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EU asylum claims drop to lowest level in 12 years amid COVID-19 border closures

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Migrants wait outside the Greek government's asylum service to submit documents for asylum claims, in Athens on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Migrants wait outside the Greek government's asylum service to submit documents for asylum claims, in Athens on Thursday, June 11, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris
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Asylum applications in the European Union have dropped to their lowest level in over a decade after countries went into lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Only 8,730 asylum applications were made in April according to the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), an 87 percent drop compared to January. The EASO said this was the lowest level registered since at least 2008.

Human rights advocates have said border closures and travel restrictions across the continent have worsened the challenges of people fleeing war and poverty.

Most applicants were from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey.

"In many cases, the drop in applications is due to member states and countries in Europe actually limiting access to their asylum systems, and not allowing individuals to lodge asylum applications," said Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a pan-European alliance of NGOs defending the rights of displaced people.

"This was either due to the health emergency, or in some cases, countries used COVID to justify restrictions that they were already planning, or restrictions that were already in place," she told Euronews.

The EASO figures also show a 43 percent drop in asylum applications between February and March, when member states began imposing lockdowns and the EU shut its external borders.

As national and travel restrictive measures begin to ease, EASO expects that asylum applications will slowly begin increasing.

In limbo

A number of people have been left "in a situation of limbo" as a result of the coronavirus crisis, sometimes in "situations of danger and threat," according to Woollard.

Some 400 migrants were left stranded at sea for weeks off the coast of Malta pending negotiations with EU countries to accept them. The European Commission said on Monday that Portugal, France and Luxembourg had agreed to take them in.

Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency has urged Greece to investigate reports that Greek authorities have been pushing migrants and asylum seekers back into Turkey.

"The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the plight of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, but people who are forced to flee conflict and persecution should not be denied safety and protection under these circumstances," UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said on Friday.

Some good news has however emerged from the coronavirus crisis, Woollard said.

"For instance, we saw an easing of detention regimes. We saw increased access to healthcare for certain categories of people, and we saw better access to the right to work," she said, citing the case of refugees with a medical background helping out in overwhelmed hospitals.

"We would also argue that these positive measures should be consolidated, while at the same time the negative measures are repealed."