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COVID‑19 amplifying threats to migrant workers, religious minorities, experts tell Third Committee, as delegates debate questions of bias in their findings

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GA/SHC/4298

The COVID‑19 pandemic is magnifying threats to the safety and fundamental rights of migrant workers and religious minorities, independent human rights experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates engaged with them in animated virtual discussions, which spanned half a day.

Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, touched on activities he has undertaken over the past year, including a report presented to the Human Rights Council in March on the intersections between freedom of religion or belief and the right to non‑discrimination on the basis of gender. The report identifies ways in which discriminatory laws and State practices create an environment which makes individuals and groups of people deeply vulnerable because of their perceived or actual religious or belief identity. Expressing concern about the patterns of systemic discrimination that undermine sustainable development efforts in all countries, rich and poor, he said such gaps have been amplified by the COVID‑19 pandemic.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, a heated discussion ensued, with some delegates objecting to references to their respective countries in the report, while others faulted it for excluding cases of discrimination by other countries. Egypt’s representative said the report contains “false and undocumented allegations” pertaining to special identity cards issued in his country, while the Russian Federation’s delegate countered a reference to people who were deprived of citizenship in his country, stating that it is “not in line with reality”. Meanwhile, the representative of India assailed the report for its “communal colouring”, which made it resemble a “racy one‑sided thriller”. The report has “cherry‑picked incidents relating to one religious community” that is pursuing fatwas and blasphemy laws, he said. The report’s objectionable nature of made him wonder whether it stemmed from the Special Rapporteur’s “hidden agenda”.

Responding to these vociferous concerns, Mr. Shaheed said his report is reliably sourced and footnoted. He would be “happiest to know” if the lived realities of affected groups in the Russian Federation and Egypt are indeed better than reports suggest, in which case he would welcome the opportunity to visit those countries to engage further on the issue. If certain parts of the report read like a horror story, it is because what is documented is “truly horrifying”. The report is non‑confrontational, documented in a balanced fashion and constitutes a fair representation of the challenges faced by faith‑based communities.

Meanwhile, Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said at least 330,000 children are detained for migration‑related reasons every year, according to the United Nations Global Study on Deprivation of Liberty of Children. “Detention damages children’s physical, developmental, emotional and psychological health, depriving them of their fundamental rights and their childhood”, he stressed, urging Member States to end such practices, and to pass domestic laws explicitly prohibiting the detention of migrant children under the age of 18.

Adding to those recommendations, Can Ünver, Chair of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, said screening and quarantine measures at entry points must not imply mandatory detention, stressing that the principles of non‑discrimination, medical confidentiality and human dignity must be upheld. States also can consider a temporary suspension of deportations or enforced returns in light of the pandemic, he added.

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 October, to continue its discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Interactive Dialogues — Rights of Migrants

In a half‑day session, held virtually, the Committee heard three presentations on the broad theme of human rights, beginning with a discussion on the rights of migrant workers and their families. They first heard a presentation by Can Ünver, Chair of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants; and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, made subsequent presentations.

Mr. ÜNVER said tightened border restrictions due to the COVID‑19 pandemic have led to the stranding of thousands of migrants around the world, including in the Americas, Africa, Asia or at sea or on European shores, adding that search and rescue operations should continue. Moreover, screening and quarantine measures at points of entry must not imply mandatory detention, and must adhere to principles of non‑discrimination, non‑stigmatization, medical confidentiality and human dignity. Recalling a Joint Guidance note released in May 2020 with Felipe González Morales, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, he urged States to “include migrants and their families in economic recovery policies, taking into account the need for the recovery of remittance flows.” States can consider a temporary suspension of deportations or enforced returns in light of the pandemic, he said, noting with great concern that a significant number of migrants had been deported by various countries, which may expose them and their families to dangerous conditions in transit or in their country of origin. He also expressed concern about xenophobic speeches and expressions which associated the disease with people, including migrants, based on their ethnicity or nationality.

The Committee has established a Working Group for the implementation, review, and follow up to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, he said, adding that the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is “not a stick but a tool to help heal the wounds of misunderstanding between sending, transit and receiving States in relation to migrant workers and their family members”. What is urgently needed is the implementation of the provisions of the Convention, he stressed, calling for more receiving States to ratify it, as otherwise the words, written or spoken, “remain hollow”.

When the floor opened for comments and questions, some representatives expressed their support for strengthening the rights of migrants and their families, while others asserted their right to restrict irregular migration.

An observer for the European Union asked about best practices to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on migrants, as articulated in the May Joint Guidance Note, as well as about progress made by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on the rights of people deprived of liberty by arrest or detention.

