Pandemic causing roll back of asylum opportunity

Others, COVID-19 , Refugees , Support

Contributed by: Inasmuch


Governments across the world are using the COVID19 pandemic as an opportunity to restrict access to asylum, writes Richard Belcham, Executive Director, Inasmuch Community Society.


It’s been about a year since the pandemic picked up its shocking pace around the world. Its impact has been felt in every corner of the globe, and life as we knew it at the end of 2019 feels like a distant memory. But, along with the changes of remote working, social distancing and vaccine development, there’s also been an insidious roll back on access to asylum for those seeking safety.

Global travel restrictions have had a dramatic effect on the ability of people to escape dangerous and traumatic situations.  According to the UN, following widespread national lockdowns, by April 2020 the overall number of passengers had fallen 92% from 2019 levels, including a 98% drop-off seen in international traffic. And many governments – Canada’s included – have not deemed refugee travel as “essential”, limiting people’s ability to find safety and allowing asylum seekers to be turned away.

With the vaccine rollout accelerating in the Global North, there are some small reasons for optimism. However, those seeking protection are often the least able to access vaccines, and so it’s going to be a long time before these air routes reopen.

Along with travel restrictions, there’s also been the dramatic closure of international borders. 

The Canada USA border has now been closed for a year – and the prospect of its reopening isn’t going to be any time soon. As Canadian PM Justin Trudeau outlined in mid-March: “I think we’re all going to wait patiently until such time as the health situation allows us to loosen border restrictions internationally. That’ll be eventually, but not for today.” A CBC journalist pointed out in reporting the PM’s comments: the official line remains that it’s still too soon to talk about reopening because the virus remains a serious threat. There are still too few vaccinated people; case levels are still concerning; virus variants pose unknown perils.

What’s worse, some governments are using the opportunity of the pandemic and the changing attitudes towards travel, welcome and immigration to harden their stances and deny the ability for people to seek refugee protection in their countries.

The UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, said that although some measures enacted by governments in response to the pandemic were some of the most humane, there had been blanket denials of access to asylum and forced returns to danger. “At the height of the pandemic, 168 countries fully or partially closed their borders with about 90 making no exception for people seeking asylum, seriously limiting access to international protection”, she said.

In Hungary, for example, the Government has extended a decree that authorizes the police to automatically and summarily remove anyone intercepted for irregular entry and stay. While the Hungarian government’s approach to asylum seekers is already well-established, this hardening in attitude is dangerous in precedent. In May 2020, apparently in response to the pandemic, the Hungarian government required people seeking international protection to first express their intent to seek asylum at the Hungarian Embassy in neighbouring non-EU countries before they would possibly be able to access asylum procedures in Hungary.

Further north, in Denmark, we’ve seen the target set for a complete bar on asylum seekers to the Scandinavian country. In an interview in January 2021, Mattias Tesfaye, Denmark’s integration and immigration minister, said that he wanted Denmark to accept “zero” asylum seekers. The next day, Danish PM Mette Fredriksen echoed that statement saying: “We cannot make a promise of having zero asylum seekers, but we definitely can put forward such a vision.”

And in the UK the combination of Brexit and the pandemic has meant that a former dilapidated barracks at Napier in Folkestone, Kent has become a new place to house refugee claimants. The barracks host up to 22 people in a dorm and the only COVID-19 precautions have been the recommendation to “keep two metres apart.” Not surprisingly, COVID has spread rapidly in the barracks, making a bad situation worse. Despite protests from both within and without, documents leaked to the media revealed that more “generous” accommodation would “undermine public confidence in the asylum system.” 

So what does all this mean? And what does the future hold for people seeking asylum across the world?

The challenges aren’t going to let up any time soon. Airlines are already talking about making vaccine certification mandatory – Qantas was first to speak up, closely followed by EasyJet in Europe. Given the difficulties of vaccination in places that are devasated by war or conflict, it’s plain to see that another route for asylum is being severely impacted for those who need it most.

And with governments – including Canada – looking at enshrining these exclusionary measures in law post-COVID, it would seem, as UBC’s Professor Efrat Arbel stated in a recent online public lecture entitled Canadian Refugee Law – who is it protecting?: “We are shrinking the space in which refugees can be. It is the entrenchment of the us and them narrative and flies in the face of legal reality.”