Since March 2020, the debate in Europe and all around the world is focused on the new emergency: the Covid-19 outbreak. The new corona virus is challenging our life and society. The national and international authorities are working in order to face this new global crisis, but there are other kind of problems still present. Even if we do not hear news about migration on the television or on social media, or about the Greek-Turkish border and the detention centres in Libya, it does not mean that they do not exist anymore: actually, they are far from being completely solved. The European institutions are still working on the resolution of the refugees’ crisis which outbroke on February at the borders between Greece and Turkey. In particular the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on Civil Liberties (LIBE) is the one in charge for the European Parliament to discuss about the modification to the Dublin system (Dublin IV), about the measures taken by the European Commission in migration field, but also the respect by the Member States of the human rights and of the civil liberties within the European borders. The problem of migration, which is characterizing our era, is becoming even harsher, at the moment due to the combination with the spread of corona virus. The combination can generate a humanitarian and health catastrophe if authorities do not intervene. This article would be a resume of what the EU is currently doing, and what is still happening in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean.
1. 2020 European challenges
As written on its website, the LIBE committee is in charge of most of the legislation concerning the areas of freedom, security and justice (Article 3 TEU). While doing so, it ensures the full respect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU territory in conjunction with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the strengthening of European citizenship (1). The committee has talks with many interlocutors. During its meetings, lots of representatives are heard, such as: representatives of the civil society, NGOs and associations but also the ones of European agencies, politicians, representatives of national governments, commissioners.
The committee is debating on the modification of the Dublin system: the whole process started in 2016, when the Commission proposed the implementation of the Dublin III Regulation (2). At the moment the Parliament is doing its first reading, as the codecision legislative process requires. The proposal of the Commission has the purpose to reform the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) because structural weaknesses and shortcomings in the design and implementation of the European asylum system, emerged with the migratory and refugee crisis. The current system was not able and designed to ensure a sustainable sharing of responsibility among the Member States. For this reason, a limited number of individual Member States – States of arrival – had to deal with the vast majority of asylum seekers’ applications. The consequence is clearly visible to all of us and had creating discussions among the group of States. Moreover, the States of arrival are no more able to meet within reasonable time the huge number of requests, lengthening the waiting times for migrants. With the new regulation, the EU would: ensure fair sharing of responsibilities between Member States with a corrective allocation mechanism – this mechanism would be activated automatically in cases when some countries would have to deal with a disproportionate number of asylum seekers – ; shorten the time limits for sending requests; enhance the system’s capacity to determine efficiently and effectively a single Member State responsible for examining the application for international protection; reform of the EURODAC Regulation (the fingerprint system). With the increasing number of migrants and refugees arrived in Italy and Greece, the Council took, in the past, temporary measures of reallocation, but the main obstacle to the modification is the burden sharing that would fall upon Members. Some countries continue to impede the « State of arrival » principle from being exceeded.
About this field, the debate inside the committee seems to not go onwards. Watching the meetings there is the common purpose to modify, to overwhelm the current system, with a focus on the protection of the migrants, the respect of their rights. Still remain divergencies in the MEPs positions, and a solution appears unlikely to be taken.
In the last weeks, the committee worked in particular on the Greek crisis. The open border policy of Erdoğan put under pressure the already fragile equilibrium in the refugees’ camps. The waves of people from Turkey to Greece have turned the headlights back on a situation that Europe has not been able to face (3). LIBE Members exchanged views on the situation in Greece with some Commissioners, the Minister of Migration and Asylum of Greece, Executive Director of the Frontex Agency, and the Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). These are useful debates for the future modification of the common asylum legislation, legislative and non-legislative emergency measures. (4)
The Commission Vice-President for Promoting the European way of life, Margaritis Schinas, in his speech at the meeting of 2nd April, said that the action plan approved on 4th March 2020 as consequence of the visit of the European institutions’ Presidents, included: the launch of two Frontex rapid intervention operations; financial aid of up to € 700 million earmarked for Greece, half quickly released in early April, the other half voted on by the LIBE commission. With the support of Frontex and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the EU is trying to implement a plan for voluntary repatriation of 2,000 migrants from the Greek islands. Since the EU intervention, the border with Turkey has been stabilized at the moment.