The representative of Hungary said his country remains committed to stemming mass migration, as it poses serious public health challenges. “States must provide adequate opportunities to their own citizens in order to ensure they stay, instead of promoting their departure,” he stressed, expressing regret over the Chair’s positive references to the Global Compact, given that many countries, including Hungary, have not ratified it.

Meanwhile, the representative of Colombia said her country is working with the informal sector to guarantee health care and food assistance for migrants and their children and asked how protection can be further reinforced.

The representative of Turkey, noting that his country is a party to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and has made significant contributions to the Global Compact, said more support is needed from States in order to adequately address the great upsurge in human mobility caused by destabilizing factors. He asked about barriers to the ratification of the Convention, and about whether sufficient mechanisms exist to promote the rights of migrants at the United Nations.

Mr. ÜNVER, responding briefly, said the Guidance Note has been sent to all State Parties, and has not, unfortunately, led to “any positive actions”. According to the United Nations Secretariat, however, some positive action has been taken to address an unfolding situation in the Horn of Africa, where stranded migrants have been placed in detention without adequate access to health care. In response to questions on the rights of the arbitrarily detained, he said it has been “a long journey”, and it has taken a great deal of time and effort for an initial draft to be prepared. It will shortly be made public to enhance discussion on it, once comments have been received from civil society and other United Nations bodies. In response to concerns about the detention of minors by the United States, he said it is difficult to address such concerns “as the United States is not a State Party to our Convention”. Nonetheless, the detention of vulnerable children constitutes a “bleeding wound everywhere, not just in some countries”. In response to Hungary’s delegate, he said the Global Compact is a soft law, and is not binding or authoritative, adding that such comments make him lose confidence in the future of the Convention. Dialogue on the rights of migrants must be improved, even if it is not easy. The visibility of the issue must be enhanced, he said, expressing hope that more States will ratify the Convention. Failing that, “we will be talking about this for 20 years, which would be a pity”, he stressed.

Also speaking were the representatives of Mexico and Syria.

Mr. GONZÁLEZ MORALES introduced his report on the elimination of immigration detention of children and their families and the obligation to provide them with adequate care and reception. Every day, migrant children are detained on the basis of their or their parents’ migration status. According to the United Nations Global Study on Deprivation of Liberty of Children, at least 330,000 children are detained for migration‑related reasons every year. Human rights bodies have repeatedly stated that such actions are never in the best interests of the child. “Detention damages children’s physical, developmental, emotional and psychological health, depriving them of their fundamental rights and their childhood”, he said.

While challenges exist, there have been efforts in many countries to prohibit, restrict and reduce the use of immigration detention of children, he said. In South and Central America, and sub‑Saharan Africa, children are not held in detention for migration‑related reasons. He called on Member States to end child immigration and detention and to provide adequate alternative care and reception for all migrant children and their families. Specifically, he urged States to establish in domestic law an explicit prohibition of immigration detention of all migrant children under the age of 18, to strengthen national child protection and welfare systems and to provide resources for the development and implementation of adequate care and reception arrangements.

In the ensuing dialogue, several delegates asked the Special Rapporteur to share good practices related to child migration, including the representative of Mexico, who asked specifically about those for mobilizing resources to end the detention of migrant minors. An observer for the European Union asked about best practices regarding unaccompanied migrant children and alternative care and reception arrangements in their best interests.

Several delegates took to the floor to describe legislation and practices in their own countries and beyond. In that context, the representative of the Russian Federation said child migrants are not separated from their parents in his country, noting that when they are unaccompanied, they are sent to childcare facilities and enjoy the same rights as Russian children. The representative of Luxembourg, meanwhile, said that his country settled minors from refugee camps in Greece from the very start of the pandemic with the aim of integrating them swiftly into their new environment. The representative of Afghanistan expressed concern over displacements caused by Taliban attacks and asked how countries of origin can better engage host Governments in ensuring the rights of migrant children. The representative of Syria noted that interventions by the United States have exacerbated the situation of migrants in Latin America and asked the Special Rapporteur to share his thoughts on such policies.

Delegates also asked about alternatives to detention, with the representative of Malaysia soliciting recommendations on how host countries can balance their approach on this issue while upholding the rule of law, especially those laws related to migration. The representative of the Philippines said her country’s consular posts have seen many children left behind, literally, because of their irregular migration status, which prevents them from having birth registrations. “In countries where it is considered illegal for an unwed migrant woman to give birth to a child, it is the innocent child that bears the consequences of the mother’s so‑called crime”, she said. She asked the Special Rapporteur to look into this issue and to make appropriate recommendations. The representative of El Salvador asked about provisions to guarantee the mental health and development of children who have been separated from their families.

