Following the update provided on 28 May 2020, ECRE has now published the Information Sheet: COVID-19 Measures and Updates Related to Asylum and Migration Across Europe, in light of the second round of lockdown procedures adopted throughout Europe. Earlier this week, EASO also published a report on COVID-19 emergency measures in asylum and reception systems.

Across Europe states have imposed new lockdowns or more restrictive measures upon its population in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, thereby also affecting the position of people on the move.

The severe impact on access to the asylum procedure due to COVID-19 between January and October 2020, is reflected in the asylum statistics. A total of 375,255 applications for international protection were lodged in the EU 27 Member States according to Eurostat. This represents an approximate 35% decrease compared to the 578,580 applications lodged during that same time period in 2019. This drop is largely due to the COVID-19 outbreak and the suspension of asylum-related activities, which was particularly striking during the month of April 2020. According to recent EASO statistics, the number of asylum applications has been increasing from June 2020, but the number of applications is still considerably lower, approximately two-thirds the number of those received prior to COVID-19.

While at the start of the pandemic a suspension of the asylum procedures took place in several EU countries, this is currently not the case. The registration has resumed and maintained in many states with adapted safety measures or through online services. EASO’s recent report gives a detailed overview of the different safety measures that member states have taken. While this is certainly an improvement compared to the first wave, the use of online services does not go without challenges. It may hamper the contact with legal counsels, and important nuances might get lost given the remote interviews and interpretation. It has also been noted that the use of protection shields, distance measures and facemasks, might be particularly challenging and unsuitable for interviews with people with special protection needs or hearings on sensitive issues such as sexual abuse.

As noted by EASO physical distancing and sanitary measures are a challenge among larger populations, especially in countries where the asylum and reception systems had been operating at high occupancy or full capacity before the crisis. In some countries newly arrived asylum applicants are first quarantined in the reception centres, in other countries all applicants are tested upon arrival. In Italy new arrivals are required to quarantine upon entering and prior to transfer to a reception facility. There are four ferries which have been made available for offshore quarantine, replacing a procedure where persons testing positive for COVID would be transferred to ferries from reception centres. Following the death of two teenagers in offshore quarantine, unaccompanied minors are no longer quarantined offshore but in onshore facilities. In Greece concerns have been highlighted regarding restrictions of movements in reception centres in the Aegean Islands, and the poor and unsafe conditions in the camps. OHCHR pointed out to poor hygienic conditions and limited access to medical services in reception centres in Malta.

As of June 2020, travel and border restrictions all over Europe began to be lifted, making it possible for countries to resume Dublin transfers. Subsequently EU MS started to resume these transfers. Following the second wave of the pandemic, transfers have been temporarily suspended. This was inter alia the case in Belgium regarding transfers to the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia. In Germany, it had been noted that Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Ireland, did not accept any transfers due to health concerns.

Returns to third countries have also been gradually resumed. In November 2020, a charter flight carrying 77 El Salvadorians, having applied for asylum, (voluntarily) departed from Belgium with the assistance from IOM. Cyprus carried out summary returns throughout the pandemic, attracting attention from the EU and European Court of Human Rights. In Germany, the Federal Government stated its desire to resume collective deportation flights to Afghanistan. However, on 17 November 2020, a flight for Kabul was cancelled due to concerns raised by the Afghan government in relation to the pandemic.

Conditions relating to detention do not appear to have been met in all cases, inter alia due given to the limited possibility of repatriation. This occurred inter alia in Belgium and France. Problems related to the overall conditions, health precautions, and access to visitors were also reported in the Netherlands, Slovenia, France, Denmark and Sweden.

As many countries are currently developing and planning their vaccination strategy, access to the vaccine for all is an emerging issue. Several organisations have called for governments to include migrants in vaccine distributions. On 24 November 2020, the International Organization for Migration and Vaccine Alliance signed a memorandum of understanding aiming to strengthen their collaboration on vaccination efforts. IOM urges Governments to include migrants in public health strategies and vaccination plans. “Vaccines are among our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep communities safe and healthy. For everyone to thrive, countries must intensify efforts to ensure that no one is left behind and all migrants – no matter their legal status – have access to the life-saving benefits of vaccines.” stated the organisation.

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