COVID-19 in the EU: A Death Sentence for Refugees and Asylum Seekers?

Iro Nestoros, European Social Policy MSc, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh



 The UN Secretary General António Guterres, in respect of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) emphasized that “In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe”. In the midst of a pandemic, against a global threat that knows no borders, our defencelessness and interdependence is irrefutable. At a time where the European Union calls for cooperation and solidarity amongst EU Member States in tackling an unprecedented in size public health emergency, questions of deservingness surface in present policy discourse. Protecting the lives of the most vulnerable has been the core rhetoric in abiding to a number of public health guidelines. Nonetheless, the scope of the ‘vulnerability entitlement’ is at best narrow. The coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately and adversely affected the refugee population in migrant reception camps exacerbating their existing precarious living conditions. However, health policy to date either systematically neglected refugee population in Europe or failed to reflect the reality of refugee camps.


The Case of the Deserving and the Undeserving

The coronavirus pandemic poses a great threat to the lives of the most vulnerable groups of the society resulting in the prompt adaptation of robust public health policies – giving EU institutions a more expansive and active role on explicit health policy. The increasing EU competence and oversight of national public health systems is perhaps perpetuating the ‘Europeanization’ of public health. Nevertheless, the issue of the refugee crisis has remained a blind spot for the EU since Member States are reluctant to cooperate – persistently dominated by national concerns. The coronavirus outbreak has confirmed that public health protection policy is exclusively reserved to some. The coronavirus pandemic transpired and exacerbated human rights abuses in Southern European reception camps. Although, the EU is not a humanitarian organization it has inherently and explicitly advanced human rights. Nonetheless, the coronavirus outbreak and the first confirmed positive case in Lesbos (Greece) accentuated the already dire living conditions in refugee camps. Even though the EU obliges Member States to provide asylum seekers and refugees with adequate standards of living the present situation demonstrates that refugees and asylum seekers endure inhumane living conditions.

The deteriorating situation in reception camps is evident in the overcrowding of reception centres in both Italy and Greece –  where a disproportionately large number of refugees is being housed for months in centres constructed for the purpose of temporary residence. Additionally, access to basic needs namely: water, food and appropriate sanitation, has been heavily restrained – in Moria (Greece) for instance up to five thousand people have no access to water, showers or electricity, an excruciating situation which deems refugees particularly vulnerable to transmission of coronavirus. In fact, infectious disease outbreaks are nothing new in reception camps resulting from dangerous living conditions. Factors such as malnutrition, bad hygiene and lack of adequate healthcare can result in a compromised immune system rendering reception centres population more susceptible to contracting the virus compared to the rest of the population. It is evident that the health of the refugee population is under duress nonetheless European institutions are yet to include migrant camps in their policy plans. Policy decisions persistently ostracize and marginalize reception centres population on false premises of being highly transmissive, yet they are the group mostly in need of support. The virus has been left undetected and uncontrolled – raising important implications of the universal and public nature of healthcare in Europe.


One Size Fits All Policy

The European Union’s response on preventing COVID-19 in refugee reception and detention centres came six months into the development of the virus in European countries, and four months following the first confirmed case in reception centres. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) conducted a lengthy and detailed report providing guidelines on how to appropriately and effectively contain the virus in refugee camps. The ECDC report followed the same pattern of general public health policy – adhering to the principles of social distancing and hygiene practices. Nonetheless, little effort has been devoted in appreciating and reflecting the reality faced by refugees and asylum seekers – a report which remains oblivious to the inhumane and dangerous living conditions across European camps. The ECDC report is deemed inconceivable primarily as a result of the overcrowded situation in reception centres. This implementation difficulty links to a larger issue of ‘asymmetrical responsibility’ in Europe exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. Existing EU legislation identifies the first arriving state responsible for examining asylum applications, excessively ‘burdening’ Southern EU members which assume a disproportionately larger amount of responsibility due to their geographical proximity to main departure points.

Although, the ECDC report calls for relocation of the most vulnerable high-risk population, that appears to be implausible. That is due to the fact that states have reinstated border controls providing questionable justifications, undermining EU legal order – making cooperation and sharing of responsibility onerous. Additionally, ‘host’ countries are often unwilling to relocate the refugee population as populist sentiment in hostile local communities is on the rise with refugees and asylum seekers accused for the economic and public-health hardships of the states. Secondary to the unwillingness to protect the refugee population is the inability of the relapsing Southern European economies to adequately provide for refugees and asylum seekers. The ECDC report in protecting the health and wellbeing of the refugee population is at best lugubrious, a long-delayed operation of ‘boutique humanitarianism’ by the EU in order to live up to its international obligations. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the lack of a coordinated response among EU member states and the absence of solidarity in the expense of the refugee population. It can be argued that the handling of the health emergency in the refugee reception camps is yet another example of failed EU response to emergencies – putting at risk the entire European population.



The coronavirus pandemic has showed that “conceptualizing solidarity in a triangular relation between the EU, the Member States and third-country nationals, is everything but an easy exercise”. It has also signified that some human lives are falsely valued more than others especially during times of emergency. It is once again noteworthy that the coronavirus pandemic knows no borders or citizenship, and it is therefore essential to safeguard everyone regardless of entitlement to protection. Lastly, the coronavirus crisis reminds us once again that we are only as strong as our weakest link and it is in our best interest to prioritize and protect the reception camps population.