How are coronavirus measures affecting refugees?

Various European Member States have introduced emergency asylum measures in response to the Covid-19 situation. Many of these affect services offered to asylum-seekers and at times raise concerns as to their compatibility with legal obligations in relation to asylum-seekers’ rights to information, legal aid and effective remedy.

Most of the information presented here was shared within the European Legal Network on Asylum (ELENA), a network coordinated by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. Our Director is the Malta ELENA Coordinator. Information is relevant as at time of writing (30 March 2020).

What is happening in Malta?

Although the Office of the Refugee Commissioner is closed, new applications may be submitted via email and we are able to assist with these. Since RefCom is closed, all pending applications will remain pending as no interviews are being held. The Refugee Appeals Board is also temporarily suspending asylum hearings, so no appeal decisions will be taken during these months. Where possible, we are still working on appeal submissions and submitting them to the Board.

Detention centres have been closed for visitors for a number of weeks. Despite our repeated calls for the release of persons who are detained illegally, the situation has not changed much. With no Dublin transfers or returns of countries of origin actually happening, detention on these grounds is no longer permissible. Furthermore, it is worrying to see that the Immigration Appeals Board is also temporarily suspending hearings including those to assess the legality of detention.

We’re not sure this is compliant with the requirements of the European Convention of Human Rights, as this demands that all persons deprived of their liberty have recourse to a process to assess the legality of their detention.

Neil Falzon, aditus foundation Director

As of a few days ago, the Ħal Far Open Centre has been put on lock-down since 8 residents tested positive for the virus. We’ve extremely concerned at this measure as it effectively locks around 1,000 people in unsanitary conditions where self-isolation is impossible. Living in shared mobile containers and sharing toilets and showers – not enough for the number of residents – leads us to question whether this is truly a 14-day measure or whether it will become a form of indefinite detention.

We are doing our utmost to support the residents and relevant authorities, but expect the State to ensure the safety of all residents. Locking down the centre certainly does not guarantee their safety but is a recipe for trouble.

And in the rest of Europe…

Greece suspended procedures for the examination of asylum claims, including the validation of documents. The Appeals Committees are working as usual. Contrary to what the law provides, this suspension was done without the issue of a ministerial decision. The relevant Authority also manages the registry of lawyers providing legal aid, implying that lawyers are no longer able to access case files and are unable to meet with them to provide support. It seems that Greece also plans to accelerate the transformation of the hot spots of Leros and Kos into closed reception centres. Visits to hot spots are suspended to all, except workers. Medical units are to be established in the camps, including isolation rooms for the prevention and treatment of COVID 19 cases.

In Norway, all asylum interviews and appointments with the immigration police have been suspended for the time being. Persons who have already been interviewed will still have their asylum application processed. New residence cards and renewals of cards are being impacted, delaying refugees’ into Norwegian society. It is feared that, due to these measures and due to travel restrictions, family reunification applicants will miss their deadlines. Although deportations have not officially stopped, very few are being carried out. The Immigration Appeals Board is closed, so hearings cannot take place. Asylum applicants are to be quarantined for 14 days after arrival before they can be transferred to other reception centres.

Also in Italy administrative procedures for renewals of residence permits have been suspended. Measures related to judicial activity have also been introduced, such as limited access to judicial offices and suspension of hearings (except in certain circumstances). Additionally, Italian organisations and Italian lawyers have requested the adoption of measures that limit the risk of contagion in detention centres, including immediately suspending any new entries into detention centres and progressively closing the centres as soon as possible. Similar requests have been made in the UK.

The Netherlands closed its borders for newly arriving asylum-seekers, so that even vulnerable individuals such as women, children and the elderly have no place to stay. As an alternative, an emergency shelter has been opened for asylum-seekers so that families with children do not end up on the streets. Additionally, return interviews are no longer taking place, given the impossibility of returning people.

Belgium closed down the arrival centre for newly arrived asylum-seekers, resulting in a situation where these individuals are now unable to apply for asylum or be assigned to a place of reception. The risk of homelessness is clearly a high one.

In Denmark, asylum-seekers will be quarantined for 14 days in a reception centre after being registered with the police, if borders are closed. Detainees are not being allowed visitors, and may not use common areas. All interviews are also suspended, as are appeals. However, no deportations are being made at least until 13 April. Submission of asylum applications is still possible.

Hungary suspended entry into transit zones, which effectively means that access to asylum is suspended until further notice as applications may only be made in transit zones. Furthermore, Embassies are no longer receiving visa applications, so family reunification procedures cannot be started.

France automatically prolonged all residence permits for limited leave to remain by three months.

In Spain, the Ombudsman asked for the release of non-returnable detainees.

We’ll keep you posted with our updates as they happen. Keep following us and thanks for your support!