With the outbreak of Covid-19, EU Member States ordered their populations to stay home and practice social distancing with the aim of reducing the spread of contagion. Complying with these measures was often particularly difficult for asylum seekers, as many of them were living in overcrowded reception facilities, or worse, they could not access reception and were left homeless during a pandemic.
After mapping the impact of Covid-19 on reception systems in nine EU Member States (Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Spain), JRS Europe and its partners can conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated and exposed the already large existing flaws in the EU States’ reception systems.
Increased homelessness and destitution among (rejected) asylum seekers
According to EU legislation, Member States must provide material reception conditions to applicants for international protection as soon as they make their application. However, already before the pandemic, several countries covered by the mapping presented major structural problems and many asylum-seekers in Europe were already homeless at the start of the pandemic. In the context of Covid-19, the severe problems that homeless persons face were generally aggravated by the higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
Moreover, the pandemic also increased existing shortcomings in accessing reception, as during the lockdown of Spring 2020, asylum seekers could not make an application for several weeks in many countries, due to the closure of administration to the public. As a consequence, they could not access reception and many had no place to go.
In addition, only some countries extended the possibility of remaining in reception facilities during the pandemic to rejected asylum seekers. Where this did not happen, people found themselves with no support, often ending up homeless.
Asylum-reception and Covid-19: confined in a crowd
EU law does not indicate a preferred model of reception for the States to implement, and, to date, no common quality standards for reception at the European level exist.
Although examples of ‘individual’ reception facilities (i.e. houses or flats) exist in almost all the countries under examination, the preferred way of providing accommodation to asylum seekers appears to be in collective centres. Problems of overcrowding of such facilities were a daily reality before Covid-19 in many of the countries under examination.
Respecting basic Covid-19 prevention measures, such as physical distancing, in a context where one is constantly sharing common spaces with many others is intrinsically challenging. It did not help that, in most of the countries, no clear rules nor specific guidance were provided by the responsible administrations. The reception providers therefore often had to improvise, with important differences in the treatment of the residents among the facilities. Practices of putting a whole centre in quarantine or transferring people to other facilities (even without their consent and without providing proper information) were often used. This, together with the increased difficulty to seek advice and help in a context of reduced presence of social assistance and other integration activities, increased the feelings of stress and anxiety that are already common among asylum seekers.
One year after the beginning of the pandemic, it is time to coordinate the response and seize the opportunity to finally harmonise and improve reception conditions throughout Europe.
JRS Europe recommends:
To the responsible national authorities
- To ensure that asylum seekers are effectively referred to a reception place the moment they make an application.
- To officially suspend evictions from reception centres or provide alternative accommodation for people who no longer have the right to reception;
To establish clear national protocols on how to implement Covid-19 preventive measures
To the European Commission
- To ensure the monitoring of the compliance with the EU Reception Conditions Directive, and to work towards the establishment of European Quality Standards for reception conditions.
To both European and national authorities
- To recognise the advantages of small-scale, individual reception facilities (as opposed to collective centres) for the dignity and well-being of asylum seekers, as well as for the public health and cohesion of the whole society.
- To formally recognise that providing reception goes beyond providing meals and beds, and that social assistance and accompaniment are an integral part of the reception of asylum seekers