By Kristy Siegfried | 24 April, 2020
THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
UN chief warns against repressive measures amid coronavirus crisis. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic was not only a public health emergency, it was “fast becoming a human rights crisis”. Speaking at the release of a new UN report outlining the need for human rights to be “front and centre” in responses to COVID-19, Guterres said “heavy-handed security responses” were undermining the health response and having “disproportionate effects on certain communities”. The report notes that migrants, refugees and internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned on Wednesday that “core principles of refugee protection are being put to the test” by countries’ responses to the pandemic and that securing public health and protecting refugees were “not mutually exclusive”. Grandi said his agency had been observing “a disproportionate use of immigration detention” as well as restrictions on access to health and social services and a dramatic loss of livelihoods that was driving many refugees deeper into poverty.
Concern about Rohingya refugees stranded at sea. Indrika Ratwatte, director of UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, said on Thursday that the agency was increasingly concerned about the “grave immediate risk” to refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea and urged greater coordination and responsibility-sharing by states to avert a crisis similar to that in 2015, when thousands of Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea. Last week, a boat carrying nearly 400 Rohingya arrived on the southern coast of Bangladesh after drifting at sea for weeks between Thailand and Malaysia. Survivors said dozens had died. Rights groups and the media reported this week that other boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya remain at sea after being back from Malaysia.
US and Mexico extend border restrictions for another month. The United States and Mexico this week extended travel and asylum restrictions along their shared border for at least another month, citing the COVID-19 health emergency. An extension of a 20 March order by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also allows the US administration to turn back all migrants who arrive at the border without documents, including asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children. UNHCR spokesperson Chris Boian said on Monday that while the COVID-19 crisis may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, “expulsions of asylum-seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them”. Meanwhile, Canada opened its border with the US to asylum-seekers who approach border offices. Those attempting to cross at unofficial points will still be turned back as part of a March agreement extended for another 30 days.
ONE QUESTION FOR…
Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection
Can refugee laws be respected at the same time as governments are adopting stringent measures at borders to protect public health?
“While States have a responsibility to protect public health, border restrictions must be managed in ways that respect international human rights and refugee protection standards. With good faith and creativity, countries can both secure public health and the rights of asylum-seekers to protection, for example through the use of quarantines and health checks.”
STORIES TO WATCH
Coronavirus “potentially catastrophic” for already food insecure nations. The number of people facing acute food insecurity could nearly double this year to 265 million due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) warned this week. Millions of people living in conflict-scarred nations faced being pushed “to the brink of starvation”, said WFP’s executive director, David Beasley, who stressed that the global health pandemic was also a “global humanitarian catastrophe”. The BBC highlights some of the countries most at risk, including Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Venezuela, South Sudan and Afghanistan. “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread,” said the WFP’s chief economist, Arif Husain.
First COVID-19 cases in Lebanon refugee camp. A Palestinian refugee from Syria became the first refugee living in a camp in Lebanon to test positive for the coronavirus this week. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said the woman lived in the Wavel camp, in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which is home to an estimated 3,000 people. Four other residents of the camp who lived with her tested positive for the virus on Thursday, according to a health official. Lebanon hosts around 475,000 Palestinian refugees as well as over 900,000 Syrian refugees. Many of the Syrians live in crowded informal settlements and struggle to access healthcare. Lebanon’s health minister told reporters on Wednesday that refugees with COVID-19 would receive the same treatment as their Lebanese counterparts.
Asylum-seeker wins right to leave German centre over coronavirus rules. A German court has ruled that an asylum-seeker should be allowed to leave the accommodation centre where he was staying after he argued it was too crowded to respect coronavirus distancing rules. The man told a court in the eastern German city of Leipzig in Saxony that he had to share a small room with another person and was sharing bathrooms and a kitchen with 49 other residents. The Refugee Council of Saxony said the court’s decision was “ground-breaking” and that the government should consider closing group accommodation facilities where asylum-seekers are required to stay when they first arrive in Germany up until their asylum applications have been processed. There have been several COVID-19 cases recorded at such facilities across Germany in recent weeks.
Schools in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but televised lessons and online school groups are helping children continue their studies. It’s challenging for families who have to share one device between several siblings, but the children are determined not to give up. “Whatever happens, education must never stop,” says one of them.
DID YOU KNOW?
About 167 States have fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the coronavirus, with at least 57 of them making no exception for people seeking asylum.