A new strain of COVID-19 has led to a 48 ban on travel between France and the UK. This has caused long tailbacks of lorries waiting to cross the border. The French authorities have been fearful of this situation occurring from January 1st as a no-deal Brexit may cause chaos for imports and exports traveling across the channel. They have responded with brutality, forcibly evicting camps and confiscating possessions. There have also been millions of pounds spent on increased security around the borders of northern France, including barbed wire fencing around ports where migrants could access lorries. Increased security has seen a drop in migrants traveling by lorry, however, has also been quoted as a reason for the increase in people traveling by dinghy. Asylum seekers at the French border are left with nowhere to go. To remain in France means to be brutally attacked with no shelter or access to food. To travel to the UK by dinghy is notoriously dangerous and may now lead to a criminal conviction or being housed in ex-military camps that are being deemed open prisons. Closed borders, increased security, and their criminalization leaves them destitute with little to no hope.
The impact of border closures on asylum seekers throughout the COVID epidemic has been catastrophic. Across the world, countries are using COVID as an excuse to turn asylum seekers away and refuse them access to making claims within their country. Malta and Italy, early in the pandemic failed to respond to multiple overloaded dinghies and refused to allow over 200 asylum seekers to disembark, leading to the death of at least 5 people. Increased efforts by militarised European security and border control has already faced criticism for carrying out illegal push backs off the shores of Greece and there is a real danger that COVID is being used as an excuse to repackage and extend migration control policies that would be deemed illegal under normal circumstances. In addition, much of Europe, including the UK, have suspended any resettlement and relocation mechanisms. The impact of these knee-jerk policy reactions combined with government withdrawal of support for NGOs and rescue teams have left people in limbo in the middle of the sea for days, with little to no food or water or facing deportation were the risks they were fleeing remain.
This situation is not unique to Europe. The US has also quoted the need to protect public health as a reason to stop accepting asylum claims at the US-Mexico border whilst simultaneously deeming travel for study or business as essential. Putting business needs above those fleeing danger and persecution is completely unjustifiable. Deporting people without allowing them a fair assessment of their claims goes against international and US law and policy yet is being deemed acceptable due to exceptional circumstances that COVID presents. Countries in the Sahel region also shut their borders leaving people fleeing violence unable to cross and access their right to asylum leaving them displaced within their own country. The number of internally displaced persons reached record-high numbers in 2019 but this year those numbers have almost tripled. In its mid-year update, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recorded more than 14.6 million new internally displaced persons across 127 countries and territories during the first half of 2020. To seek refuge domestically puts additional strain on countries with limited resources due to conflict or disaster and often results in increasingly dire situations for displaced people. The pandemic has exacerbated this the ability to deliver aid and access to basic health care services has become more difficult. In addition, internally displaced people hosted in camps are at an increased risk of COVID-19 as the camps are overcrowded with poor basic amenities and hygiene facilities.
The border closures across Europe have not seen a reduction in asylum claims it only serves to make the journeys asylum seekers are forced to take more dangerous. If the UK home secretary is serious about cracking down on illegal smugglers and creating change from the 1st of January, there is a desperate need for legal routes to safety to be created across the continent that will put an end to the need for people stowaway in lorries. COVID-19 is not an excuse to deny people fleeing conflict, persecution, and disaster their right to claim asylum. There are ways to protect public health whilst stile upholding a moral commitment to protect those in need. The UN has suggested implementing quarantine periods for those arriving at the borders, similar to the policies put in place for people choosing to travel internationally for leisure or business.
These policies are already set up in many countries and a refusal to do this for asylum seekers is merely an excuse to extend their harsh treatment over fair protection. There is also a need for governments across the globe to recognize the severity of the issue and the danger closed borders are created for millions of people already in dire need of support. Localized financial support, as well as capacity building, is needed to support local governments and organizations to support the increase in internally displaced people. COVID-19 has seen the world come together to find a vaccine in record speed, communities rise up in the face of adversity to support each other and lend a hand. Yet asylum seekers and displaced people have been left stranded and taken the brunt of yet more inhumane and restrictive policy. It is time to end the inhumane tactics put out in the name of public health and national security that do nothing other than worsening trauma and hardship and extend the compassion and support achieved throughout this pandemic to all, including the millions of displaced people around the world.