Bulgaria bears a “big responsibility” for protecting the European Union’s external borders and should do so “in full respect” of migrants’ human rights, says Europe’s senior minister for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgarian border police stand near a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border on July 17, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

Speaking in the country’s capital, Sofia, Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said Bulgaria had the EU’s support as well as his “personal commitment” as it seeks to police Europe’s outer frontiers.

But can Avramopoulos really be confident that Bulgaria will respect migrants' rights in the way he hopes? Its track record suggests not.

Take the case of 16-year-old ‘Abdullah’ from Afghanistan, who experienced Bulgaria’s “respect” first hand.

“When Bulgarian police saw us, we tried to run away,” he said. “They chased us with dogs and shot at us. There were five police. When they caught us, they started beating us. They kicked me and the others wherever they could reach. They did this for about an hour and threatened us with the dogs. They took my money and mobile.”

Abdullah (not his real name) is one of several migrants and asylum seekers who told Human Rights Watch about summary returns from Bulgaria, and violence both at its borders and inside detention centers in late 2015. These are not new problems; we also documented similar abuses in April and September 2014.

Yet Abdullah’s and hundreds of others’ similar testimonies have fallen on deaf ears at EU headquarters in Brussels. While Bulgaria has the right to protect its borders, it doesn’t have the right to summarily return people to Turkey or physically abuse them. By focusing on border protection, Avramopoulos missed the chance to press Bulgaria on violence against migrants and asylum seekers.

The commission should forcefully remind Bulgaria of EU laws and standards, and urge Bulgarian authorities to investigate these credible reports of abuses and bring them to a halt. Because ignoring Abdullah’s story won’t make the allegations go away, and resorting to violence is no way to manage the refugee crisis.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Europa II, a tourist ferry sets sail from Marsamxett Harbour, Valletta, Malta. The vessel, along with sister ship, Atlantis, are being used by the Maltese government to detain asylum seekers in the Mediterranean.

© 2012 NielsVK / Alamy Stock Photo

(Milan) – The Maltese government should immediately allow more than 160 people detained on two private tourism vessels just off Maltese territorial waters to disembark in Malta and seek asylum if they choose, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since April 30, 2020, the Maltese government has been paying a private company to keep people on the high sea on vessels designed for pleasure cruises. The government has not provided a legal basis, or legitimate purpose, for keeping people on these ferries, making this arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“It’s incredible that the Maltese government would hold these people captive on tourist ferries in miserable conditions for weeks to pressure other EU countries to take them,” said Judith Sunderland, acting deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Concerns about Covid-19 and long-standing complaints, in part justified, about lack of fair sharing of responsibility can’t excuse this disgraceful behavior.”

France and Portugal have shown leadership and humanity in offering to relocate some of the men, and other European Union (EU) countries should follow their example, Human Rights Watch said.

The people were rescued at sea between April 30 and May 7. On April 30, the Maltese government arranged for the transfer of 57 people rescued the day before by a private fishing vessel to the Europa II, a 34.75-meter tourist ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises Ltd. On May 7, an Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat rescued 45 people and coordinated the rescue by a fishing boat of 78 people.

While all 18 women and children were reportedly taken ashore, the other 105 people were transferred the same day to the Bahari, a 23.59-meter tourist ferry boat owned by the same company. That group was subsequently transferred, on May 15, to the Atlantis, a 39.6-meter ferry boat owned by Captain Morgan Cruises. These boats, all flying the Maltese flag, are pleasure crafts designed for short tourist cruises and not to accommodate people for lengthy periods.

The government has not stated whether this is a mandatory quarantine to limit the potential spread of Covid-19, nor is it clear if it has carried out any public health measures, such as testing for Covid-19, isolating anyone with symptoms, and enabling social distancing. Even if it were intended as a quarantine, both groups have been on these boats for longer than the commonly mandated 14-day period.

Conditions on board, never appropriate, appear to be deteriorating significantly. On May 19, a man sent a Facebook post to the nongovernmental organization Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for boats in distress in the Mediterranean, saying he is on board the Europa II and describing increasing despair in the “water prison.”

He said that some people had attempted suicide and that “anxiety, resentment, and depression have increased … this has made our health condition worse. Also due to lack of full health care, there’s been an outbreak of skin diseases … there is lack of care when it comes to food. Hunger strikes have started and we’re in a deplorable state. We have no means of communication to reflect our [condition] to the outside world.”

Alarm Phone was unable to reach the man for further communication, and no independent groups appear to have had any contact with anyone on the Europa II or the Atlantis. The government says it is spending €3,000 per day for each boat and has requested EU funds for these expenses.

Screenshot of a Facebook message sent to Alarm Phone, a hotline for people in distress at sea, by a man saying he is being detained on the Europa II boat by Maltese authorities.

© 2020 Alarm Phone

In a letter to the European Commission, three Maltese organizations, Aditus Foundation, the Integra Foundation, and Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, said they are not aware of any effort by authorities to identify people with vulnerabilities or unaccompanied children, while no one on board has had access to lawyers, interpreters, or the United Nations (UN) refugee agency, UNHCR.

The Maltese government of Prime Minister Robert Abela has stated explicitly that it is keeping people at sea to pressure other EU countries to take them. A government spokesman said on April 30, “Our ports are closed. Now it’s up to the European Union to shoulder responsibility.”

Media reported that Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo and Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri sent a letter to the European Commission on May 1 saying that EU countries had failed to live up to relocation pledges and asserting that the then-57 people on a Captain Morgan ferry would stay there “pending their relocation to other European countries.”

On April 9, the day after Italy declared its ports “unsafe” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Malta went even further, announcing that Maltese authorities “are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants … nor to ensure the availability of a ‘safe place’ on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea.”

Malta faces serious allegations in at least two incidents involving boats in distress in mid-April. A joint investigation by the Italian newspaper Avvenire and the UK newspaper the Guardian, based also on evidence collected by Alarm Phone, documented that the Armed Forces of Malta allegedly intercepted a boat carrying 101 people and instead of rescuing them, engaged in dangerous maneuvers, gave them some supplies and instructions at gunpoint, and told them to continue toward Italy.

On April 15, the privately-owned Dar al Salam 1, allegedly acting on orders from Malta, intercepted a boat carrying forty men, eight women, and three children, and returned them to Libya, where they were detained in the Tarik al Sikka detention center in Tripoli. On April 30, a former Maltese official told prosecutors investigating the allegations that he coordinated the pushback under instructions from the prime minister’s office as part of a long-standing role as liaison with Libyan authorities in the western part of the country. A reconstruction of the boat’s journey by Avvenire suggests that failure by the Maltese and EU authorities to respond to repeated distress alerts contributed to the deaths of at least five people, whose corpses were on board when the boat reached Libya. Seven others remain unaccounted for.

Malta has clear responsibilities under international law to respond to boats in distress at sea, enact or coordinate rescue operations within its search and rescue area, and ensure timely disembarkation at a safe port. Under international law, restrictions may be placed on rights for public health reasons, but they must be proportionate, nondiscriminatory, and based on available scientific evidence. The pandemic cannot justify abdicating rescue responsibilities or blanket bans on disembarkation, which puts the right to health of those on board at risk.

Deprivation of liberty without a legal basis is unlawful and arbitrary detention in contravention of international and European law. That the men are being held on private vessels in international waters does not absolve Malta of its responsibilities or its liabilities under international and European law. For the purposes of state responsibility, the men are in the custody and under the control of Maltese authorities. Denial of access to asylum contravenes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

In a letter to Prime Minister Abela, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said that the authorities should ensure prompt and safe disembarkation and investigate allegations of delay or non-response to situations of distress. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern in early May over reports of distress calls being ignored and reiterated that states should ensure search-and-rescue operations and swift disembarkation even amid the Covid-19 pandemic. On May 21, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that people on board the two boats should be brought to shore “as soon as possible,” stressing that it was “unacceptable to leave people at sea longer than necessary, especially under difficult and unsuitable conditions.”

This episode, reminiscent of numerous stand-offs at sea that were only resolved by ad hoc arrangements, makes an agreement among EU countries on a predictable system for disembarkation and relocation of migrants and refugees all the more urgent, Human Rights Watch said.

EU member states should not only relocate this group and follow through on prior commitments, but also strongly condemn the Maltese authorities for the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of scores of people and the violations of the law of the sea and of EU asylum standards, and urge Malta to allow the people to disembark. The European Commission should also open infringement proceedings against Malta for violating its EU treaty obligations.

“We believe the 160 people on board tourist cruise boats on the high sea are experiencing severe emotional and physical distress,” Sunderland said. “But we don’t believe their treatment, and violation of their rights, is worthy of the people of Malta, or any EU country.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this screenshot, a man helps a shop owner pick up a display stand after a group of teenagers vandalize the store in Chinatown San Francisco on March 16, 2020. 

© 2020 CrimesAgainstAsians/Facebook
(New York) – Governments should take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the Covid-19 pandemic while prosecuting racial attacks against Asians and people of Asian descent, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 8, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”

Government leaders and senior officials in some instances have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism, or xenophobia by using anti-Chinese rhetoric. Several political parties and groups, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany have also latched onto the Covid-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders.

“Racism and physical attacks on Asians and people of Asian descent have spread with the Covid-19 pandemic, and government leaders need to act decisively to address the trend,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Governments should act to expand public outreach, promote tolerance, and counter hate speech while aggressively investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.”

