Lauren Martin

Governments are responding to COVID-19 with a range of responses affecting refugees and asylum seekers, including some that violate international law and may erode respect for the international rules-based order, the Kaldor Centre says in a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for Australia’s foreign policy.

‘As of June 2020, 219 States, territories, and areas had implemented over 64,500 restrictive measures, predominantly concerning border closures and entry restrictions. At least 99 States had made no exception for people seeking asylum,’ notes the submission, written by the Kaldor Centre’s Director, Jane McAdam, and Executive Manager, Frances Voon.

Border closures have left many people trapped in dangerous or precarious situations in conflict zones and transit countries, or stranded at sea, undermining the right to seek asylum, the authors note.

Blanket measures that result in asylum seekers being turned away at the border, or transferred to unsafe third countries, also risk violating the principle of nonrefoulement – that is, that people are not sent to any place where they face a real risk of persecution or other serious harm. States such as the United States have carried out summary deportations of asylum seekers who were already on their territory, including unaccompanied children; such measures carry a high risk of refoulement.

Increasing use of immigration detention is also a growing concern, ‘with several countries, such as Malaysia and Bangladesh, corralling asylum seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants into closed facilities – or, in the case of Bangladesh, a small and flood-prone island – ostensibly to limit the spread of the virus among the broader community,’ the submission says. ‘While quarantine measures for health purposes are permitted under international law, these measures must be provided for in law, be necessary and proportionate, and last for no longer than is necessary.’

Crowded and unsanitary conditions for detained refugees and asylum seekers are also putting them at particular risk during the pandemic.

The submission draws on not only the Kaldor Centre Principles for Australian Refugee Policy but also the Principles of protection for migrants, refugees, and other displaced persons, which were developed by a group of experts (including from the Kaldor Centre) in April 2020: ‘Detention of migrants, refugees and other displaced persons is impermissible where such detention would expose them to serious risks to their health and life due to the COVID-19 pandemic.’

United Nations organisations have called for people held in such conditions to be released without delay – and a number of States have heeded this call.

The Kaldor Centre submission also highlights the implications of COVID-19 for the Pacific, particularly the need to promote longer-term resilience through measures to address the impacts of climate change, such as enhancing mobility.

Read the full submission.