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WORLD | 09-03-2020 08:00

Asylum-seekers and coronavirus collide with complicated results

Thousands of asylum-seekers face the political effects of the widespread COVID-19 outbreak.

No entry, says Hungary. Not all at once, says Greece. Watch out, says Croatia: They might have the coronavirus.

This week, thousands of asylum-seekers sit at the intersection of a pair of fast-moving news stories — a spike in migration in Europe and uncertainty about the global spread of the new and sometimes deadly virus. They have found themselves trapped between two worlds, at the mercy of political machinations and governments that are telling them in no uncertain terms: We don't want you here.

The complex situation, which has commanded the attention of rights advocates across Europe and anti-immigration extremists on the ground in at least one nation, is a product of something that happens ever more frequently in today's globalised world: a collision of high-profile global events that places the powerless in a situation far beyond their control.

“The current wave of migrants is not a threat only with the direct risk of terrorism. Most of the illegal migrants are arriving from territories like Iran, which is also a focal point of the coronavirus,” said Istvan Hollik, the communications director of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party.

“We cannot put at risk the security of the Hungarian people, so we continue to say ‘no’ to immigration and we protect the Hungarian borders," Hollik said in a video posted Wednesday on Facebook.

Worries about the potential spread of the new virus by migrants and refugees have also been mentioned as a risk factor by officials in Greece and Croatia. In varying degrees, they have identified migrants as security threats and — also in varying degrees — linked them directly to coronavirus fears.

Hungary has also suspended admitting asylum-seekers into a pair of transit zones on the Serbian border, where they file their asylum claims, because of the concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Officials said the indefinite suspension was done to protect Hungary and the 321 asylum-seekers already in the transit zones.

Four cases of the new virus have been identified in Hungary thus far — including a pair of Iranian students who recently visited their homeland.

'Demonising refugees'

Rights advocates in Hungary aren't happy with the approach. They say the government decision to bar asylum-seekers from the border transit zones was part of a “hate campaign demonising refugees.”

“From the point of view of the epidemic risk, this is only an act to keep up appearances,” the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said in a statement. It noted that people applying for asylum at the transit zones have to wait in Serbia for extended periods, even years, before being allowed into the transit zones.

“No coronavirus testing is carried on travellers arriving from Serbia at the border crossing a few hundreds yards from the transit zone at Roszke,” the group said. As of midday Friday, Serbia had a single confirmed case of the new virus, a 43-year-old man who made several recent trips to Budapest.

Since asylum applications in Hungary can only be made in the transit zones, preventing migrants from entering the complexes built from shipping containers amounts to “the total denial of access to the asylum procedure,” the group said.

In Greece last week, before a migrant crisis on the border with Turkey began, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he planned to step up border security in light of the new virus. He told a cabinet meeting that his approach was informed by the presence of migrants from Afghanistan and particularly Iran, where many cases have been reported. He also outlined plans to build new migrant detention centere on Greece’s eastern islands to replace existing ones that are overcrowded and squalid.

“Our islands, which already face public health problems, must be doubly protected," Mitsotakis said. "To put it simply, we must do whatever we can to prevent the coronavirus appearing — especially (on the islands).”

Iranians make up less than 3% of migrant arrivals in Greece, with Afghans accounting for one in two.

In Croatia, Health Minister Vili Beros said the migrants represent a "potential" risk of spreading the coronavirus, adding that the European Union will find a solution for the problem. So far, Croatia has recorded 10 confirmed cases.

by Pablo Gorondi, Associated Press


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