Opinion and Editorial

Europe should not use pandemic to repulse refugees

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaellia
Filed on August 22, 2021

The coronavirus lockdown has sealed off Europe in much the same way anti-immigrant populist political parties have wanted in the past.

Some European countries are using Covid-related border controls and the legal system to squeeze shut the door on refugees and those who assist them.

The coronavirus lockdown has sealed off Europe in much the same way anti-immigrant populist political parties have wanted in the past.

Since 2020 land transit routes have been blocked and asylum-seekers have had even greater difficulty crossing the Mediterranean.

Many would-be immigrants are stuck in camps and ships along the EU’s external borders as well as in large-scale shelters in EU member states.

A report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that “border restrictions which have been imposed or increased as part of measures to respond to Covid-19 are impacting heavily on asylum-seekers and refugees, preventing many from seeking asylum and safety in violation of the international legal principle banning refoulement” — more commonly called “pushbacks” — which forbids a country from returning asylum seekers if they would be in likely danger of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Last spring the UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimated that 167 countries had fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the virus and at least 57 made no exception for people seeking asylum.

In addition, students, migrant workers, pilgrims, travellers, domestic workers, merchants and migrants who travelled abroad have found themselves stranded and destitute at airports, at or between land border entry points, and at sea without means to return to their home country. Some lack the financial means to pay for their return home or the required travel medical certificate, while others find themselves faced with border closures with no means to sustain themselves where they are.

Hard-hit Greece has now taken it a step further requiring aid NGOs to register under conditions the groups say they cannot meet.

In mid-2020, the Greek government announced all NGOs in the country would have to register locally in order to continue operating, a requirement NGOs say they cannot fully meet, so they term it a measure used to shut them down. This year police raids on NGOs in Athens confiscated equipment and data.

For years, Greece has hosted large numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Most individuals reach Greece from Turkey over a dangerous sea crossing to islands in the northern Aegean Sea.

One of the biggest pain points has been the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesbos. When coronavirus eventually reached Moria, the government’s stringent response was met with protests. Fires broke out, destroying the camp after authorities placed it under quarantine because a Somali migrant tested positive for coronavirus.

It is unclear exactly how the fires started, but Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said the “incidents in Moria began with the asylum seekers because of the quarantine imposed”.

Former camp internees would later be moved to the mainland and housed in vacant hotels and other facilities, but they were met with protests from locals. Today the camp is something of a tent city.

According to a report by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the Turkish Red Crescent, the Covid-19 pandemic has “had a negative impact” on the daily lives of refugees, including their ability to meet basic needs, their social life and psychological health.

This year Malta used Covid-19 as a reason to stop seaborne rescue operations by civilian agencies. With state operations already at a minimum, most aid efforts there have been discontinued. Maltese authorities are now dropping boat people off on cruise ships beyond its territorial waters.

Italy too is using cruise ships to hold “irregular” migrants who arrive by sea. They are required to spend a mandatory quarantine period aboard vessels far offshore on the open Mediterranean.

Italy’s Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), whose member lawyers, academics and consultants focus on legal aspects of immigration, calls the approach “discriminatory” and questionable from a health point of view.

The shadowy operation using several massive former cruise liners is a way for authorities to prevent migrants from melting into the countryside as happened last year when more than 200 refugees defied the quarantine imposed on them in Sicily and escaped.

According to accounts collected by ASGI, the cruise ships often hold two migrants per cabin where they also take their meals. Private companies are in charge of security onboard while the Italian Red Cross is in charge of management.

The media are not permitted aboard, but clandestine journalists describe the ships as “giant floating holding pens” maintained at a monthly cost of more than 1 million euros each where thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, are held.

And while health is cited as a reason for the various quarantine measures, close confinement can actually spread the infection, says ASGI. It also contends seaborne housing is also a violation of international maritime law, which mandates a rescued person must be disembarked, and put in a “safe place”.

Pushbacks by various nations have been documented along land borders as well as in the central Mediterranean, the Aegean and in the waters between Cyprus and Syria, says the aid agency Frontex.

The lockdowns and closures have had an effect, with the number of detected illegal crossings of EU external borders falling 13 per cent last year to around 124,000, the lowest number since 2013.

Syrians remained the most frequently reported refugee nationality in 2020, followed by Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians, according to Frontex.

With the only increase in departures coming from Tunisia and Libya last year, the number of refugees through Central Mediterranean corridor hit 35,600, making it the most active migratory route into Europe, said Frontex.

Of course already strained health systems and governments in Europe cannot embrace unlimited numbers of migrants with open arms. Yet the underlying conditions that drive asylum-seekers remain.

It is yet another quandary exacerbated by the ongoing global pandemic.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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