Europe’s Refugee Response Complicated by COVID

Featured Image: IOM Libya staff assist migrants at a disembarkation point in Tripoli, Libya (Source: UN News)

By Jack Tripp

YaleNews recently explored how Yale researchers are tracking the spread of COVID-19 within a Rohingya refugee camp. However, this problem—of how to protect refugees and migrants, some of the world’s least protected—is global in scope. Refugees are already often overlooked or ignored, but when compounded with the crisis of a pandemic their future becomes even more uncertain. 

In the past decade, Europe has been the desired destination for millions of migrants. Many come from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, or other struggling states and attempt to enter Europe either across the Greek-Turkey border or by crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy. In 2015 and 2016, mainstream publications like The New York Times covered these migrants extensively, focusing largely on those departing from Libya by boat. However, since then media attention has largely diminished. While the number of asylum seekers has dropped significantly since those years—from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands—they remain a significant concern for Europe and human rights observers internationally.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the main conflicts surrounding how to address the needs of asylum seekers existed in—and arguably between—the judicial and political arms of European international institutions. While the European Court of Human Rights—an independent body from the European Union (EU)—has ruled that European states must admit and give fair consideration to asylum seekers, the EU has yet to establish a functional procedure that balances the needs of migrants with the limited capabilities of its member states. 

Yet Europe has the most advanced international governing framework in the world and so remains uniquely equipped to determine the best way to protect human rights concerns. The supranational EU apparatus means that immigration practices can be standardized and monitored at the international level. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has the best established case law of any international court by far. Therefore in Europe, a strong legalistic tradition of recognizing human rights is matched by the political potential to oversee protection of the most vulnerable.

The Dublin Regulation is the EU protocol that determines which member state is responsible for responding to an asylum claim. In the past, EU border states such as Greece and Italy have borne the brunt of incoming refugees, neither of which are as financially stable as other states nor as powerful within the EU. Previously under the Dublin Regulation, the state where refugees first entered was responsible for addressing their claims and, if refugees sought asylum in states further inland, they were often deported back to these border states. Currently in its third iteration, Dublin III seeks to create a uniform system that alleviates the burdens placed on these states. However in execution, the newest rendition has inspired little significant policy adjustment and meets few of its initial goals.

The EU is already tackling legal, political, and logistical concerns raised in its policy towards migrants. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has both complicated this reform and made it even more essential. Before COVID, one of the primary concerns with the asylum system was that it was not standardized throughout the EU. With the recent pandemic this has been magnified, as different states grant refugees different rights. 

Paul Linden-Retek, Lecturer in Political Science and Schell Center Visiting Fellow, explained via email that “in the EU there presently is no mutual recognition of a positive asylum decision across EU states. So refugee status in Italy, for example, doesn’t automatically translate into the same rights and access to services in Germany. The systems remain segmented, confusing to navigate—and full of various restrictions to the kind of access to healthcare or to the labour market one can have.”

At the end of April, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Europe published an article alongside other WHO officials urging the EU and national European governments to factor refugees into their COVID response plans. They expressed concern especially for migrants who faced homelessness within Europe or who were detained in camps, which are already overcrowded. They also emphasized the importance of ensuring refugees residing within the EU knew the services available to them, as many might not speak the language of their host nation or may avoid contacting official sources for fear of deportation.

However, there are also many refugees seeking asylum in Europe who are detained outside of the EU. The EU currently funds the Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) that provides financial and logistical aid, as well as training, to Libyan border patrol. Libya is a one of the most frequent waypoints for refugees attempting to reach Europe. Yet EU aid to Libya prevents migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. Human Rights Watch reports that tens of thousands of migrants have been confined to detention centers in recent years after being intercepted by Libyan authorities. Furthermore, as Professor Linden-Retek wrote, these relationships “often [enlarge] the scope in which state/public power can be exercised but without formalizing clear structures of accountability….It’s not always clear under what legal framework these new powers operate.”

Pre-COVID, these migrants detained in Libya already faced risks they would not encounter in Europe, as Libya is in the midst of civil war. In July 2019, an airstrike hit a detention center controlled by an EU-backed militia, killing 53 migrants. For these migrants today, it’s unlikely that Libya has the capacity to provide healthcare when it isn’t even promised in some European states; it has lesser ability to treat, socially distance, and trace those who have been infected. 

In March 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees donated food and hygiene to refugees throughout Libya. It is essential that the EU recognize its own responsibility for the detained asylum seekers and provide aid packages like these, as well as medical services. With EI support, Libyan border enforcement has repeatedly interrupted asylum seekers’ journeys to safe havens. Europe is legally and morally responsible—at least in part—for those they have indirectly turned away. 

In February 2020, Foreign Policy detailed the story of an Eritrean refugee held in Libya who was removed from detention and enslaved by a UN-backed militia. In the following months, UNHCR offered him evacuation to Rwanda, which he gladly accepted. He had been effectively turned away by Europe and placed in the custody of the UN, which, according to Foreign Policy, “has said that it cannot provide safety for refugees in Libya.” Therefore, the best alternative is evacuation to another developing nation—that will at least not be at war. 

However, it also means that these evacuated refugees are out of the immediate care of both the UN and the EU. During this pandemic, they will be wholly at the mercy of their host country for healthcare. For refugees evacuated to Rwanda, this is a positive development, as Rwanda has experienced no deaths thus far from COVID. But they still remain outside of the sphere of EU influence, where they first sought protection. Had this crisis taken a different form or had the host governments chosen a different response, their survival would have been left in their own hands.

Fulfilling all the needs of asylum seekers has always been nearly impossible, both logistically and politically. The European response should not be entirely condemned, as the EU has been one of the most responsive governmental organizations. EU member states have made significant efforts to admit tens of thousands of migrants in recent years and have recognized human rights and migrant protection as areas of attention—even if this has not always been backed up by policy. However, there is an inherent conflict between Europe’s self-stated human rights obligations and their chosen course. EU founding documents list human rights protection as a central tenet of the organization, and yet right-wing domestic politics have pushed migrant protection in particular to the fringe of Europe’s priorities. Europe has outsourced responsibility for the thousands of migrants that travel through Libya and COVID-19 has demonstrated that policy to be unsustainable, unsuitable, and especially unjust in a time of crisis. 

Jack Tripp is a rising sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact him at