The UN committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which 182 countries have ratified, has recommended that governments adopt “national action plans against racial discrimination.” Plans should lay out specific approaches to combat racism and discrimination, from enhanced policing of hate crimes to public messaging and education programming encouraging tolerance. Governments need to take urgent action to adopt new action plans to address the wave of Covid-19 racism and xenophobia.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Asians and people of Asian descent have been targets of derogatory language in media reports and statements by politicians as well as on social media platforms, where hate speech related to Covid-19 also appears to have spread extensively. US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of “Wuhan virus” may have encouraged the use of hate speech in the US. Although by late March Trump stepped back from using the term and issued a tweet in support of “our Asian-American community,” he has not directed any specific governmental response toward protecting Asians and people of Asian descent.

The governor of the Veneto region of Italy, an early epicenter of the pandemic, told journalists in February that the country would be better than China in handling the virus due to Italians’ “culturally strong attention to hygiene, washing hands, taking showers, whereas we have all seen the Chinese eating mice alive.” He later apologized. Brazil’s education minister ridiculed Chinese people in a tweet suggesting that the pandemic was part of the Chinese government’s “plan for world domination.”

Increases in racist rhetoric have coincided with increases in racist attacks. Since February, Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic.

In Italy, the civil society group Lunaria since February has collected over 50 reports and media accounts of assaults, verbal harassment, bullying, and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Human rights and other groups in France, Australia, and Russia have also told Human Rights Watch of Covid-19-related attacks and harassment of people of Asian descent.

In the UK, Asian people have been punched in the face and taunted, accused of spreading coronavirus. Two women attacked Chinese students in Australia, punching and kicking one and yelling “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” Two men attacked a Chinese-American in Spain and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for two days. A man with a knife attacked a Burmese family in Texas.

In Africa, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on Asian people accused of carrying coronavirus, as well as foreigners generally, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. In Brazil, the media have reported harassment and shunning of people of Asian descent.

In some instances, governments have imposed strict lockdowns that indiscriminately affect only foreign workers without providing adequate health care, financial assistance, or other services that many workers now need to survive. In early May, the Malaysian authorities carried out mass raids to detain refugees and migrant workers, suggesting without basis that the migrant community and Rohingya refugees were responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

Across the Middle East, persistent racist rhetoric in public discourse against foreign workers intensified after several Covid-19 outbreaks occurred in densely populated segregated areas for foreign workers, most of whom are Asian.

Discrimination against Chinese people has also been reported in South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.

Discrimination hasn’t been limited to Asians or people of Asian descent. In India and Sri Lanka, where leaders have done little to stop rising anti-Muslim discrimination in recent years, many apparent Covid-19-related cases of attacks and discrimination against Muslims have been reported. In Myanmar, ultra-nationalist leaders have used the pandemic to justify threats and hate speech against Muslims.

In early April 2020, Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, which has China’s largest African community, began a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or to quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords then evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, and hotels, shops, and restaurants refused African customers. Other foreign groups have generally not been subjected to similar treatment.

“Repeatedly and publicly condemning racism is an important part of any government’s response to the coronavirus,” Sifton said. “Governments also need to adopt special public education initiatives, strengthen policing of hate crimes, and offer support to communities victimized by discrimination and racially motivated attacks. “Social media companies have a responsibility to protect users against hateful and xenophobic content on their platforms, and should invest adequate resources to addressing it and mitigating its harm.”

Country-Specific Cases

United States

Anti-Asian incidents have continued in the US since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with numerous media reports in February and March about attacks and discrimination linked to Covid-19. By late April, a coalition of Asian-American groups that had created a reporting center called STOP AAPI HATE said it had received almost 1,500 reports of incidents of racism, hate speech, discrimination, and physical attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans.

In one typical incident, a Chinese-American reported “I was on the phone with my mom speaking in Mandarin when a woman walked by and yelled ‘get this corona virus chink away from me,’ directed at me.”

At least 125 of the incidents reported were physical attacks. Among the reported incidents: “A truck drove by and threw a [fast food franchise] drink on my back and yelled ‘Hey chink, you’re fucking nasty.’” In another, an Asian-American waiting for a bus said a man:

began berating me. I ignored him … [then] an object of substantial weight was thrown at me with high velocity – missing me but impacting the side of the bus with a sickening ‘thwack.’ Instantly, I sobered to an awareness in the amount of trauma the object would have caused if it had struck my head.

The group also reported hundreds of cases in which Asian-Americans were harassed in public or barred from businesses or transportation, yelled at in supermarkets, accused of “bringing coronavirus” to the US, or refused transport in car services like Uber or Lyft.

On May 4, the Anti-Defamation League released a list of near-daily incidents of racist attacks and cases of harassment from January through early May. For instance, on May 3, a stranger shouted at an Asian man on the New York subway “You’re infected China boy, you need to get off the train” and then attempted to pull the man out of his seat.

From March through early May, there were numerous public reports of violent physical attacks on Asian Americans including in California, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. NextShark, a website focused on Asian-American news, only received a few messages per day before the pandemic about cases involving anti-Asian bias; now it receives dozens.

Senior members of several Asian-American and other nongovernmental organizations have told Human Rights Watch that many members of the Asian-American community they work with have experienced abuse or harassment, or know someone who has.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal agencies have not taken any specific actions to address the rise in racist attacks and discrimination, although several state and local governments have set up hotlines and directed authorities to investigate cases of attacks or discrimination.

United Kingdom

Several violent attacks against people of Asian descent were reported when the Covid-19 outbreak began in the UK in February, including several physical attacks or beatings.

In early May, Sky News reported that data it had obtained through Freedom of Information requests to various regional UK police forces showed at least 267 anti-Asian hate crimes recorded across the country between January and March. In many jurisdictions, the figures for the first three months of 2020 were higher than all of 2018 or 2019. The figures from the British Transport Police between January and March, for instance, showed anti-Asian (or “anti-Chinese”) hate crime incidents matching the total number of complaints during all of 2019.

Stop Hate UK, an anti-racism group, reported in March that it had received increasing numbers of calls or reports of “racism, discrimination, and verbal abuse, arising from perceptions that they are members of the Chinese community.”

The senior-most UK police official responsible for hate crime nationally has stated publicly that police forces are monitoring anti-Asian hate crime and take such crimes seriously. In a recent release of crime statistics generally during the Covid-19 outbreak, however, police authorities focused on crime decreasing generally, without noting the rise in anti-Asian hate crime or indicating steps they are taking to stop it.

Several of the country’s local police forces did not provide information to the Sky News Freedom of Information requests about Covid-19-related hate crimes. This raises concerns about whether they are collecting data on anti-Asian hate crimes and whether they are monitoring and disaggregating hate crime by ethnicity, despite clear official guidance to do so.


On about February 20, after Russia banned Chinese citizens from entering the country, the state-owned transport company Mosgortrans began ordering drivers of public transport in Moscow to report Chinese passengers to the police. Staff stopped many passengers perceived to be Asian and asked for identification and the number of their metro pass to track their movements. The Chinese embassy sent a letter to the Moscow government on February 24 asking them to take steps to stop the discriminatory practice. During the last week of February, well before Moscow was placed under lockdown, police raided several locations to identify Chinese citizens and force them into quarantine, regardless of their travel histories.

The Russian group SOVA, which monitors xenophobia and racism, told Human Rights Watch that there had been increased attacks against Asians since February. It also reported a “wave of insulting and racist commentary directed at Chinese people and natives of Central Asia on social media” in relation to Covid-19.

A media report by Lenta on March 29 detailed several accounts, including cases of people yelling at Asians or Central Asians on the subway or in public, asserting that “the Chinese brought coronavirus to this country.” Through March, there were also reported incidents of discriminatory actions against Asian-looking people in Nizhnevartovsk, Ekaterinburg, Tatarstan, and Makhachkala, among other places.


A spate of cases of racist abuse and attacks and vandalism against people of Asian descent have been reported across the country since the outbreak of Covid-19. For example, there were reports in late March in Sydney of cases in which “Death to dog eaters” was painted in front of an Asian man’s house and of people screaming racist abuse at two sisters, calling them “Asian dogs” who “brought Coronavirus here” and “dumb whore.”

Near Melbourne, also in late March, a Chinese-Australian family’s suburban home was targeted with racist vandalism three times in the space of a week: on March 20, the family found the words “COVID-19 China die” spray painted on the door of their garage. Late the following night, an unidentified person threw a large rock though one of their windows. On March 29, the door of their garage was again spray painted, this time with the words “leave and die.”

On April 15, 2 women in a group attacked 2 female Chinese students at Melbourne University, yelling racist statements such as, “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” One of the women repeatedly punched one of the students in the head and, after pushing her to the ground, kicked her in the torso several times.

A survey focusing on Covid-19-related racism against Asians and Asian-Australians recorded 178 incidents during the first two weeks of April countrywide. The survey, by the community group Asian Australian Alliance, has received about 12 reports a day since April 2, ranging from racial slurs to physical assault. The majority of racist incidents reported – 62 percent – were against women. Australia’s Human Rights Commission also reported a spike in complaints about racist attacks. The Australian National University created a “prejudice census” to better collect information about the surge of incidents linked to Covid-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticized Covid-19-related racist attacks, telling Australians to simply “stop it.” Alan Tudge, Australia’s acting minister for immigration and multicultural affairs, also strongly condemned the rise in racist attacks, and a Labor parliament member, Andrew Giles, and other opposition leaders have called for the government to restart a national anti-racism campaign.


Hate speech against Muslims, already a serious and growing problem since the election of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2015, increased in connection with the spread of Covid-19.

In April, social media and WhatsApp groups were flooded by calls for social and economic boycotts of Muslims, including by BJP supporters. Several physical attacks on Muslims have also occurred, including of volunteers distributing relief material, amid falsehoods accusing them of spreading the virus deliberately.

