The Right to Seek and Enjoy Asylum During COVID-19

GYx7Wd6YzUI

A Syrian boy poses for a picture during an awareness workshop on Coronavirus (COVID-19) held by Doctor Ali Ghazal at a camp for displaced people in Atme town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey, on March 14, 2020. (Photo by AAREF WATAD / AFP)

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:

Non-refoulement

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.

Non-discrimination

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Why COVID-19 is a Crisis for Digital Rights

Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash: Street art — graffiti with facial mask on the wall during the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Warsaw, Poland

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an equally urgent digital rights crisis.

New measures being hurried in to curb the spread of the virus, from “biosurveillance” and online tracking to censorship, are potentially as world-changing as the disease itself. These changes aren’t necessarily temporary, either: once in place, many of them can’t be undone.

That’s why activists, civil society and the courts must carefully scrutinise questionable new measures, and make sure that – even amid a global panic – states are complying with international human rights law.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International recently commented that human rights restrictions are spreading almost as quickly as coronavirus itself. Indeed, the fast-paced nature of the pandemic response has empowered governments to rush through new policies with little to no legal  oversight.

There has already been a widespread absence of transparency and regulation when it comes to the rollout of these emergency measures, with many falling far short of international human rights standards.

Tensions between protecting public health and upholding people’s basic rights and liberties are rising. While it is of course necessary to put in place safeguards to slow the spread of the virus, it’s absolutely vital that these measures are balanced and proportionate.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always proving to be the case.

The Rise of Biosurveillance

A panopticon world on a scale never seen before is quickly materialising.

“Biosurveillance” which involves the tracking of people’s movements, communications and health data has already become a buzzword, used to describe certain worrying measures being deployed to contain the virus.

A panopticon world on a scale never seen before is quickly materialising

The means by which states, often aided by private companies, are monitoring their citizens are increasingly extensive: phone data, CCTV footage, temperature checkpoints, airline and railway bookings, credit card information, online shopping records, social media data, facial recognition, and sometimes even drones.

Private companies are exploiting the situation and offering rights-abusing products to states, purportedly to help them manage the impact of the pandemic. One Israeli spyware firm has developed a product it claims can track the spread of coronavirus by analysing two weeks’ worth of data from people’s personal phones, and subsequently matching it up with data about citizens’ movements obtained from national phone companies.

In some instances, citizens can also track each other’s movements leading to not only vertical, but also horizontal sharing of sensitive medical data.

Not only are many of these measures unnecessary and disproportionately intrusive, they also give rise to secondary questions, such as: how secure is our data? How long will it be kept for? Is there transparency around how it is obtained and processed? Is it being shared or repurposed, and if so, with who?

Censorship and Misinformation

Censorship is becoming rife, with many arguing that a “censorship pandemic” is surging in step with COVID-19.

Oppressive regimes are rapidly adopting “fake news” laws. This is ostensibly to curb the spread of misinformation about the virus, but in practice, this legislation is often used to crack down on dissenting voices or otherwise suppress free speech. In Cambodia, for example, there have already been at least 17 arrests of people for sharing information about coronavirus.

Oppressive regimes are rapidly adopting “fake news” laws

At the same time, many states have themselves been accused of fuelling disinformation to their citizens to create confusion, or are arresting those who express criticism of the government’s response.

As well as this, some states have restricted free access to information on the virus, either by blocking access to health apps, or cutting off access to the internet altogether.

An all-seeing, prisonlike panopticon
I, Friman, Wikipedia: Inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba

AI, Inequality and Control

The deployment of AI can have consequences for human rights at the best of times, but now, it’s regularly being adopted with minimal oversight and regulation.

AI and other automated learning technology are the foundation for many surveillance and social control tools. Because of the pandemic, it is being increasingly relied upon to fight misinformation online and process the huge increase in applications for emergency social protection which are, naturally, more urgent than ever.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the digital rights field had consistently warned about the human rights implications of these inscrutable “black boxes”, including their biased and discriminatory effects. The adoption of such technologies without proper oversight or consultation should be resisted and challenged through the courts, not least because of their potential to exacerbate the inequalities already experienced by those hardest hit by the pandemic.

