Even a pandemic can’t stop the desperate flow of refugees to Europe


In the circumstances, an EU humanitarian package might serve as a band aid but not much more.

Influx. Members of a German rescue NGO on a rubber boat during an operation off the Libyan coast. (AFP)

In the weeks since the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, it’s become clear that the outbreak of disease can paralyse national economies but not the flight of desperate people across the Mediterranean to apparent safety. How else to explain the fact that migrants are still travelling from Libya towards Europe? In the last week or so, more than 500 migrants left Libya for Europe, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). On April 12, the Italian government had, perforce, to quarantine a ship-load of migrants at sea.

The good thing is it didn’t try to send them back. The way things are going right now, “no state wants to rescue” migrants, according to the German non-profit Sea Watch. Libya, Italy and Malta have all shut their borders citing the pandemic. Last week, Libya refused entry to about 280 returning migrants. IOM initially said Libyan ports appeared to have closed altogether. But later, the UN Refugee Agency’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel clarified that “Libya’s Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration does not seem able or prepared to take more detainees.” Under the terms of a deal between Italy and Libya’s UN-backed government, signed in 2017 and renewed last November, the Libyan coastguard is meant to stop migrant boats heading for Europe and return their passengers to Libya. But the pandemic seems to have thrown all of that into doubt.

So what rights, if any, do refugees have during a once-in-a-century pandemic? The first point to note is that refugees and asylum-seekers are recognised under international law. Although unprecedented times require unprecedented measures, it’s reasonable to say that migrants of all sorts should at least be entitled to just and humane treatment. In this context, there is no more shining example than Portugal. Earlier this month, Portugal granted full citizenship rights, through June 30, to all refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants with pending applications for residency certificates. This will allow them to access healthcare, a government spokesperson explained. The decision stands as one of the more heartwarming instances of pragmatic humanism in the age of the coronavirus.

Elsewhere, not so much. The exceptional circumstances of a pandemic have justifiably prompted border closures and travel restrictions, but it’s all too clear that several countries are simply using the coronavirus outbreak to push the same restrictionist policies they pursued before. It was on March 1, before a single coronavirus case was recorded in Hungary, that it suspended the right to claim asylum in the country, claiming there was a connection between the disease and illegal migration.

Landlocked Hungary has the luxury of self-isolation afforded by its geography, but not island nations like Malta. On April 13, Malta’s foreign minister and home minister jointly wrote to the European Union’s (EU) High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to demand “imminent and substantial” humanitarian assistance for Libya to deal with “the rapidly deteriorating migration situation in the Mediterranean during this testing hour.”

Malta’s argument was stark. Unless the EU launches a humanitarian mission for Libya with at least 100 million euros “today and not tomorrow,” there may be little or no “incentive” for migrants to stay put in Libya rather than making for European soil. Accordingly, the Maltese ministers wrote, the EU should “boost the empowerment of the Libyan Coast Guard in enhancing the control of its borders, as well as concretely ensuring that Libya represents a safe port for the disembarkation of migrants.”

The issue will be discussed at an emergency EU meeting. But a second tangential point may be harder to confront. With the pandemic triggering the worst economic downturn since the 1930s’ Great Depression, poor countries face the prospect of debt crises and political turmoil. This, in turn, could prompt massive outflows of migrants towards the rich world, especially Europe. As Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, recently noted: “Trouble travels. It doesn’t stay in one place.”

The implications are dire for conflict-scarred countries like Libya. In the Maltese letter to EU High Representative Borrell, the ministers described Libya as “a complex landscape plagued with difficulties across conflict, health, humanitarian and migration dimensions, all of which are snowballing at this very moment.” The COVID-19 crisis, they added, is “leaving its mark in Libya and is weakening an already fragile health system.” More than 650,000 people wait to “leave Libyan shores for Europe,” they warned.

In the circumstances, an EU humanitarian package might serve as a band aid but not much more.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly