Regardless of the COVID-19 crisis, the registration and processing of asylum applications must continue and member states must comply with asylum law, the European Commission warned in a recommendation published on Thursday (16 April).
“Even in a health emergency, we need to guarantee individual fundamental rights. Any measure taken in the area of asylum, resettlement and return should also take full account of the health protection measures introduced by the member states to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said.
The Commission document provides greater scope for EU members when it comes to personal interviews with asylum seekers as they can either be carried out on video during the crisis or omitted if necessary.
It also stresses that quarantine and isolation measures should be adequate and not discriminatory, while asylum seekers should have access to good healthcare.
With the state-organised admission of refugees from crisis regions, currently discontinued, the EU executive emphasises that the preparation for this resettlement should continue as far as possible so that the actual relocations can be resumed smoothly at a later date.
The recommendations also consider that the measures to limit the pandemic would have a major impact on repatriations, which, according to the document, should still be prepared.
The Commission’s recommendations are meant as “guidance on how to use the flexibility in EU rules to ensure the continuity of procedures as much as possible while fully ensuring the protection of people’s health and rights,” Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said.
“While our way of life may have changed drastically in the past weeks – our values and principles must not,” he added.
Greece will this month begin moving hundreds of elderly and ailing asylum seekers out of congested island camps to protect them from the coronavirus, the migration ministry said on Thursday (16 April).
No coronavirus case has been officially reported in camps on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos. But there have been outbreaks in two camps on the mainland.
Some 100,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded in Greece after other European states closed their borders in 2016.
The camps on islands near Turkey suffer the worst overcrowding with more than 36,000 people in sites built for 6,100.
The ministry said 2,380 “vulnerable persons” will be moved out of camps on Aegean islands to apartments, hotels and other camps on the mainland.
Authorities said the two-week operation will begin after 19 April, Orthodox Easter, and that a timetable would be announced at a later date.
Relocations of migrant children
The EU executive’s recommendations come at a time when the first relocations of unaccompanied migrant children from the Greek islands have taken place as part of a scheme organised by the Commission and the Greek authorities, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), to help address overcrowding in the reception centres in Greece.
In March, the European Commission announced a separate scheme to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied minors from war-torn countries from Greece to other European member states. While the initiative is focused primarily on unaccompanied minors, it may also include children with their families.
So far, ten EU member states – Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg and Lithuania, as well as Switzerland – had agreed to accept a total of 1,600 children and adolescents from Greek refugee camps.
A group of 12 migrant children from Lesbos, Samos and Chios left Greece for Luxembourg on Wednesday.
A second group of 50 will fly to Germany on Saturday and 20 more will follow to Switzerland at a later date, the migration ministry said.
Migration numbers down in March
The number of illegal crossings into the EU on the main migration routes decreased significantly in March, with a total of around 4,650 cases registered compared to 6,200 cases in February, according to numbers published by the EU’s border agency Frontex on Thursday (16 April).
However, the total number of illegal crossings was 24,500 in the first quarter of 2020, a quarter more than in the same period last year.
There were about 2,300 registered cases on the route across the eastern Mediterranean via Turkey and Greece, 38% less than in February, even though many migrants tried to reach Greece in early March, most of them coming from Afghanistan, followed by Syrian and Turkish nationals.
In the first three months of the current year, more than 10,300 border crossings were registered on this route, said the border protection agency. Compared to the same period in the previous year, this was an increase of 5%.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]