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How COVID-19 made it harder to find safety in the EU

‘Across the board, capacity for asylum registration and procedures has been negatively affected.’

A young man stands in the courtyard of a centre near the French city of Rennes where migrants are detained before they are deported Hans Lucas/REUTERS
A young man stands in the courtyard of a centre near the French city of Rennes where migrants are detained before they are deported, 14 December 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic led to a 30 percent drop in the number of people applying for asylum in the EU in the first nine months of last year due to constraints on international travel and hardline policies enacted at the EU’s external borders that made it more difficult for people seeking protection to reach the 27 member bloc.

Despite the comparatively low number of applications, social distancing measures and lockdowns caused asylum cases to pile up in most EU countries, particularly during the first wave of the pandemic from March to June. At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing problems in asylum systems across the EU.

“In short, there was a quite significant and broadly negative impact of the pandemic [on asylum in the EU],” Olivia Sundberg Diez, a migration policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, told The New Humanitarian.

Nearly 310,000 people applied for protection in the EU during the first three quarters of 2020, compared to more than 467,000 over the same period in 2019, according to data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office. Data for the final quarter of 2020 is not yet available.

In March and April 2020 – the first two months of the pandemic – asylum applications in the EU dropped by an unprecedented 87 percent compared to pre-coronavirus levels in January and February. Applications rebounded as governments eased strict lockdown measures in May and June, but still fell well short of 2019’s numbers. Low application numbers helped authorities in some EU countries reduce backlogs from the spring as processing times returned to relatively normal levels between July and October, according to Sundberg Diez.

As coronavirus cases spike again across the EU, the impact of a second set of lockdown implemented in several countries in November and December – and continuing into the New Year – is not yet clear.

The pandemic has highlighted gaps in asylum systems across the continent, including a dearth of social workers, inadequate housing, and insufficient access to healthcare, Elodie Journeau, a French migration and asylum lawyer, told TNH. Even before the pandemic, these shortcomings often left asylum seekers in vulnerable positions, waiting for months for a decision without sufficient support. Fixing the problems is “work that should have been done before [the pandemic],” Journeau said.

The authorisation of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in December by the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has raised hopes about an eventual end to the pandemic in Europe. But with underlying hostility towards asylum seekers growing in many EU countries and the daunting challenge of post-pandemic economic recovery looming on the horizon, shoring up asylum systems isn’t likely to be one of the bloc’s main priorities in the foreseeable future.

Even distributing vaccines to asylum seekers will likely prove politically controversial. Most EU nations have yet to disclose where asylum seekers living in reception centres – considered a vulnerable group – will fall on their priority lists.

Narratives claiming that migrants received preferential access to testing, accommodation, and social benefits have been common in recent months… The perceived competition for national resources may spill over into national vaccine distribution policies,” Sundberg Diez said.

So far, Germany is the only EU country to announce where asylum seekers fall on its vaccination priority list. Those in reception centres will be in the second group to be vaccinated – along with Germans over the age of 70, doctors and healthcare workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19, essential workers in public hospitals and pregnant women, among others. The first priority group started being vaccinated at the end of December.

The EU’s big three

In the 12 months before October 2020, more than 60 percent of asylum requests lodged in the EU were submitted in Germany, Spain, and France. Application numbers in all three countries plummeted in the second quarter of 2020 before rebounding in the third. However, applications in Germany and France were still 27 and 39 percent lower in the third quarter, respectively, compared to the same period the previous year.

Applications in Spain increased by four percent in the third quarter, largely due to the partial resumption of international airfare, the fact that many asylum seekers from Venezuela and Colombia arrive through Spain’s airports, and a sharp increase in the number of people arriving by boat in the Spanish Canary Islands from West Africa.

Read more → What’s driving the deadly migrant surge from Senegal to the Canary Islands?

The number of applications submitted in Spain has been trending upwards since the beginning of 2019 mainly due to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, violence in Colombia and Central American countries, and policies by outgoing US president Donald Trump that have effectively eliminated access to asylum at the US-Mexico border.

Before the pandemic, in January and February 2020, Spain received the most asylum requests of any EU country. “The backlog of pending asylum applications in Spain is really, really high,” Virgina Alvarez, a migration researcher at Amnesty International Spain, told TNH. “It’s not because of the lockdown, but the lockdown made things worse.”

Prior to the pandemic, Germany had set a goal of reducing the processing time for first time asylum applications to three months. Between 2018 and 2019, authorities successfully shrunk the average time from 7.5 to 6.1 months. That progress has likely been wiped out. “In corona times, the duration of procedures has certainly increased once again, but no figures are available yet,” said Karl Kopp, department head of the EuropeTeam at PRO ASYL, a German immigration advocacy group.