Mr. GONZÁLEZ MORALES, in response to queries related to good practices, advocated a focus on children’s integration into societies, including through community-based solutions and training of State officials in terms of these good practices. Measures that do not include detention are completely feasible, he said, noting that “we’re not talking about utopia here”, but rather approaches that are within the reach of countries. These approaches can be seen in States in Latin America and Africa that never resort to the use of detention.

He called for a shift in the treatment of migrant children, from a security‑based approach to a human‑rights based one, as child migrant detention clearly flouts international law. States have reconciled the need for security without resorting to detention, he said, noting that regularization is a mechanism that can be used to uphold migrant rights and guarantee access to public services. Child detention cannot be used as a means of deterring migration, he added. On the question of the policy of the United States, he said detention has been used on a large scale. He has asked to meet with United States representatives on this matter but has been unable to arrange an appointment as yet.

Also speaking in the dialogue were representatives of Turkey, Bangladesh, Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, Lebanon, Eritrea, Iran, Ethiopia and China.

Freedom of Religion, Belief

Mr. SHAHEED said five years into the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, patterns of discrimination in all countries ‑ rich and poor ‑ continue to undermine the pursuit to fulfil them. COVID‑19 has exacerbated systemic discrimination and violations of fundamental human rights, he said, referring to his current report which identifies the ways in which discriminatory laws and State practices lead people to become more vulnerable by virtue of their perceived or actual religious or belief identity. Left unchecked, these inequalities will undermine progress and reverse gains made towards realizing the Goals, and he called for addressing them through inclusion and combatting discrimination. He also encouraged States to employ specific indicators that highlight the legal, institutional or cultural status of affected populations, and to work with civil society in collecting and publishing data disaggregated on the basis of religion or belief to enhance understanding about inequalities involving religion or belief.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, delegates underscored the importance of protecting the freedom of religion or belief, especially in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic. However, many raised concerns over the objectivity of the Special Rapporteur’s report, with the representative of Egypt condemning “false and undocumented allegations, based on flawed knowledge on the developments in my country”. First, no special identity cards are issued to any specific category of Egyptian citizens, he said, adding that there is only one unified type of card issued to all Egyptians. He expressed regret that the report ignores Egypt’s efforts to promote the principles of citizenship, eliminate discrimination and protect the right to freedom of religion and belief.

In a similar vein, the representative of the Russian Federation said information about his country in the Special Rapporteur’s report is “not in line with reality”. Russian legislation prevents the deprivation of citizenship, he said, and even those who wish to voluntarily renounce their citizenship cannot do so, as they would be stateless. He therefore expressed serious doubts over the sources and verification process used by the Special Rapporteur.

The representative of India criticized the Special Rapporteur for cherry picking incidents that relate to only one religious community in his country, drawing attention to selectivity in the reporting. By focusing exclusively on the plight of one religious community and ignoring others, the report demonstrates inherent bias, he said, wondering whether there is a hidden agenda. India is a multireligious and multilingual country, and he rejected the Special Rapporteur’s findings.

Meanwhile, the representative of Denmark, on behalf of Nordic/Baltic countries, asked the Special Rapporteur which of the Sustainable Development Goals he regards as most relevant for promoting freedom of religion or belief. Available data suggest that the prevalence of laws and policies restricting these freedoms have increased globally — notably in terms of favouritism, general laws and harassment of religious groups. She said COVID‑19 has only exacerbated existing exclusion, restrictions, blasphemy and scapegoating.

Along similar lines, the representative of the United States said laws and policies should fully protect the freedom of religion, including laws criminalizing blasphemy and apostasy. He called on China to end its campaign of repressions against and detention of more than 1 million people of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang internment camps. He further urged States to speak out against Iran to end the persistent targeting, persecution and imprisonment of religious minority groups, adding that Iran closely monitors Christian converts, Jews and Sunni Muslims. He asked the Special Rapporteur what more can be done to address the alarming violations of human rights in China.

Mr. SHAHEED responded, stressing that the facts in his report are accurate. “If some delegations feel that part of the report reads like a horror story, it is because the experience of many faith‑based communities is horrifying.” His report presents facts in a non‑confrontational, balanced fashion, covering nearly all countries and people of all faith groups. Turning to the Sustainable Development Goals, he stressed the importance of intersections, adding that human rights and development are interrelated. “If we forget the gender perspective, we forget more than half of the world’s population in their claims to equality,” he said. More broadly, he expressed concern over how quickly challenges such as COVID‑19 can lead to scapegoating minorities, pointing to the rise in anti‑Semitism, Islamophobia or anti‑Christian and anti‑Hindu tendencies.

Also speaking were representatives of Pakistan, Romania, Hungary, Netherlands, Greece, Austria, Malta, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Albania, Cuba, United Kingdom, Poland, Israel, Morocco, Iran, China, Canada and Armenia, as well as an observer for the European Union.

For information media. Not an official record.