12 months and counting: 8 severe consequences of Covid-19 for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers

The ongoing pandemic has had devastating consequences for people, communities, and economies all over the world. Throughout 2020, PROTECT researchers have paid particular attention to how the pandemic has affected people on the move in different countries. Below, we have summarized our main concerns.

1. Border closures breach the principle of non-refoulment

The outbreak of Covid-19 prompted most states to close their borders justified by reference to public health protection. On 16 March 2020, the Commission called for a temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU, issuing Guidelines for border management that stated: “Member States have the possibility to refuse entry to non-resident third country nationals where they present relevant symptoms or have been particularly exposed to risk of infection and are considered a threat to public health.”(para 15).

Following the border closures, as well as the pushback of several asylum seekers at the Greek-Turkish border, legal scholars Elspeth Guild and Kathryn Allinson commented on the problematic nature of the EU’s new border restrictions, noting that ‘human rights in international law and the EU Charter are not dispensable in times of pandemics’, referring to the fact that such border closures may breach states obligation to comply with the Refugee Convention and particularly the principle of non-refoulment.

Guild also pointed out that it took two Guidance Notes from UNHCR to remind the EU institutions of their duty to comply with the Geneva Convention and the principle of non-refoulment, not only in international law but also in their own internal law, before they corrected their border management Guidance on 30 March.

The new EU Guidance, by contrast, under the heading “Other third country nationals who can be authorised to enter the EU despite of [sic] the closure of the EU external borders” stated that temporary restrictions on non-essential travel should not apply to persons with essential function or need, including (after seven other categories): “persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons respecting the principle of non-refoulement.”

While it seems a little inappropriate to suggest that someone fleeing persecution or torture is “effecting non-essential travel,” the inclusion of this exception was very important, wrote Guild.

It also posed as a warning to border guards that, legally, they are not allowed to engage in ‘refoulement sauvage’ pushing back potential asylum seekers across an international border without consideration of the merits of their claims.

Despite the updated guidelines, the EU’s initial response to the pandemic marks a new low point for the EU’s respect for refugee rights and international law, concluded Guild.

Moving across borders framed as irresponsible

At PROTECT’s Expert Forum in South Africa on 26 November 2020, PROTECT partner Jo Vearey commented that the pandemic has provided states with an opportunity to tighten measures that restrict the movement of people across borders, via the increased adoption of a security lens to understand all movement.

Yet, border closures do not automatically stop movement, it just makes movement more dangerous for migrants. This has serious implications both for the safety of people on the move as well as wider public health, said Vearey.

Expert panelist, Professor Loren Landau, also pointed out that states have used the pandemic to evoke a discourse where migrants, or people who move across borders, are posing a greater health threat than other groups.

Recent international approaches have been to put responsibility on migrants ‘to do the right thing’. As such, they are told to move responsibly,  yet moving responsibly is now almost impossible, said Landau.

This has ultimately meant that movement or migration outside of your ‘home’ country is now framed as irresponsible. Rather, for your country/community,  you have a responsibility to stay at home and ‘build’. Covid-19,  and state responses to it, have only reemphasized this state-based logic. By moving, you are putting yourself and others at risk, concluded Landau.

Read and listen to blogs and presentations on border closures:

2. Lockdowns are producing detention-like conditions for asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees

Throughout the pandemic, several PROTECT researchers have highlighted the negative and dangerous consequences that restrictions on traveling and freedom of movement have had for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers hosted in reception centers.

Among them are Elspeth Guild and Kathryn Allinson’s discussions of the inhumane and detention-like conditions that the lockdowns have produced.

Many asylum seekers in EU states are provided with housing in reception centers, which normally are open so that the residents can come and go. As the pandemic tightened its grip on many states, reception centers that previously have been open have now closed their doors, preventing the residents from leaving, wrote Guild and Allinson.

Rather than this simply being a matter of interference with the right of freedom of movement, it becomes detention, they explained.

In the UK, the BBC reported that detention centers were being placed in lockdown with people unable to leave their rooms. 750 people have remained detained in the UK awaiting deportation or release.

While processes were suspended for effectuating these, their detention became increasingly prolonged and arbitrary, conclude Guild and Allinson.

Asylum seekers returned to the US from Canada face detention

As a response to the pandemic, Canada and U.S. decided to close their common border to all but essential travel March 20, 2020. On the very same day, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that asylum seekers who are crossing the border irregularly from the U.S. will be turned away when reaching Canada.  

