Europe, Migration and Covid-19: Turning point or consolidation of the status quo?

02 Jun 2020 – Written by Marika Carlucci


  • Covid-19 deeply affected the field of asylum and migration, already one of the most politicised topics within the EU, without a coordinated response being elaborated by Member States.

  • The closing of borders and the health risks posed by the pandemic justified the politics of rejection implemented at the land and maritime borders of the EU.

  • Social distancing procedures and the lack thereof underlined the inappropriate living conditions of many asylum seekers while preventing them from filing an asylum application due to the interruption of the services provided or their radical transformation.

  • Decision-makers should acknowledge the shortcomings of the migration and asylum policies adopted by the EU and highlighted by the Covid-19 outbreak in order to design a new system that effectively protects people on the move.

Europe, Migration and Covid-19

The first quarter of 2020 was supposed to be a turning point for the notoriously dysfunctional European migration and asylum system as the European Commission was to unveil the long-anticipated New Pact on Migration and Asylum, first in February and then later in April. In spite of causing its release to be postponed, the Covid-19 outbreak made it so that the first quarter of 2020 could still live up to expectations and actually be the turning point everyone was waiting for, for it shed light on the structural failures of the system whilst revealing the lack of political willingness to address its shortcomings.

Before the pandemic it was already clear that action was needed to completely rethink and revise the migration and asylum legislation and policies adopted so far in order to effectively tackle the new challenges faced by the Union while ensuring the respect of fundamental rights and international law. Although a general consensus was reached on the enhanced mandate of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to “secure” external borders and increase returns, a new European asylum system based on solidarity was consistently claimed by Southern European countries and looked at suspiciously by other member states. Asylum and migration, one of the most politicised topics within the European Union, thus remained an unresolved issue that still required a great mediation effort.

In this context, when health became the main concern of member states, the European Union was hesitant to overrule individual nations’ policies and ensure a homogeneous adoption of human rights-complying measures in the field of asylum and migration. This happened in spite of the multiple calls for action coming from members of the European Parliament and organisations working on the ground. Member states thus took the measures that they deemed to be necessary to defend their national interests during the pandemic and protect their citizens’ health. This resulted in the adoption of legally ambiguous practices towards asylum seekers both at the European borders and within the framework of national asylum systems as well as in the further stigmatisation of the migrant population that shortly became perceived as a possible carrier of the virus.

Welcome to Europe

One of the first consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak was the disruption of the Schengen area, with EU countries closing borders, discouraging intra-European travel and banning those from outside of the EU whilst establishing two-weeks quarantine periods for people moving for justifiable reasons. The closing of European borders entailed several questions about how to manage migration flows, especially because irregular migrants were thought to represent a potential danger that would undermine national efforts to fight Covid-19, for they were coming from countries that had not implemented strict measures nor systemic testing to face the pandemic. Agamben defined such individualisation of the concept of risk and the consequent creation of a category of “unwanted” people as biopolitics (Agier & Fernbach, 2011), which explains why, over the course of this sanitary emergency, a new trend of reported pushbacks and rejections was established at the land and maritime borders of the European Union.

Greece had already been in the spotlight for a long time due to the high numbers of arrivals registered in the past years and, more recently, to the crisis that took place at the Evros border with Turkey at the beginning of March. The pandemic actually provided a justification to continue and engage in ambiguous practices that had already been denounced in the past and that aim at freeing Greek authorities from their responsibilities to provide legal protection and shelter to migrants. Violent pushbacks (Border Violence Monitoring Network, 2020) thus appear to have increased at the border with Turkey and illegal deportations from several Greek islands (Aegean Boat Report, 2020) have been reported by associations and NGOs working on the ground. Such practices are in blatant breach of the principle of non-refoulement and they also clash with the human rights-defender image portrayed by EU countries.

Croatia has adopted a similar approach. Being the entry door to the European Union from the Western Balkans route, it has experienced an increased number of border-crossing attempts that have often resulted in abuses and pushbacks to neighbouring Bosnia (Tondo, 2019). During the pandemic, however, Croatian border officers seem to have pushed themselves as far as spray-painting migrants (Bennet, 2020) attempting to cross the border in order to recognise and possibly further humiliate people who had been previously rejected.

Finally, similar behaviours can be seen in many of the southern and eastern EU member states. In March, Hungary indefinitely suspended the admission of irregular migrants (Trauner, 2020) to the transit zones situated at the border with Serbia and, at the beginning of April, an Austrian decree stated that asylum seekers can be rejected at the border if they do not provide a medical certificate (Vienna Online, 2020). Also in April, Malta and Italy declared their own seaports unsafe because of the Covid-19 outbreak (Castelfranco, 2020; Times of Malta, 2020), de facto denying the disembarkation on their territories of people rescued at sea by NGOs. Additionally, Italian authorities also issued a decree allowing for the possibility to use ships to isolate newly arrived migrants at sea (Al Jazeera, 2020) due to the risks of the possible transmission of the virus and to the lack of adequate structures on the mainland.

