The coronavirus lockdown cut the number of asylum seekers reaching Europe, but the pandemic could trigger more arrivals in future if it worsens turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union asylum agency said.
With global travel all but grounded, the EASO agency said in March the bloc logged about half as many asylum claims as in February. The bloc’s border agency said illegal crossings into Europe halved from February to March.
EASO said coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East and North Africa could potentially cause food shortages, destabilise security and strengthen militant groups such as Islamic State. That could lead to “increases in asylum related migration in the medium term”, EASO said in a report.
“The main countries of origin of applicants for asylum have medium to high vulnerability to hazards (including infections) and lack coping capacity,” it said. “Destabilising effects resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks can affect future asylum trends.”
Since more than a million asylum seekers arrived in the EU in 2015, the bloc cracked down on immigration and provided aid to Turkey and Libya to shut down routes used by migrants. UN data shows less than 123 000 people made it to the bloc last year and 22 000 so far this year.
Some EU countries on the Mediterranean Sea said the coronavirus crisis makes it difficult to accept migrants rescued at sea. The Council of Europe rights watchdog wrote to Malta last week saying it was obliged under international humanitarian law to accept rescued migrants despite the virus.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson plans an overhaul of the bloc’s asylum system, which unravelled in 2015/16 as southern front-line countries accused others of failing to help them cope with mass arrivals of refugees and migrants.
EU cohesion was damaged as wealthy destination countries like Germany and Sweden rebuked eastern ones like Poland and Hungary – with nationalist and eurosceptic governments – for refusing to take in new arrivals.
“Our upcoming pact on migration and asylum builds on the idea migration is normal, that we need to manage it rationally by working together,” Johansson said.
A senior diplomat in the EU hub Brussels for a government reluctant to accept asylum seekers warned the matter remained divisive.
“Hosting refugees is a clear no-go for my government and others. The Commission will have one shot at this – if they don’t get it right, there will be more acrimony instead of a fix.”