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Closed borders and COVID-19 impacting refugee protection system

15 April 20200 comments

The closing of international borders as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic is having disastrous effects on the lives of refugees and asylum seekers and also undermining the foundations of the global refugee resettlement system, aid agencies say.

The rapid closures of borders around the world have been among the most dramatic migration-related effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 130 countries have introduced entry restrictions at their borders, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates.

While these closures have virtually suspended leisure and business travel across the world, the effects are proving even more severe for refuges and migrants fleeing danger.

Crossing an international border to a country of safety and filing an asylum claim is no longer possible in many places, causing chaos for millions of displaced persons and rocking the foundations of a post-World War II international protection system that relies on the goodwill of national governments to grant access to their territory for those in need.

The pandemic has also highlighted the unique vulnerabilities forced migrants now confront in the face of outbreak.

The reception facilities where many asylum seekers live while awaiting a verdict on their claim are often places of high density living which can facilitate invite outbreaks, even in high-income countries with well-run asylum and reception systems, the IOM says.

“Infection is likely to spread even more rapidly in severely overcrowded facilities, such as the camps on the Greek islands and informal settlements in Mexican border cities where migrants awaiting U.S. asylum hearings are living,” the agency said in a statement this week.

The statement goes on to say that in developing countries where access to proper health care is limited even for nationals, the consequences of the pandemic could be disastrous for refugees who often live in densely packed housing with poor sanitation.

At the same time, the suspension of resettlement operations by IOM and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has closed off a crucial lifeline for the especially vulnerable.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says people trapped at entry points for asylum seekers and refugees on the Greek islands are in especially high-risk environments for COVID-19 transmission and should be evacuated immediately.

“All over the world governments are cancelling events and prohibiting large gatherings, but in the Greek Islands camps people have no option but to live in close proximity. COVID-19 may be just the latest threat that people face here, but the conditions they live in make them more vulnerable than the rest of the country’s population,” MSF said.

The agency says it would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings in Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos and there is no credible emergency plan to protect and treat people living there in case of an outbreak. 

MSF says health authorities should implement a plan that includes measures for infection prevention and control, health promotion, rapid identification of cases, isolation, management of mild cases, as well as the treatment of severe and critical cases.

“But with none of these measures in place, the evacuation of the camps on the Greek islands is now more urgent than ever. Forcing people to live there as part of Europe’s containment policy was always irresponsible, but with the virus spreading it is on the verge of becoming criminal if no action is taken to protect people,” it said. 

“Forty-two thousand people seeking asylum are trapped in camps at the entry points on the Greek islands. Forcing them to live in overcrowded camps – unprotected – is unacceptable. The Greek government and European Union Member States must act as soon as possible and transfer asylum seekers to appropriate accommodations before its too late,” MSF said.