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COVID 19 Pandemic and Refugees: Lessons Learned for Resilience Building at EU’s borders and beyond

Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University

As preventing the spread of the COVID 19 virus became top policy priority globally, alongside public health measures, the European Union (EU) member states implemented strict travel restrictions and border closures. The EU’s global message about border management in times of crisis seemed straightforward: The EU countries resort to their own national resources and refrain from collaboration while coping with the consequences of a pandemic; focus on repatriating and protecting EU citizens only and invest in stopping those seeking international protection from arriving in the EU.

Implementing border closures as a first and common panacea for fending off the health risks of the pandemic brought the EU, yet again, at another cross-roads concerning the effectiveness of its resilience building efforts in a global context of protracted humanitarian crises. EU’s borders continue to be sites of debates on surmounting risks of human rights violations of forcibly displaced persons. Accounts of Greece engaging in push-backs of hundreds of migrants and abandoning them at sea toward the Turkish maritime borders, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization of Migration (IOM) calls to EU countries to attend to hundreds of migrants rescued on their way from Libya in the Mediterranean constitute just two examples. In the COVID 19 era, the EU’s questionable track record on migration governance in times of crisis prompts concerns around the EU’s capacity as a resilience building actor regionally and globally. Times of uncertainty and turmoil, however, present a unique opportunity for the EU and Member States to examine the setbacks in existing policies, to devise actionable policy alternatives to overcome the identified deficiencies and co-construct new policies.

While international mobility came to an unprecedented halt during the Covid era, new displacements due to conflict and violence continue. The data from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) highlighted that over 600000 people have been displaced across 19 countries between 23 March 2020 (when UN Secretary General Guterres called for a global ceasefire) and 15 May 2020. In the meantime, most EU countries have suspended asylum procedures due to the public health measures to stop the spread of infection, and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) reported an 87% drop in asylum applications for April 2020 when compared to January and February 2020. Asylum seekers and refugees have been adversely affected by the border control policies as well as COVID 19. Emergency legislation has interrupted all efforts for search and rescue in the Mediterranean, and port closures hindered access to safety after a humanitarian rescue missions. In June 2020, Hungary introduced a law that calls for immediate removal of anyone crossing Hungarian border unlawfully and intends to seek asylum. Asylum seekers who stay in reception centres and refugee children have been identified at increased risk of infection across the EU, and in response, some countries adopted a policy of releasing detainees without any assistance or access to health services. Some EU countries suspended Dublin transfers while others halted the temporary relocation mechanism for implementing the distribution of refugees with the quota system across EU countries. The narrative, the design and the practices characterising EU’s involvement in migration governance in the Southern Neighbourhood precisely aimed at preventing the manifestation of such exclusionary practices by EU member states through a strategy of cooperation with countries of origin and transit.

The EU has been engaging in building partnerships to manage cross-border mobility with countries of origin in times of crisis in Syria and in Africa. The EU Emergency Trust Fund in Africa (EUTFA) aims to address the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration. The EU supported migration management programme in Libya, for example, aimed to ensure protection of and building resilience for vulnerable communities, and to support for socio-economic development of local governance to promote refugee and migrant integration with host communities. Similarly, the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016 aimed to curb massive inflow of refugees toward Europe, and to support Turkey in meeting the needs of both refugees and host communities for humanitarian assistance, education, health, municipal infrastructure, socio-economic support, and migration management. The Facility for Refugees in Turkey (FRiT) presents an innovative policy collaboration mechanism for governing and monitoring both humanitarian and development efforts in forced migration contexts. In the COVID 19 context, the vulnerabilities of refugee communities increased in both regions and irregular migration is as persistent as ever.

The EU needs to rethink the compatibility and the complementarity of its internal and external migration governance strategies from a standpoint of safeguarding human rights of people on the move beginning with reception at external borders. Amidst the chaos of risks about jeopardizing fundamental rights of refugees and asylum seekers at external borders, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) announced practical guidance which addresses border-management staff in EU member states. The guidance applies to checks at border-crossings, controls during border surveillance and covers EU external borders and land borders with non-Schengen EU Member States as well as sea and air borders. The main issues the border staff are expected to practice are dignified treatment for everyone; attending to vulnerable people’s needs and respecting legal as well as procedural safeguards.

The EU countries, now more than ever, need a substantial debate on the need for solidarity in responsibility sharing for relocation of refugees, and respecting everyone’s fundamental rights while doing so. Inception of new policy ideas and constructing innovative strategies while ensuring committed collaboration around migration governance have never been smooth processes in the multi-level and multi-actor EU. However, the COVID 19 context brutally reminds all stakeholders that the EU and the Member States can no longer delay identifying and executing sustainable and effective resilience building strategies for conflict prevention, alleviation of poverty and, more recently, food security if they truly aim to eliminate the causes of forced displacement and improve the lives of the forcibly displaced.


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