A crisis within a crisis: migration in a time of pandemic

The bloc’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the lack of uniformity in Member States’ actions and its neglect of migrants is not only inhumane but erroneous. The time has come for an inclusive approach to migration as plans for recovery are formed.

External solutions to internal problems

The manner in which migration has been dealt with during the pandemic is not new. The lack of uniformity in Member States’ individual reactions paints an unclear picture of the EU’s response. Casting our minds back to 2015 when refugees flooded Europe, the EU was forced to drastically adapt its migration policy to focus on immigrants coming from countries outside of the “traditional” source nations, that is to say, countries further afield than the likes of Turkey, Libya and Morocco. While these measures were necessary, they gave rise to an outward-facing migration policy when the true issues on the topic were insular.

The overriding disagreement within the EU was, and still is, with regard to the even distribution of asylum-seekers, as migrants may only seek asylum from the country in which they have entered the EU. However, the great wave of migrants in 2015 put a serious strain on the asylum systems in countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain and by 2016, policy changes and plans were being announced in reaction to the large-scale influx. An agreement with Turkey was reached, which stipulated that the EU would accept migrants into Greece, from Turkey, whose requests had been both submitted and approved by the Turkish authorities. In addition, budgets for border control authorities were increased and national quotas on asylum were introduced.

These responses gave rise to an unwelcome divide amongst Member States, separating those who were in favour of accepting migrants, and respecting their human rights throughout the asylum process, and those who rejected the notion of accepting migrants, the latter citing national sovereignty as the driving factor. This particular difference of viewpoints has continued and now, even as the epicentre of the pandemic has shifted away from Europe, the divisions between Member States appear greater than ever at a moment when unity, co-operation and common policy are what the EU truly needs.

An incoherent cohort

Today, the disjointed nature of the EU’s migration policy, and oftentimes unified action in general, has become more pronounced. Since the outbreak of the virus, border controls are becoming more rigid and social distancing has become established in the majority of Member States. As citizens await the announcement that a vaccine has been successfully tested, asylum seekers in the EU are in situations which do not allow for the adherence to social distancing, much less do they afford migrants access to the medical services necessary to combat the spreading of the virus.

A stark contrast can be seen in the actions of Member States in relation to the asylum process. Some countries, such as Bulgaria, Ireland, and Italy suspended the asylum process, leaving thousands of vulnerable people in limbo, while the Dutch government suspended all processing of new applicants and, in accordance with internal border measures, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain all stopped the deportation of migrants back to their home countries . The French government has come under severe attack due to the lack of action with regard to migrants when the pandemic hit, particularly given that a large proportion of irregular migrants are underage and living on the street or in overcrowded communal housing, neither of which give any genuine protection from infection.

As the focal-point of the migrant crisis in Europe, Greece has never been too far from the headlines since the outbreak. Much focus has been placed on the situation of some 40,000 migrants, including up to 11,000 children, who found themselves situated on the Aegean Islands, in camps which are up six times over their maximum capacity. In normal times, these types of camps are overcrowded with limited amenities and shockingly low levels of healthcare. During a pandemic, they are simply not feasible. The high level of exposure means that a handful of positive cases within a camp would likely become scores, hundreds and possibly thousands of further cases amongst fellow residents.

While many countries have been criticised for their treatment of migrants during the ongoing pandemic, one country has taken what must be considered the only truly humanitarian approach to migrant policy, given the circumstances. Portugal granted temporary full citizen’s rights to all refugees and migrants who had already begun the application process. This made it possible for all migrants to gain access to national health services, rental and work contracts, welfare benefits and also bank accounts.

Such a refreshingly frank take on migration not only mirrors the core values on which the EU prides itself, but it underscores the disappointing lack of unified action across the 27 Member States.

A union divided

Before migrant camps or asylum processes can become an issue for a migrant looking to make it into the EU, they have to deal with border controls which have, since the beginning of the pandemic, been unevenly tightened across EU Member States. Over the last four years, many physical borders and border extensions have been erected in the EU and while these actions did manage to stem the overwhelming wave of migrants coming into Europe over the last number of years, the variation in controls and physical borders have underlines the lack of uniformity within the EU on the topic of migration.

