Migration: A Wrap Up of 2020

11 January, 2021

2020 has proven to be a year of great challenges for the European Union and its member states and citizens. While COVID-19 has spread across the Union, important policy developments have been brought forward by the European Commission in the policy field of migration. At the same time, human rights violations at the European borders and tragic losses of lives in the Mediterranean sea have continued to seriously affect migrants attempting to enter Europe in search of asylum. Here, the main events and policy developments occurred during the year 2020 are briefly summarized.

Policy Developments: new important plans have been announced

In September 2020, the long-awaited new Pact on Migration and Asylum was released. It aims at improving and changing the current asylum procedures, with an emphasis on shared responsibilities and solidarity. Since the migratory peaks of the 2015 migration crisis in Europe, member states have been in need of coordinated European action that allows distribution of responsibility in form of administrative support and for the allocation of asylum seekers and refugees. The Commission’s proposal strengthens partnerships among European countries in three different facets; 1. through an external dimension addressing information systems and the coordination of Common European asylum and migration governance, in order to better respond to disembarked persons at the EU borders, 2. through an internal dimension addressing restoring the benefits of Schengen by reforming and improving Schengen mechanisms and supporting concrete corporations, 3. the most urgent dimension, it addresses proportional distribution of asylum applications for faster asylum procedures and efficient returns. Member states may contribute their fair share by either taking in relocated asylum applications or sponsor the return of irregular migrants on behalf of another member state. Migration policy, however, must go beyond border protection and swift returning procedures. All facets have received mixed reactions from member states. Although the new pact is a positive step towards solidarity with transit and first arrival countries, the current Dublin regulation still stands. Further, as can be expected, the absence of compulsory reallocation quotas has been dissatisfying for border countries, as the pact allows member states to opt-out of the reallocation of asylum seekers and refugees.

Tragic and traumatic events, such as the fire that broke out on the Greek island of Lesbos and devastated the country’s largest refugee camp, have demonstrated the necessity to rethink and commit even more strongly to a reform of the reception, inclusion and integration system for migrants and refugees in the European Union. Although great efforts have been made to rebuild in the short term a shelter for the thousands of people living in the camp, it is essential to also think also about a strategy to be applied in the long term. One of the most significant milestones in this process is undoubtedly the new Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion 2021-2027. Through the identification of four key pillars, education, employment, healthcare and housing, this plan is committed to improving the inclusion and integration of people with a migrant background in a cross-cutting approach. The crucial aspect of this plan is the great attention given to the participation and engagement of local communities, which can be of significant importance for successful integration.

COVID-19, closure of borders and insufficient social and economic assistance 

For those seeking security and better prospects in Europe, the situation has become much more complicated after the outbreak of COVID-19. Individuals find themselves trapped at borders or in conflict areas. This prohibits them from seeking asylum and raises the possibility of being arrested and deported.

COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to increasing threats and difficulties for irregular migrants. These individuals have to register to get access to medical care. However, they often do not do it 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.

Migrants and refugees living in European refugee camps are also experiencing a series of difficulties and risks. COVID-19 has largely increased health safety issues within refugee camps, which are often overcrowded and characterized by poor sanitary conditions. The risk of infection is worsened by these poor living conditions and the capacity to provide medical care is very limited due to the lack of resources and funds.

COVID-19 has also impacted migrant families and communities that rely on remittance-supported nutrition, health, education and income. Job losses and difficulty to send remittances during lockdowns has significantly affected recipients dependent on these incomes for their financial stability. In April 2020, it was estimated that remittances to low and middle income countries would experience a decline of 20 per cent compared to 2019.

There is urgency to act in order to protect migrants, refugees and their families, and guarantee the safeguarding of their rights. The current pandemic is increasing inequalities and isolation of those individuals who were experiencing discrimination even before COVID-19’s outbreak. The concrete social barriers and economic constraints are not the only aspects migrants and refugees are facing. Disinformation and stigmatization around migration have also been widely employed in the course of the pandemic. For instance, an increasing flood of stories has connected migrants to infection risks and accused them of receiving preferential treatment.

These cases outline some of the several challenges and the uncertain times migrants and refugees have been dealing with in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 crisis. These challenging times offer an opportunity to reimagine the future of human mobility. The current difficulties and limits should encourage the European Union to proceed at a faster pace, so as to ensure that mobility of migrants and refugees is inclusive and safe, contributes to sustainable development, and respects human rights. As Secretary-General António Guterres said while commenting on the invisibility of migrants during the global pandemic: “Migrants have played an outsized role on the frontlines of responding to the crisis – from caring for the sick and elderly to ensuring food supplies during lockdowns […] just as migrants are integral to our societies, they should remain central to our recovery.”

Human rights violations within Europe and at its borders: the same old story?

In 2020, the number of episodes of push backs and abuses against migrants and refugees have been significantly growing. Such episodes have been registered in several European countries: from Greece, whose authorities have been reported to practice collective expulsions to Turkey, to Romania, Hungary and Croatia, whose police officers have been considered responsible for several cases of abuses and violent push backs at their borders.

Push backs are prohibited by EU law, as well as international treaties and agreements. Among them, the Geneva Convention on Refugees guarantees the right to seek protection, and the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits collective expulsions. On several occasions, the Members of the European Parliament claimed that the Commission should fully investigate those allegations and impose appropriate sanctions. The Commission, in turn, has shifted the responsibility to the European countries involved, asking them to shed light on those allegations themselves. However, this is unlikely to occur as the governments of those countries deny these accusations and dismiss the criticism brought forward by IOs, NGOs and newspapers, even if it is backed up with evidence. To prevent those push backs from occurring again, the Commission decided to take action by itself by envisioning the establishment of a new independent monitoring mechanism through the new Pact on Migration and Asylum.

