How has COVID-19 changed migratory movements in Europe and in the world? - The social and political controversies behind migration

10 September, 2020

COVID-19 has posed several challenges on migratory movements. At the end of June, among the 11,300 people who had tried to cross the sea from Libya, 50% had been sent back and disembarked in Libyan ports. While governments in Europe have eased up travel restrictions for EU citizens to promote tourism and avoid further economic burdens on European countries, international mobility has encountered several constraints and limitations.

Since COVID-19’s outbreak the situation has become even more complicated for those seeking protection and better opportunities in Europe. Individuals find themselves trapped at borders or in conflict areas. This prevents them to seek asylum, and it increases their risk of detention and deportation. Between April 6th and May 7th 2020, the Mixed Migration Centre conducted a series of interviews on 442 refugees and migrants located in Libya. Around 60% of respondents highlighted that they were not able to not reach their final destinations. In addition, 82% claimed that the current pandemic is having a big impact upon their mobility in a multitude of ways. The respondents specifically mentioned limitations on their movements within the country and across international borders, the increased risk of custody and expulsion, the lower access to smugglers, and the interruption of their resettlement processes.

As of July 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) has documented 21 cases of illegal pushbacks and the experiences of 389 people whose rights were violated at the European Union’s external borders. Several cases of ongoing violence and restrictions of movements were reported at the Greek-Turkish border and, at other borders between EU Member States and neighbouring countries, including external lands and sea borders.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has also posed increasing threats and difficulties for irregular migrants. These individuals are forced to register to get access to medical care. However, they often do not register due to the fear of identity checks and potential deportation. As a result, they are often marginalised and excluded from preventive and curative health care.

Political challenges

Along with the numerous practical challenges that migrants are facing, some political parties are using the discourse on mobility and travel restrictions for propaganda. The Federal Secretary of Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, has recently declared that COVID-19’s cases are currently increasing due to migrants’ arrival in Italy rather than to the reopening of clubs where young kids dance and have fun over the summer. According to the human rights lawyer Stevi Kitsou, “this virus served the nationalist agenda very well”. For instance, the far-right party Greek Solution, which holds 10 out of the 300 seats in the Greek parliament, defined migrants and refugees as a “ticking time-bomb” for Greek public health. “It was all about giving the impression that the virus made a distinction between the Greeks and non-Greeks,” Kitsou said.

These declarations reveal that the pandemic has been used to amplify the rhetoric against minorities and depict migrants as an unknown threat. Those statements, such as that of Matteo Salvini or the Greek Solution party, outline several controversies and issues which need to be addressed. On the one hand, the idea that the reopening of clubs, touristic spots and leisure activities should be prioritized over someone’s right to be rescued and welcomed in Europe is problematic. The desire to favour economic growth and the promotion of tourism have been the main engine to encourage mobility among European countries, overshadowing the importance to guarantee fundamental rights and protection towards migrants, especially during these challenging times. On the other hand, these declarations aimed at implicitly decreasing states’ responsibility to guarantee protection and health safety for migrants and refugees, creating a strong distinction between citizens and foreigners. In other words, behind these statements from right-wing parties, there is the attempt to blame migrants for increases in COVID-19 cases, neglecting states’ duty to test migrants upon arrival and preserve their health.

Conclusion: where does the European Union stand?

The question on who is responsible for the protection of migrants and refugees in Europe persists, and it has to be addressed by the EU and its members. During an episode of The Global Conversation, Efi Koutsokosta from Euronews discussed with the Vice President of the European Commission, Margaritis Schinas, about travel restrictions and mobility. Schinas claimed that it is important to call for solidarity among European countries and international partners by highlighting every state’s responsibilities towards migrants, refugees and their safety.

The EU is entitled to ask for solidarity from its members, but it has to do more to build up a common ground of support and cooperation among countries. The issue of mobility has become highly divisive across Europe. The EU has been recurrently accused of leaving Mediterranean countries to deal with the impact of arrivals. How can solidarity and safe mobility be promoted to challenge the blame game of right-wing parties? How can the current challenges be immediately addressed to avoid risky consequences for migrants and their displacement? COVID-19 made new problems arise, and increased the old ones. The EU cannot claim solidarity to be a founding value of European culture if it cannot address the problems this pandemic is causing on migratory movements and individuals’ safety. The question on what to do now is more than ever waiting for an immediate and effective response.

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