PROTECT partner and Ryerson University researcher Idil Atak addressed the consequences of these border restrictions:

The government justified the border closure by security concerns around screening people at irregular border crossings for COVID-19. The measure has been criticized by refugee advocates in a context where the US authorities declared that immigration enforcement, including detention and removal of non-citizens, would continue during the pandemic, wrote Atak.

In addition to the imminent threat of detention that Covid-19 has produced, asylum seekers and refugees who are already detained are also facing challenges.

A Canadian refugee lawyer interviewed as part of PROTECT’s initial mapping of actors involved in protection governance, reported that many detainees have been placed under strict lockdowns, including solitary confinement during the pandemic.

This has led to difficulties in accessing clients and gathering the necessary documentation required for hearings, reported the informant.

Read blogs and listen to presentations on the consequences of lockdowns:

3. Housing conditions increase infection risk

The pandemic has raised and continues to raise concerns for the health conditions of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees who are staying in reception centers, refugee camps, and irregular housing.

PROTECT partner Professor Francesca Longo from the University of Catania, has commented on the situation in the five Italian Reception and Identification Centers (CIE) in Rome, Caltanissetta, Bari, Turin, Trapani. According to reports, the five camps are overpopulated, and it has been difficult for hosts and personnel to respect social distancing, to stay apart, and to comply with the measures of personal hygiene required by the current situation, wrote Longo in a blog post.

PROTECT researcher Christine M. Jacobsen has previously reported from the situation in Marseilles, France, where she is currently conducting (online) fieldwork together with PROTECT and University of Bergen colleague Pascaline Chappart.

Current reception policies and practices have left large numbers of people without housing, who now live in informal camps, squats, overcrowded and run-down apartments, or on the street, explained Jacobsen.

Jacobsen also pointed out that many asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are not able to practice preventive measures such as staying at home, physical distancing, and good hygiene practices simply because many don’t have a home to isolate themselves in.

The current situation reveals how precarious the situation of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants is, given that they are not included in the general health and welfare arrangements that citizens profit from, concluded Jacobsen.

More on housing conditions during the pandemic:

4. Administrative standstills threaten physical and mental health

The outbreak of Covid has slowed down administrative procedures in many countries. This has become a serious problem for migrants and asylum seekers in need for registering protection application.

In Marseilles, asylum seekers who already have waited weeks or months to register their application have had their appointments canceled as public offices and support services shut down, explained Christine M. Jacobsen in a PROTECT press release issued at the outbreak of the pandemic.

This results in a prolonged waiting period during which protection from deportation is weak and access to welfare and health care, as well as to a basic economic income, extremely limited. The anxiety many asylum seekers experience during this waiting time is exacerbated as the emergency situation leads to further suspension, postponement, and uncertainty about the duration and outcome of the procedure, wrote Jacobsen.

Although administrations dedicated to migration and asylum were slowly opened up after France’s second lockdown, the initial lockdown caused a serious delay in access to asylum services due to the institutions’ backlog.

In Italy, among other countries, applications and renewals of residency permits along with hearings and services for the recognition of the right to asylum or international protection were temporarily suspended in March 2020.

Such standstills have been depriving large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants of access to health and public service, wrote Francesca Longo at the onset of the pandemic.

In the same blog, she posed a solution: Italy should follow the Portuguese best practice and decide to temporarily grant all migrants and asylum seekers currently in the country full citizenship rights. 

The administrative standstills caused by Covid-19 were also a topic for PROTECT’s Expert Forum in South Africa. Expert panelist Barnaby  Kangoni from the Jesuit Refugee Service pointed out that legal documents given to asylum-seekers and refugees in South Africa are usually only valid for a period up to six months. In normal times this creates numerous challenges for people (including long journeys and queues to get renewals, corruption and bribery).

This has only been exacerbated during 2020 as refugee reception offices having been shut since March 2020. In addition, it has been nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to get refugee status due to the backlogs in asylum claims within the Department of Home Affairs.

Relevant reads and webinars:

5. States’ responses are exacerbating xenophobia

PROTECT partner Jo Vearey from Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa has written extensively on South Africa’s responses to the pandemic throughout 2020, including on the state’s recently launched vaccination plans (see webinar below).

In her contributions, she has pointed out how South Africa’s response to the pandemic has revealed xenophobic attitudes and discriminatory practices.

