In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, “[i]f ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home.” Though it is a problem common to all of us, the suffering is disproportionately more for the world’s most vulnerable groups, including refugees and asylum-seekers. These vulnerabilities are exacerbated by State practices limiting asylum as a response to the pandemic. Though public health emergencies allow States to impose certain limitations, this must be done in compliance with States’ relevant obligations under international law. This post provides a short overview of the most basic but key protections afforded to asylum-seekers and refugees under international law.
Though there is no internationally agreed upon legal definition of asylum, the UNHCR defines it as a process starting with safe admission into a territory and concluding with durable solutions, i.e., voluntary return in safety and dignity, local integration, or resettlement to another location or country. “Asylum-seeker” refers to individuals who are seeking international protection and have not yet been granted asylum by the receiving State. “Refugee” refers to someone who has left their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return because of a serious threat to their life or freedom on the grounds listed under Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, i.e., race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Other regional instruments may provide different definitions to include other grounds for refugee status, such as a “massive violation of human rights” (e.g., the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees). Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum-seeker. In that regard, at the international level, refugee status entitles those who satisfy that criteria to a specific set of protective regimes laid out in the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, asylum-seekers are still entitled to certain protections in compliance with the receiving State’s obligations under international law, regardless of being recognized as a refugee.
The right to seek and enjoy asylum is enshrined in various international and regional instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The UNHCR interprets the right to asylum to include respect for the principle of non-refoulement, admission to the territories of States, and being treated in compliance with the respective human rights and refugee law standards. Individuals seeking international protection would benefit from the human rights obligations that a State owes to its citizens without any discrimination.
But what are the main parameters of such protection during a pandemic?
The recently issued Human Mobility and Human Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Principles of Protection for Migrants, Refugees, and Other Displaced Persons developed by a committee of established experts and practitioners, and endorsed by a 1,000 international experts, lays out 14 key principles applicable to all persons, irrespective of their immigration status. These principles are developed to elucidate the scope of relevant human rights obligations during emergencies as States and other relevant stakeholders navigate the pandemic response.
In the same vein, the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the ICCPR (adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council and UN Human Rights Committee general comments on states of emergency and freedom of movement), provide complimentary guidance as they are critical in implementing the scope of limitations to human rights in public health and national emergency situations. The Siracusa Principles highlight that such limitation must be based on one of the grounds recognized by the relevant article; respond to a pressing public or social need; pursue a legitimate aim; and be proportionate to that aim (Principle 10). Any derogation measure must be “strictly necessary to deal with the threat and proportionate to its nature and extent” (Principle 39). Additionally, certain rights are non-derogable even in the events of public emergency, including the right to life and freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or punishment among others.
In light of the above, key principles pertaining to States’ treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees in a pandemic can be listed as follows:
The prohibition of return (to a real risk of persecution, arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment) cannot be derogated from, even during a public health emergency. The cornerstone principle guaranteeing the right to seek and enjoy asylum is the principle of non-refoulement set forth under Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, which prohibits States from expelling or returning refugees “in any manner . . . where his life or freedom would be threatened.” The principle applies not only to removal, but also to refusal of entry. It applies to all refugees – even if their status has not been officially determined. The prohibition has attained the status of customary international law and is considered a jus cogens norm.
As the UNHCR clarified in its recent guidance on COVID-19 responses, imposing blanket measures to prevent refugees or asylum-seekers from admission or discriminating against certain nationals without demonstrating relevant evidence of a health risk or putting in place measures to protect against refoulement would violate the prohibition. However, in the US, the Department of Health and Human Services has implemented an order to suspend the introduction of persons into the US from certain countries and requiring their immediate repatriation. Belgium and the Netherlands have also suspended the right to asylum for newly arriving asylum-seekers due to COVID-19 despite the guidance from the European Commission stating that even though national authorities may take necessary measures to contain further spread of the pandemic, such measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory way taking into account the principle of non-refoulement and obligations under international law. Closing borders altogether in these manners violates the principle of non-refoulement affecting the right to seek and enjoy asylum.
Measures on asylum-seekers upon entry
In all cases, non-discrimination, human rights, and dignity of all travelers must be respected. Relevant WHO regulations are given particular weight in the context of a limitation imposed on the ground of public health (Siracusa Principles, Principle 26). As defined by the WHO’s International Health Regulations, countries may impose relevant measures during pandemics as long as they are non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory, and proportionate. Similarly, medical examinations and other measures may be implemented for “travelers” (“a natural person undertaking an international voyage”) at ports of entry, but these measures cannot be “invasive.” Similarly, Article 13 of the EU Reception Conditions Directive lays out that EU Member States may proceed to a medical screening of applicants for international protection on public health grounds while such medical screening must comply with fundamental rights and the principle of proportionality, necessity, and non-discrimination. Furthermore, Article 19 of the Directive requires that applicants receive “the necessary health care, which shall include, at least, emergency care and essential treatment of illnesses and of serious mental disorders.” The European Commission specified that such health care would also include relevant treatment for COVID-19.
Lack of effective realization of non-discrimination undermines the right to asylum. Core international human rights treaties prohibit “discrimination of any kind” viz. refugees and asylum-seekers. In practice, however, migrants are less likely to benefit from relevant health and financial services due to lack of legal status and access to services. Moreover, migrants are often stigmatized and blamed for spreading viruses. In other cases, COVID-19 measures are applied in discriminatory manners as seen in Lebanon, where curfews have been applied more stringently towards Syrian refugees.
Equal treatment and non-discrimination with regards to the right to health are especially crucial in the context of COVID-19. As part of the right to health, States must provide access to food, water, sanitation, and shelter to all persons (UDHR Art. 25 and ICESCR Art. 12 in particular). States must refrain from practices reinforcing stigma and xenophobia and implement public health responses inclusive of all marginalized groups (see, in particular, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Arts. 1.1, 2, 4; CERD Committee General Recommendation No. 30; and 1951 Refugee Convention, Art. 3).
Detention is a practical impediment to the implementation of the right to asylum. The UNHCR guidelines on the issue establish that a period of confinement may be imposed legitimately as a preventive measure in the event of a pandemic but that such confinement should be limited to its purpose and cease as soon as the necessary testing or treatment is complete. Detention must always be an exceptional measure of last resort and conducted in accordance with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality. Alternatives to detention should be considered, including regular reporting requirements, particularly when vulnerable groups are concerned. Human Rights Watch recently reported the arbitrary detention of nearly 2,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in Greece – including vulnerable groups like children, persons with disabilities, and pregnant women.
Detention constitutes a significant risk factor for contagious spread during a pandemic. Such detained people are highly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 mostly due to the inadequacy of detention conditions, overcrowding, limited supplies for personal cleaning, limited personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, and poor access to health care. Detention of displaced persons is not permissible when such detentions pose serious threats to their health and life due to COVID-19. In addition to the adverse risks and impacts to the right to life and health, COVID-19 causes risk of indefinite detention as these people are neither admitted nor provided the option to return due to border closures.
Amidst a global pandemic, adhering to basic principles of international law vis-à-vis asylum seekers and refugees is vital. States cannot impose blanket measures banning asylum seekers and refugees from seeking and enjoying international protection and relevant considerations pertaining to immigration detention that are altogether key to the reinforcement of the right to seek and enjoy asylum. These principles impose clear obligations on States that they cannot simply choose to ignore during health emergencies – even global pandemics.
*This article reflects the personal views of the author and should not be attributed to the World Bank.