Hate speech against Muslims appears to have grown after Indian authorities announced that a large number of Muslims had tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a mass religious congregation in Delhi, organized by the international Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat. BJP officials fanned the flames by calling the Jamaat meeting a “Talibani crime” and “CoronaTerrorism.” Some mainstream media supportive of the BJP have used terms like #CoronaJihad, causing the hashtag to go viral on social media.

The situation grew so serious that the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement of caution, noting that “it is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not explicitly condemned hate speech against Muslims, but tweeted “COVID19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language, or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.” But Indian authorities at the national and local level have not taken adequate steps to stem the increasingly toxic atmosphere or conduct adequate investigations of attacks where appropriate.

Sri Lanka

Several government officials have made stigmatizing public comments about Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community in the context of the pandemic, as hate speech has been reported across the country. This includes claims that Muslims are responsible for deliberately spreading the pandemic, along with calls for boycotts of Muslim businesses. Muslim organizations wrote to the government on April 12 to draw attention to an increase in hate speech in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government issued a rule on March 27 that anyone who dies from Covid-19 complications must be cremated, which is at odds with Islam religious practice. The WHO has said that cremation should be “a matter of cultural choice and available resources,” and is not necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Four UN special rapporteurs issued a communication on April 8 finding that the rule was a violation of freedom of religion and also drawing attention to anti-Muslim hate speech and the stigmatization of Muslims who had tested positive for Covid-19. A Muslim man, Ramzy Razeek, who wrote against the cremation rule on Facebook, received death threats. When he complained to the police, he was arrested on April 9.

International Legal Obligations

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obligates countries to “condemn racial discrimination” and undertake measures aimed at “eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races” while undertaking “not to sponsor, defend, or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations.” Countries need to “prohibit and bring to an end, by all appropriate means ... racial discrimination by any persons, group, or organization” and “discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.”

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), set up to monitor the treaty’s provisions, has stated in a general recommendation on combating racist hate speech that “[f]ormal rejection of hate speech by high-level public officials and condemnation of the hateful ideas expressed play an important role in promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.” The CERD committee recommends that governments undertake “information campaigns and educational policies calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech,” and that training for police and legal systems is “essential” to foster “familiarization with international norms protecting freedom of opinion and expression and norms protecting against racist hate speech.”

Given the upsurge in anti-Asian and other racism and xenophobia related to the Covid-19 pandemic, all governments should adopt new action plans to address emerging forms of discrimination and xenophobia tailored to the new and changing circumstances, Human Rights Watch said. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights outlined best strategies for adopting action plans in a set of guidelines released in 2014.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Submitted via regulations.gov 

Kyle McGowan
Office of the Chief of Staff
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road NE, MS H21-10
Atlanta, GA 30329 

Re: CDC Docket No. CDC-2020-0033, RIN: 0920-AA76, Comments in Response to Interim Final Rule Control of Communicable Diseases; Foreign Quarantine: Suspension of Introduction of Persons into the United States from Designated Foreign Countries or Places for Public Health Purposes

Dear Mr. McGowan,

Human Rights Watch writes to express strong opposition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) Interim Final Rule (“Rule”), published in the Federal Register on March 24, 2020. The Rule is the basis for the CDC’s Order dated March 20, 2020, “Suspending the Introduction of Certain Persons from Countries Where a Communicable Disease Exists” (“CDC Order”).[1] Both the Rule and the CDC Order fail to address US obligations to asylum seekers and unaccompanied migrant children, who are also often asylum seekers, under US and international law. As a result, US Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) is now expelling unauthorized migrants, including children, without considering whether they are eligible for protection under US law. The Rule, ostensibly intended to protect human life, is instead putting asylum seekers’ lives at serious risk. We urge that the rule be withdrawn in its entirety.

Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization. We operate in 90 countries and have been investigating, documenting, and exposing human rights abuses around the world for four decades. We have published numerous reports on abuses within the US immigration system, including US government failure to meet its obligations to asylum seekers and child migrants under US and international law. 

The Rule and CDC Order Fail to Consider US Obligations to Asylum Seekers and Unaccompanied Children

Under US law and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the United States is party, the United States may not return asylum seekers to face threats to their lives or freedom without: (1) affording them an opportunity to apply for asylum or for protection against facing the threat of torture; and (2) conducting a full and fair examination of those claims. Even in times of emergency, governments remain obliged to protect refugees from return to a threat of persecution, exposure to torture or inhuman and degrading conditions, or threats to life and physical security.[2] Travel by refugees fleeing threats to their life and safety constitutes essential travel, as it can mean the difference between life or death.[3]

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, released guidance on March 16, 2020 calling for border measures relating to COVID-19 to be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. Any “blanket measure” to preclude the admission of refugees and asylum seekers would not meet this standard, according to UNHCR.[4]

The Rule, in serving as the basis for the CDC Order, allows for such inappropriate “blanket measures.” Under the CDC Order, the United States is failing to provide asylum seekers with legal protections designed to ensure they are not returned to a threat of persecution. Also, based on the CDC order, the Department of Homeland Security has issued an Order (“DHS Order”) authorizing CBP agents to “expeditiously expel” to Mexico or to their country of origin migrants encountered between ports of entry, including unaccompanied children.[5]

Summary expulsions pursuant to the Rule also deprive unaccompanied children of important safeguards against human trafficking. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, passed with strong bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush, requires specialized screening of unaccompanied children and their expeditious transfer to appropriate care.[6] Without these critical protections, children run the risk of serious harm. Already, since the Order went into effect, CBP has expelled thousands of migrants, including hundreds of unaccompanied children, depriving them of their rights.

Human Rights Watch has previously witnessed and documented CBP agents performing illegal “turnbacks” of migrants exercising their right to seek asylum, including unaccompanied children.[7] Human Rights Watch has also found agents have failed to refer for interviews with asylum officers people who have expressed a fear of return to their country of origin, and instead, rapidly deported them to potential danger.[8] Giving CBP agents even greater power to unilaterally and summarily decide claims under the travel restrictions will very likely risk further wrongful return of people who may be refugees. To cite just one example of the serious consequences that can ensue from such “expeditious” expulsions, Human Rights Watch reported some 200 cases of people killed, raped, or otherwise abused since 2013 after the United States returned them to El Salvador.[9]

The Rule and CDC Order Fundamentally Disregard Risks Faced by Asylum Seekers and the Asylum Process

The CDC order, issued pursuant to the Rule, is based on: insufficient and incorrect information provided by the DHS to the CDC regarding the categories of non-citizens (or “aliens” as the term is used in the Orders) who have a lawful reason to enter in the United States; incorrect information provided by DHS to the CDC regarding the opportunities for release of asylum seekers to families and communities of support inside the United States; lack of information provided by DHS to the CDC about DHS’ discretion to release asylum seekers from custody after appropriate periods of quarantine and under appropriate conditions of supervision; and lack of information provided by DHS to the CDC about the enduring US obligations to asylum seekers under US and international law, even during an emergency.

The CDC Order states that it applies to “covered aliens,” a definition the CDC adopted after receiving information from DHS (the CDC Order states “DHS has informed CDC . . .”). DHS apparently informed CDC that the noncitizens who are traveling from Canada or Mexico who must be held in Ports of Entry or Border Patrol stations are people, according to the CDC Order, “who do not have proper travel documents…whose entry is otherwise contrary to law…and who are apprehended near the border seeking to unlawfully enter the United States.” This definition includes a wide range of noncitizens and fails to specifically address the subcategory of noncitizens who may apply for asylum under 8 USC Sec. 1158, which states, “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.” The definition also fails to acknowledge CBP’s obligation, as a part of implementing this section of US law, under 8 C.F.R. 235.3(b)(4), to register any claims of fear expressed by a non-citizen and refer them to a credible fear interview.

The CDC’s determination that “covered aliens” should not be allowed entry to the United States is based on information provided by DHS that “many of the aliens covered by this order may lack homes or other places where they can self-isolate,” as stated in the Order, as well as detailed concerns regarding the presence of COVID-19 in Canada and Mexico; and the inadvisability of holding covered aliens in Ports of Entry or Border Patrol stations where medical care is limited and mandated social distancing and related public health precautions will be difficult to achieve. We do not dispute the lack of medical care at Border Patrol stations and the crowded conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers are often held for lengthy periods of time. However, the CDC may not be aware of research completed in 2019 by the US Immigration Policy Center, finding that 91.9 percent of asylum seekers have family or close friends in the United States.[10] That means that many of them could likely be released to those friends and family members after a period of quarantine or other measures as necessary for public health and with appropriate safeguards to ensure their appearance for asylum proceedings. These findings are in keeping with our own extensive interviews with asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border in recent years.

The CDC may also be unaware that CBP is not required to hold migrants and asylum seekers in border detention facilities for long periods of time in crowded, unhygienic conditions. Indeed, CBP’s own standards suggest that adult noncitizens should not be held in these facilities for more than 72 hours. Most unaccompanied children must by law be transferred within 72 hours (though that limit is often ignored). Whether to release migrants and asylum seekers is a matter of discretion, and CBP has the authority to directly and swiftly release such persons, including after a period of quarantine and under possible conditions of supervision, if appropriate.

The Rule and CDC Order Are Based on Unjustified Public Health Claims

The Rule and the CDC Order issued pursuant to the Rule argue that suspension of entry of certain foreigners is necessary for public health reasons. In the CDC Order, the CDC states, “It is necessary for the public health to immediately suspend the introduction of covered aliens” and “the introduction into POEs [points of entry] and Border Patrol stations of covered aliens increases the seriousness of the danger to the point of requiring temporary suspension of the introduction of covered aliens.”

