UNHCR calls for urgent release of refugees, asylum-seekers amidst COVID-19 pandemic

by Muizat Hameed

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has called on states to urgently release refugees and asylum-seekers who are being unlawfully and arbitrarily held in detention.

While making the call on Thursday July, 23, 2020, the Agency said states must act to ensure their actions are in line with international law and that amidst the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, vulnerable refugees are not being placed at heightened and unnecessary risk.

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

Gillian Triggs, UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees for Protection said, “Refugees fleeing war and persecution should not be punished or criminalized simply for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum.”

Griggs added that, “Measures to tackle COVID-19 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.”

As part of its role on the Executive Committee of the UN Network on Migration, and as co-lead for the Alternatives to Detention Working Group, UNHCR echoes the Network’s call on States to reaffirm their commitment to adopting a human rights-based approach to the detention of newly arriving refugees and migrants and to prioritize non-custodial alternatives.

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.

In some detention centres, tensions are reaching boiling point as detainees’ anxieties rise about their health and welfare.

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.

Griggs explained that in the absence of viable alternatives, and for a legitimate purpose, 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.

“Detention must be based on individual assessments, subject to procedural safeguards, and in accordance with and authorized by clearly defined laws and limits.

“Maximum periods of detention should be set and asylum-seekers must be immediately released once the justifications for their detention are no longer valid.” Griggs concluded.

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