Article originally published on Privacy International, 2 April 2020 – accessible here

Amid calls from international organisations and civil society urging for measures to protect the migrant populations in Greece and elsewhere, last week, the European Commission submitted a draft proposal to amend the general budget 2020 in order to, among other measures, provide assistance to Greece in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Both at the Turkish-Greek border and in the camps on the Greek islands, there are severe concerns not only about the dire situation in which these people are being forced to live but also on the impact of public health and efforts to curtail the spread of the virus.

The government itself has called the overcrowded camps, where more than 40,000 asylum-seekers are currently trapped as a “ticking health bomb”. Today, Greece has announced that it has quarantined a camp on the outskirts of Athens after at least 20 migrants tested positive for the virus.

The EU urgently needs to step up and provide assistance to protect the health and safety of people trapped in camps on the Greek islands – not just to protect their welfare, but to contain the virus itself.

Unfortunately, the current proposal does everything but that. While the title may refer to the Covid-19 outbreak, the proposed distribution of funds will do little to ensure the safety of migrants in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What will the proposed budget cover?

The EU has for some time now been diverting aid funds to training and financing EU and non-EU security forces and equipping them with surveillance capabilities as part of broader EU efforts to stop migration to Europe. This is another proposal to the same direction.

The Commission proposes to provide “EUR 350 million to meet the needs resulting from the increased migration pressure in Greece” due to the conflict in Syria and the problems with the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement.

In their announcement, the Commission further highlights the effective protection of the external borders of Greece and Bulgaria as a key driving factor for providing additional funds.

Specifically, the Commission proposes to allocate:

  • 220m on creating yet another five Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs) in the Greek islands in 2020.
  • 10m on Voluntary Return and Reintegration Assistance (AVRR) programmes
  • 50m for services in the new camps and emergency items
  • 50m to be available under the Internal Security Fund (ISF) Borders & Visa to cover deployment and operational costs of border guards and police officers at the external border of Greece and/or Bulgaria and acquisition of relevant equipment
  • 10m to Frontex to coordinate a return programme for the quick return of persons without the right to stay to countries of origin from Greece.
  • 10m to European Asylum Support Office (EASO) for the deployment of experts in Greece.

This budget distribution does not tackle the issues raised by the pandemic. Instead, it once again aims at increasing surveillance and control over migrants in yet another attempt to counter migration.

Referring to ‘relevant equipment’ for border control, the budget doesn’t clarify what this is and there is no way to know to what equipment this refers to. Similarly, there is no control on the plans around the camps construction that are primarily built to keep people in camps rather than provide them shelter. “Identification procedures”, which include police or Frontex asking migrants questions, take their fingerprints and picture, and surveillance are the primary means to secure their access to camps and that they stay locked in.

How could the funds actually be used?

In the context of a global pandemic, while everyone is at risk of carrying or contracting the virus, migrant populations can be disproportionately affected because of their existing precarious social, economic and legal contexts. Undocumented migrants or asylum seekers may, for example, be confined in unsanitary and cramped conditions making social distancing impossible. Others may not seek proper care for fear of being reported to the authorities, or if their inability to work means they fear being charged for any access.

To alleviate such fears, Portugal recently announced that all migrants and asylum seekers currently residing in the country have the same rights as Portuguese residents for purposes of receiving treatment for coronavirus. This is an example of how good national policy may encourage migrants to seek medical assistance without fear of deportation or other consequences relating to their residence status – and help fight the virus.

Last week, PI signed a letter with 40 other organisations asking the UK government to take measures to protect migrant populations at risk of Covid-19 and allow them to access healthcare for free and safely.

On 25 March, 121 organisations signed an open letter calling Greece and the EU to take urgent action to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in Greek refugee camps. The European Commission should take into account their demands that have not been reflected in the proposal.

We call for the EU to reconsider its proposal to ensure it aims at promoting the protection of migrants during the pandemic instead of using Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to increase control over them.