The new Greek conservative government has approved a new asylum law since January 2020, blocking the new asylum requests. This was a consequence of the increasing number of arrivals on the Aegean Islands. After the frictions, on the beginning of April, the right to present an asylum application has been restored, indeed the new arrivals will be able to apply for asylum in Greece.
Greece continues to attack its neighbour Turkey. Greece is still under pressure to defend its foreign border – which creates lot of concerns. “The mass movements were a manipulated act, encouraged by the Turkish authorities”, according to the Greek minister Chrisochoidis, and the country’s reaction was adequate by avoiding massive arrivals from the Evros river, where migrants tried to force the borders. Greece is determined to defend its external borders. The minister defends the police behaviour, affirming that human rights have been respected, both international and European ones; of different opinions NGOs, civil society and all of those who have seen videos shared on the web, showing migrants beaten while trying to arrive in Europe, aboard their boats. There are still criticisms towards Turkey.
The minister points out a strong pressure: 100,000 people are located is centres and housing, of which 40,000 in the islands (only the Moria camp, on the Lesbos island, hosts 19,000). The government is witnessing an overcrowding with a number of people six times greater than allowed, a slowdown in asylum procedures due to the limited movements from the islands to the mainland (5). In the first part of this year, 10,000 people have been transferred to mainland Greece, attempting to increase the number. There is the need to modify and restructure some camps, such as Moria: it needs to be reviewed by the end of the year. New camps have been built hosting 2,000 migrants from the islands.
(ph: AP Photo/Aggelos Barai)
Another vulnerable point concerns the unaccompanied children. A first relocation of the 1600 children have taken place before Easter, towards eight Member States. Minors are still being transferred from the islands to the mainland, with the IOM help. This action follows the plea made by the FRA. The European Agency always addresses institutions and Member States to act in order to help and to sustain the most vulnerable people, in particular children. In a report released on the 17th March, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights urged Member States to agree on a practical workflow, providing suggestions on relocation of unaccompanied children from Greece. The relocation should follow some criteria and priorities: assess the child’s family links first (under the Dublin Regulation), facilitate and accelerate the procedure for reunification; use the help of UNHCR, European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and NGOs; take into account the needs of vulnerable children; decisions shall be taken on an assessment of the best interests of the child (6). They also add the necessity to prepare their departure and transfer, ensuring the children know what to expect in the Member State of relocation, such as cultural awareness, reception conditions and asylum procedures. In addition, there is a need to apply safety measures to prevent the spread of the corona virus, such as hygiene measures, tests, and quarantine period. The Agency FRA still pushes the authorities to speed up the time for asylum applications, with the publication of guidelines for good practices in the European Union regarding the relocation and the conditions of the refugees in the camps.
1.2 Economic issues
As previously said, the European Union has allocated the total amount of 700 million of euros in order to face the crisis in Greece. The first part is already being used, because coming from the existing financial envelope of two programmes (7). As the Commissioner for the Interior Affair Ylva Johansson said, 350 million are used for: 90,000 migrants in continental Greece receive financial assistance through UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for a total of 190 million of euros; provision of 25,000 beds; assistance in 31 camps operated by the IOM; 25 million for the provision of services; 35 million for the reception of vulnerable people in the hotel. The other additional part – 350 million – will be used to build new reception and identification centres on the islands, assistance for voluntary returns and services in the refugees’ camps, food supply, medical staff, border control in Greece and Bulgaria (50 million euros). Another 10 million have been allocated in favour of Frontex operations. This second tranche of aids needs the approval of the legislative institutions in order to amend the Union budget law. Now the European Commission is proposing some draft amending budgets to the general budget 2020, for the assistance to Greece in response to increased migration pressure and immediate measures in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. The biggest part will be used for the construction of five Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs); the Voluntary Return and Reintegration Assistance (AVRR) and services and emergency items (280 million euros). A part of it is intended to finance the EASO for the deployment of experts in Greece. About the fight against the Covid-19, the Commission plans to allocate money for 128,6 million euros in commitment appropriations used under the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The objective is to help countries to cope shortages of medical countermeasures and personal protective equipment, essential to fight the disease. The UCPM’s aim is to coordinate Member States and support them in purchasing some of the needed equipment. In Greece, and all the other countries of arrival, the lack of protective equipment, social distancing in the reception centres are creating a huge problem. These countries cannot cope and solve the problem alone. It is why the MEPs and Greek authorities have been asking for more solidarity between the Member States.
