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The COVID-19 Pandemic Suggests the Lessons Learned by European Asylum Policymakers After the 2015 Migration Crisis Are Fading

The COVID-19 pandemic has flung European asylum systems into a state of turmoil. Injecting the social distancing rule into Europe’s asylum systems has proven disastrous for asylum seekers, with the Maltese government declaring it can no longer guarantee the rescue of migrants at sea, the Dutch State Secretary suspending the registration and interviewing of (new) asylum seekers because of the “contact-intensive” nature of the asylum procedure, and the Bulgarian and Irish courts freezing appeal hearings. Asylum seekers remain stuck at Hungarian borders, in overcrowded and unsanitary camps in Greece, or sleeping rough under French bridges. In Belgium, the reception agency is scurrying to find alternative housing for many of the inhabitants of its 70 reception centers. Large centers are a trademark of many reception systems across Europe and now prove a logistical nightmare to separate groups or quarantine potentially infected persons—with fears rampant among public-health and other officials that these could prove a tinderbox for widespread coronavirus outbreaks.

The chaos in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic has yet again thrown in sharp relief the vulnerability of asylum systems in Europe. Four years after the 2015-16 migration and refugee crisis taxed European asylum systems to the hilt, the weak spots have reappeared, including the severe underuse of digital tools to continue asylum processing from a distance. In the post-2015 period, policymakers concluded in unison that preventative measures, such as forecasting migratory movements or maintaining buffer capacity (i.e. vacant beds or houses) that allow asylum systems to continue operating in the face of sudden or large arrivals, were indispensable. And yet this has not prevented a long list of countries from phasing out the capacity built up in 2015-16. Over the last two years, reception agencies in Belgium, France, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, and Portugal have continuously flirted with a 100 percent occupancy rate and regularly plunge into a mini-crisis as new arrivals pick up or, as now, social distancing requires additional, yet unavailable, housing. Asylum seekers, often in an already vulnerable position, are the first to suffer from governments’ willingness to ignore the need for flexibility and surge capacity in housing and case workers. It needs only a pandemic to rear its head to expose how short-sighted governments have been and how quickly lessons learned painfully just a handful of years ago have been forgotten.

The dramatic difference in Member State responses on asylum further illustrates the filter that national governments have been allowed to place on their protection regime and commitments amid the COVID-19 outbreak. In spite of a vast body of EU laws that outlines the basic parameters for protection in good and bad days, individual asylum systems are still prone to falling sway to the siren call of domestic politics and agendas. It remains to be seen if the recent attempt by the European Union to try to assert more of a leadership role will work and its freshly published set of guidelines can revert the differentiation that kickstarted six weeks ago. Back then, the Belgian government declared the asylum procedure an essential activity—and hence one to be continued during the pandemic—but just across the border, the Dutch government pronounced it a nonessential one and halted the lodging of asylum claims. While most EU countries opted to suspend asylum hearings, Swiss authorities reopened their asylum offices after a two-week closure to install safety glass and other protective materials, as food stores and others have done across the continent. And the German authorities deemed it unimaginable that they would halt registration. The 2015-16 crisis, the German officials argued, had firmly shown them that delayed registration not only posed public security risks but also slowed the asylum system once it restarted.

With the COVID-19 crisis laying bare the frailties of European asylum systems, the question arises whether this time policymakers will take the lessons to heart. A string of recent events, for example the inability of the European Parliament to agree on a renewal of search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean in 2019 or of the European Commission and European Council to safeguard the right to asylum amid the Turkey-Greece power struggle in March, offer signs of the diminished political capital that policymakers are still willing to invest in upholding protection regimes.

Yet a smart set of timely interventions could help shore up the robustness and survival of protection regimes in Europe. Building up an arsenal of tools that prepare asylum systems for the era of social distancing is one key strategy. The EU Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) could, for example, invest in a project testing the use of unmanned booths at registration offices. There, asylum seekers could lodge their claim in their own language, via the audiovisual support of a virtual guide. Or the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) could lead a pilot on how the different steps of the asylum procedure could be continued via the use of videoconferencing. At a broader system level, an enhanced EU-wide monitoring and evaluation system could offer real-time updates on the capacity of national asylum systems and send early warnings on reception shortages, for example. This would allow the European Commission to quickly detect problems within individual Member State systems and proactively coordinate action before the crisis hits. And should Member States be seen to drag their feet or even refuse to restore asylum processing as they exit the COVID-related restrictions, it would not be surprising if negotiations of the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework were not at least obliquely mentioned in the context of the need for greater respect for the Common European Asylum System.

In all of these matters, time is of the essence. The question “who do we protect?” which in the early weeks of the pandemic has understandably focused on the health of Europe’s citizens, now needs to be enlarged again to include those who struggle to find safe refuge.


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