Migration and displacement – Europe

Refugee rights at a standstill: border closures, pushbacks and discrimination in the wake of COVID-19

Anna Alboth, photos by Karol Grygoruk of RATS Agency

We have been visiting places in Europe touched by the topic of migration for years. Re-visiting the same places, discovering new hotspots, but always staying in touch with people we met: refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, but also NGO workers.

It is always difficult. The feeling of compassion, anger and helplessness is overwhelming, whether you are talking with people on the move in Greece, in Bosnia or in Spain – their situation every year just gets increasingly complicated. And just when you think that nothing can get any worse, along comes COVID-19.

This photo-story is a longer analysis of how the pandemic has placed increasing pressures on refugees and migrants across Europe through heightened border restrictions, suspension of asylum processing, discriminatory restrictions and other measures.

You will see there are no differences between locations at European borders, along the route or in the destination countries: conditions have worsened everywhere.

It is clear that the pandemic has highlighted many gaps in the refugee system across Europe, but it is disturbing to see how some governments have taken advantage of the crisis to push through legally dubious, hardline migration policies under the pretext of public health concerns – measures that could stay in place long after the COVID-19 outbreaks subside.

We found 21 reasons to worry.

The Canary Islands is a strong example of how COVID-19 has driven an increase in arrivals in some areas. According to a survey by Mixed Migration Centre between April 2020 and January 2021, of almost 5,000 asylum seekers and migrants, almost 50 per cent said COVID-19 was a factor in their decision to leave home.

Boat after the arrival from Morocco, in the port of Arguineguín, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

There were disproportionate restrictions on freedom of movement imposed on refugees in Europe. For example, in Greece, residents of Moria camp were allowed to go out only for three hours every week. On the Canary Islands, they were blocked from the mainland and in Italian Trieste, people faced a ban on leaving the city.

Boys from Mali in Puerta de la Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Many countries introduced lockdowns in the camps, even while opening borders for tourists. In Greece, Bosnia and Malta, COVID-19 was an excuse to keep people in the camps, even without positive cases for months. The Council of Europe published a report after visiting Malta, accusing the government of breaking international law and flouting European values by prolonging the detention period several times.

Eleonas, refugee camp just out of Athens in the lockdown, Greece.

Even before the virus reached Europe, reception centres in Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain were operating near or above maximum capacity due to a years-long lack of structural investment. The shortage of reception spaces made it difficult to comply with social distancing guidelines. Some EU states turned to ad hoc housing solutions, enforcing lockdown in difficult living conditions – without access to water, sanitation or sufficient room to socially distance.

Colegio de Educación Especial (CEIP) Leon, school facilities at Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

According to UNHCR, during the first wave of the pandemic 168 countries closed or partly-closed their borders. 90 of them still have not made any exception for refugees. Reaching somewhere that could serve as a safe haven has become even more important for many individuals, yet barriers remain: for example, Chechens on the Polish-Belarusian border could not apply for asylum because they could not take the border train.

Access to the motorway, leading to the port in Calais, France.


While a small number of unaccompanied children have been transferred to Germany and Luxembourg from the Greek Islands in 2020, resettlement, relocation of minors and repatriation programs were suspended, which led to some people spending weeks homeless.

A family at Victoria Square, Athens, Greece.

Everywhere on the refugee route, at least for some weeks, government offices were closed or reduced their services. Legal support, asylum applications, passports, translations – all were stopped, even if waiting times were already very long before the pandemic. Some services have still not resumed.

Asylum claims in EU countries dropped by 31 per cent in 2020. Longer waiting periods increase stress for people in vulnerable situations, especially for people who are homeless or do not have access to social benefits.

Men from Senegal, waiting for the opportunity to go to the police station to apply for asylum, in a temporary facility in hotel Puerto Calma, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands.

After closing the services, there is also less data on migration and movement. In the UK, the International Passenger Survey, one of the main sources of data used to measure migration flows, has been suspended due to the pandemic. Changes in data collection methods may disproportionately affect migrants in the future.

Mobile phone charging station, Grande-Synthe settlement, close to Dunkirk, France.

