Tuesday, 28 Apr 2020

COVID-19 knows no borders and does not discriminate but discrimination and lack of protection should not feature in national responses to children on the move

COVID-19 knows no borders. COVID-19 does not discriminate. Yet children and families on the move are being discriminated against by suspended asylum services and slow response to their heightened needs resulting from border closures. This needs to stop, as does immigration detention, particularly for children, as called for by the EU.

Many immigration procedures in the United States, including asylum interviews, have been suspended since March 18 and will resume no earlier than May 3. Recent moves to ban immigrants to the U.S. seeking permanent status, under the guise of protecting jobs for U.S. citizens, only serves to further fuel discriminatory attitudes towards foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S. for a variety of reasons. U.S. migrants who have been deported from the U.S. to Guatemala and elsewhere are being stigmatised by local communities as potential carriers of COVID-19 due to the high rates of the virus in the U.S.  Asylum procedures in Greece were suspended on March 13 and will not be resumed before May 15. Over the past week, Luxembourg and Germany have accepted the first few dozen children for relocation from Greece. Other EU countries need to follow their example by increasing the offers of relocation within Europe and using more realistic and less restrictive selection criteria. The restrictions put in place in Europe and the U.S. to tackle the spread of COVID-19 have left unaccompanied and separated children without the protection they urgently need and at risk of losing all deadlines for reunification with family members. 

Border closures and lockdowns in Greece, Mexico and Colombia have left children and families in camps at grave risk, as conditions worsen and their needs continue to be unmet. Urgent improvements to safe service provision are needed. Services at migrant camps on the Greek islands have been placed in lockdown, with no volunteers allowed into camps including health workers. While the Greek authorities have provided all necessary public health advice about COVID-19 in different languages in the camps, it is extremely challenging to follow the advice whether on social distancing measures or basic sanitation practices due to extremely cramped conditions and lack of water. Children and families in the camps were already facing significant health threats from scabies, pneumonia and diarrhoea, which leaves people with weaker immune systems for fighting COVID-19. Local health infrastructure and hospitals on the Greek Islands are inadequate even for the local populations and would be overwhelmed by an outbreak. Colombia’s largest border kitchen serving Venezuelan refugees closed due to fears of COVID-19. Mexico’s large border encampments, swelling as a result of the U.S. ‘stay in Mexico’ policy are similarly under-served and racing to catch up with COVID-19 preparedness measures.

Human lives can be treated as political pawns during humanitarian crises, with security vacuums used to further political objectives and military gains. This needs to end. Due to the security vacuum created by the COVID-19 outbreak, Colombia has seen the killing of at least 18 community leaders in different territories of the country for their political activities. Aiming to subdue communities within their territories, illegal armed groups and dissident guerrillas, have taken advantage of people having to stay in their homes to target leaders within the indigenous and Afro-Colombian community. This exacerbates the difficult situation of children already affected by armed conflict and migrant and refugee children within the country, including Venezuelans families who have been reportedly returning to their home country rather than face life on the streets in Colombia. In Guatemala aid packages destined for families living on the street have been diverted elsewhere by the Government. 

Street children and families need protection from COVID-19 not persecution. Rather than rounding-up and detaning street families some governments are providing new emergency shelters to support them, or referring into existing shelters with appropriate quarantine measures. This needs to continue and be replicated. The Rwandan government via civil society organisations have so far supported hundreds of street children to access temporary shelter and basic protections from COVID-19. In Nepal civil society organisations are working to  handle referrals and provide support to hundreds of children  identified on the street including by the Government since the lockdown. Numbers of children and families on the move in Nepal are increasing, as thousands from urban slums and poor areas return to villages to seek food while employment options are unavailable.