June 11, 2020

The EU’s Approach to Migration and Asylum Needs Revision

By Anastasia Efimova

In the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis, the EU countries are still experiencing the risk of a major influx of refugees and migrants with a new crisis unfolding at the EU’s borders. Despite all the efforts to find workable solutions to tackle the 2015 migrant crisis, the issue is still on the top of the EU political agenda. The previous efforts to come up with an effective EU-wide response haven’t brought about positive changes with some countries being reluctant to the policies of a fair distribution of migrants across the member states and others, particularly border countries, criticizing the EU for the failure to provide the necessary support.

As the past several months witnessed the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe and forcing states to close their borders, the subsequent movement restrictions imposed by the states have hit particularly hard vulnerable refugee and migrant populations. According to the UNHCR estimations, out of 167 states that have imposed travel restrictions, at least 57 countries made no exceptions for people seeking asylum, thus inhibiting the implementation of fundamental principles of refugee protection, which have been put at stake as a side effect of responding to the virus.

The migration issue, especially its humanitarian aspect, has become even more pressing with the crisis that occurred earlier this year at Turkey-Greece border, compounded with the virus outbreak and the subsequent restrictions imposed by the EU member states to confront the pandemic.

Border closures amid the pandemic as well as restrictive measures introduced to contain the spread of the virus, have affected the assistance provided to migrants and asylum seekers and resulted in some countries placing on hold asylum application processes hereby suspending compliance with their international obligations and exacerbating the vulnerable situation of many refugees and internally displaced people. These developments have resulted in the disastrous humanitarian situation at the EU borders and have unveiled the flaws of the EU member states’ approach to the issue of migration characterized in part by the negligence of their commitments to the human rights law and fundamental norms of refugee protection.

The EU’s Approach to Migration and Asylum Amid the Pandemic

In the face of the virus outbreak, some EU countries have opted for a hardline approach and even retreated from their international legal obligations through eroding access to asylum and placing the newly arrived in a situation of increased risk. Thus, Belgium has initially suspended asylum services as early as 17 March without granting the newly arrived access to food, shelter, and other basic, as well as Malta, has shut down its borders, denied the disembarkation of migrants, and thus authorized illegal deportations. Even Germany announced a halt on taking refugees while the country’s decision to suspend the Dublin transfer period was claimed as a violation of the European law. These measures have taken place amid already ongoing crisis situation at the Turkey-Greece border. After Erdogan declared earlier this year that he would no longer impede asylum seekers to cross into Europe, hereby violating the EU-Turkey deal, thousands of migrants stranded at the Turkish-Greek border with many pushed back and tear-gassed by Greek border guards.

The Flaws of the EU-Turkey Deal

The deal struck between the EU and Turkey in 2016 in order to curb the number of migrants crossing into Europe illegally stipulated a one-for-one scheme whereby Ankara would take back refugees entering the EU through Turkey without having undergone a formal asylum application procedure. In return for every refugee repatriated to Turkey, the EU member states would resettle another one in the EU. In turn, the EU pledged €6 billion in financial aid to assist with Turkey’s large refugee population as well as granted trade and travel incentives, including loosening visa restrictions for Turkish citizens.

As the deal entered in force in 2016, the number of migrant arrivals in Europe has dropped by over half within three years, turning Turkey into a home for more than 4 million refugees, most of them displaced Syrians. While migration between Turkey and Greece has fallen by more than 90 % since its peak in 2015.

Despite the significant drop in arrivals to mainland Europe, Greece kept experiencing a massive influx of migrants with more than 70,000 landings on its shores in 2019 and with nearly 35,000 people crammed in Greek refugee camps on the Aegean islands – over 6 times their capacity (as of 20 April 2020). The deal has put a disproportionate burden on Greece and turned the Greek islands into the containment sites and compromised Europe’s commitment to providing the principles of refugee protection and the basic needs of thousands of people trapped on Greek islands.

Turkey’s recent decision not to impede migrants to make their way to Europe through its border amid escalating violence in north-western Syria, claiming that the European leaders failed to maintain the obligations under the deal, has resulted in the influx of tens of thousands of migrants and have created a disastrous situation at the border with police using force to prevent people from crossing the border into the EU.

The current situation has demonstrated that the deal signed between Turkey and the European Union aimed at cracking down irregular immigration turned to be a means to pursue wider political interests for Erdogan seeking political concessions from the EU including the EU’s support in its military efforts in Syria. Thus, instead of engaging in the collective emergency response based on the humanitarian premises, the European leaders opted for the political bargaining with Erdogan in which the refugees were often treated as paws in promoting his political interests in Syria. Indeed, the flaws of the EU-Turkey deal and the subsequent refugee crisis unfolding at the EU borders earlier this year, have revealed all the risks of relying on “outsourcing” means to manage the situation.  The recent crisis has signaled that the EU should come up with an effective collective approach to fix asylum systems and find a sustainable alternative to the deal with Turkey, which has been long criticized by the human rights activists and international organizations as not addressing the key challenges and excluding the human-based approach.

