The rapid spread of COVID-19 has had devastating consequences for vulnerable populations across the world. Asylum-seekers, in particular, are threatened by the pandemic due to their sub-optimal and densely populated living conditions. According to the United Nations, there are currently around 25 million refugees who face increased chances of infection and death.
The placement of refugees, as well as protective measures against the pandemic, will be one of the most challenging public policy issues of the decade. Thus, it is critical that we take a closer look at past responses to the European refugee crisis and the discrepancies that lie in current immigration and asylum policies.
The first European refugee crisis took place in the aftermath of the Second World War, when an overwhelming number of persecuted groups, such as Jews and Poles, sought asylum in Western Europe. In the early 1990s, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a second refugee crisis shocked Europe, as more than 2 million refugees fled the former republic.
In order to manage future refugee crises, the Dublin Convention, which was later dubbed the Dublin Regulation, was established by the European Communities in 1990 and came into full effect in 1997. The regime created under the Dublin Convention allows member states to determine whether people seeking asylum are qualified to enter the European Union. The Dublin Convention requires all member states to be responsible for processing the application of asylum seekers. The essential purpose of this regulation is to provide effective and fair protection to refugees by granting them asylum if they are able to satisfy certain criteria.
As outlined by the regulation, asylum seekers only have one opportunity to apply for entrance: if they are rejected by one member state, they are automatically rejected by all. Additionally, during the process of examination, asylum seekers are required to stay in a detention area, often separated from their families while they await the outcome of their asylum hearings. Lastly, the criteria set by the Dublin Regulation must be strictly followed when determining whether to grant asylum.
Though these policies were established thirty years ago, they are still in effect today and have a significant effect on outcomes for asylum-seekers. By the end of 2016, around 5.2 million asylum-seekers reached the shores of the European Union. Moreover, over 138,000 refugees successfully reached the EU by sea. Among them, nearly 2,000 drowned during their journey across the Mediterranean. The European Union’s persisting inefficiency in managing these refugee crises are a result of some of the critical flaws of the Dublin Regulation.
The Dublin Regulation possessed many weaknesses that prevented the system from reaching its ultimate goal, which was to effectively manage refugee flows and ensure the integrity of refugee rights in the process. One of the criteria established by the regulation is that responsibility should be divided equally between member states. However, it is a lengthy process for each asylum seeker’s application to be processed. Additionally, refugees are often registered to their arrival country under the Dublin Regulation, but they often attempt to seek asylum elsewhere due to personal preferences. The regulation also allows countries to transfer migrants to the first EU country of entry. This provision creates problems of inefficiency, overwhelms countries near the outskirts of Europe, and limits the choices of migrants and asylum-seekers.
Thus, in order to manage the large influx of refugees more effectively within the EU, the European Commission proposed various reforms to the original convention, upgrading it to the Dublin II Regulation in 2003, and later the Dublin III Regulation in 2013. The newest reform proposal, Dublin IV, does not overthrow the existing criteria for determining acceptance but implements several additional policies that ensure equal responsibility between EU member states. This action serves to ensure that no single country is obligated to take on an overwhelming number of refugees, which could lead to instability and mismanagement — as seen in Greece, Italy and Spain. However, the proposal is still under consideration and has not fully been implemented into the EU’s immigration system.
One of the key elements that is missing in the updated Dublin Regulation is the establishment of humanitarian refugee shelters for asylum seekers and their families. Refugee shelters are necessary in order to provide humanitarian relief while asylum-seekers await their hearings. These spaces are usually constructed in response to major threats, such as natural hazards or war-related violence, as well as in response to political coups in less developed countries.
Therefore, the purpose of these shelters would be to provide a safe area within which refugees can wait for their applications to be processed. Without proper shelter, asylum-seekers often find themselves in a position where they lack fundamental necessities and access to food resources. Furthermore, existing refugee camps are often overcrowded, with limited social distancing in light of COVID-19. Experts believe that such densely populated camps will significantly increase the possibility of virus transmission. In order to prevent this, the system should be reformed to facilitate the construction of more shelters and incorporate social distancing procedures.
As a part of this proposed policy, each country would be responsible for the creation of these shelters. Additionally, these temporary shelters would be constructed not only with funding from the home country’s national government but also with EU’s financial support. These spaces should also be specifically designed to fulfill the basic needs of asylum seekers by providing resources such as clean water, food and medical services while they await the final migration outcome and approval. The new refugee shelter system should also include measures that prevent family separation and facilitate family reunification.
With overwhelming refugee inflows, one of the major concerns is the safe and timely placement and management of refugees. Currently, many refugees migrating into EU countries are stuck in limbo, with no clear understanding of whether their application is still pending. If the situation is not properly managed, refugees are left stranded as they were in their home countries. EU member states should cooperate to ensure the efficient and timely processing of asylum applications while also allocating humanitarian assistance to those refugees awaiting their asylum outcomes. More specifically, it is important to protect refugees’ human rights by maintaining their safety and dignity throughout the migration processes, values which are enshrined and reaffirmed by the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR).
Another significant rationale for the construction of new refugee shelters is to ensure more effective protection of female refugees. Women account for 50% of the total refugee population and are more prone to suffer from rape and sexual harassment. There are often cases when female refugees are held in detention with male refugees, which could significantly increase the risk of abuse.
There have also been increasing concerns regarding sexual assault committed by security guards and officials at refugee reception centers. Many women face discrimination in their everyday life, and often face dangerous conditions in the countries from which they flee. Therefore, it is critical that shelters provide a safe environment for refugee women. When considering the creation of humanitarian shelters, women’s rights need to be prioritized, especially as vulnerable groups are at higher risks for victimization. The EU must recognize the associated risks affecting women refugees and other vulnerable populations, and reform their asylum system accordingly.
An effective refugee shelter system would operate under the supervision of highly-trained government-selected personnel, humanitarian relief workers, and medical staff. Given the rise of COVID-19, hygienic standards and adequate healthcare should be made a priority within these humanitarian shelters.
Equipped with necessary resources and prepared to deal with humanitarian relief, refugee shelters in the EU are key to providing refugees with safe and practical transition environments — especially as violence, conflict and the pandemic continue to ravage countries throughout the world. Thus, reexamining and reforming the Dublin Convention is imperative to ensure that the European Union is adequately prepared to manage a refugee crisis in the COVID-19 era.