Overcrowded shelters put migrants at unacceptable risk amidst pandemic

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home how many migrants are confined to overcrowded spaces with very little freedom to move around or keep a safe distance to others, and how dangerous this can be, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said today. At the same time, ODIHR is working with countries across the region to build on the good practices that are being developed in many places.

“Migrants haven’t disappeared just because the borders are closed,” said ODIHR Director Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. “The ongoing health crisis is an additional reminder of our obligation to assist those whose lives are in danger. On the contrary, in the current situation governments need to do all the more to help guarantee the safety of migrants in distress and all those who are unable to keep to the health safety standards the rest of us are practising as a matter of course.”

In many countries across the OSCE, migrants are living in overcrowded camps, shelters or reception centres in unsanitary conditions, lacking minimal protection against infection. In addition, efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus have included restrictions on movement that may prevent migrants housed in temporary reception centres from maintaining the distance from others necessary to safeguard both their health and their dignity.

At the same time, border closures have led to the suspension of deportations, leaving migrants at risk of being detained for indefinite periods as some emergency measures do not have any specific time limit. ODIHR joins other international and civil society organisations in calling for a moratorium on the use of administrative detention in immigration proceedings and for the immediate release of all those held in pre-removal detention where deportations have been halted due to the pandemic.

ODIHR offers a forum to share the numerous good practices from around the OSCE region to encourage States to work together to find solutions in the best interests of migrants. A sizeable number of countries have decided to grant or extend temporary residency rights to migrants, including asylum seekers, to ensure they have access to health services and social protection. Others have responded by releasing particularly vulnerable migrants from immigration detention, while several have made efforts to reduce overcrowding in temporary reception centres to ensure health guidelines can be kept. The agreement by a number of EU countries to host unaccompanied children further illustrates the willingness by some states to show solidarity with migrants, ensuring they do not suffer further through the restrictions imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19.

As well as offering its assistance to work with national authorities to build on the good practices that already exist and collectively find solutions in this unprecedented crisis, ODIHR continues to cooperate closely with civil society. In the coming weeks, ODIHR will be exploring how civil society organisations can be better equipped to help mobilise countries to take the measures needed to ensure respect for the human rights of all.