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UNHCR calls for release of refugees, asylum seekers during pandemic

27 July 20200 comments

The United Nations refugee agency has called on countries to release refugees and asylum-seekers who are being unlawfully or arbitrarily held in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said states should act to ensure their actions are in line with international law and that amidst the ongoing pandemic, vulnerable refugees are not placed at increased unnecessary risk.

UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees for Protection, and former Australian Human Rights Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs said: “Refugees fleeing war and persecution should not be punished or criminalised simply for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum”.

“Measures to tackle COVID19 do not justify arbitrarily detaining them on arrival, which not only worsens the misery of people who have already suffered, but also undermines efforts to limit the spread of the virus,” Prof Triggs said.

Prof Triggs said UNHCR welcomed the positive efforts that have been made by a number of states, which have released refugees and asylum-seekers from detention during the pandemic.

She said these moves prove the viability of community-based alternatives and provide a blueprint for developing new, long-term, rights-based approaches to receiving refugees and asylum seekers.

Suitable approaches will vary depending on the context but may include, amongst others, the deposit or surrender of documentation; reasonable and proportionate reporting conditions; residence at a specific location; residence at open or semi-open asylum centres or community supervision arrangements, Prof Triggs said.

But she said the some states are using the pandemic as justification to resort to increasingly regressive measures, including detaining refugees and asylum-seekers in greater numbers, for longer or arbitrary periods of time, or without access to due process.

“UNHCR is concerned that many detained refugees and asylum-seekers are often forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions where they are unable to practice social and physical distancing measures and have limited or no access to adequate healthcare and clean water. In some detention centres, tensions are reaching boiling point as detainees’ anxieties rise about their health and welfare,” the organisation in a statement.

“Under international law and in line with UNHCR guidance, detention of refugees and asylum-seekers for administrative purposes must be used as a last resort, in the absence of viable alternatives, and for a legitimate purpose, for example, to verify an individual’s identity, conduct a preliminary asylum interview, where there are significant security concerns or where there are strong grounds for believing an individual is likely to abscond,” it said.

UNHCR said children should never be in immigration detention.

“This can never be considered to be in the child’s best interest, which must be a primary consideration under the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” it said.

UNHCR said temporary measures by states for new arrivals, such as quarantines or restrictions on movement, owing to the COVID19 pandemic are understandable but restrictions on this basis should only last as long as “strictly necessary for ensuring an individual’s health status”.

The agency called on nations to: immediately release all refugees and asylum-seekers who are being arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, including those in pre-removal detention where deportations have been suspended; scale up and implement community-based alternatives to detention, and; improve conditions in places of detention while alternatives are being prepared, and ensure that UNHCR continues to have access to asylum seekers and refugees being held in these locations.