Crisis at Greek-Turkish Border

In the aftermath of Turkey’s decision to open its borders, Greece has suspended the asylum applications in order to contain the influx of refugees crossing the border from Turkey thus putting on hold the right to seek asylum for more than a month, stating that it was invoking the emergency clause due to the high risk of the influx of third-country nationals. However, such provisional measures can be adopted only if approved by the European Council after a proposal from the European Commission in consultation with the European Parliament and, therefore, cannot be adopted by an EU member state unilaterally, according to the UNHCR valuation. This move was strongly criticized by the UNHCR and human rights organizations as breaching the European Union law and international law, stating that “Neither the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees nor EU refugee law provides any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications.” Human rights activists also noticed the deplorable conditions in the refugee camps due to the restrictive measures to stem the spread of the virus. Following the decree, the Greek authorities were allegedly transferring the newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers to the detention centers devoid of basic needs and denying the possibility to lodge an asylum request. Further justifying such measures as a response to the risk of the virus outbreak in the country, the Greek government has instead exposed the asylum seekers to even greater risk, arising from overcrowding and denying adequate access to food, shelter, and medical care, mistreating the particularly vulnerable categories as unaccompanied children. In addition, there were reported cases of arbitrary detention, criminal prosecution, and extrajudicial deportations of asylum seekers without giving access to asylum procedures, which violates the EU standards on reception conditions for people seeking international protection and contravenes the international law.


The recent crisis unfolding at the EU borders interwoven with a coronavirus outbreak, and failure to deliver the commitments on providing support and protection by the EU member states, have put at greater risk migrants and asylum seekers and jeopardized the execution of their fundamental rights. The reliance on the short-term approaches and bargaining with human rights-violating governments has proved to be insolvent. The recent cases of systematic rights violations across the EU, including the arbitrary detentions, denying access to the asylum procedures and extrajudicial deportations in violation of non-refoulment principle, as well as putting migrants and particularly the most vulnerable groups as unaccompanied children at risk, have questioned the role of the EU as a leading humanitarian actor.

As the countries have the right to control their borders and curb illegal crossings, their policies should be compliant with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention that guarantee the right to seek asylum. Even in the context of the pandemic outbreak, the restriction policies posed on migration should be proportional and non-discriminatory and should conform to the states’ international obligations.  Apart from the need to elaborate on effective long-term policies on asylum and migration, it is crucial that the EU uniformly addresses the issue of the ongoing rights violations and ensures that all the EU member states prioritize the human rights over the policies of self-interest.


Amnesty International (March 2020), ‘The EU-Turkey Deal: Europe’s Year of Shame.’ Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/03/the-eu-turkey-deal-europes-year-of-shame/ [Accessed 1 June 2020]

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European Council on Refugees and Exiles (April 2020), EU Member States Face Criticism and Legal Action for Compromising Rights of Asylum Seekers Through COVID-19 Measures’. Available at: https://www.ecre.org/eu-member-states-face-criticism-and-legal-action-for-compromising-rights-of-asylum-seekers-through-covid-19-measures/ [Accessed 23 May 2020]

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European Council on Refugees and Exiles (May 2020), ‘Information Sheet 5 May: COVID-19 Measures Related to Asylum and Migration Across Europe’. Available at: https://www.ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/COVID-INFO-5-May-.pdf [Accessed 23 May 2020]

Friends of Europe (June 2020), ‘Is the EU-Turkey Deal a Sign of Europe’s Double Standards?’ Available at: https://www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/is-the-eu-turkey-deal-a-sign-of-europes-double-standards/ [Accessed 5 June 2020]

Human Rights Watch (March 2020), ‘Greece: Move Asylum Seekers, Migrants to Safety’. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/24/greece-move-asylum-seekers-migrants-safety [Accessed 26 May 2020]

Human Rights Watch (March 2020), ‘Greece: Nearly 2,000 New Arrivals Detained in Overcrowded, Mainland Camps’. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/31/greece-nearly-2000-new-arrivals-detained-overcrowded-mainland-camps [Accessed 26 May 2020]

Smith H. (May 2020), ‘Greece Fears Border Standoff with Turkey Over Migrants’ Return’. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/26/greece-fears-row-with-turkey-over-return-of-migrants-to-border [Accessed 27 May 2020]

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (March 2020), ‘UNHCR statement on the situation at the Turkey-EU border’. Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/3/5e5d08ad4/unhcr-statement-situation-turkey-eu-border.html [Accessed 17 May 2020] 

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Anastasia Efimova

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