The implementation of such practices is nothing new in the field of migration management, where increasing attention and resources have been placed upon the militarisation of borders both at the national and at the European level. However, these very same practices are also intimately related to the pandemic, for the Covid-19 outbreak has the potential to legitimise them in the framework of the states of emergency that many countries have declared in order to protect their citizens’ health whilst further exposing the lack of political willingness to find human solutions to a human phenomenon. If the former reinforces the perception of migrants as disease carriers with serious consequences on the public opinion, the latter is proof of the increasing attempts to externalise the management of people on the move by way of delegating such responsibility to third countries. These countries such as Turkey, Libya, Bosnia, and Serbia are ones that are not members of the EU and whose citizens do not enjoy the European Union right to free movement (European Commission, 2020) and, as such, do not guarantee the same legal protections as the EU. Therefore, the pandemic ultimately has the potential of representing a decisive moment in the future of the practices adopted at the borders of the EU and accepted by the EU: it can establish a new normal made of rejections and pushbacks on the basis of potential health risks or, on the contrary, mark the no-return point that drives change.

In limbo

Entering Europe during a pandemic has proven to be complicated, but equally so has been trying to file an asylum application and navigate the system from within. Measures taken by governments to try and contain the spread of the virus have temporarily withheld the freedom of European citizens and affected their personal sphere more than has ever happened in western democracies. Yet, as it is often the case, the most vulnerable have been the most severely affected by the policies implemented, for their already precarious conditions have been exacerbated by social distancing procedures or the lack thereof.

On 23 March, Greece announced that Asylum Services were temporarily suspended for a month due to Covid-19 (Ministry of Migration & Asylum, 2020), de facto hindering the possibility for the newly-arrived to claim international protection and have access to the social services that are provided for people awaiting the results of their asylum application. This represents an open violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention. However, the international public opinion was mainly concerned with the overcrowded and inadequately equipped centres located in the Aegean islands and with the tragic consequences that a possible spread of the virus there could imply for Greece and Europe. Luckily, Covid-19 hardly reached such premises. Nevertheless, the Greek government was very careful in extending the application of nation-wide restrictions by ten additional days only to migrants’ reception centres and refugee camps (Al Jazeera, 2020).

The situation was not much better in Italy, where following the Covid-19 outbreak the authorities had to face the harsh reality of a flawed and underfunded system: overcrowded centres and the impossibility to implement social distancing practices. The living conditions in the centre located in Via Mattei, Bologna, for instance, made local headlines when the guests hosted in the facility wrote an open letter to local authorities to denounce the unhealthy environment they were forced to live in (Coordinamento Migranti, 2020). In addition to that, people living in detention centres for foreigners awaiting forced repatriation (CPR) started hunger strikes to protest against their living conditions while asking to be released. Several associations sent multiple letters to the competent authorities (Salerni, 2020) to ask for the non-validation or prorogation of the detention orders, for a sanitary assessment of the conditions of both detainees and the structures they live in and, finally, for the gradual shut down of these kind of facilities given that repatriations were not being carried out during the pandemic. Their requests have gradually been met.

Unfortunately, targeted policies and overcrowded centres were not the only issues asylum seekers had to face. Social distancing practices deeply affected the procedure to file an asylum application and ultimately further complicated it. In Belgium, for instance, the reopening of services for asylum seekers after three weeks of suspension (Galindo, 2020) was accompanied by the introduction of a new measure that requires applicants to make an appointment via an online registration system to apply for asylum. Although this was theoretically meant to avoid large gatherings in queues and waiting rooms, in practice many asylum seekers still go personally to the designated office for several reasons (they are not aware of the change in the procedure, they are not able to make an appointment online, they did but they never received confirmation and so on) and wait outside, possibly being exposed to the virus. Additionally, the appointment system extends the procedure’s length and thus forces asylum seekers waiting to get an appointment to live in the streets, enjoying no protection, for weeks (Francois, 2020).

More examples could have been mentioned, for in spite of the Common European Asylum System member states focused on their specific local issues exacerbated by the pandemic and chose to not cooperate to establish an homogeneous framework throughout Europe. On one hand, the suspension of the right to asylum and the overcrowded centres showed that the system had already reached its limits well before the pandemic, as the long procedures, the Dublin regulation, the lack of funding and the absence of systematic relocations of people on the move resulted in a disproportionate charge for certain countries and in the general degradation of the services provided there. On the other hand, the adoption of measures to make the asylum procedure comply to the new social distancing standards, and that often ended up having violent implications on the most vulnerable, further underlined the complexity of such an unsustainable system and the need for it to be designed according to the needs of those who actually navigate it to not leave them in limbo.

Turning point or consolidation of the status quo?

If anything, the Covid-19 outbreak exposed the severity of the system’s shortcomings and the lack of political willingness to think thoroughly about new policies and procedures before implementing them in order to be able to anticipate the inevitable downsides that each of them implies. The predominant trend has been one made of pushbacks, rejections and the instrumentalisation of health as a way to keep people away as well as the adoption of procedures that comply to the new sanitary rules but create a different set of issues. The pandemic thus provided the possibility to consolidate the status quo or completely rethink it. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum will hopefully provide the basis for a reformed, uniformed and more human European system that will be able to effectively protect people, respond to their needs and facilitate their integration instead of further marginalising them. In the meantime, we can only value and appreciate the multiple examples of solidarity and collectivism showed by the most vulnerable during the pandemic and hope that their actions will lead the way for people who have the power to change their reality.





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Recommended citation:

Carlucci, M. (2020) Europe, Migration and Covid-19: Turning point or consolidation of the status quo?, IDRN, 02 June. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].