The Covid-19 pandemic that has been going on for months has many dimensions. However, the discussions about COVID-19 are generally focused on globalization, states, and economy. Thus, the issue of irregular migration has been ignored since the beginning of the coronavirus. This lack of attention is noteworthy since the migration crisis that started in 2015 has been at the top of the European Union’s (EU) agenda for a long time. Moreover, as pointed in a research conducted in China, there is a correlation between population movements and the spread of the Covid-19. In fact, populist and far-right politicians across Europe have painted the migration flows as a major infection threat. Thus, the EU has implemented stricter migration policies such as shutting ports, asylum authorities and reintroducing border control at internal borders since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The sudden influx of migrants started in 2015 and more than one million people crossed the Mediterranean Sea during the year to enjoy economic, social, and political security. The waves of migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe has continued until today. So far, the EU has failed to agree on a common approach to the crisis and instead, it has implemented a number of short-term measures such as the refugee agreement with Turkey signed in 2016. Although the number of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean has decreased since the agreement, this number is still substantial.
Graphic 1: The Number of Migrants Died between 2015-October 2020 in the Mediterranean
Source: “Migration Route”, Missing Migrants, https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean, (Date of Accession: 26.12.2020).
Unfortunately, the current pandemic does not diminish but rather exacerbates the differences of the members on irregular migration. Many European countries shut down their borders, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, yet this does not end or even temporarily stop the migration crisis. In fact, the number of migrants going to Europe has increased as the virus causes socio-economic difficulties in their countries of origin. Indeed, European leaders rightly fear that the socio-economic impact of the virus will fuel more migration.
The dangerous journey of migrants does not end when they reach Europe. In other words, being able to reach Europe cannot guarantee their safety. Many of them try to reach countries that are economically better than the others in the continent such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The pandemic does not stop migrants to go to their destinations within Europe. In fact, the number of migrants who try to reach the United Kingdom through the English Channel has risen between January 2019 and July 2020. Moreover, 235 migrants died while trying to cross the English Channel on August 6, 2020, alone.
Graphic 2: The Number of Migrants Crossing the Channel between January 2019-July 2020
Source: “Hundreds of Migrants Still Dying in Med Five Years Since 2015”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53764449, (Date of Accession: 24.12.2020).
While the journey of migrants is dangerous, the pandemic has made this even worse. First of all, migrants travel together in a confined space such as a boat. This situation increases the risk of contracting the virus. Secondly, even if they can get through this journey and reach Europe, they need to remain either in overcrowded reception centres or densely populated refugee camps at least for a while. Living in such camps is not easy for migrants. For instance, there was a fire recently that consumed Greece’s Moria refugee camp, Europe’s largest camp, which left migrants homeless. Even before the fire, there was limited access to basic services (e.g. water, food, sanitation and health care) despite the pandemic.
Thirdly, undocumented migrants avoid going to a clinic or hospital due to the fear of being deported. Lastly, migrant smugglers use the pandemic as a vehicle to commit their crimes including sexual exploitation and abandoning the migrants in transit countries.
As the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out one dimension of Covid-19 is xenophobia, hate speech and racism that exacerbate existing challenges. For example, the possibility of assault, harassment and discrimination reduce the willingness of migrants for testing Covid-19. Furthermore, the spread of fake news about Covid-19 is leading to anxieties for both migrants and EU citizens. A study conducted in the Netherlands shows that in a particular centre, force information led some migrants to fear that “contaminated” asylum seekers would be transported to a large container placed in front of their building even though the container was actually for the separation of waste.
The future of the pandemic is uncertain, and the migration crisis is only getting worse during this period. Unfortunately, the reaction from the EU to changing conditions of the crisis has been brutal so far.
 Agnes Szucs, “20 Challenges Awaiting EU in 2020”, Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/20-challenges-awaiting-eu-in-2020/1690153, (Date of Accession: 21.12.2020).
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