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COVID-19: Access Challenges and the Implications of Border Restrictions

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The COVID-19 pandemic has required States to implement exceptional measures to curb the spread of the virus and to protect public health. While border restrictions or closure may be justified, exceptions are needed to safeguard basic rights, including for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. In many cases, such exceptions are not being made in law or in practice, creating serious risks of violations of rights.

Analysis and implications: border closures, access to territory and returns

Border restrictions which have been imposed or increased as part of measures to respond to Covid-19 are impacting heavily on asylum-seekers and refugees, preventing many across the world from seeking asylum and safety, in violation of the international legal principle of nonrefoulement. As of 21 April, UNHCR estimates that 167 countries have so far fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the virus. At least 57 states are making no exception for people seeking asylum, seriously limiting the rights of persons in need of international protection.

In addition, information gathered through monitoring by IOM shows that students, migrant workers, pilgrims, travellers, domestic workers, textile merchants and migrants who have travelled abroad to get medical assistance have found themselves stranded and destitute at airports, at or between land border entry points, and at sea without means to return to their home country. Some lack the financial means to pay for their return home or the required fitto-travel medical certificate, while others find themselves faced with border closures with no means to sustain themselves where they are.

Forced returns, denials of entry and push-backs at borders, whether at land or sea, of asylumseekers have been recorded in different regions worldwide. There are growing instances of refusals to disembark rescued individuals at sea, leaving them desperately stranded in unsafe boats for extended periods, or seeking to disembark them in unsafe places. Of equal concern is the lack of coordinated engagement even to carry out search and rescues, a norm of customary international law equally being violated during this crisis.

In some cases, States have returned asylum-seekers to transit countries to await lifting of the measures and access to an asylum procedure at an undefined point in the future, effectively suspending the right to seek asylum. In the absence of protection-sensitive border management which would enable regular means to enter at the borders of States - subject to health checks and quarantine where needed – migrants, asylum seekers and refugees might be forced to resort to irregular and often dangerous movements to access assistance and international protection, often facilitated by smugglers, which increases the risk of human trafficking, exploitation and abuse. In some cases, border closures have left people in need of international protection stranded at borders in dangerous and inadequate conditions. Furthermore, border closures may be detrimental to public health, as irregular movements and entry will increase the number of people who are not detected or known to authorities, further complicating efforts to curb and respond to the pandemic.

Collective expulsions of migrants and refugees have been recorded in some locations following reports of Covid-19, triggering refoulement and serious public health risks. Individuals are also being compelled to return to their countries of origin where fragile national health systems are ill-equipped to handle the necessary sanitary and confinement measures, especially where there are mass population movements.

While many governments have proactively organized the return of their nationals, governments such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia, have felt pressured to repatriate their nationals, without the means to do so. Meanwhile, a few governments have set positive examples by extending residence to third country nationals and allowing access to health care and social protection services to migrants. At the same time, some governments have revoked visas and residence permits issued prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Border closures and movement restrictions in many cases negatively impact the capacity of UNHCR, IOM and others working to assist migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees to access the services they offer, including counselling, legal advice, referrals and lifesaving assistance. Denial of access will also undermine the efforts of national authorities to ensure that people at risk of infection or spreading the virus are informed and able to access testing and treatment.