The Commission has also presented a draft amendment for adjustments to the amounts mobilised from the Flexibility Instrument for 2020. This is a tool to provide, among others, financial measures in the field of migration, refugees, and security. The increase of the commitment appropriations for this field of policy will be by EUR 423,3 million.
Moving our gaze from Greece to the central Mediterranean, on the 31st March the EU has launched another naval mission that is replacing the Operation Sophia. It is the “Operation Irini”. The new naval mission is thought to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya, a permanent ceasefire and the peace process in Libya (8). In Libya, the situation is not going better, and its instability is a serious obstacle to tackle the migration flows. Ministers of the EU-27 should check that the operation would not having a “pull effect” – encouraging migrants to set out on risky crossings over the Mediterranean (as it happened initially with the Operation Sophia). As secondary commitments, the new mission recall the previous one, in monitoring and collecting information on Libya’s illicit exports of oil, training of the Libyan coastguard, contribute to the dismantling of human smuggling networks (9). Regarding the SAR (search and rescue operation), there is no mention. This can rise some doubts about the rescue of migrants, their interception by the Libyan Coast Guard, with the risk for them to be brought back to Libya, in detention centres. However, maritime law obliges all sea-going vessels to rescue anyone in distress. On this point, governments were in disagreement on who should accept migrants picked up during Irini’s operations, since Italy refused to receive them. Josep Borrell (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) said “Irini is not the solution, but part of the solution”.
In the meantime, illegal departures never stopped and with the favourable weather they are increasing. As we have seen in the Greek crisis, also in the Libyan one, the migration problem is combining with the pandemic crisis. The last tragedy started on 11th April 2020, during the Easter holidays. The German NGO, Sea Watch, has denounced the European Union to let people dying at sea – because four rafts, with 250 people on board, after a day adrift have not yet received any kind of rescue, despite Frontex vessel had intercepted them. One of them has capsized, but Frontex still not confirm. Indeed, the number of deaths is uncertain. These people, firstly assisted by the NGOs’ vessels (10), have been rescued by Italian Coast Guard after several days but without disembarkation. Other migrants which departed in the same weekend have been rescued by the Maltese Coast Guards. According to some rumours, a second vessel with 85 migrants was brought back by a Libyan Coast Guard patrol boat, despite Tripoli is not considered a safe place. Here, there is the second problem: both Italy and Malta announced that their ports are no safe anymore due to the risk of contagion. These decisions have been seen with criticisms, accusing the authorities of using the corona virus as an excuse for not accepting migrants. Both the Italian and Maltese authorities continue to underline the fact that the migrants arriving on their shores are the responsibility of the whole of EU and not just of their nations. This situation has livened up the debate in Europe, especially in Germany. The German Ministry of Interior wrote to the NGO Sea-Eye, arguing that there was no need to carry out sea rescue and that they could probably only have landed in Hamburg (11). The Italian government has arranged for the transfer of migrants from the NGO’s ship to a ferry, where they will be able to spend the quarantine, assisted by the Red Cross and the Italian Civil Protection. Only after these days, they can disembark in the city of Palermo. Same epilogue for migrants rescued by another NGO. Other migrants’ boat arrived on the Sicilian coasts without being assisted. (12)
The consequences of the closed ports are denounced by the IOM: in the port of Tripoli more than 200 migrants are waiting to disembark after being intercepted and brough back by the Libyan authorities. They will likely be locked up in detention centres for illegal migration offence. The IOM estimates that at least 500 people have left Libya in the first half of April. “Despite calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, the fighting continues amid serious fears of a COVID-19 outbreak” – said IOM Libya Chief of Mission Federico Soda. Indeed, also the African country recorded its first confirmed case of corona virus on 24th March. Twenty people have so far tested positive. The fear is for the detention centres, both official and unofficial. IOM medical teams continue to provide emergency health assistance, including screenings for COVID-19 symptoms, with disinfection in detention centres and disembarkation points, providing hygiene items to detained migrants. The corona virus is challenging an already precarious situation, where migrants risk to be killed by the bombs, tortured, or contract infections. That is why, lots of them decide to try to cross the sea: for them, the journey in the Mediterranean is better of the current conditions in the country (13).