Eroding Human Rights

Many of the human rights-violating measures that have been adopted to date are taken outside the framework of proper derogations from applicable human rights instruments, which would ensure that emergency measures are temporary, limited and supervised.

Legislation is being adopted by decree, without clear time limitations

Legislation is being adopted by decree, without clear time limitations, and technology is being deployed in a context where clear rules and regulations are absent.

This is of great concern for two main reasons.

First, this type of “legislating through the back door” of measures that are not necessarily temporary avoids going through a proper democratic process of oversight and checks and balances, resulting in de facto authoritarian rule.

Second, if left unchecked and unchallenged, this could set a highly dangerous precedent for the future. This is the first pandemic we are experiencing at this scale – we are currently writing the playbook for global crises to come.

If it becomes clear that governments can use a global health emergency to instate human rights infringing measures without being challenged or without having to reverse these measures, making them permanent instead of temporary, we will essentially be handing over a blank cheque to authoritarian regimes to wait until the next pandemic to impose whatever measures they want.

We are currently writing the playbook for global crises to come

Therefore, any and all measures that are not strictly necessary, sufficiently narrow in scope, and of a clearly defined temporary nature, need to be challenged as a matter of urgency. If they are not, we will not be able to push back on a certain path towards a dystopian surveillance state.

Litigation: New Ways to Engage

In tandem with advocacy and policy efforts, we will need strategic litigation to challenge the most egregious measures through the court system. Going through the legislature alone will be too slow and, with public gatherings banned, public demonstrations will not be possible at scale.

The courts will need to adapt to the current situation – and are in the process of doing so – by offering new ways for litigants to engage. Courts are still hearing urgent matters and questions concerning fundamental rights and our democratic system will fall within that remit. This has already been demonstrated by the first cases requesting oversight to government surveillance in response to the pandemic.

These issues have never been more pressing, and it’s abundantly clear that action must be taken. The courts can be an important ally in safeguarding our digital rights, also in the current crisis, but we must give them the opportunity to play that role.

This blog has been cross-posted from the Digital Freedom Fund blog.

Discussion Friday 3 April: Domestic Violence During COVID-19: Sheltering at Home When Home is the Most Dangerous Place

The Roosevelt House Human Rights Program of Hunter College and the Sisterhood is Global Institute are hosting a live online discussion on Friday April 3 with frontline women’s rights activists from across the world.

Friday, April 3, 2020 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm EDT (17.00 – 18.00 GMT)

For victims of domestic violence, home is often the most dangerous place on earth. As the world moves towards lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, women may have no safe place to turn. Moderated by Jessica Neuwirth, the discussion will explore current realities of domestic violence victims and solutions for supporting women in this vulnerable moment.

Discussants:
Carmen Espinoza, Executive Director of Manuela Ramos in Peru
Shafiqa Noori, Director of Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan
Diane Rosenfeld, Lecturer on Law and Director of the Gender Violence Program at Harvard Law School
Randa Siniora, Executive Director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in Palestine

Registration is required. You may register here and join at zoom.us/j/580841531

Webinar on Wed. 25 March: Human Rights and Public Policy Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute of Hunter College in New York City is holding a panel discussion via Zoom on Wednesday 25 March.  RSVP here so you can join the session when it starts.

 Responding to COVID-19: The Human Rights and Public Policy Implications of the Pandemic

Wednesday 25 March, 1:00-2:30 pm EDT (17:00 GMT – 18:30 GMT)

 With the increasing numbers of confirmed new cases of COVID-19, countries face tremendous challenges and very difficult decisions. Restrictions on freedom of movement and association in the interest of health security have been addressed differently in different countries, with differing results. Join us online for a timely virtual discussion addressing the urgent human rights and public policy implications of the global public health crisis.

Panelists:
Jamil Dakwar, Director of the Human Rights Program at the ACLU
Phelim Kine, Director of Research and Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights
Ram Raju, MD, Senior Vice President and Community Health Investment Officer, Northwell Health
Moderators:
Jessica Neuwirth, Rita E. Hauser Director of the Human Rights Program, Roosevelt House
Shyama Venkateswar, Director of the Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Click here to RSVP to this Zoom panel discussion.