The Council of Europe and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency launched a joint communication on 27 March, addressing the fundamental rights of refugees and migrants at their member states' external borders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a press release, the communication focuses on:
- What duties do Member States have when protecting their external borders?
- Which remedies should be in place in case of excessive use of force at the borders?
- What are the rules in place when people cross borders unlawfully?
- Can access to asylum be suspended?
- How to respect the principle of non-refoulement ?
- What can be done to help the most vulnerable, in particular unaccompanied children?
Sally Hayden wrote an appalling article describing what the recent UNHCR retreat from the country could mean in case of a COVID-19 outbreak. Following the agency's closure of its once-promising Gathering and Departure Facility earlier this year, and faced with a lack of protective equipment against the disease, UNHCR announced that it would halt its activities at its Sarraj Registration Centre, as well as at a Community Day Centre in the country between 18 and 24 March. According to the agency's latest update on 27 March, while operations at the Community Day Centre were partly resumed, the Registration Centre activities are being conducted via a hotline until further notice.
Hayden's article raised concerns about already existing sprouts of tuberculosis among refugee populations, which, in combination with COVID-19, could not only be extremely dangerous for their health but also contribute to rising stigmatisation from the local population. On 25 March, the Libyan Government of National Accord's Health Minister confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the country (a currently-isolated 73-year-old man who had returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia via Tunisia on March 5). Since 26 March, IOM Libya has been documenting on its Twitter account their "comprehensive health and sanitation campaign in detention centres in Libya".
ABC News chronicles how, on 27 March, Turkish interior Minister communicated the country's decision to evacuate about 5,800 migrants and refugees that had been waiting next to the Greek border in order to cross into the EU. This came as the country had reported 3,629 cases of COVID-19. Reportedly, those evacuated will be re-settled into guest houses where they will be quarantined. Greek authorities acknowledged what seemed to be a fire across the border that was thought to be the result of Turkish authorities burning the tents and belongings of migrants that were being left behind.
Der Spiegel claimed on 27 March, to have had access to information from the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) that would prove that Turkish forces infiltrated groups of refugees during the Greek-Turkish border crisis in order to incite riots. Der Spiegel acknowledges that Turkish authorities reject this claim and that the BND declined to comment on the issue. Meanwhile, the Turkish state-run agency Anadolu published two (vague and identical) stories on 27 March and 28 March with unnamed sources, accusing Greek coast guards of boarding refugees on rubber boats and sending them towards the Turkish coast twice this week.
On 24 March, a series of recommendations appealing to the protection of asylum seekers and migrants in Greece within the context of the present pandemic was launched. Signed by 24 organisations, including Amnesty International or the International Rescue Committee, the document appeals to the reduction in congestion in the islands' Reception and Identification Centres or "hotspots". The main recommendations include:
- Safely moving people from the islands' hotspots into smaller centres on the mainland, such as hotels or apartments, in a way that responds to each individual's particular needs.
- Making sure that universal and free access to healthcare is in place, including when it comes to the testing, prevention and treatment for COVID-19, in line with the measures adopted for Greek citizens.
- Supplying adequate sanitary and hygiene products for reception centres, as well as ensuring continuously running water and disinfection of common areas.
- Providing multilingual information about COVID-19 to the residents of the reception centres.
- Urgently addressing the situation of people living in informal settlements adjacent to the camps.
- Appropriate staffing of health personnel in the centres, even if some services need to be provided remotely.
On Thursday 26 March, an article for Voice of America recalled how the Turkish interior Minister had recently claimed that over 150,000 migrants had crossed from Turkey into Greece since the border crisis started in late February. At the same time, Greek and UN data refuted those numbers by claiming that less than 9,500 migrants had crossed into Greece since the beginning of the year.
It seemed that, by 20 March, the plans of several EU states to willingly accept over 1,500 refugee children from Greek camps was coming to a halt in light of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, on 29 March, in a press release from the German government, there was a confident indication that the process is still moving forward, reported ANSA Med.
This week, according to Infomigrants, the German government has expressed its willingness to relax employment bans for refugees, with the expectation that up to 150,000 refugees in the country, including asylum seekers, could be filling in job shortages. The positions concerned are mostly in the agricultural sector, where there is a dependency on foreign seasonal workers who, following mobility restrictions resulting from COVID-19, might not be able to fill in the positions this season.
Thousands of refugees in Bosnia will soon be transferred to a makeshift "tent camp" in Lipa, near the Croatian border, as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to The Guardian. The decision comes after the autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation declared a 'state of disaster' on 16 March. The Guardian claims to cite a document that they had access to, stating that local authorities have imposed “a complete restriction on the movement of migrants beyond temporary reception facilities”, and that “[i]t is also forbidden to transport migrants by train, bus, vans, taxis and all other means of transport”. The article reports fears that the facility will not be suited to cover basic health and safety requirements. The Committee for the Protection of Serb Rights has filed a criminal complaint against the construction of the camp, claiming that the arrival of migrants will worsen the lives of Serb returnees inhabiting the area, by potentially spreading the disease or leading to Christian-Muslim tensions.
On 25 March, following BBC's account, six light boats carrying 96 migrants were intercepted by the British Border Force in the English Channel. Earlier in the week, French authorities had also intercepted 74 migrants who had left for the UK. The UK Home Office claimed that it was fully prepared to continue to respond to the interception of boats even under the coronavirus outbreak. By 28 March, NGO Care4Calais was asking for donations to alleviate the vulnerable situations faced by refugees on the French side of the Channel, whose deprived living conditions made it hard for them to self-isolate. The organisation was also calling on the UK government to label their UK-based volunteers as 'key workers' to exempt them from the national lockdown restrictions that do not allow them to cross into France.