3. Labour Migrants
The LIBE committee is also working on the topic of the labour migrants with an own-initiative report on « New avenues for legal labour migration« (14), based on different reports from the 2015 ongoing as the one of the Directorate-general for internal policy (15) and the Legal Migration Fitness Check (16). From the documents held by the committee emerge some critical issues that shall be solved in order to find a common and European approach. First of all, we continue to pay the cost of non-Europe in the area of legal migration. Even if the EU has adopted secondary legislation covering different categories of third-country nationals (TCNs), still exists a number of gaps and barriers between the Member States. These concern the lack of incorporation and implementation of international and EU human rights and labour standards. It means that there are different treatments between TCNs (because of the sectoral approach, i.e. they are not treated in the same way) and between them and the local people with consequences in employment rate, over-qualification, lower job quality, lower earnings and poorer long-term integration outcomes. The costs of this strong intergovernmentalism in the migration policy field are: inconsistency and incoherence of EU policy; lack of transparency which makes moving to the EU difficult for migrant workers; inequalities and discrimination in treatment of various groups of workers under EU law, differing to the extent that the workers are deemed “highly skilled” or “useful” to EU Member States; the false “temporariness” of migrants’ stay like for seasonal workers which often goes hand-in-hand with sub-standard living and working conditions and potential infringements of migrants’ human rights.
An aspect stemming out from the report is that the labour demand in destination countries is a key migration determinant. The presence of TCNs, even at times of growing unemployment, could be useful, both for manual jobs that native workers tend to shun, as well as in the medium- and high-skilled sectors. Migrants could play an important role in times of labour shortages and economic crises, to satisfy the needs of enterprises. It could be the case of Italy, where due to the corona virus, there are no more local people working in the agricultural crops, with a serious damage in the food supply chain. Indeed, it seems that the government is working on a document in order to permit the migrants (in most of cases, irregular and low-skilled) working in the crops (17). According to these reports the restricted mobility rights for TCNs can seriously impinge on the economic growth of the European Union. “Research suggests that the EU should become a more active promoter of international and regional standards on labour and fundamental human rights, developing concerted partnerships with regional and international actors” (18). The European Union shall become more attractive to skilled migrants through increased mobility; improving skills recognition for TCNs and invest early-on in language training, to help them integrate into the labour force as early as possible; coordinate rights at the European level – especially those related to EU mobility – which makes each country more attractive for third-country nationals, respect to a single national scheme.
4. Asylum-seekers at the time of corona virus
In the last European Parliament research, published some days ago, the European Union has tried to face the corona virus impact on asylum-seekers in the EU and how to curb the spread of the viral pandemic, protecting the populations (19). As the UNHCR stated, the pandemic would risk making the already precarious conditions of the most vulnerable people even more serious (refugees, asylum-seekers, forced migrants, internally displaced persons). The factors of more vulnerability are: population density, overcrowded formal camps, informal settlements or detention facilities; lack of basic services, especially healthcare and especially in camps; misinformation, absence of communication networks, and language barriers can all prevent access to reliable information by foreign people; humanitarian workers may reduce or cut contact to help prevent the spread of the virus, also because governments are restricting the travel of international personnel; the possible cuts of the humanitarian funds. In order to fight the contagion, countries have adopted restriction on the movement of people within their borders, but not only: Member States addressing the challenges posed by the pandemic to public order, public health, and national security have restricted people’s movement and access to the EU’s territory. This could disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, asylum-seekers already present in the EU or trying to reach its territory to apply for asylum (see the Italian case previously addressed).
