During the first two months of 2020, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, asylum-related migration to EU Member States plus Norway and Switzerland was much increased compared to most of the last two years. For example, more than 61 100 applications were lodged in February 2020, up by 14 % compared to the same time a year ago. Citizens from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Colombia lodged the most applications, all in higher numbers than a year ago; Colombian applications, in particular, more than tripled compared to the beginning of 2019. In early March the situation was further exacerbated by the situation at the Greek border with Turkey, where several thousand migrants congregated and attempted to cross the border into Greece supported by the Turkish authorities. Overall in March, coinciding with the implementation of widespread emergency measures across the European Union and beyond, applications for asylum fell dramatically by 43 % to just 34 700, the lowest level since the beginning of 2014. Analysis of open data on the nature and extent of general emergency measures, suggests that the number of measures was a strong predictor of the extent to which applications were reduced – in other words, countries that implemented the most emergency measures also had the largest drop in applications.
EASO has had to swiftly adjust its operational response to the rapidly changing environments across the four Member States where EASO provides direct Operational Support. This exercise is being conducted in a coordinated and planned manner in close communication with each of the national authorities and the EASO Headquarters and within the frameworks of the COVID directives being issued and updated nationally and with due regard to the relevant EASO Executive Director Decisions.
At the time of going to press, no processes requiring face-to-face contact (registration, asylum interviews) are being held in any of EASO's Operations. Instead, the tasks have been adjusted to reflect the situation, focusing on backoffice workflows, mainly on backlog reduction, administrative actions in support of registration, Dublin support (on files not transfers), providing country of origin information, support to appeals, support to general capacity building activities including work concerning policy and procedural improvements. EASO is also actively engaged in the current relocation exercise of Unaccompanied Minors starting in Greece under the Commission coordination. Member State Expert nominations and new deployments have been temporarily suspended and most ongoing deployments ended.
According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the outbreak has so far been extraordinarily concentrated in the developed world. Europe is the most affected continent followed by North America with other continents lagging far behind. With 80 % of all confirmed cases, but only 20 % of the world’s population, high income countries have been disproportionately affected by the outbreak: the USA currently has many more confirmed cases than any other country but Europe has the tightest cluster of highly affected countries with Spain and Italy ranking second and third in the world, and having more confirmed cases per capita than the USA. In the interests of early warning and preparedness, asylum and reception authorities in the EU+1 should consider the risks of the virus taking hold in lower income countries because in recent years, these have been the source of most asylum seekers in the EU+.
There are three overlapping explanations for the unequal distribution of cases between high and low income countries.
Firstly, the infection might be much more equally distributed around the globe than the data suggest, but poor testing and low quality data are painting a distorted picture. Secondly, lower income countries may be inherently more protected from the virus because of their climate or demographics. Finally, the less-connected low income countries may be temporarily buffered from the infection which is yet to take hold.
Some data suggest that low and lower-middle income countries may be at inherently lower risk of massive COVID-19 outbreaks because they are in warmer sunnier locations, plus their populations tend to be younger and less obese. In addition, fewer international connections and more rural populations could be responsible for delaying the outbreak, but this would be temporary especially if lockdowns unintentionally encourage internal travel. In any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that there are more cases than are being reported, but the scale of this disparity is unknown.
Overall, available data seem to suggest that low and lower-middle income countries may be at higher risk of latent COVID-19 outbreaks. According to the Joint Research Centre's (JRC) Epidemic Global Risk Index the countries of origin that tend to apply for asylum in the EU+ have medium to high vulnerability to hazards (including infections) and suffer from a lack of coping capacity. This is particularly the case for Afghanistan, Bangladesh, DR Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria. Similarly, the main countries of origin also have far fewer hospital beds and medical doctors per capita. On top of this, regular handwashing is not possible without running water: 84 % of all households in DR Congo do not have access to handwashing facilities, nor do more or less half of all households in Sudan, Somalia, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. Similarly, social distancing is not possible for those living in overcrowded conditions: in Sudan 92 % of the urban population lives in slums, a situation that is also common in Somalia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria.
Finally, low levels of literacy may inhibit the spread of effective information, and lockdowns may not be possible if countries can’t afford to compensate the stay-at-home population.
At the same time, the suspension of global coalition operations across the Middle East has left a power gap that ISIS is looking to exploit. Being self-contained, living in remote hideouts, drawing on independent food and water caches, and powering electronic devices with solar power, ISIS is already socially isolated and well-prepared for lockdowns. Since local troops are poorly equipped and distracted by disaster relief and enforcing nationwide curfews, when the virus has done its work, the international community may return to a regrouped ISIS once more present and more active across much of the so-called caliphate.
This analysis confirms that ‘overall’ asylum-related migration to the EU+ was increased in 2019, was further amplified at the beginning of 2020, and then was put under more pressure by the dramatic situation at the Greek border with Turkey. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, which is disproportionately concentrated in the developed world, travel bans and other emergency measures have almost completely eliminated the number of asylum applications being lodged in the EU+, despite guidance to the contrary. In the interests of early warning and preparedness, national asylum and reception authorities should reflect upon the medium to high risk that the outbreak will eventually take hold in the countries of origin and transit. In turn, indirect (i.e. recrudescence of ISIS) and direct consequences (famine, conflict and security risks) of the virus might affect asylum-related migration to the EU+, and contribute the most to new applications or the reception population.