The United States currently has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country in the world.[11] Community transmission is already widespread throughout the United States, and all US states have imposed some degree of restrictions on movements to slow transmission.[12] Given these facts, the extraordinary step of barring asylum seekers is not strictly necessary nor will it effectively reduce the burden of COVID-19 that already exists in the US and will continue to exist regardless of this measure.[13] Rational, evidence-based quarantine measures are not in conflict with the right to seek asylum and could be implemented without pushing asylum seekers back to face threats to their lives.

We understand and appreciate the seriousness of the situation that CDC is engaged in addressing, and that rational, evidence-based public health measures are warranted given the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, returning refugees to persecution or other grave threats constitutes a serious human rights violation that is not permitted under international law even in times of emergency. And in light of the information we have shared above, we believe you can protect the health of immigrants and the public at large without overbroad new regulations that turn away asylum seekers.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the rule. Please do not hesitate to contact Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch, at mengg@hrw.org or at (323) 694-5181 if you have any questions.

Sincerely yours,

Alison Leal Parker
Managing Director


[1] US Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Order Under Sections 362 and 365 of the Public Health Service Act (42 USC §§ 265, 268): Order Suspending Introduction of Certain Persons From Countries Where a Communicable Disease Exists,” https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/pdf/CDC-Order-Prohibiting-Introduction-of-Persons_Final_3-20-20_3-p.pdf (accessed April 22, 2020).

[2] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Advisory Opinion on the Extraterritorial Application of Non-Refoulement Obligations Under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol,” https://www.unhcr.org/4d9486929.pdf (accessed April 22, 2020).

[3] Bill Frelick (Human Rights Watch), "Essentail travel in a time of pandemic" commentary, The Hill, April 11, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/13/essential-travel-time-pandemic.

[4] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Key Legal Considerations on access to territory for persons in need of international protection in the context of the COVID-19 response,” March 16, 2020, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5e7132834.html (accessed April 22, 2020).

[5] US Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, 19 CFR Chapter 1, “Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Mexico,” https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2020-06253.pdf (accessed April 22, 2020); Tweet by USBP Chief Patrol Agent, El Centro Sector, March 25, 2020, https://twitter.com/USBPChiefELC/status/1242881223111790592 (accessed April 22, 2020).

[6] Pub. L. No. 110-457, 112 Stat. 5044, Section 235 “Enhancing Efforts to Combat the Trafficking of Children” (2008).

[7] “US: Mexican Asylum Seekers Ordered to Wait,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 23, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/23/us-mexican-asylum-seekers-ordered-wait; “US: Unaccompanied Children Turned Back at Border, Face Risk of Return to Harm,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 24, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/24/us-unaccompanied-children-turned-back-border.

[8] Michael Garcia Bochenek, “US Turning Away Asylum Seekers at Mexican Border: Central Americans Who Flee for Their Lives Denied Entry by US Border Guards,” Human Rights Dispatch, May 3, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/03/us-turning-away-asylum-seekers-mexican-border; Human Rights Watch, You Don’t Have Rights Here: US Border Screenings and Returns of Central Americans to Risk of Serious Harm, October 16, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/10/16/you-dont-have-rights-here/us-border-screening-and-returns-central-americans-risk.

[9] Human Rights Watch, Deported to Danger: US Deportation Policies Expose Salvadorans to Death and Abuse, February 5, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/05/us-deported-salvadorans-abused-killed.

[10] Tom K. Wong, US Immigration Policy Center, University of California San Diego, “Seeking Asylum: Part 2,” October 29, 2019, https://usipc.ucsd.edu/publications/usipc-seeking-asylum-part-2-final.pdf (accessed April 22, 2020).

[11] Pablo Gutierrez, “Coronavirus map: which countries have the most cases and deaths?”, Guardian, April 23, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/21/coronavirus-map-which-countries-have-the-most-cases-and-deaths-covid-19 (accessed April 22, 2020).

[13] Joanna Naples-Mitchell, “There is No Public Health Rationale for a Categorical Ban on Asylum Seekers, “ Just Security, April 17, 2020,  https://www.justsecurity.org/69747/there-is-no-public-health-rationale-for-a-categorical-ban-on-asylum-seekers/ (accessed April 22, 2020).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People protest outside the children's hospital JM de los Rios because of lack of medicines, in Caracas, Venezuela March 12, 2020.

© 2020 REUTERS/Carlos Jasso
As COVID-19 spreads, it’s clearer than ever that millions of Venezuelans who have fled a brutal government crackdown and an already collapsed health system in their home country can’t return safely. The U.S. government has the ability to grant those Venezuelans in the United States Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a type of humanitarian protection that would lift the threat of deportation. And it should make that move now.

TPS may be granted when people can’t return home safely because of generalized, temporary conditions. It’s separate from asylum in U.S. law, which requires each person seeking asylum to establish a well-founded fear of persecution if returned. The U.S. has granted TPS for citizens of ten countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, for reasons ranging from hurricanes to civil war. 

President Trump’s announcement that his administration would stop issuing some green cards for a period of 60 days in response to COVID-19 isn’t relevant to the question of temporary protection, because TPS only applies to Venezuelans who are inside the United States at the time of the designation.

The TPS criteria certainly applies to Venezuela, particularly in the era of COVID-19, which puts an increased, temporary urgency to this situation. Even before the pandemic emerged, Human Rights Watch research showed that Venezuela was facing a humanitarian emergency, with shortages of food and a health system in utter collapse. We found rising levels of maternal and infant mortality, the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria, and dramatic surges in infectious diseases including malaria and tuberculosis. Although Venezuelan authorities stopped publishing official data on nutrition years ago, universities and non-governmental organizations have documented high levels of food insecurity and child malnutrition. 

The Maduro administration has failed to address the humanitarian crisis, while making heavy-handed attempts to deny and conceal its severity. It has harassed and persecuted health professionals who question the government’s failure to address the crisis and the pandemic. The Maduro administration has also blocked full delivery of desperately needed international aid. 

This harassment is part of a much broader pattern of repression. A government crackdown in Venezuela on protesters, critics, and political opponents has led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, prosecution of hundreds of civilians by military courts, torture and other abuses of detainees, extrajudicial killings and short-term enforced disappearances. Abuses and the impunity with which they are committed are ongoing.

As of April 21st,  Venezuela had 298 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The real number is probably much higher, given the limited availability of testing and the government’s lack of transparency in providing official epidemiological data. Overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, as well as the widespread problem of limited access to clean water in hospitals and homes, are a recipe for the rapid spread of COVID-19. 

The collapse of the health system and the government’s suppression of public health data undermine Venezuela’s ability to respond to COVID-19. The 2019 Global Health Security Index ranked Venezuela 180 out of 195 countries—and last among Latin American countries—in readiness to respond rapidly to mitigate the spread of an epidemic.

Worldwide, the death rate for COVID-19 has been one to three percent. Health authorities say it’s likely to vary according to the availability of treatment and the overall health of the people it strikes. This bodes ill for Venezuela, where the capacity for complex care is severely limited and where people already suffer malnutrition and a long list of preventable diseases. Venezuela lacks basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, ICU beds, and respirators. Without water in outpatient clinics and hospitals, many healthcare providers can’t even wash their hands, which is vital to limiting the spread of COVID-19. 

Over a year ago, Human Rights Watch and more than 200 other organizations urged the U.S. government to grant TPS to Venezuelans. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said then that granting TPS was “discretionary” and that it was “monitoring the situation” in Venezuela. 

The Trump administration should grant TPS to Venezuelans without being directed to do so by Congress. But if the administration doesn’t do that promptly, Congress should step in to grant TPS to Venezuelans for the next 18 months. Companion bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would do that, but neither has passed the full Congress. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last June that about 200,000 Venezuelan nationals in the U.S. would qualify. As of March, an additional 108,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers had entered the U.S. 

Granting TPS to Venezuelans would be an act of mercy in a season of dread. Now is the time to act.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said on April 10, 2020 in a letter to the Bahraini minister of labour & social development, Jameel Bin Mohammed Ali. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – United Arab Emirates authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said on April 10, 2020 in a letter to the UAE human resources and emiratization minister, Nasser bin Thani Al Hamli. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org. 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Omani authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said on April 10, 2020 in a letter to the Omani minister of manpower, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Abdullah Al Bakri. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said on April 10, 2020 in a letter to the Saudi minister of labor and social development, Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said on April 10, 2020 in a letter to the Kuwaiti minister of social affairs and labor, Mariam Aqeel Al-Said Hashim Al-Aqeel. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

What are your main concerns about the coronavirus moving through the MENA region?

The first is countries in conflict, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, and the densely crowded Gaza Strip, under Israeli occupation. Another vulnerable population is refugees and migrants, as well as people in prison or detention. Also, we know older people are particularly vulnerable to this virus and that they, along with people with disabilities, have a harder time accessing not only health care but information about the virus.

Then there’s the poor. People who don’t have any financial cushion and don’t know where next week’s meals will come from if the lockdown continues. They already may have more underlying medical problems than the better-off, with limited access to health care.

I also worry about the many children out of school, and their ability to keep learning while at home.

Who within the region is most at risk to the virus?

The long-raging conflicts in Yemen and Syria have decimated the health care systems in those countries. Ongoing strikes by the Syrian-Russian military alliance in parts of Syria held by anti-government forces have destroyed hospitals and clinics, displacing over a million people. People live in tents or out in the open without access to water, unable to practice precautionary hygiene or social distancing.