Countries have the rights, under the international and European law, to adopt any kind of measures to protect their borders. These shall be in compliance with the respect of the fundamental rights. Any travel bans cannot be discriminatory, or deny people the right to seek asylum, or even worst, cannot force migrants to return to their country of origin if in danger (principle of non-refoulement). The new rules may not prevent non-nationals from seeking protection. For this reason, additional tools should be undertaken, such as the implementation of screening measures for persons arriving from affected areas or countries; the possibility to refuse entry to non-resident third-country nationals who present relevant symptoms or have been particularly exposed to a risk of infection. To do it, the FRA, together with the Council of Europe, has published a guide that States can follow, in order to have a coordinate action by all the European countries – auspicated also by the European Commission.
The condition of the hotspots in Greece is most worrying: while the Italian migration situation does not create lots of concerns, because of the decreasing number of migrants in the rescue and reception centres, the Greek situation appears critical. Greek hotspots are overflowing with people, there is lack of doctors and low security standards (especially in the Moria camp). The Commissioner Johansson reported 20 cases confirmed in a camp near Athens, while 6 cases have been confirmed in Lesvos (outside the official camp). Refugee camps and centres are not equipped to deal with this further crisis.
According to the Director of the Agency for the Fundamental Rights, more needs to be done to ensure social distancing (e.g. using hotels), to disinfect structures, decongest structures by speeding up asylum procedures – interviews cannot take place in person but should take place virtually. After the first cases of Covid-19, Greece separated newly arrived and existing asylum-seekers. The former ones can be infected and create the “perfect storm” – as Médecins sans Frontières described. They are constantly under medical control. The authorities do not expect the situation to improve before the year ends (20). The agency asks to extend the deadline for the family reunification. There will be no sustainable solution without solidarity from Member countries.
It is a common opinion we should avoid that the current crisis will be used as an excuse to undermine the rule of law and fundamental values, as deny the asylum application. At the level of the whole EU, countries’ behaviours go in opposite ways: on the one hand, authorities have informed local migrant communities on how to protect themselves against corona virus, ensuring their access to health care and other necessary services. Some Member States are providing them the same services given to the locals. For the Commission, it is important that migrants and refugees would be included in the national healthcare and social system. On the other hand, some countries have closed their borders and ports to migrants, suspending asylum procedures under the Dublin Regulation, and introducing mandatory confinement in asylum reception centres to restrict freedom of movement, and temporary banning or restricting the arrival of visitors (21). It is true that the article 15 of the ECHR allows for a contracting party to derogate from its obligations under the Convention in a time of public emergency threatening the life of the nation, but it does not mean that States can limit some rights, i.e. protective measures must never result in inhuman or degrading treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, including in immigration detention centres. They have to balance protection of public health and safeguarding of asylum right.
Turkey no longer accepts returns from the islands due to the corona virus pandemic; 1,500 clashes with deaths happened in the continental part of Greece, while the islands are more under control. There is a lot of concern in Commission and European Parliament about the situation. (22)
The EU is far from resolving the migration crisis at its external border. New problems are compromising the stability of the European system. This system is already threatened by internal forces which continue to row against a more integrated migration system, i.e. passing from the strong intergovernmentalism to a deeper supranationalism. This would reduce the famous cost of intergovernmentalism. In the last weeks, some countries have been condemned by the European Union Court of Justice to have broken law over refugees’ relocation system. These States are: Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic. According the Court, the three Member States failed to fulfil their legal obligation under the EU law when in 2015 they refused to participate in the relocation system for refugees. They did not help the other countries whose asylum requests’ system collapsed. The ruling found that Poland and the Czech Republic failed to uphold a voluntary system previously set up to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers, which Hungary did not take part in at all. This ruling appears politically relevant because shows how important and essential is the solidarity among the countries. The point is that the solution comes from the judicial power and not from the political one, denoting in that way a diplomatic crisis within the group. In these countries, governments still continue to have the same operational way, with no changes in their solidarity approach. The emersion of nationalisms and populisms in different countries is deeply challenging the cooperation.
