Coronavirus crisis is putting the rights of migrants in danger
The worldwide coronavirus crisis is unique in world history, which makes it interesting to scientists. How do researchers in Nijmegen see the situation from the perspective of their own discipline? In part 12 of the series on Science & Coronavirus, Tineke Strik, professor of Migration Law and member of the European Parliament, discusses how European solidarity regarding migration is coming under pressure.
Belgium, France, Spain, Denmark, Italy. They’ve all closed their borders because of the coronavirus pandemic. Not just refugees, but even residents of the European Union can scarcely get into these countries. ‘It’s the same old nationalist reflex of “our own citizens first”’, laments Tineke Strik. The coronavirus crisis puts the rights of migrants in danger, even if this is against European statutes, according to this Europarliamentarian for the Green Party, who became professor of Citizenship and Migration Law at Radboud University on 1 May.
After all, one of the basic underpinnings of the European Union is that people can move about freely. Countries may not make distinctions between ‘citizens’ of the union on the basis of nationality, but as Strik relates over the phone, that is exactly what is now happening. ‘This poses big problems for people who work across the border or have to be repatriated.’
She explains that the letter of the law dictates that the internal borders must be closed, for reasons like public order or because of serious threats to public health. ‘Countries are now taking these decisions very lightly. The European Commission, to whom they should propose these measures, now gets nothing more than a formal notice that it’s going to happen.’
The border closings have consequences not just for EU residents, the Europarliamentarian continues, but for other migrants as well. For example, no one is accepting refugees from the overcrowded camps on the Greek islands. ‘That goes for the Netherlands too.’
‘Conditions for refugees were already bad’
‘And this is even though conditions for those refugees were already bad. If the virus strikes there, they’ll be defenceless because of the lack of space, toilet facilities and medical care. Besides, it’s now more difficult for aid workers to travel to Greece.’
It’s even more difficult for people fleeing from dangerous areas like Somalia and Syria to reach the EU. Strik comments, ‘Italy and Malta had just reopened their harbours to refugee boats because other European countries had agreed to accept them.’ This is no longer happening because the harbours promptly closed again in reaction to the coronavirus. ‘This means refugees have almost no hope of escaping from the hell of the detention centres in Libya.’
According to the professor, European solidarity with regard to migrants is nowhere to be seen. ‘Besides, it hasn’t just sunk below the level of decency: it’s below the level of basic human rights. Refugees have been sent to the very end of the queue.’
‘You have to ask yourself: is there another way? In European terms, it’s important in times of crisis to respect one another’s rights as much as possible. Even only because of the health risks of neglecting certain population groups.’
This is why Strik is pleased that the European Commission is drafting a proposal to demand that countries on the outer borders of the Union should accept more asylum seekers. ‘’We can’t get the job done on a voluntary basis, certainly not in countries like Hungary and Poland.’
Strik emphasises that mutual solidarity between countries is important not just for the rights of asylum seekers, but simply for our own best interests. If countries like Italy and Greece feel that they have been left in the lurch, nationalist governments could easily come to power there. ‘What if those countries leave the union like the United Kingdom did?’, she argues. ‘Then both the stability and the economic might of the EU would suffer, and our prosperity as well.’