and an opportunity. There are concerns that it will not go far enough in its reforms, or worse will scale up the IPA model of reliance on detention centres and fast-tracking asylum rejections. However, through effective consultation and cooperation there is also potential for the Dublin Regulation to be radically overhauled in favour of a humane asylum system. 

What Next?

The threat of COVID-19 in refugee camps has reiterated the urgent need for Europe to address its humanitarian failures, or else remain complicit in further tragedy. The global pandemic and changing asylum laws have made 2020 a decisive year in EU asylum policy but it is not yet clear whether this change will be beneficial. Trends in Greece are not unique; human rights abuses are still occurring at an alarming rate across Europe, often going ignored or being actively facilitated by governments. Clear examples in recent months come from France, Italy, Malta, the UK and beyond. While future European policy solutions must negotiate with the complexity of the refugee crisis in order to make sustainable change, they must also recognise that this change is overdue; human lives are at stake if Europe does not act now.

To read more on campaigns for humane asylum policy, visit Europe Must Act

Loui Marchant is a researcher and contributor to The International. You can follow her on Twitter here.