Vearey exemplified this by comparing how different groups of foreign nationals in South Africa were treated at the onset of the pandemic.

Whereas foreign nationals already in the country, including tourists and business travelers, were given the opportunity to remain in South Africa, with action taken by the state to renew/extend their visas, migrants from elsewhere, including within the southern African region, were not afforded such an opportunity. 

This form of discrimination reflects the ways in which migrants from different parts of the world are treated, wrote Vearey: those considered wealthy are privileged over those considered to be poor. 

It also reflects hypocrisy: foreign migrants have been – incorrectly – blamed for the spread of disease and for placing pressure on the South African public health system. Yet the response now excludes this very group to the detriment of South Africa’s response to the pandemic.

Professor Vearey has also made two written contributions to The Daily Maverick on the topic of migrants and the Corona pandemic: The Hypocrisy in the time of Covid-19 and Foreign Migrants must be included in Covid-19 response. She has also co-authored a piece on healthcare for migrants in South Africa.

Today’s response echoes history

At the onset of the pandemic, PROTECT researcher Frank Caestecker pointed to the fact that contagious diseases have historically been used as an excuse to blame the ‘stranger’ and thus as an impetus for restricting immigration:

In New York, a twenty-day quarantine on all steerage passengers was imposed on vessels originating from Cholera-infected European ports in late 1800. However, passengers in first and second class were not worried: the wealthy immigrants and tourists could disembark without any problem, wrote Caestecker in a blog where he offers a historical perspective on pandemics and migration.

Poor Russian immigrants, on the other hand, some of them fleeing persecution and pogroms, became stigmatized as a health threat. The American immigration restrictionist movement gained momentum using this threat to public health by poor immigrants, said Caestecker.

Relevant reads, webinars and op-eds:

6. Covid-19 intensifies existing vulnerabilities

That the pandemic disproportionately impacts refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants negatively and renders visible already existing vulnerabilities, has been a re-occurring theme in blogs produced by PROTECT researchers.

Field researchers Theofanis Exadaktylos and Evgenia Iliadou have commented extensively on the situation for refugees in the Moria camp. Following a series of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the camp, the whole site was placed under strict quarantine restrictions in September 2020.

But although the Greek government had issued strict protocols on how to tackle coronavirus outbreaks in refugee sites, the overcrowding at Moria meant that quarantine violations were hard to monitor, including convincing residents to self-isolate.

On September 8, 2020, large fires broke out in the camp, burning the entire camp to the ground. Sources indicate that scuffles between camp residents who had been found to be Covid-19 positive sparked the fires.

The fires left 13 000 refugees homeless and forced thousands to sleep rough on the street of Lesvos in the following weeks. As residents fled the camp seeking alternative refuge, among them the 35 Covid-19 cases, there were concerns about the spread of the virus and the health conditions of the former camp residents.

Following the fires, local far-right groups were reported to be attacking refugees fleeing the camp, and at the same time, local residents were reported shouting “Burn them alive! Shoot them” at refugees.

…but also sparking more inclusion

Covid-19  has also offered some opportunities to advance inclusion agendas, said panelist and UNHCR representative Angele Dikongue-Atangana at PROTECT’s Expert Forum in South Africa in November 2020.

For example, South Africa has expanded its social assistance programs to include some refugees and asylum seekers, which was not the case before the pandemic, said Dikongue-Atangana. She also pointed out that refugees who are doctors or have medical knowledge have been included in some countries’ work forces during the pandemic.

Indeed, the pandemic has re-emphasized the Sustainable Development Goals message of ‘do not leave anyone behind’, said Dikongue-Atangana.

More on vulnerability of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers during the pandemic:

7. NGOs and CSOs fill administrative and humanitarian void created by the pandemic

PROTECT researcher Daniela Irrera studies the role of NGOs in refugee relief and
recently gave a talk on the changing role of NGOs during the Corona lockdown, explaining that NGOs are now playing a bigger and more innovative role in global crisis management due to the absence of active state actors.

Their role in providing humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants has become increasingly important as states have been more concerned with national emergency responses to the Covid-19 pandemic than refugee relief efforts. NGOs are the ones who more efficiently help vulnerable migrants and refugees to survive lockdowns by providing shelters, food packages and other basic goods, said Irrera.

In many cases, they also cooperate with local authorities and facilitate access to tests and other necessary medical services.

