The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the plight of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution. As countries battle to protect their populations and economies, fundamental norms of refugee and human rights law are at risk.
“The core principles of refugee protection are being put to test – but people who are forced to flee conflict and persecution should not be denied safety and protection on the pretext, or even as a side effect, of responding to the virus,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. This is not a dilemma. We have to do both. Long-recognized refugee laws can be respected even as governments adopt stringent measures to protect public health, including at borders.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that 167 countries have so far fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the virus. At least 57 states are making no exception for people seeking asylum.
With wars and violence in many parts of the world continuing, such measures are effectively suspending the right of people to seek asylum. Those seeking safety and shelter are being turned away at land borders or at sea and returned or transferred to other countries where they may face serious threats to their life or freedom.
“Particularly when people come from relatively fragile countries of origin or transit, with limited public health infrastructure, pushing anyone back at borders may put them and others at risk when quarantine measures are not applied and health care is insufficient,” said Grandi
National measures to combat the spread of the virus are having far-reaching consequences. We are observing a disproportionate use of immigration detention, a rise in the risk of sexual violence, discriminatory restrictions on access to health and social services and a dramatic loss of livelihoods that is driving many refugees and others on the margins of society deeper into poverty and destitution.
UNHCR has been calling on states to manage border restrictions in ways that also respect international human rights and refugee protection standards, including through quarantines and health checks.
Quarantine measures may, for example, be a legitimate restriction on the right to freedom of movement provided they meet international human rights standards. By contrast, health concerns do not justify the systematic or arbitrary use of immigration detention.
Asylum claims can also be processed remotely where health restrictions prohibit face-to-face interviews. Other protection measures, such as automatically extending registration cards or residency permits to enable refugees and asylum seekers to access health and other services, can also be adopted.
“While approaches can be adjusted in practice to meet today’s realities, the right to seek asylum can and must be upheld even during this global public health crisis,” said Grandi.
“Otherwise the risk is that human rights norms, laws and policies, so critical for the protection of refugees in desperate need of safety, will be undermined in ways that could take many years to rebuild.”