GENEVA – The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is warning that unlawful and arbitrary incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers is putting them and the general public at heightened risk of COVID-19. The U.N. refugee agency is calling for their urgent and immediate release.
Some countries are reportedly using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to lock up refugees and asylum seekers for longer periods of time. The U.N. agency says refugees are fleeing war and persecution. It says they are not criminals and should not be detained without due legal process.
The agency says refugees and asylum seekers often are forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. It says social distancing in these settings is impossible and access to medical care and clean water is limited.
UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley tells VOA the risk of a catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 in one of these detention centers is great and could jeopardize public health.
“Should somebody become infected with the virus, it could potentially spread quickly amongst the other detainees, but also amongst those who work and guard the centers themselves and therefore potentially risking further spreading even outside the centers,” he said.
The UNHCR says unlawful detention of refugees is not restricted to countries in conflict, such as Libya. It says it also is widely used as an administrative procedure in all regions — in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Yaxley says the detention of refugees should be a measure of last resort, adding that children should never be held in immigration detention. He says this can never be considered to be in the child’s best interest.
The UNHCR, he says, is calling for the immediate release of all children from detention as well as for refugees and asylum seekers being arbitrarily or unlawfully detained.
“We believe that releasing asylum seekers from detention is in the public health interest, not only of the United States, but for all countries… The detention of adults should only take place in exceptional circumstances and the detention of children, irrespective of their immigration status, should never happen at all,” he said.
The UNHCR urges governments to expand and implement community-based alternatives to detention, including other options for newly arriving refugees and asylum seekers.
It says detention center conditions should be improved while alternatives are being prepared. It adds the UNHCR should continue to have access to asylum seekers and refugees held in these locations.