The backlog of appeals cases – which has been growing for years – is also getting worse because of the lockdown last spring. “In the courts, they are working under very difficult lockdown-like shutdown conditions,” Kopp said.

France, too, has longer processing times. During the country’s first lockdown in the spring, all public offices were closed for eight weeks, including France’s office for the protection of refugees (OFPRA) and the national asylum court (CNDA).

“The problem is that the vast majority procedures at OFPRA and the CNDA require people to be physically present,” Journeau, the French migration and asylum lawyer, said.

Asylum procedures resumed last summer, but at a limited capacity, and remote hearings were only conducted in extenuating circumstances, although there are plans to expand video hearings in certain cities in 2021.

Public offices stayed open during France’s second lockdown between 30 October and 15 December. But OFPRA and the CNDA have been unable to catch up on the backlog of cases. “There’s now a longer delay by several months,” Journeau said.

“A longer waiting period increases stress for people in a vulnerable situation. It’s even more serious for the people who are unhoused or do not have social benefits,” she added.

COVID reception problems

Housing for asylum seekers waiting for their claims to be processed has proven to be a major problem during the pandemic.

Even before the virus reached Europe, reception centres in Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain were operating near or above maximum capacity due to a years-long lack of structural investment, according to Sundberg Diez.

The shortage of reception spaces made it difficult to comply with social distancing guidelines. Some EU states turned to ad hoc housing solutions that left asylum seekers more vulnerable, and most countries did not invest in increasing housing capacity between the first and second waves of infections, Sundberg Diez added.

The absence of safe and hygienic living conditions for asylum seekers on the Greek islands, as well as prolonged quarantine measures, led to the burning of Moria refugee camp on Lesvos in September, according to Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

Coronavirus outbreaks also occurred with some frequency in reception centres in Germany, Greece, Italy, and a number of other EU countries.

Germany, meanwhile, came in for criticism for pausing the six-month period during which asylum seekers can be returned to other EU countries. Under the Dublin regulation, asylum seekers are required to submit their claim in the first EU country they enter, and they can be sent back to the country they first entered if they submit their claim elsewhere in the EU. Countries have six months to complete the returns or assume responsibility for processing the requests.

Germany paused the six-month period during the first wave of the pandemic and resumed it once the lockdowns ended in the summer, according to Franziska Vilmar, an asylum law and policy expert at Amnesty International Germany. “That, of course, has led to insecurity for people who were waiting for their asylum claim to be processed in Germany instead of [being returned] to other EU member states beyond the six-month period,” Vilmar said.

Any silver linings?

Despite the overall negative impact of the pandemic on asylum in the EU, “there were a number of small, but nonetheless concrete, positive changes that came about with COVID,” Woollard, from ECRE, told TNH.

Belgium and a small number of other EU countries granted asylum seekers and refugees expanded rights to work, especially in essential sectors of the economy. And several EU countries – including Finland, Germany, and Portugal – took steps to create safe housing options for particularly vulnerable people and to decongest existing migration reception centres. Although limited to a handful of countries, the moves made it “a lot easier to comply with human rights and public health standards”, Sundberg Diez said.

All EU countries also implemented precautionary health measures in asylum offices – including the use of masks, temperature checks, social distancing, limits on the number of people allowed in a space, and the use of plexiglass barriers during verbal exchanges – to try to keep asylum procedures running during the second wave of infections in Europe, according to a December report from the EU’s asylum support office, EASO.

Notably, Finland, Greece, and the Netherlands managed to reduce their backlogs due to the lower number of applications and by discontinuing personal interviews and allowing government personnel to work remotely. Greece, however, has been criticised for stripping away procedural safeguards to speed up asylum processing times.

Numerous other countries, including Ireland, Latvia, and Norway, also began allowing online proceedings for first-time applicants and appeals hearings.

Remote hearings are vital for the timely processing of international protection applications under the current circumstances, according to EASO, the EU’s asylum support office. But human rights advocates caution against them becoming standard practice after the public health crisis ends.

“Online procedures, while necessary at certain times, are lower quality and don’t offer the same procedural guarantees for applicants,” Woollard said.

The small number of positive changes, however, has not been enough to rectify existing deficiencies across the board or to prepare EU asylum systems for a potential post-pandemic uptick in applications. “Questions still remain over states’ preparedness to deal with potentially increasing asylum applications as global border restrictions ease,” Sundberg Diez said.


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