A member of the Syrian civil defense, also known as the White Helmets, sprays disinfectant outside a hospital during a sterilization campaign for hospitals in the city of Idlib, Syria, March 22, 2020.

© 2020 Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In Yemen, as in Syria, malnutrition and other disease outbreaks mean people who contract COVID-19 are less likely to recover. In Yemen, more than half of all health facilities are closed or functioning only partially. Additionally, both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels have targeted medical facilities and medical personnel during the conflict, causing many medical professionals to flee Yemen. 

The decline of Libya’s health care system has only accelerated during the conflict in western Libya. Libya is also ill-equipped to treat the thousands of detainees held in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, let alone those locked up in abusive immigration-related detention centers.  

The 13-year closure by Israel of the Gaza Strip means the health care system is short all kinds of supplies, and Palestinians living in Gaza need Israel’s permission to travel to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel, or elsewhere to obtain specialized treatment. Taking into consideration new coronavirus-related restrictions, Israel may issue to Palestinians even fewer permits than usual to exit Gaza for medical treatment.

Also, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, making it hard for residents to socially distance themselves.

Migrant workers often live in appallingly overcrowded and unsanitary accommodations, heightening the risk of infection. In Qatar, the authorities imposed a lockdown in areas where many migrant workers live, often in cramped conditions. Across the Gulf states, there are serious concerns as to whether migrant workers are receiving information about COVID-19, testing, and medical treatment.

Migrant domestic workers, women who cook, clean, and raise children in homes and work in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Jordan and who already face exploitation, may see their situation deteriorate as a result of the pandemic. Families might force them to work longer hours or engage in activities that endanger their own health. If a family’s revenues drop, they may stop paying domestic workers. And if the women try to leave the homes where they work and live, they risk violating both curfew laws and immigration laws that make it an offense to “abscond” from an employer.

Palestinian workers spray disinfectant at Nahr al-Bared camp to prevent against the spread of coronavirus in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, March 29, 2020.

© 2020 Yousef Masoud/INA Photo Agency/ Sipa via AP Images

How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that are harmful to rights?

Iran was hit first and hardest by the coronavirus in the region. It tried to suppress information about the virus and was slow to mobilize a national response. The virus spread among religious Shiite tourists from the Gulf region who carried it back home.

United States sanctions are also impeding Iran’s ability to combat the virus, as it’s hard for the country to import medically necessary supplies. Even though there’s a carve-out in the US legislation, the sanctions are so strict that many countries and banks prefer not to risk doing even humanitarian trade with Iran. The US should ease the sanction regime, giving Iran the ability to obtain lifesaving equipment.

Some governments are stifling criticism of their response to the pandemic. Egypt expelled a reporter from the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper after the journalist wrote that Egypt was underreporting its COVID-19 cases. Jordanian authorities on April 9 detained two television executives, apparently because of their station’s reporting on the pandemic and its fallout in Jordan. Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission said it would “suspend” Reuters after the news agency reported that the government had under-reported the actual rate of infection.

Without independent oversight, governments will feel empowered to deny the extent of the crisis.

Countries like Lebanon and Algeria have had ongoing peaceful political protests for months. In Algeria, courts imprisoned protest leaders on the basis of patently political charges at a time when the street protests that they led had been suspended due to the coronavirus. And in Lebanon, authorities dismantled tents erected by protesters in central Beirut and announced they will move ahead with the controversial Bisri dam project, which the now-absent street protesters had been fighting on environmental grounds.

Additionally, in Lebanon, municipalities are imposing discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees, making it harder for them to reach health centers.

Israeli authorities announced that they had authorized the Shin Bet intelligence agency to access and study location-tracking data from cellphones in order to predict which people have been exposed to the virus. While technology can serve public health purposes, Israeli human rights groups challenged the move before Israel’s Supreme Court, raising concern that it threatened to widen the scope of government surveillance activities permanently. When the pandemic is over, will the surveillance stop, and the harvested data be deleted?

Yemeni women work to manufacture protective face masks at a textile factory in Sanaa, Yemen, March 17, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that respect rights?

We’ve seen many governments – Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan – announce that they would release prisoners in the context of this pandemic. That’s a good thing, as prisons are notoriously overcrowded in just about every country, and it would be hard for inmates to practice social distancing. The health emergency has shined a light on one reason prisons in some countries are so crowded: the tendency of judges to put a large percentage of suspects in pretrial detention. Now those suspects are waiting even longer for trials as courts shut or slow down due to the lockdown.

So far, with the exception of Iran, we are aware of no prominent political prisoners who have benefitted from these releases.

Jordan issued a state of emergency early on, but the government said it would apply it in a narrow fashion. It also issued reassuring statements that this wasn’t opening the door to a crackdown on civil liberties.   

Also, we know that during lockdowns, domestic violence cases rise. In response to this, Tunisia and Lebanon created a 24-hour hotline for domestic abuse victims, recognizing that it’s harder for women to leave home and file a complaint at the police station during a pandemic.

People pass in front the emergency entrance of the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital, where most of the Lebanese coronavirus cases are treated, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 11, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

How prepared are countries in the MENA region to deal with the fallout of COVID-19?

People know this is something the entire world is going through together. I think the fact that they’re staying inside for their own well-being has delayed public displays of anguish and desperation. We’re going to see these governments tested, especially the most resource-challenged ones.

Tourism, which provides significant jobs and revenue to countries like Morocco and Tunisia, is unlikely to rebound quickly. Peddlers and shopkeepers, other than those providing necessities, have largely closed down for now, as has the huge informal sector.

Gulf countries are going to be squeezed by the drop in oil prices. They will be less likely to assist other countries, like Egypt, that have benefitted from their largesse in the past. Among the less well-off, economic panic may soon overtake medical prudence, with dramatic consequences in states not known for their tolerance for, and management of, public protests and disturbances. Desperation may prompt people to take risks for their own and their community’s health, reigniting the spread of COVID-19. With this pandemic, the Middle East and North Africa is confronting its first regionwide stress test since the popular revolts against authoritarian and inept governance erupted a decade ago.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Honorable Chad F. Wolf
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Washington, D.C. 20528
email: chad.wolf@hq.dhs.gov

cc: Alex M. Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Re: Restoring asylum protections for domestic violence survivors and all others seeking asylum during the global pandemic

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf:

The 182 undersigned national, state, and local organizations that advocate on behalf of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, asylum seekers, immigrants and stateless people call on you to rescind the blanket policy of turning back refugees from our borders. We understand the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has required the Administration to take action to reduce the virus’ transmission rate. However, closing our borders to asylum seekers flies in the face of public health principles, as well as our non-derogable treaty obligations. We are deeply concerned that this new policy will put survivors of domestic and sexual violence at particularly high risk of harm.

Domestic violence survivors and their advocates around the world have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the rising danger for abused women and children sheltering at home when home is not safe.[1] The United Nations Secretary-General called attention on April 5, 2020 to a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” as fear of the virus has grown, along with its social and economic consequences.[2] The U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline has explained that when an abusive partner feels a loss of power and control, such as during a time of crisis, abuse often escalates in intensity and frequency. It is clear that pandemic-induced isolation measures, and health and economic stressors, can make survivors still more vulnerable. A number of countries have reported a spike in domestic violence related to COVID-19 restrictions on movement.[3]

Women and children in many countries cannot rely on local authorities to help them even during normal times, much less in this period of extreme social isolation. In a revealing glimpse of one government’s unhelpful response to the threat of rising domestic violence, Malaysian officials warned women not to be “sarcastic” to their husbands or “nag” them during that country’s lockdown, and apologized only after an international outcry.[4]

The current COVID-19 crisis only compounds the barriers that survivors of gender-based violence face seeking asylum in the United States. Within the last few years, the U.S. Department of Justice has all but closed the door on women seeking asylum from their abusive partners.[5] A host of unlawful policies has made the process more difficult and dangerous than ever: separating families, increasing incarceration, slowing down processing of new asylum claims at the border through the practice known as “metering,” and forcing people to wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols. More recently, the U.S. has further shirked its legal obligations to refugees by simply deporting people to Guatemala under an Asylum Cooperative Agreement, touting a legal fiction that they can safely seek asylum there.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now cited the pandemic as justification to close our borders to asylum seekers entirely.[6] DHS’ position is that asylum seekers are not considered to be engaged in essential travel.[7] However, asylum seekers not only have compelling reasons to request entry but also have a right to seek protection that is guaranteed under U.S. law pursuant to U.S. treaty obligations under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1984 Convention Against Torture.

During this pandemic, it is highly unlikely that large numbers of women and children suffering from domestic violence will be able to make their way to the southern border, given that many countries are requiring residents to shelter at home, and international travel has become extremely difficult.

However, we are concerned that those seeking asylum in the United States are now being promptly expelled with no legal process whatsoever.[8] In direct violation of U.S. law, border officials are not even inquiring why people without proper documentation are seeking to enter, nor are they asking whether they fear harm if they are refused entry. Instead, DHS officials have been instructed to expel everyone immediately except those who spontaneously express a fear of torture. If an asylum seeker does spontaneously express a fear of torture, the frontline border patrol officer must determine if the fear is “reasonably believable,” a legal standard that does not exist in U.S. immigration law and on which border patrol officers have not been trained. If the officer determines that the asylum seeker’s fear is reasonably believable, they must then get the approval of a superior officer, the chief patrol agent for the sector. Only after these steps is the asylum seeker allowed to express her fear of torture to an asylum officer. All others are summarily turned back. Reports as of early April indicate that some 7,000 people have been expelled in this manner since the new policy went into effect on March 20, 2020. There are no reports of anyone successfully convincing a border agent that she has a “reasonably believable” fear of torture. Many women arriving at the U.S. southern border are fleeing extensively documented extreme violence in their home countries. That not one of these women has been found to have a “reasonably believable fear” since expulsions began last month is a damning indication that this new procedure actually offers no exceptions.

