Red Cross urges govts to include migrants in COVID-19 programmes

A migrant from Bangladesh waits on a road side near Turkey's Ipsala border crossing with Greece's Kipi, in Edirne, Turkey, 2 March 2020.Reuters

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has urged governments to systematically include migrants, irrespective of legal status, in their programmes and policies to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ICRC and the partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement recognised that the COVID-19 pandemic presents states with unprecedented challenges.

In an effort to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, public authorities have introduced a range of extraordinary measures to protect their citizens.

“Governments in the region should do more for the migrants. It is in their best interest. It saves lives, it protects the society as a whole,” says Christine Cipolla, ICRC’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

“Only by including all members of a society, irrespective of legal status, can this unprecedented public health situation be addressed effectively.”

Migrants, including refugees, make up a large part of the population in several countries in Asia and the Pacific, the region with the largest south-south migratory movements, according to a media release issued from Geneva.

They play a crucial role for the economies in these countries, and for their families in the countries of origin, who depend on their remittances.

However, migrants also face a range of vulnerabilities, in particular regarding access to services, which can be further exacerbated by their exposure to COVID-19.

“As in any situation related to public health, preventive measures only have a chance of success if all members of a community and society are included in, and informed of, the measures taken,” Cipolla adds.

“It is likely less costly, both in human lives and financially, to introduce inclusive preventive measures, than to risk an increased number of COVID-19 patients.”

The ICRC also made some recommendations.

It said specific outreach and public information strategies in a language understood by the migrants are needed to ensure their equal access to preventive measures, testing, treatment, and to remove barriers that could prevent them for seeking help owing to fear of arrest or deportation.

It recommended paying particular attention to migrants living in overcrowded and/or unhealthy environments, with the development of comprehensive contingency plans that follow public health guidance.

Any lockdown, quarantine, or isolation measures that may be justified in such settings should be accompanied by adequate prevention measures and appropriate medical preparedness and response.

As far as possible, access to emergency housing suitable for the implementation of COVID-19 measures should be offered without barriers related to immigration status and to those in need for whom there are no alternative accommodation options in the community.

Priority should be given to those at greater risk of complications derived from COVID-19 as well as unaccompanied children and families.

The ICRC recommended that states which practice detention for migration-related offenses take all possible measures to reduce the number of people subjected to new immigration detention orders, and give due consideration to early release, or to alternatives to detention.

It said states should take all feasible measures to prevent family separation and the risk of migrants going missing or dying, medical evacuations, and application of quarantine and other measures.

Avenues for asylum seekers to access international protection should be maintained. As the principle of non-refoulement constitutes a non-derogable right, denial of access to territory without safeguards cannot be justified on the grounds of any health risk.

This includes movements by sea, and, among others, pushbacks and refoulement.

States should consider the individual circumstances of all migrants at international borders, with appropriate attention given to vulnerable migrants or those requiring specific protection such as unaccompanied children, sick and injured, and trafficked persons.

Forced returns and returns which are not of a strictly voluntary nature, in particular to countries with a weak health system, should be suspended, with a view to preventing the spread of the virus.

Where returns are organised, this should be done in a coordinated manner between the authorities of all concerned states, to ensure not only the health of the migrants, but also, of the general populations of these states.

The ICRC said it stands ready to notify migrants who would wish to return voluntarily to their respective consular authorities.

Where a partial lifting of restrictions in relation to COVID-19 may be considered, services provided to migrants should be considered as “essential”, and those providing them, exempt from restrictive measures, the ICRC said.