Migration is ticking up due to mounting unrest in the eastern Mediterranean, putting Southern Europe – and Greece especially – under increased strain. Since February, tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to cross into Europe’s borders after Turkey reneged on an agreement with the EU to prevent them from doing so. Turkey hosts 3.5 million refugees while Greece is a haven for more than 120,000 migrants whose asylum applications are pending.
In a show of solidarity to the Mediterranean country, Portugal is taking in 500 children currently housed in camps on Greek islands as soon as restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus are lifted. The move is part of a larger voluntary scheme to help relocate 1,600 migrants and asylum seekers who have reached European shores. Other EU states, including Germany, Ireland, France, and Luxembourg, are involved in the initiative. Luxembourg has already taken in 12 children, while Germany has taken in 50. Finland has also agreed to take in 100 undocumented children currently waiting in Greece.
“The commitment to take in 500 of the (over) 5,000 unaccompanied minors in camps in Greece remains and it will happen as soon as restrictions due to the pandemic allow us,” Portugal’s Foreign Minister Santos Silva told a parliamentary committee, according to local news agency Lusa. Last week’s announcement regarding the increase comes after a previous statement that 60 unaccompanied minors from Greek refugee camps were awaited in Portugal over the next few weeks, though specific dates have yet to be confirmed.
Many migrants in Greece are unaccompanied minors – totalling approximately 5,200 children adrift without parents, guardians, or other family to care for them. Refugees who succeeded in making the treacherous Mediterranean crossing now endure harsh conditions in Greek refugee camps. Close quarters and lack of hygienic resources are of marked concern as the coronavirus pandemic continues on. Most of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece hail from Syria and come to Europe via Turkey, though a number also migrate from Afghanistan, Iraq, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Earlier this month, Silva pointedly accused the rest of Europe of failing to uphold the relocation scheme, which is a critical component to Europe’s overall migration response. “These children live under bad conditions. They live in refugee camps with [the] triple, quadruple and in many cases up to five times the population they are able to accommodate.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Portugal has ensured that the migrants already in the country have been properly supported. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has said it is planning to “take advantage of the reduced pressure on the housing market in the capital” to move some of these asylum seekers into hostels and apartments left empty due to a decrease in the tourists who would normally be using them.
Outbreaks in a hostel late last month – where many migrants were living – led the government to test over 500 for infection and move some individuals into empty hotel rooms, deserted by tourists when the outbreak first began. In late April, a single confirmed case of Covid-19 in a different hostel in Lisbon revealed that out of 175 residents, 138 were infected.
The hostel outbreak has prompted inquiries into overcrowded housing conditions that are ideal for spreading the disease. This concern is still at play when discussing housing for the 500 children Portugal has volunteered to take in, especially as the country already hosts more than 800 migrants in hostels across the country while their applications for asylum – which have nearly tripled over the past five years – are pending processing.
The Council for Refugees (CPR), a Portuguese organisation responsible for housing individuals whose applications are being processed, only has the capacity to accommodate 150 people. The remainder are placed in hostels or social housing, but those conditions are often crowded with several people to a room – a potentially deadly setup while in the midst of a global pandemic. Health Minister Marta Temido confirmed that an analysis of Portugal’s coronavirus situation indicated that co-habitation and contagion in concentrated spaces like care homes or hostels were a major cause of virus transmission.
Even so, Portuguese housing conditions are generally considered a step above Greece’s migrant camps. Human Rights Watch has accused the Greek authorities of not doing enough to address the “overcrowding and lack of health care, access to adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products” in the camps to limit the spread of coronavirus.
A Novel Approach
Portugal has earned international applause for its novel approach to immigration during the pandemic as migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees with pending cases were granted temporary citizenship rights in March for the duration of the pandemic.
In an interview with Newsweek, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, the Associate Director of the Migration Policy Institute’s International Program, told Newsweek that she believed the decision came down to Portugal’s overall goals and values. “I think all countries are facing some practical questions and some value-related questions in terms of how they approach immigration right now,” she said.
Despite being near some of the hardest hit frontline countries, Portugal has not been a major destination for migrants and asylum seekers the way Italy and Greece have. This means that Portugal also has not faced the anti-immigration rhetoric and eurosceptic backlash seen in several other eurozone countries, and instead has been looking for ways to increase immigration. “Portugal had been exploring ways to open itself up to immigration in the past few years and since the 2015-2016 European migration and refugee crisis, it had already veered in a different direction than other countries,” Banulescu-Bogdan noted.
The country’s deliberate move to ensure that asylum seekers received the same medical coverage as their citizens and permanent residents is part of Portugal’s cultivated pro-immigrant attitude. It also ensures that there are fewer risks to public health overall by reducing the vectors available for the virus to spread. “It comes out of this already deep history of being quite open to immigration in a way that other countries weren’t,” Banulescu-Bogdan commented.
“Every country is facing a trade-off between enforcement, management goals, and public health goals. They have to balance those trade-offs and also achieve some of the objectives that relate to a country’s prior goal and values. So, I think in some places where we’ve seen a lot of restrictions, those really do reflect things that political parties had wanted to achieve in terms of immigration restrictions even before the crisis. A public health emergency gave them the cover they needed to push through pretty draconian restrictions and in some cases, all-out halts on certain streams of immigration or all-out border closures,” Banulescu-Bogdan said. But in Portugal, the same cost-benefit analysis brought about the opposite result.
Other Cities Get on Board
Since stepping forward to house some of these unaccompanied and undocumented children, ten European cities have joined Portugal in this initiative – including Amsterdam, Barcelona and Leipzig – and have also pledged shelter to unaccompanied migrant children living in desperate conditions on Greek island camps or near the Turkish border. However, the kind gesture remains just that if the national governments do not agree, and seven of the ten cities are in countries that have not yet volunteered to take in children under the European Commission’s relocation effort first launched in March.
“We can provide these children with what they now so urgently need: to get out of there, to have a home, to be safe, to have access to medical care and to be looked after by dedicated people,” the cities declared in a joint letter.
The Dutch government is one EU country that has not volunteered. Rutger Groot Wassink, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor for social affairs, said he was disappointed in his government’s decision, as he believes the Netherlands could house hundreds of children in need – just like Portugal. “It’s not that we can send a plane in and pick them up, because you need the permission of the national government. But we feel we are putting pressure on our national government, which has been reluctant to move on this issue,” Wassink said. A fierce and ongoing debate in the Netherlands exists over refugees, with a large portion of the nation’s citizens feeling that their state has done enough to house asylum seekers within their borders.