The procedure described above is wholly inadequate to ensure that the United States abides by its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, implemented in U.S. law in the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998. The procedure also fails entirely to meet U.S. obligations under the Refugee Protocol, implemented in U.S. law in the Refugee Act of 1980, as there is no provision for assessing an asylum seeker’s fear of persecution even if she spontaneously asserts such a fear. Protections under the Convention Against Torture and under the Refugee Protocol have different legal definitions and different standards of proof. Even if DHS was adequately assessing the claims of people who fear torture, this would be insufficient to protect those who fear persecution. We note that Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic Members wrote to you on April 7, 2020 posing a number of inquiries concerning the legal justification for closing U.S. borders to asylum seekers and questioning the compliance of such actions with U.S. treaty obligations.[9] Their concerns were echoed on April 10, 2020 by the Chairs of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the House Committee on the Judiciary.[10] We urge you to respond fully and completely to these inquiries.

An additional concern is that children traveling alone should benefit from the provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and are supposed to be exempt from the new policy barring asylum seekers. However, there are reliable reports that they, too, are being expelled, prompting congressional leaders to ask your Department to stop the practice immediately.[11] We ask that you respond swiftly to their requests.

As noted above, we fully support the adoption of all necessary measures to reduce the transmission rate of COVID-19. However, border restrictions can be managed in a manner which protects public health while respecting international human rights and refugee protection standards, including the principle of non-refoulement. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have stressed that governments can put in place targeted, reasonable, and proportionate measures, such as screening or temporary limitations on movement, to protect both their own populations and those seeking asylum.[12]

In light of the guidance provided by WHO and UNHCR, we are particularly concerned that DHS in its new travel restrictions[13] and the CDC in its Order[14] and Interim Final Rule[15] fail even to mention asylum seekers. This is an astonishing omission since, as noted above, the Administration has had an intense focus on the issue of asylum seekers at our southern border for the last several years. The failure to mention asylum seekers, much less take their legal rights into account, is also puzzling since the CDC’s Interim Final Rule affirms that “In issuing orders pursuant to this interim final rule, CDC would coordinate with the Secretary of State in order to ensure compliance with the international legal obligations of the United States and to take due account of U.S. national and security interests.”[16] There is no indication of any such coordination with the Secretary of State, nor does the action taken by DHS and the CDC even attempt to comply with the United States’ international legal obligations.

The CDC Order lacks any legal analysis whatsoever that would reconcile public health imperatives with the United States’ legal obligation to asylum seekers, resting instead on information about the situation at the border supplied by DHS. Unfortunately, this information is woefully insufficient or incorrect in a number of respects.[17] Particularly concerning is the CDC’s assumption based on information provided by DHS that most asylum seekers would have nowhere to go except an immigration detention center if they were allowed to enter the United States. In fact, over 90% of asylum seekers presenting at the Southern border have family or close friends in this country.[18]

We know that the isolation necessary to slow the spread of this pandemic will result in countless more women and children suffering domestic violence. We also know that if we do not implement reasonable precautions at our border to ensure both public health and the protection of refugees, and instead continue to shut the door to the most vulnerable, we will fail those who turn to us for protection, as well as U.S. domestic and international law obligations, and our own best traditions. We urge you to rescind this flawed policy and replace it with targeted, reasonable, and proportionate measures to protect public health and ensure that women and children fleeing domestic violence and other refugees are not returned to persecution.

If you have any questions, please contact Kate Jastram, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at jastramkate@uchastings.edu.


Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence


Center for Gender & Refugee Studies

Tahirih Justice Center

ADL (Anti-Defamation League)

Advocating Opportunity

African Human Rights Coalition (African HRC)

African Public Affairs Committee

African Services Committee

Al Otro Lado

Alianza Americas

America’s Voice

Americans for Immigrant Justice

Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC)

Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence

Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys

Asylum Access

Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project

Asylum Sponsorship Project (ASP)

Bay Area Asylum Support Coalition Bay Area Resource Generation

California Partnership to End Domestic Violence

Canal Alliance

Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition

Catholic Charities of Orange County

Catholic Charities of San Francisco

Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law

Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)

Center for Victims of Torture

Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) Los Angeles

Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) San Francisco

Centro Legal de la Raza

Christian Community Development Association

Church World Service

Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto

Congregation of Our Lady of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces Connecticut Shoreline Indivisible

CRCNA Safe Church Ministry

DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence

DC Volunteer Lawyers Project

Denver Justice and Peace Committee

Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital

East Bay Sanctuary Covenant

Equal Access Legal Services

Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Family Violence Appellate Project (CA)

Freedom Network USA

Futures Without Violence

Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation

Haitian Bridge Alliance

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network

Her Justice


Hispanic Federation

Hope Border Institute

Human Rights First

Human Rights Initiative of North Texas

Human Rights Watch

Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown (Iowa)

Immigrant Defenders Law Center

Immigrant Defense Advocates

Immigrant Family Legal Services

Immigration Center for Women and Children

Immigration Institute of the Bay Area

Indivisible San Francisco

International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law

International Refugee Assistance Project

International Rescue Committee

Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence Jenesse Center, Inc.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Jewish Women International

Just Neighbors

Justice and Immigration Clinic, University of La Verne College of Law

Justice for Our Neighbors Houston

Justice in Motion

Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence

Kehilla Community Synagogue

Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group (KhAAG)

Kids in Need of Defense

La Raza Centro Legal – San Francisco

Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center Last Mile4D

Latin America Working Group (LAWG)

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area

Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services

Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund

Legal Services for Children

Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice

Lutheran Social Services of New York


Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence

Make the Road New Jersey

Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project

Migration Alliance at Yale (MAY), formerly Yale Refugee Project

Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance

Mujeres Unidas y Activas

National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)

National Immigrant Justice Center

National Immigration Law Center

National Justice for Our Neighbors

National Lawyers Guild Bay Area Chapter

National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights National Network to End Domestic Violence

National Organization for Women

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence

Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence

Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)

New Hampshire-Vermont Guatemala Accompaniment Project

New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence

New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Nicaragua Center for Community Action

Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors

Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church in North America

Ohio Domestic Violence Network

Ohio Immigrant Alliance

Open Immigration Legal Services

Oxfam America

Peace Over Violence

Physicians for Human Rights

Project Blueprint


Public Counsel

Queer Detainee Empowerment Project

Quinnipiac University School of Law Clinic

Quixote Center

Rian Immigrant Center

Safe Horizon

San Antonio Region Justice for Our Neighbors

Sanctuary for Families

Santa Clara University International Human Rights Clinic

Santa Fe Dreamers Project

Save the Children Action Network

Seattle University School of Law Gender Violence Immigration Clinic Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN)

Sojourners Solidarity

South Texas Human Rights Center

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)

Southern Border Communities Coalition Southern Poverty Law Center

Southwestern Law School Removal Defense Clinic & Pro Bono Removal Defense

Stand Together Contra Costa

Street Level Health Project

Sueños Sin Fronteras de Tejas (SSFTX)

Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors

The Advocates for Human Rights

The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)

The Door

The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project

The Human Trafficking Legal Center

The Legal Aid Society (New York)

The Legal Project

The NW Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse

The Second Step

The Welcome Project

UCSF Human Rights Cooperative

Ujima Inc: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community

Union for Reform Judaism

Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee United Stateless

United We Dream

University of Tulsa College of Law Legal Clinic

Urban Justice Center Domestic Violence Project


Vida Legal Assistance Inc.

Voice of Witness

Washington Defender Association

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

We Are All America

Witness at the Border

Women Graduates USA

Women’s Refugee Commission

Young Democrats of America Hispanic Caucus

[1] Amanda Taub, A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide, New York Times, April 6, 2020; Emma Graham-Harrison, Angela Giuffrida, Helena Smith and Liz Ford, Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence, The Guardian, March 28, 2020. See also Tahirih Justice Center, The Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrant Survivors of Gender-Based Violence, March 23, 2020.

[3] Such countries include El Salvador (domestic violence cases increased by 70% in March), see Adriana Flores and Alejandra García, Violencia doméstica ha aumentado un 70% durante la cuarentena, elsalvador.com, April 3, 2020; and Mexico (calls reporting cases of gender-based violence increased by 60% since the implementation of measures to contain the virus), see Almudena Barragán and Darinka Rodríguez, Las llamadas por violencia de género en México aumentan 60% durante la cuarentena, Verne en El País, April 3, 2020.


[5] Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018).

[12] United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Organization for Migration, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and World Health Organization, Joint press release: The rights and health of refugees, migrants and stateless must be protected in COVID-19 response, March 31, 2020; UNHCR, Key Legal Considerations on access to territory for persons in need of international protection in the context of the COVID-19 response, March 16, 2020.


[16] Id. at 12.

[18] Id.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A detained migrant from a former Soviet republic waits in a holding cell at a police station in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Picture taken September 19, 2013. 

© 2013 Reuters

Update: On April 18, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree regulating the legal status of foreigners during the lockdown in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decree extends through June 15 the validity of migration documents and lifts work permit requirements. It also imposed a moratorium, for the same duration, on issuing decisions on deportation and expulsion. However, it does not address the situation of the thousands of people currently in migration detention.

(Moscow) – Thousands are stuck in migration detention indefinitely in Russia because the travel restrictions under the Covid-19 epidemic mean that their removal is not imminent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Russian authorities should provide safe and dignified alternatives to migration detention for people facing deportation or court-mandated expulsion. They should also improve access to healthcare and ensure social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Russia’s migration detention centers.