NGOs have also been crucial in spreading awareness about preventive measures in different languages, wrote PROTECT researcher Christine M. Jacobsen, who described the situation in Marseilles in France at the onset of the pandemic.

At PROTECT’s Expert Forum in South Africa in November 2020, panelist Sharon Ekambaram from Lawyers for Human Rights noted that civil society has had to respond to the needs of persons of concern in South Africa. For example, fourteen organizations from civil society and local law firms came together to form an impressive collaboration in 2020:

One of the initiatives involved the setting up of a hotline for migrants and marginalized citizens to call if facing legal issues or concerns based on state responses to  Covid-19. 

According to Ekambaram, they received  over  3,000  calls between  March and December 2020. In the first month, over 50 percent of calls were about evictions, even though Covid-19 related regulations made provisions that called for a moratorium on all evictions.

In that first month, another 20 percent of the calls were about police brutality, with notably high percentages recorded in migrant and refugee communities.

Ekambaram concluded that one of the rare positive things to come out of 2020 was how civil society organized themselves via large networks to ensure some refugees were granted social security.

More on the changing role of NGOs and CSOs during the pandemic:

8. Economic collapse threatens livelihood and safety of informal workers

The IMF reports that the global GDP has declined by 9 trillion dollars as a result of the pandemic, which is the equivalent of the economies of Japan and Germany. This has resulted in 1,6 billion informal workers, mostly in the global South, have been exposed to loss of livelihoods, says the WTO.

The decline in industry, production, and services has also impacted migrant workers engaged in the informal economy, show PROTECT researchers’ analyses of situations in both Spain and Italy.

Marry-Anne Karlsen leads PROTECT’s ethnographic fieldwork in Càdiz, Spain. In her initial mapping of the impact of Covid-19, she points to the fact that many asylum seekers and irregular migrants working in the informal economy have lost their source of income and have had to seek assistance from an already strained reception system.

Francesca Longo has reported on the Italian situation, noting that since almost all the economic activities are suspended in Italy, they (migrants engaged in illegal work journ. note) have lost their work, and, at the same time, they are excluded from any form of public support.

They risk being caught between the Scylla of lacking means for their subsistence and the Charybdis of being engaged in organized crime networks, wrote Longo.

Related PROTECT researchers:

Jo Vearey
WP4 co-leader, WP2 & WP3 researcher

Jo Vearey is Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand. Her work focuses on the relationship between migration, mobility, and health. Vearey co-leads the fieldwork of WP4 and participates in the legal research of WP2 as well as the institutional research of WP3.

Idil Atak
WP9 co-leader, WP2, WP3 & WP4 researcher

Idil Atak is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology and in the Law School of Ryerson University. She leads the Canadian fieldwork of Work Package 4. She is also involved in the legal research of Work Package 2, the institutional research of Work Package 3, and co-leads the dissemination and engagement work of Work Package 9.

Christine Jacobsen
WP4 co-leader

Jacobsen is Professor of Social Anthropology and co-leads PROTECT's ethnographic fieldwork in migratory hotspots in Europe, Canada, and South Africa.

Theofanis Exadaktylos

Theofanis Exadaktylos is Reader in European politics at the University of Surrey in the UK. He participates in the ethnographic research of Work Package 4 and the survey research of Work Package 5.

Evgenia Iliadou
WP4 researcher

Evgenia Iliadou is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey. Her research focuses on the continuum of institutional and structural violence, border violence and deaths, the refugee crisis, temporal violence, deterrence, and social suffering. She conducts ethnographic fieldwork in Greece as part of Work Package 4.

Kathryn Allinson
WP2 researcher

Kathryn Allinson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Law at the Queen Mary University of London. She participates in the legal research of WP2.

Elspeth Guild
WP2 co-leader

Elspeth Guild is Jean Monnet Professor ad personam at the Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests are EU law, in particular EU Justice and Home Affairs, including immigration, asylum, and border controls. She co-leads PROTECT's legal research.

Francesca Longo
WP5 co-leader

Francesca Longo is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Catania. Longo co-leads PROTECT's Work Package 5, which surveys the impacts of the Global Compacts on civil society's recognition of the right to international protection.

Daniela Irrera
WP5 researcher

Daniela Irrera is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, the University of Catania. Irrera will particularly be involved in the work of WP5, analyzing the impacts of the Global Compacts on civil societies’ recognition of the right to international protection.