Furthermore, another scandal overwhelmed the European Union and its institutions. Frontex, the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, has also been accused of being involved in human rights violations at the borders. An extraordinary meeting with the Management Board of Frontex was carried out November 11, 2020, at the Commission’s request, to discuss allegations of fundamental rights violations and push backs of migrants in the Aegean Sea. At this meeting, the board concluded that urgent action is needed in order to investigate all fundamental rights allegations and instructed Frontex’s Executive Director to “suspend or terminate any activity, in whole or in part, if he considers that there are violations of fundamental rights or international protection obligations that are of a serious nature or are likely to persist”, including those regarding allegations against staff of the Agency.

Loss of lives at sea: a tragedy enhanced by EU operations in the Mediterranean sea

This year witnessed various new developments in EU external border control that threatened the lives of thousands of migrants attempting to reach Europe. From changes in maritime operations and damaging responses to search and rescue (SAR) activities, to barriers at European borders, certain recent developments have led to the increased danger and subsequent loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea. On top of this, COVID-19 became the perfect instrument for some EU Member States to utilize in their pursuit of preventing irregular migration flow.

On March 31st, the European Council terminated Operation SOPHIA, an EU naval operation force designed to disrupt human smuggling networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean. This termination arose from political tensions amongst EU Member States over SOPHIA’s performance of rescue activities and disagreements over disembarkation points and relocation of migrants. SOPHIA was replaced with Operation IRINI, whose core aim is to implement the United Nations arms embargo on Libya. The transition from Operation SOPHIA to Operation IRINI is unfortunate as it does not prioritize the prevention of human smuggling or loss of lives at sea, which highlights a shift in EU’s migration policy.

The shift in priorities at sea can also be seen in the Member State’s responses to SAR this year. First, some states used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to shrink their SAR responsibilities despite a continuation in migration flows. In April, Italy and Malta justified their lack of assistance to NGO rescue ships by citing COVID-19 concerns. Likewise, as EU Member States began limiting crossings at their internal and external borders to curb the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus closed their external borders and ports to asylum-seekers. These actions created difficulties for NGO SAR operations, as there were fewer opportunities to safely disembark their rescued people. Second, on 19 September, the Sea-Watch 4, a joint NGO SAR initiative, carrying 353 migrants, was impounded by Italian port authorities because of flimsy irregularities. The Sea-Watch 4 was just one of a series of SAR ships to be detained by an EU Member State this past year. These efforts to diminish and sabotage SAR activities are very problematic and contribute to the high number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea – approximately 732 people have died or gone missing in the Central Mediterranean this year. The year 2020 has reflected an increased use of maritime control measures in European waters to target irregular migration. However, these stronger control measures have come at the expense of people’s lives.

Does Turkey have a hold over Europe through the threat of opening the border? 

On March 18, 2016, the Members of the European Council and the Turkish government issued a statement of cooperation according to which all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece would be returned to Turkey. In turn, the EU would disburse 6 billion euros for the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, reactivate renegotiation for the accession to the EU and lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens within the Schengen area. Additionally, for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian would be resettled from Turkey to the EU.

On February 28, 2020, the Turkish government unilaterally lifted the strict controls enforced at its borders, which led to a sharp increase of refugees and migrants trying to enter the EU. This event points to a politically motivated pressure on the EU to act as an ally in the military operations in Syria, further provide financial aid for the housing of refugees in Turkey as well as fulfil the commitments assumed under the statement of cooperation.

To this date, attempts to reach a new agreement have been ineffective. However, tensions are starting to decrease as the EU on December 17th, 2020, fully mobilized the 6 billion euros agreed on to support refugees and host communities in Turkey. This, however, does not address the underlying issues regarding the political commitments assumed under the statement of cooperation for EU membership and visa liberalization, which might lead to future tensions between both blocks.

Brexit: the impact on migration

Migration was a defining issue back in June 2016 for the UK’s citizens referendum on EU membership. Freedom of movement with the UK officially ended on January 1st, 2021, and EU citizens will be subject to the same immigration rules as citizens from the rest of the world. EU citizens -as well as EEA and Swiss citizens- will only be able to continue to live in the UK if they meet the specific criteria set out by the UK’s government and apply to the EU Settlement Scheme before June 30, 2021. Furthermore, passports will be required for entry into the UK’s territory from October 2021 as the Government phases out the use of EU and Swiss national identity cards as valid travel documents.

In turn, UK citizens will become third country nationals within the European Union and, as such, they will be subject to EU measures such as traveling limitations and the Blue Card directive. UK citizens living in the EU before the end of the transition period on December 31st, 2020, will need to apply for a residence status before the June 30th, 2021, deadline, to confirm that they were already residents before the end of the transition period, and continue to have the right to live, work and travel within EU’s member states.

Although the rights of citizens of both parties are clear as the transition period has ended, the wider issue concerns the future relations between the EU and the UK and the obstacles the new system could result in. The UK has already approved a point-based system for future migration, which will limit migration flow of EU citizens to its territory. For example, to qualify for a visa, migrant workers from the EU who wish to move to the UK will have to qualify for 70 points according to the new system’s criteria.


As it can be seen, 2020 has proven to be a challenging year for migrants and refugees living in Europe or trying to enter Europe to escape tragic situations. Nonetheless, important policy developments have been brought forward by the European Commission, with the aim of improving their living conditions and ensuring the guarantee of their rights. Nonetheless, much work is still needed in the following years, as inequality, human rights violations and illegal pushback are negatively affecting migrants’ lives and their hope for a better future.

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