“The huge global challenge that the Covid-19 pandemic poses does not absolve Russia, nor any government, from living up to its human rights obligations,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To stop the spread of Covid-19 inside and outside of Russia’s migration detention facilities, the Russian government should immediately offer alternatives to migration detention, especially given that many migrants cannot be deported or removed at this time.”

More than 8,000 people, including families with children, are effectively being held in indefinite detention across Russia because of the near-total shutdown in international travel. In some instances, children have been separated from their parents, held in different detention centers, and placed in separate removal proceedings.

The very poor conditions in many of Russia’s migration detention facilities are well known. Overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and poor sanitation are notable problems. Since the onset of the pandemic, the police continue to arrest migrants for a range of reasons, now including violation of the lockdown regime, which could lead to further overcrowding of the detention centers.

Migrants in Russian migration detention centers.

© 2018 Habarho/Creative https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

As multiple cases before the European Court of Human Right have confirmed, for years Russia has detained indefinitely people who cannot be removed from the country, violating the prohibition on arbitrary detention and other guarantees of liberty and security.

Russian authorities should take immediate steps to reduce the immigration detention facility population and place detainees in alternative settings that facilitate their protection from Covid-19. This includes providing access to facilities that allow for adequate space for social distancing, and where migrants can secure food, hygiene products, and healthcare. Government measures should take into account the individual circumstances of all migrants, respect the dignity and autonomy of affected people, and ensure that no one is made homeless or otherwise destitute as a result of release from detention.

Some of Russia’s top rights groups that focus on migrants’ rights and conditions in detention, including Civic Assistance, Anti-Discriminatory Center “Memorial,” Human Rights Center “Memorial,” the “For Human Rights” movement, and members of Public Monitoring Commissions, have recommended that the government release foreigners whose prompt repatriation is not possible or who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus due to their health conditions. Their statement noted that this measure would protect the health and lives of detainees and would contribute to preventing the spread of Covid-19 within and beyond migration detention facilities.

The Russian authorities should also consider a temporary moratorium on police checks of migration documents and expulsion and deportation orders until the quarantine, lockdown, and curfew restrictions are lifted. This could prevent a further increase in the number of detainees, overcrowding, and risk of exposure to the virus for migrants, police, and staff of the detention centers.

“The Russian authorities should not continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of migrants in detention and should mobilize provision of alternative housing in hotels, unused buildings, and sports halls, if necessary, to provide safe, adequate shelter that allows for social distancing,” Denber said. “This is a test not only of Russia’s legal system and the government’s crisis preparedness, but of its humanity and decency.”

For additional details about the situation, please see below.

Covid-19 is a serious disease, which can have symptoms ranging from no-to-mild fever, shortness of breath, and cough for people at low risk, to respiratory failure and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies people at highest risk to include those over age 60 and those of any age with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.

Other serious conditions putting people at high risk include blood disorders; chronic kidney or liver disease; compromised immune system; endocrine disorders, including diabetes; metabolic disorders; heart and lung disease, including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions; and current or recent pregnancy.

Travel Shutdowns, Indefinite Detention

Starting in mid-March 2020, the Russian authorities gradually shut down Russia’s borders, with each consecutive government decision announced on short notice. They gradually introduced public measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 within the country, starting with isolating people returning from abroad and then introducing surveillance measures to ensure that people observe quarantine. Lockdowns are in place in most of Russia’s regions, and in some, a pass system requires people to apply for permission to leave home. The specifics of these regimes vary from region to region.

On March 23, the Russian authorities significantly restricted and then, on March 27, stopped the arrival of international flights, with the exception of repatriation flights for Russians stranded abroad. Railroad lines were shut down almost entirely a week earlier. All remaining routes in and out of the country were officially closed as of March 30. None of the government decisions on these closures include time limits.

Some foreign governments organized flights to repatriate their nationals from Russia, but their capacities were limited, and many discontinued these operations after March 30. In a rare exception, according to two human rights lawyers working on asylum and migration issues Human Rights Watch interviewed, on April 12, about 200 Uzbek nationals were repatriated from the Moscow migration detention center. Other foreigners in migration detention facilities might have no prospect of removal through repatriation to their countries of origin or readmission to third countries in the foreseeable future.

To their credit, on March 19, Russian authorities declared that foreigners stranded in Russia could extend their visas, migration cards, residence permits, and work authorizations. However, this did not affect people already in migration detention.

On March 23, an ombudsperson for Sverdlov region and member of President Vladimir Putin’s human rights council, Tatyana Merzliakova, stated that people were being held indefinitely, without any prospect of imminent deportation. She visited a migration detention center in Yekaterinburg, where at the time 248 people were held.

Migrants in Russian migration detention centers.

© 2018 Habarho/Creative https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
In some cases, regional courts have overturned on appeal deportation orders with explicit reference to border closures and impossibility of removal. But the Russian authorities have made no policy decisions to review the situation of those in migration detention.

The problem of indefinite migration detention in Russia predates the pandemic. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its first judgment in a case against Russia concerning migration detention without prospect of removal. The court reiterated that any deprivation of liberty can be justified only “for as long as deportation or extradition proceedings are in progress” and where that is no longer feasible, continued detention of a person is a violation. The court also noted that conditions in such migration detention centers may amount to inhumane and degrading treatment.

Since 2014, the European Court has issued 18 similar rulings against Russia, which have yet to be carried out.

In 2017 the Russian Constitutional Court, citing the European Court, ruled that detention for an indefinite period is not permissible.

Infractions That Lead to Migration Detention

People in Russia’s migration detention facilities are held for a wide variety of offenses, many of them petty, such as irregularities with residence registration, expired passports, missing deadlines for paying monthly fees, and delays in renewal of migration cards, which are issued to foreigners for limited duration upon entry. Many detainees are migrant workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which do not have visa regimes with Russia. It is relatively easy for them to enter Russia, but often hard to obtain and maintain regularized status.

Valentina Chupik, a human rights lawyer who operates a hotline for migrants in Russia, told Human Rights Watch that despite the pandemic, law enforcement authorities continue to detain people for migration infractions. In late February, media reported that the authorities had begun detaining migrants for violating new, self-isolation requirements. Chupik believes the police are interpreting these alleged violations as infractions of migration rules, even though under a recently adopted law, the sanction for such infringements is a monetary fine.

In some regions, the authorities have toughened lockdown and self-isolation regimes by introducing pass systems to travel inside and outside of cities. As police begin to enforce these regimes, migrants could be at dramatically increased risk of detention, especially as many are unable to register their temporary stay, as required by Russian law. The situation is aggravated by longstanding police practices of racial profiling and extortion.

Expulsion and Deportation

Migration detention centers hold people under deportation and expulsion orders. Under Russian law, expulsion is a punitive sanction, handed down by courts, for some offenses. Its application may be discretionary or a mandatory additional sanction, depending on the offense. Under a “forced expulsion” order, it is the authorities’ responsibility to enforce the removal. Under a “controlled voluntary exit” order, migrants must leave Russia, making their own travel arrangements at their own expense.

Chupik said that courts continue to hand out “controlled voluntary exit” orders, even though people currently have no options to comply with such an order and risk additional penalties for non-compliance.

Many courts in Russia have moved to remote review of cases though videoconferencing.

However, Chupik said, in expulsion cases, some courts are instead conducting the proceedings by proxy, with police officers taking the detainee’s documents to court and returning with court rulings, in contravention of Russian law.

Migrants await their fate in police stations for hours at a time, in crowded spaces along with other detainees, without any health precautions or personal protection equipment. Violations of migrants’ rights during court proceedings that were routine before the pandemic have continued, such as lack of access to adequate legal aid and interpretation in their native languages.

Migration police order deportation when, for example, migrants’ work permits, visas, and the like are annulled, canceled, or withdrawn, or after foreigners have served out criminal sentences in Russia. In some cases, asylum seekers whose applications for asylum are rejected by migration authorities are held in migration detention pending deportation. Some are also held while they await appeal decisions.

Notably, according to media reports, in early February the government included Covid-19 in the list of diseases that can prompt a deportation order, without full clarity as to how that measure would be enforced and whether such deportees would be held in the same facilities as other migrant detainees pending removal. And in recent days Russian officials and politicians have voiced proposals to deport migrant workers, amid unproven theories that new unemployment among migrant workers could cause a rise in crime and allegations that migrants are violating social distancing rules.

Conditions in Migration Detention Facilities

Around the world, Covid-19 risk is particularly acute in places of detention, including migration detention centers. The virus can spread rapidly in these centers, especially if access to healthcare is already poor.

According to media reports citing information from Russia’s Interior Ministry, Russia has 78 migration detention centers, with 8,571 foreigners and stateless people detained there as of late 2019.

Human rights defenders who visit Russia’s migration detention centers say that conditions in these facilities are worse than in Russia’s pretrial detention facilities or prisons. Access to medical care is especially problematic. In October, St. Petersburg’s ombudsperson’s office inspected the local migration detention center, and was concerned that the only medical assistance available was limited to what may lawfully performed by a nurse practitioner.

The ombudsperson’s team found that this “created problems with providing more specialized medical care and could facilitate the spread of infectious diseases within the center.” The ombudsperson also stressed that they reported similar problems in their previous annual report, and that the situation had not improved.

Independent monitors reported similar findings in facilities in other parts of Russia. Two lawyers working on asylum and migration issues noted that in many cases persistent intervention by lawyers is needed to ensure that detainees get adequate medical attention, including examination and treatment by specialists outside of the migration detention centers.

