COVID-19 and asylum: the right response is the same as ever – ensure protection, stop detention, invest in inclusion

01 April 2020

Brussels, 1 April – In the past weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has been reaching all corners of Europe, forcing all countries to enforce at least some measures of social distancing.
JRS’s first concern has been how to ensure services for asylum seekers and refugees, in a way that it is safe for them and for those people providing the service. ‘This should be among governments’ first concerns too. Ensuring refugees are protected is, in these circumstances more than ever, in the interest of the whole society,’ says Jose Ignacio Garcia SJ, Director of JRS Europe.

At the end of February 2020, it became clear that the outbreak of the so-called “coronavirus”, was not going to remain in Italy nor would it be ending soon. Similar to the rest of civil society, JRS Europe started organising as soon as possible: asylum seekers and refugees, as some of the most vulnerable people in society, could not be forgotten in any response to such a crisis. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about governments. With few exceptions, national authorities reacted in the best case slowly, and in the worst case even used COVID-19 as an excuse to limit the right to seek asylum.

In this context, JRS Europe’s recommendations for governments are the same as in regular times: access to protection must be guaranteed, detention must be stopped and the efforts to include forced migrants as full members of the society must be multiplied. Taking action on this is simply even more pressing than ever.

Guarantee access to protection and safe reception

In response to the coronavirus outbreak several countries in Europe decided to suspend the asylum procedure. It is understandable, and even advisable, that authorities take measures to limit the physical proximity of people. Suspending asylum interviews or slowing down the examination of pending applications are sensible measures, provided that this will not affect the outcome of the asylum application concerned. Such measures are both in the interest of asylum seekers and of the people working in the asylum procedure.

However, the possibility to apply for asylum and being registered as asylum seeker must be guaranteed at any time, as well as the right to receive adequate reception as an asylum seeker. This is necessary to ensure that the rights of asylum seekers and vulnerable persons are respected and protected. In such a moment, it is also of paramount importance that people have a safe place to stay, receive adequate information (also on COVID-19) and medical screening and assistance if needed.

To contain the spreading of the virus, it is essential that hygienic and physical distance rules are respected. Situation of inhumane and overcrowded centres such as on the Greek islands are never acceptable–let alone in the middle of a pandemic. The evacuation of the Greek islands must be both a Greek and European priority.

Stop detention and foresee alternatives

JRS Europe has always advocated for the end of detention and at least its use as a last resort measure. If it is hardly possible to justify the use of detention in regular times, it is clearly impossible in the middle of a lockdown. Detention is supposed to be necessary to enforce returns. At this moment, no returns is practically possible. It would be illegal and unacceptable to indefinitely extend the stay of people in detention.

Governments must quickly set up plans to release all detainees and provide them with alternative accommodation when they have none. In the meantime, conditions in detention need to be adapted to ensure the necessary COVID-19 related safety measures, both for detainees and for the staff.

Ensure inclusion despite social distancing

Including forced migrants as full members of the society should always be a goal for policy makers. During a pandemic, the damages of excluding some people from the society are immediately visible as the virus spreads, unable to differentiate legal statuses. The initiative of the Portuguese government, to temporarily regularise the status of all migrants and asylum seekers with pending applications, so that they can access all services, including healthcare, as Portuguese citizens, is particularly laudable and should be followed by others.

Next to ensuring that the legal status of people does not stand in the way of getting access to basic services, it is also important to highlight that physical distancing must not translate into social isolation. This is true for many vulnerable groups in society (such as elderly, homeless, poor). The civil society is already doing its best to keep reaching out to people in need in these difficult moments. Governments should make sure to recognize and support these efforts by ensuring the necessary funding.