The end of the right to seek asylum? : COVID-19 and the future of refugee protection

The global pandemic has stopped asylum seekers in their tracks, as states across the world have sealed
their borders, suspended asylum procedures and – in some cases – summarily deported asylum seekers.
Some of these measures have been explicitly justified using public health emergency laws. Others have
been implemented quietly and informally behind the scenes under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a result, it is presently near-impossible for most asylum seekers to travel to access protection. While
these drastic measures have come as immediate responses to the spread of COVID-19 across borders,
they are a best understood as an exacerbation of underlying tendencies toward the extinguishment of the
right to seek asylum in the Global North.

We argue that COVID-19 has precipitated existing trends towards the end of the right to seek asylum
in Australia, the European Union (EU), the United States and Canada. As a result, for perhaps the first
time since the construction of the modern international refugee regime, the early months of 2020 saw
an effective extinguishment of the right to seek asylum. The extent to which the right to seek asylum
will bounce back from this state of emergency footing remains to be seen, however COVID-19 and its
unfolding consequences provide an apt opportunity to explore the implications of a potential end of a
right to seek asylum and set out some thinking on how to prevent that eventuality.

This contribution proceeds in four sections. First, we briefly set out the content of the right to seek
asylum under international law. Second, we frame the impact of COVID-19 on refugees that seek asylum with
reference to existing measures restricting access to asylum in the Global North. Third, we set out the
state of the right to seek asylum between March and August 2020, as destination states largely closed
their borders. Finally, we canvass ways to protect the right to seek asylum beyond the pandemic.

This is a part of working paper published by Daniel Ghezelbash and Nikolas Feith Tan (a paper is part of Migration Policy Centre series).