The corona virus spread risks to create a humanitarian catastrophe if the proper measures are not adopted. We cannot imagine that single countries could manage this huge burden. Unfortunately, the European Union is losing its strong power. Probably we are paying for the wrong and questionable choices made in the past, with the consequence of an increased disaffection towards the EU bureaucracy and the incapacity to give a new input in the European system. Maybe we have lost the meaning of being “European” or we remember it only when it gives us advantages. We have lost the sense of solidarity that has been characterizing the birth of the European project. Each country is facing a terrible situation, where citizens’ freedoms have been restricted, and the consequent economic crisis will hit everybody, especially those already fragile countries. It is important to understand that in this globalized world, with millions of interconnections, especially in our Single Market, the problems should be shared: it does not mean that one country’s mistakes should fall on others; but when we talk about migration and pandemic we are talking about symmetric and not asymmetric shocks. In the next future, only with a strong and solid plan, Europe can safe itself from the edge of an abyss.
2 COM(2016) 270 final 2016/0133 (COD) – Proposal for a REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national or a stateless person (recast).
3 I dealt with the refugees’ crisis in Turkey and Greece. It is possible to consult the article here https://www.eu-logos.org/2020/04/01/syria-a-never-ending-refugees-crisis/
4 In compliance with the principle of transparency it is possible, on the European Parliament website, to assist or watch in streaming the LIBE meetings. The meeting of April, 2nd 2020 is available at the following link https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/en/libe-committee-meeting_20200402-1000-COMMITTEE-LIBE_vd
5 The EU-Turkey agreement provides only returns from the island: for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU through official humanitarian channels.
6 The principle of “best interests of the child” is a principle internationally recognised and according the European Court of Human Rights it shall be the
7 Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and Internal Security Fund (ISF)
10 149 refugees were, for almost 10 days, on board of the Alan Kurdi, the rescue boat of the German NGO Sea-Eye, and others were on board of the vessel Aita Mari of the Spanish NGO Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario.
14 “New avenues for legal and labour migration. Selected and commented bibliography of research since 2015” IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS requested by the LIBE committee, made by Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Directorate-General for Internal Policies. Author: Marion SCHMID-DRÜNER. PE 649.576 – March 2020.
15 Directorate general for internal policies, Policy department C: citizens’ rights and Constitutional affairs/ Civil liberties, justice, and home affairs.
16 The purpose of this Fitness Check is to assess the existing EU legislation on legal migration. The results of the Fitness Check may be used as a basis of actions (both legislative and non-legislative) required to improve the coherence of the legal migration legislation, as well as its effective and efficient application https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/legal-migration/fitness-check_en
17 In the Italian agricultural sector, the presence of legal/illegal migrants represents the biggest part of the workforce, especially in South Italy. Here, migrants work in conditions of disparities compared to native workers (hours per day, lower wage). With the lockdown of the economic activities has emerged a shortage of people and the importance that migrants have in our agricultural chain, in those activities where Italians do not work anymore.
18 “New avenues for legal and labour migration. Selected and commented bibliography of research since 2015”, p. 7.
19 Tackling the coronavirus outbreak: Impact on asylum-seekers in the EU, EPRS | European Parliamentary Research Service. Author: Anja Radjenovic, Members’ Research Service PE 649.390 – April 2020.
20 Ibidem, p. 4
21 Ibidem, p. 5
22 I also suggest an interesting reading made by the Migration Policy Institute. It is available at here https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/covid19-global-compact-migration-faces-test