While most have some sort of barbed-wire fence, which can often be partially made of cement, as well as armed border guards, some countries have also been using drones and infra-red, heat and motion-sensitive cameras. With

this new, sophisticated technology, however, come reports of aggression and outright violence directed towards migrants at borders. Such primitive responses to “illegal” crossings are not only unlikely to deter any would-be migrants, but, coupled with the closure of borders, both internal and external, will help in the cause of another grave danger facing the EU: the continued rise of nationalism.

The resurgence in nationalism is not new news across Europe. A large proportion of EU countries have seen a surge in nationalist sentiments since the migrant crisis began and, in one way, the pandemic is a reinforcement of some

of those sentiments. While it cannot be said outright that the pandemic has made populist policy any stronger than it is, the closure of the borders and the state of economies have given nationalist leaders an opportunity they are unlikely to turn up, a theory we have seen proved true in Hungary and Poland.

This rise in nationalism is not only a threat to the very core values which the EU claims to hold dear, but is likely to make for very uncomfortable reading for migrants. As we emerge from this pandemic, we are facing an extreme economic crisis. The impending recession, both that of the EU and that of each affected country therewithin, is projected to be so severe that it is not difficult to anticipate a major focus on economic recovery. This means that any exclusionary policies passed are likely to be in place for the foreseeable future.

Moving forward, together

Although much of this piece has made for grim reading from a migrant’s point of view, or that of anyone who values human rights and an inclusive EU, there is, indeed, hope for the coming months. As a proponent of both migration and an even distribution of migrants amongst Member States, I would suggest two recommendations to ensure there is hope for migrants in the longer term, while simultaneously upholding the core values of the EU.

  1. Turn irregular migrants from a net loss into a net contribution: Many of the long held notions which are held by opponents of immigration could be annihilated if the asylum process was made more accessible. The age-old arguments of “immigrants costing the state” is only true for as long as migrants are not given the opportunity to contribute. The sooner an asylum-seeker has their application approved and processed, the sooner they can get a job and become a contributing member of society. Too many countries across the EU are accepting asylum-seekers and, essentially, leaving them to stew, often for years on end, in unacceptable conditions and unable to work. Furthermore, the upcoming ‘Pension Timebomb’ is set to have many EU Member States crying out for younger workers. Let us not forget that Germany’s aging population was a major factor in Angela Merkel’s decision to take in such a large number of migrants over the last number of years. A Union-wide reform of the asylum process is in everybody’s best interests and must be conducted in a manner so as to take some of the pressure off countries who have, time and again, bore the brunt of the burden. More importantly, however, such reform would offer a new home to those looking to escape turmoil in their home countries.

  2. Reinforcement of the core values of the EU: As stated above, the rise in nationalism across Member States should be a real cause for concern for the EU. For a community that has been painted as a shining example of human rights and economic and social prosperity, the threat of losing its core values has become a genuine worry. The EU must take action to address the actions of Hungary’s Orbán, amongst others, and solidify human rights and democracy as the cornerstones of life in the EU. Without such actions, asylum-seekers are likely to see their fortunes deteriorate even further and it is not unimaginable that processing will become slower and more complicated. Authoritarianism has no place in the EU and must be addressed and dealt with before it spreads.

Migration has always been a polarising issue when it comes to decision-making. At this moment, however, we are in a unique position in which many countries, and indeed the EU as a whole, will be hitting some sort of reset button as they aim to recover from this deadly virus. Although it goes without saying that much of the focus will be on the economic side of the issues. I would argue that the EU has a duty not only to ensure the fundamental human rights of its citizens, but to extend this duty to include asylum-seekers and refugees alike. The necessary reforms to migrant policy must be viewed from a humanitarian standpoint to include those who are most vulnerable in our society and, unlike changes we’ve seen in the last decade, they must be implemented equally by the 27 nations that make up the EU. We, as a community, must reject the ideas of some national leaders who wish to destroy the fabric of the EU and return to the days of right-wing nationalism. The opportunity to emerge from this crisis as a unified, equal and more compassionate community is there and need only be seized.