During lockdowns of refugee camps and in arrival countries, schools and language courses were stopped. For many, education continued through online learning, but this is impossible to access for those who do not have internet or necessary digital equipment. In some cases, children who stopped going to school turned to child labour.

Boys showing their scars, Victoria Square, Athens, Greece.

With closure of borders and new introduced policies, there are less NGOs working locally. Human rights workers already faced restrictions around their operations, but in the wake of the pandemic were also denied access due to COVID-19, making it impossible to report on the situation in camps, shelters and settlements. For example, reports of the deplorable conditions in refugee camps in Malta only emerged after the visit of The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: leaks were dripping from the ceilings and migrants were wearing the same clothes they wore upon arrival in Malta weeks before.

Medical Volunteers International, Thessaloniki. Greece.

The same goes for an even more important witness of the situation: the media. Throughout the pandemic, freedom of the press has been limited, with journalists struggling to access refugee camps in Greece, Serbia, Bosnia and Germany.

Interviewing refugees through fences of Diavata refugee camp, Greece.

With new procedures and local laws, the authorities have also tried to silence the refugees inside and outside of the camps, forbidding them to report on their situation or to talk with the journalists. This is in part thanks to a new law in Greece.

Train station Doirani, at the Greek/Macedonian border.

Due to less NGOs working locally, as well as fewer journalists covering stories from the borders, pushbacks on the waters and borders are less documented. Justified by the excuse that preventing movement helps reduce the spread of COVID-19, the wider public has been more accepting of pushbacks. Yet very few members of the general public in these countries are aware of the violence and mistreatment of refugees, including women and children, these incidents involve.

Bullets found on the Greek/Macedonian border.

For those who, despite restrictions, wanted to help the refugees, new laws were waiting. Restricting and criminalizing NGOs and activists is a weekly occurrence in Greece, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and France.

Remains of evicted settlement, out of Dunkirk, France.

Throughout the pandemic, refugees across Europe have had limited access to information due to language and cultural barriers. Sharing any information regarding COVID-19 is an additional challenge.

Announcement in Ritsona refugee camp, Greece.

Refugees, besides having less access to health care, at the same time are unable to socially distance and access water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Throughout the pandemic, they also struggled to secure COVID-19 testing, since in most countries even basic emergency healthcare may be limited without  registration documents. There is also the issue of mental health services and counselling, something that isolated refugees need more than ever.

Muhammad in Diavata refugee camp, Greece.

Refugees on the move tend to avoid COVID-19 testing or meeting doctors because of a fear of deportation. This is a valid concern, but is used as a reason by governments to enforce lockdowns. Interestingly, even while most borders were at some point closed in 2020, deportations still continued. In Poland, between 15 March and 20 April 2020 alone, when borders were officially closed, 55 people were deported to Russia.

Anti-deportations protests at Las Raices refugee camp, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

For people on the move, lockdowns in countries and cities on their route meant not only empty streets and greater visibility as a result, but also fewer people to offer food, water and other forms of support. With the closure of restaurants and bars, they had no place to stay warm or charge their phones.

Vietnamese settlement close to Grande-Synthe, close to Dunkirk, France.

With livelihoods at a standstill and strict quarantines in place, COVID-19 led to a 40 per cent spike in the number of people in need of humanitarian aid. But traditional donor countries and societies, who are facing their own pandemic crises, are instead focusing on domestic relief packages. As a result, there are less resources and political will for foreign aid.

In the centre of Calais, France.

Refugees and migrants were often the first to be fired when an employer faced financial troubles during the pandemic. Many registered and unregistered workers in Germany lost their source of income and rights to social benefits.

St. John the Baptist Church at the Béguinage church in Brussels, Belgium, where since 23 January 2021 protests have been taking place.

On the top of it all, the rise of xenophobia has become increasingly visible. Some countries even used it as a political strategy: for example, Serbia based their political campaign on anti-migration slogans incited by narratives framing migrants as ‘spreaders’ of the virus.

An area in Las Palmas where the first refugee died at night, because of not being treated in a respectful way, Grand Canaria, Canary Islands.

Photo credits: Karol Grygoruk/RATS Agency.