Chupik told Human Rights Watch that although rules require medical examinations for all detainees upon entry, the practice varied in facilities she visited in Moscow and several other regions in 2019. In at least one facility, there were no exams upon entry. Furthermore, only one nurse practitioner is allocated per center in some places, but at least in one center, this practitioner had not been in regular attendance. Several sources also reported shortages of basic medications and serious deficiencies in the treatment of infectious diseases.

Several lawyers who spoke separately with Human Rights Watch and who have visited the Moscow facility said that the toilet in the cells consists of a hole in the floor and, in some cells, it was not adequately separated from the rest of the cell, where detainees also eat their meals. One of the lawyers said the center has a canteen for detainees, but that it has not been used.

Human rights monitors also found that migration detention centers are not equipped for the detention of children and that there are no pediatricians on the payroll. Yet human rights defenders and media report that in some cases, children are held with their mothers in migration detention centers, and in other cases they are separated from their families and held and processed for removal in different facilities. One expert said that the authorities in some cases have taken measures to prioritize children for removal so that their detention is limited where possible, but they do not prioritize avoiding family separation, which is fundamental to ensuring a child’s best interests and their right to family unity.

In some centers, detainees are held in premises that resemble prison cells. In many centers, foreigners awaiting deportation after they finish serving criminal sentences, including those who were charged with violent crimes, are held in the same cells with people held only for migration infractions and rejected asylum seekers, in violation of international and national standards.

Human rights defenders have also consistently reported overcrowding in some migration detention centers.

Migrants in Russian migration detention centers.

© 2018 Habarho/Creative https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Starting March 18, 2020 Russian authorities have banned visits to all places of detention. Conditions for visits by lawyers have varied among facilities. Visits are not currently allowed in most.

International Law and Better Practices in Council of Europe Countries

Under international human rights law, everyone, including people in custody, has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” States have an obligation to ensure that medical care for those in their custody is at least equivalent to that available to the general population and must not limit equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative care. In a statement of principles on the treatment of prisoners and detainees amid the Covid-19 crisis, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a body of the Council of Europe, asked authorities to use alternatives to detention “and refrain, to the maximum extent possible, from detaining migrants.”

On March 25, its sister body, the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture urged all countries to reduce populations in detention centers and refugee camps “to the lowest possible level.” The same day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that governments should “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 “rampaging through such… extremely vulnerable populations.”

On March 26, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, echoed the call to release detainees from migration detention to the extent possible. She noted that “migration detention facilities generally provide poor opportunities for social distancing and other measures to protect against Covid-19 infection for migrants and staff” and also stressed that under human rights law, migration detention for the purpose of such returns can only be lawful as long as the return is feasible.

Mijatovic also noted that several Council of Europe states have started releasing migration detainees and encouraged others to follow suit.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, authorities in Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom have released hundreds of people from migration detention. Calls from nongovernmental organizations are mounting in other Council of Europe states, including many European Union countries, to urgently find alternatives to migration detention.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A sign that reads "There is no water" (top L) is seen at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. 

© 2018 REUTERS/Marco Bello
(Washington, DC) – The United States government should recognize the increased risk COVID-19 poses in Venezuela and urgently designate Venezuelans in the US for temporary protection, Human Rights Watch said today. Companion bills have been introduced in the US House and Senate that would designate Venezuelans in the US for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months, but neither has passed the full Congress.  

A government crackdown in Venezuela has led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, prosecutions of hundreds of civilians by military courts, torture and other abuses of detainees, extrajudicial killings, and short-term enforced disappearances. The abuses have helped fuel a massive flight from the country. Venezuela also faces a humanitarian emergency that makes it grossly unprepared to deal with the pandemic, which will add to the burden on the health system and could lead to further increases in illness and death from vaccine-preventable or treatable causes.

“Now is not the time to deport Venezuelans,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “They need temporary protection because they cannot return safely to Venezuela at this time.”

As of April 14, 2020, Venezuela had 189 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The real number is most likely much higher, given the limited availability of testing, the government’s lack of transparency in providing official epidemiological data, overcrowding in low-income areas and prisons, and the widespread problem of limited access to water in hospitals and homes.

More than 4.9 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, according to the United Nations. The vast majority are in Latin America or the Caribbean. As of March 2020, more than 108,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers were in the United States. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in June 2019 that about 200,000 Venezuelan nationals in the US would qualify for TPS.

Temporary Protected Status is intended to protect nationals and habitual residents of countries temporarily experiencing extraordinary conditions from being returned to those countries if they are not able to return in safety. Unlike asylum, which puts a person on a pathway to permanent protection, Temporary Protected Status does not require a person to establish a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Instead, it designates members of a nationality group for protection because they cannot return in safety due to generalized, temporary conditions in their home country.

Human Rights Watch research has shown that long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela’s health system was in utter collapse, with increased levels of maternal and infant mortality; the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles and diphtheria; and dramatic surges in infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Although Venezuelan authorities stopped publishing official data on nutrition years ago, Venezuelan organizations and universities have documented high levels of food insecurity and child malnutrition.

The responsibility for the humanitarian emergency, which has deepened since 2017, lies largely with Venezuelan authorities, Human Rights Watch said. During Nicolás Maduro’s presidency, the authorities have failed to address the crisis while making heavy-handed attempts to deny and conceal its severity. They have harassed and persecuted health professionals who question the government’s failure to address the humanitarian emergency and the pandemic.

The collapse of the health system and the suppression of public health data undermine Venezuela’s ability to respond to COVID-19. At 180 out of 195, Venezuela ranks among the countries least prepared to respond rapidly and mitigate the spread of an epidemic in the 2019 Global Health Security Index – and it ranks last among Latin American countries.

The specific mortality rate for COVID-19 is uncertain and likely to vary according to the availability of treatment among other factors but has been estimated to be between 1 and 3 percent. The death rate would most likely be higher in Venezuela, where there is no capacity for complex care due to a lack of basic X-ray equipment, laboratory tests, intensive care beds, and respirators, and where healthcare providers’ lack of access even to water prevents them from washing their hands, vital to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Human Rights Watch first said in March 2019 that the US should grant TPS to Venezuelans. Human Rights Watch has also urged Venezuela’s neighbors to provide region-wide temporary protection that would grant all Venezuelans legal status for a fixed period, at least until decisions are issued on their individual claims for protection.

“The Trump administration should grant TPS to Venezuelans without being directed to do so by Congress,” Frelick said. “However, if the administration fails to act promptly, Congress should step in and grant TPS to Venezuelans for the next 18 months.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A child places his hands on a fence as Greek police officers stand guard at a makeshift camp for migrants and refugees in Greece.

© 2016 Reuters/Marko Djurica
(Athens) – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis should free hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children detained in unhygienic police cells and detention centers in Greece, Human Rights Watch said today in opening a campaign to free the children. Their release from abusive detention conditions would better protect them from infection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The campaign to #FreeTheKidswhich starts on April 14, 2020, urges people to press Prime Minister Mitsotakis to immediately release unaccompanied migrant children who are in detention, and to transfer them to safe, child-friendly facilities. Human Rights Watch is initiating this campaign after years of research and advocacy on Greece’s practice of locking up children who are in Greece without a parent or relative in police cells and detention centers, urging successive governments to end these serious rights abuses.

Take Action: #FreeTheKids

Take Action: #FreeTheKids

Hundreds of migrant children in Greece without a parent or relative are sitting behind bars in immigration detention and at heightened risk for contracting COVID-19. 

Childhood happens only once in a lifetime – we need your help to make sure they get theirs!

“Keeping children locked up in filthy police cells was always wrong, but now it also exposes them to the risk of COVID-19 infection,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek government has a duty to end this abusive practice and make sure these vulnerable kids get the care and protection they need.”

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity, a government body, as of March 31, 331 children were in police custody awaiting transfer to a shelter, a sharp increase from January, when 180 unaccompanied children were behind bars.

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions such as jails and immigration detention centers. These institutions have often been found to provide inadequate health care even under normal circumstances. In many detention centers, overcrowding, shared bathrooms, and poor hygiene make it virtually impossible to put in place basic measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

Greek authorities describe the detention of unaccompanied children as a “protective custody regime” and claim it is a temporary protection measure in the child’s best interest. In practice, it is anything but protective. Under Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but Greece has a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities such as shelters for unaccompanied children.

Human Rights Watch research has documented that as a result, children face arbitrary and prolonged detention and abusive treatment in unsanitary and degrading conditions, including detention with adults and ill-treatment by police. They are often unable to get medical treatment, psychological counselling, or legal aid, and few even know the reasons for their detention or how long they will be behind bars. Detention has serious long-term impact on children’s development and mental health, including higher levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

In 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled twice against Greece’s abusive practice of detaining unaccompanied children, finding that their detention violated their right to liberty, and that conditions exposed them to degrading treatment.

On November 24, 2019, Greece’s prime minister announced a plan, No Child Alone, to protect unaccompanied children, including by creating more shelters. But the plan does not end the “protective custody” regime and would still leave children at risk of harmful detention.

To fulfill its obligations to these children during the COVID-19 pandemic, Greece should create more space in open, child-friendly facilities for children who are currently in custody, such as hotels, foster care, and apartments under a Supported Independent Living program for unaccompanied children aged 16 to 18.

Greece should also be working to increase its long-term shelter capacity, and establish a functional and comprehensive foster family system, which would benefit Greek children as well. Greek law and practice should be adapted to align with the international norms and standards, establishing that detention of children for reasons relating to their immigration status is a violation of their rights and is never in the child’s best interests, including unaccompanied children.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am