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Can Europe deal with more migration post-COVID?

October 9, 2021

Unauthorized immigration to Europe went down at the peak of the pandemic. As EU countries reopen, migrant flows are back up. What does it mean for the EU — and for migrants?

Refugees and migrants wearing masks wait to get on a bus after their arrival at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, on Monday, May 4, 2020
The EU could see a surge in migrants arriving as the pandemic gradually ebbsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Giannakouris

For the many in Europe who have weathered the waves of the coronavirus pandemic, being in a crowd once again is a surreal feeling. As European countries emerge from the peaks of the pandemic, the masks are off and lockdowns seem to be a thing of the past. With high vaccination rates, many European Union countries are facing a brave new post-COVID-19 future.

While COVID-19 closures significantly reduced flows of illegal immigration to Europe in 2020, those numbers are now increasing as 2021 progresses. And not only are migrants making up for lost time — it seems the coronavirus pandemic may become a significant factor in increasing migration, including along dangerous sea routes.

Add to this the vulnerability of migrants and the economic impacts, and the EU could be facing a perfect post-COVID-19 migration storm.

Maskless and lockdown-free in Denmark

COVID-19 closures reduced migration to EU

More than a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, a body of data and analysis points to how COVID-19 restrictions in European countries affected migrants and asylum-seekers.

Border controls, travel restrictions, and other efforts to stem the spread of the virus initially significantly reduced migration to Europe.

In 2020, "the EU as a whole registered a 33% year-on-year decrease in asylum applications," the European Commission reported at the start of 2021. Meanwhile, irregular border crossings dropped to rates not seen since 2013, the commission continued.

This also included some troubling developments for human rights.

Many asylum offices and consulates closed, while some ports were declared unsafe.

Asylum-seekers were unable to lodge claims in some cases. Limits on the freedom of movement at times trapped asylum-seekers in unsanitary conditions, for example on Lesbos; or they were quarantined offshore at arrival countries.

Children fleeing from the burning refugee camp Moria on Lesbos
Fire destroyed Greece's largest migrant camp Moria, on the island of Lesbos — the camp's overcrowded conditions were heavily criticizedImage: Angelos Tzortzinis/dpa/AFP via Unicef Deutschland/picture alliance

But not only did coronavirus measures reduce immigration to Europe, it also altered the flows. Specifically, border closures in Greece pushed people away from the eastern Mediterranean. And into the more deadly central Mediterranean — that is, via North Africa to Italy — where many migrants lose their lives at sea.

Illegal immigration doubles on largest routes

Recent data from EU border agency Frontex paints a different picture for 2021 so far.

According to Frontex, January through August 2021 saw a 64% increase in irregular migration to the EU over the previous year. Traffic over the western Balkan route — which runs via Turkey through Balkan countries such as Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia — and in the central Mediterranean route nearly doubled.

Illegal border crossings to Europe 2020 vs. 2021

"The relaxation of COVID restrictions is a key factor in the overall increase of arrivals," Frontex told DW.

Meanwhile, the eastern Mediterranean saw a decrease in illegal border crossings, likely related to Greece's border closures.

Of the circa 41,000 people registered to have crossed through the dangerous central Mediterranean route illegally so far in 2021, the largest group by far were Tunisians. After that, Bangladesh and Egypt were the top countries of origin. Libya and Tunisia were the main countries of departure.

Mirroring that doubling of illegal crossings via the central Mediterranean route from 2020 to 2021, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded 1,163 migrants missing at sea in the region through September of this year — compared to 619 sea deaths over the same time period last year.

Migrants from Tunesia travel in a small raft on the Mediterranean toward Lampedusa, Italy
The central Mediterranean migration route to Europe is the most trafficked — and most deadlyImage: Jesús Hellín/dpa/EUROPA PRESS/picture alliance

"What we are unfortunately seeing is yet another year where more than 1,000 people have died needlessly," said Julia Black, a project officer at the IOM Global Migration Data Analysis Center (GMDAC).

The western Balkan route also saw twice as many illegal crossings compared to the previous year. Most of those were migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco.

Crossings by land from Belarus to Poland have also spiked — this represents a separate situation that is specifically connected to geopolitical retaliation on the part of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Although this crossing involves a relatively small number of people, concerns about human rights violations are growing around that route.

The coronavirus crisis propels people north

"The central Mediterranean route is particularly affected by the economic downturn due to the pandemic in the geographically associated regions and (related) political developments acting as push factors in major countries of origin and transit," Frontex said.

Some analysts concur that COVID-19 has been a driving factor.

"It is safe to say that COVID has increased and will increase push and pull factors that drive irregular migration towards Europe," said Martin Hofmann, a senior adviser at the International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD).

"In Tunisia, for instance, the decline in tourism and the subsequent decline in income prompted a significant number of Tunisians to try to reach Europe in an irregular way," Hofmann added.

The center of Tunis is deserted amid lockdown on May 9, 2021
Loss of tourist revenue due to the coronavirus crisis has been a significant push factor for Tunisians coming to EuropeImage: Wassim jdidi/PanoramiC/imago images

Another major migration factor is uneven economic recovery forcing people to seek income opportunities abroad. "First trends speak for increasing imbalances that create more push and pull factors for migration toward the rich (and faster-recovering) countries of the Global North," Hofmann told DW.

"Economic and social repercussions generated by the pandemic in many third countries, both of origin and transit, are likely to continue to fuel migration flows," Frontex added.

Such increased migration flows, in turn, have impacts on the economy — and on the spread of COVID-19.

Vulnerability of migrants has domino effect

A key point is how migrants are more vulnerable to — and more affected by — the spread of COVID-19.

"In the case of irregular and low-skilled migrants, their living and working conditions tend to mean that the incidence rate of COVID-19 infections, and unfortunately also of deaths among this particular group of migrants, tend to be higher than among non-migrants," said Asha Manoharan, a data analyst at the IOM GMDAC.

Irregular migrants also tend to have very limited access to health care, including COVID-19 vaccinations, Manoharan said. IOM has found that "only 33% of 152 countries globally included irregular migrants in their official national vaccination plans," she added.

Yet "migrants are a vital part of the labor force in Europe and across the world," Manoharan told DW.

Miriam, 17 years old from Marocco, works picking strawberries, in Palos de la Frontera in Huelva, Spain, on 26 January, 2009
European agriculture is dependent on migrant workers, such as this strawberry picker from MoroccoImage: AFP/Getty Images

An estimated 13% of all key workers in the EU are immigrants, making them an important part of the COVID-19 response. Beyond that, many EU countries rely on seasonal migrant workers which had an impact fact during the first pandemic harvest season.

Taken together, the vulnerability of immigrants to COVID-19 has knock-on effects that ripple through the EU economy. The most effective way to address this, Black told DW, is by addressing the instability that drives irregular migration, for example in North African countries.

Countries in the EU and beyond could implement some concrete policy responses to address migrants' vulnerability to COVID-19, such as "specifically including irregular migrants in health care and vaccination plans," Manoharan concluded.