The Greek Refugee Crisis: How COVID-19 Is Altering The EU’s Response

E.U. member states have so far faced some of the worst impacts from the COVID-19 crisis. Key members of the bloc, including Spain, Italy, and Belgium, have noted some of the highest number of cases and deaths per capita worldwide. The vast majority of its population has experienced some element of a lockdown and as a result is now facing some of the harshest economic hardships since the 1930s. As a result, the European refugee crisis, now focused in Greece, has lost its priority as one of the E.U.’s greatest concerns. With this, the wellbeing of the refugees implicated will be gravely affected as member states turn to inward-facing strategies to deal with the virus.

In view of the crisis, the E.U. commission has announced that it has allocated a budget of €350 million in continued support to Greece’s mitigation and adaptation strategies for already crowded refugee camps. Plans to relocate the most vulnerable members into empty hotels, have been announced, using the funds, as well as building new camps and providing healthcare equipment. A further €350 million is also subject to approval by the European Parliament. Additionally, the E.U. conceded with the Greek authorities’ request for the relocation of 1,600 unaccompanied minors amongst member states.

In the case of the children, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has praised the action of the E.U., singling out Germany’s very much appreciated “act of solidarity… in the era of coronavirus.” “Dealing with the migration crisis should be a European responsibility. We should be burden-sharing,” he added. Despite this pledge however, according to Emran Feroz of Foreign Policy, “most EU countries are acting hesitantly to help refugees”. He cites the MEP Erik Marquardt of the Greens/European Free Alliance, stating that the narrative is being dominated by far-right views, and that this show is merely a “cynical political charade.”

This worry has also been highlighted by Pawel Zerka of the European Council of Foreign Relations, warning that “the epidemic has bolstered the cause of those who have long opposed refugees — most of them the same parties and politicians who advocate for strict border controls.” In the face of a virus that is already stressing the resolve of most member states, the priorities of national demands will take precedence, ensuring that the interests of refugees across the bloc will be further relegated.

The virus again looks to ameliorate the already dire situation of the world’s most vulnerable, whilst intensifying a conflict of interests across the E.U. between the securing of citizen concerns over the safety of refugees across Europe. In the past decade, E.U. member states have seen an overwhelming influx of refugees crossing through the Mediterranean. Many thousands died on these journeys, yet the UNHCR reports that by the end of 2015, 5.2 million refugees had completed the journey, with a further 27,000 sea arrivals in 2019 alone.

Many more now reside in camps across the Aegean islands, including Lesbos where the UNHCR states that “the risks faced by the most vulnerable individuals, pregnant women, new mothers, the elderly and children are among the worst seen in refugee crises around the world.” The continuing build-up of refugees along the Turkish border with Greece will also continue to test the E.U.’s resolve during and especially after the fallout of COVID-19 from both economic and political perspectives. As the virus aggravates these issues, the capacity for the E.U. to meet its key pledge to protect humanitarian values will come under increasing scrutiny, questioning the very purpose and long-term success of the union.