The coronavirus lockdown has so far reduced the number of asylum seekers able to reach Europe, but the pandemic could lead to a bigger wave in future if it brings turmoil to the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union's asylum agency said.
With global travel all but grounded, the EASO agency said that in March the bloc logged only about half as many asylum claims as in February. The bloc's border agency has also said illegal crossings into Europe halved from February to March.
But the Malta-based EASO said coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East and North Africa could potentially cause food shortages, destabilise security and strengthen the hand of militant groups such as Islamic State. That could lead to "increases in asylum-related migration in the medium term".
"The main countries of origin of applicants for asylum in the EU+ have medium to high vulnerability to hazards (including infections) and suffer from a lack of coping capacity," it said. "The risk of destabilising effects resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks have the potential to affect future asylum trends."
After more than 1 million asylum seekers arrived in the EU in 2015, the bloc has cracked down on immigration and provided aid to Turkey and Libya to shut down the main routes used by migrants. United Nations data shows that fewer than 123,000 people made it to the bloc last year and just 22,000 so far this year.
More difficult to accept migrants
Some EU countries on the Mediterranean Sea have said the coronavirus crisis makes it more difficult to accept migrants rescued at sea. The Council of Europe rights watchdog wrote to Malta last week saying it was obliged to accept rescued migrants despite the virus.
"I am fully aware of the challenges that sea crossings and arrivals have posed for Malta for a considerable time, which have only increased since the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic," the Council of Europe's top migration official, Dunja Mijatović, said in a letter.
"However, such challenges cannot negate clear obligations to save lives at sea and to ensure prompt and safe disembarkation."