by Michele Lipori. Confronti Editorial Staff
In a report released last December, UNHCR notes that, at the beginning of 2020, forced migrants (individuals fleeing conflicts, persecutions and human rights violations) numbered approximately 79.5 million. This is an already enormous number which, nevertheless, in June of the same year, rose to over 80 million even despite the restrictions on transit due to COVID-19 and the United Nations’ requests for a “global ceasefire” during the pandemic. This number includes 45.7 million internally displaced persons, 29.6 million refugees or people forced to leave their country against their will, and 4.2 million asylum seekers.
The pandemic, therefore, has by no means halted migratory flows but instead exacerbated the factors that push people to migrate (referred to as push factors by the International Organization for Migration). Furthermore, while COVID-19 has made traveling more dangerous, even worse are the risks involved in staying in refugee camps. Finally, this global public health emergency has provided governments with a motivation to implement major changes to their migration policies, usually restrictive adjustments, sometimes bordering on illegality.
Very few governments have established inclusive measures for migrants present on their national territory, regardless of their legal status; the exceptions are those that, in responding to the pandemic, have been mostly driven by economic and medical needs. One example is Portugal, which temporarily extended residence rights to immigrants who still had their asylum requests pending at the outbreak of the pandemic, and to those who did not have documents but actually resided inside Portugal’s national borders. These measures have made it possible for all these people to access social services and medical care. Italy, too, as a measure to combat undeclared work and the phenomenon of illegal hiring, has carried out a program of regularization of people without documents if employed in certain sectors of the economy. This is the case of laborers and in-home housekeepers and caregivers, for whom an amnesty has been provided for within the so-called Decreto rilancio (the government decree addressing plans to relaunch the Italian economy in the wake of the pandemic) and the Decreto ministeriale del 29 maggio 2020 (a ministerial decree released on May 29, 2020).
Overall, the ongoing pandemic has accentuated trends towards more restrictive migration policies that overshadow the rights of asylum seekers and migrants. COVID-19 was the official motive for the governments of Malta and Italy to close ports to asylum seekers and migrants last April. Moreover, even if the Italian government had allowed port access for various NGO ships, the work of these NGOs has in any case been greatly hindered, not only in the work to rescue migrants but also in the task of monitoring the crisis at sea. Therefore, it is currently difficult to accurately establish the extent of migratory flows and, consequently, of any shipwrecks.
In the Mediterranean area, 90,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe in 2020. A number much lower than in 2019 (123,000) or in 2015, the year in which migrants exceeded the one million mark. According to official estimates, 950 people lost their lives during the journey, although the real number is probably significantly higher. In Italy, 34,154 migrants arrived by sea crossing in 2020 (60% of them from Lampedusa), more than triple the number recorded in 2019 (11,471). By land, 4,100 people reached Italy via the Italian-Slovenian border.
The nationality of migrants arriving by sea is 38% Tunisian, followed by 12% from Bangladesh and 6% from the Ivory Coast. About 4,500 rescue operations were undertaken by NGOs, coastal authorities or civil / merchant boats. Asylum applications in 2020 numbered 26,551, a sharp decline compared to the previous year. Between January and September, 29,547 applications for international protection were examined, while 21% of applicants were granted the status of “refugee” (or subsidiary protection). In the meantime, Law n.173 / 2020 (legge n.173/2020) was published in the Official Gazette n. 314 of 19 December 2020, which amended the decree-law n.130 / 2020 (decreto-legge n.130/2020) on immigration and security, which allows for substantial updates to current refugee reception laws.
Additionally, in September 2020 the European Commission announced new guidelines to prevent the criminalization of sea rescue, which later merged with the New Pact on Migration and Asylum (Nuovo patto sulla migrazione e l’asilo) released last November. However, the European Union, with finances from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTFA), continued to support the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepted more than 10,000 people who were preparing to reach the European coasts and detained them in centers proven to harbor extortion and abuses of every kind.
Regarding the so-called “Balkan route,” following a migrant crisis at the Greek-Turkish border in late February 2020, several press outlets and human rights organizations have documented a sharp increase in deportations by the Greek authorities from the land and sea borders of the country. In this situation, there have even been cases of people abandoned in real floating tents in the Aegean Sea and of asylum seekers who have been moved within the Greek territory and then expelled to Turkey.
At the beginning of September 2020, the fire at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos represented only the tip of the iceberg of the inadequacy of the current European Union reception measures—which the COVID-19 pandemic has made even more evident. After the blaze at Moria, the aforementioned New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum was launched. This package of proposals and guidelines will orient EU countries on the issue of welcoming migrants in the years to come, but a real impact on the lives of migrants still seems distant.