Authorities in a number of countries across the Americas, including Canada, the United States, Mexico, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago, among others, are detaining migrants and asylum seekers in a dangerous and discriminatory manner based solely on their migration status, Amnesty International said today. In doing so, they are pushing people into unhygienic and unsafe environments, contrary to international human rights and public health guidelines.
“Migration status is irrelevant to every human being’s dignity and their right to live. Instead of putting people’s health at increased risk, governments should be doing everything in their power to protect them,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
“In order to effectively combat COVID-19 in the Americas and avert thousands of preventable deaths, states should swiftly release people from immigration detention, only detain migrants in extraordinary cases and ensure their access to lifesaving healthcare without discrimination.”
On 24 March, Amnesty International wrote to the Canadian government to express concerns over its inadequate efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among immigrant detainees and recommended swiftly reducing to an absolute minimum the number of people held in immigration detention facilities.
While the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) only detains a few hundred people in its immigration detention facilities at any given time, the rate of deaths per capita among Canadian immigration detainees is several times higher than that of immigration detainees in the United States.
The CBSA must detain people only in the most exceptional circumstances and should generally end migration-related detention. In addition to the real risks to the physical health of people in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, the psychological stress is significant for those detained, and for their families. Immigration detainees at the Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) in Laval, Quebec have been so anxious about the risk of contracting COVID-19 in detention that they have gone on hunger strike, as they demand to be released. Psychological impact should be seriously taken into consideration when determining whether it is necessary to detain or maintain detention.
As of 30 March, Curaçao restricted entry to Curaçao to all travellers, including legal residents, until 12 April.
Authorities in Curaçao also often detain Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers and deny them access to international protection. A visit by Refugees International in April 2019 concluded: “Not only has the government of Curaçao failed to put in place a protection scheme for this population, it has enforced an ‘active removal strategy’ by arresting, detaining, and deporting Venezuelans with irregular status.”
As of March 2020, the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform estimated there were 16,500 Venezuelans on the island, but it was unclear how many of those were in migratory detention. During Amnesty International visits in 2018 and 2019, the organization observed appalling conditions including overcrowding, lack of hygiene and inadequate bedding in the areas where people with irregular migration status were detained.
In May 2018, several cases of ill-treatment upon arrest or in detention were reported to Amnesty International, including those of guards sexually abusing women detainees by asking them for sexual acts in exchange for soap and sanitary towels. In January 2020, asylum lawyers on the island told Amnesty International that several Venezuelans, who had been detained for over eight months already at that time, went on a hunger strike to protest against the conditions in detention.
Curacao should release and grant access to necessary healthcare and other essential services for all migrants and asylum seekers in migration-related detention.
Following the closure of Mexico’s border with Guatemala, and restrictions put in place by other Central American governments, authorities have failed to consider alternatives to detention for migrants who are stuck in detention, instead of being released through deportation by bus to Central America. Although the government announced that detention centres are at 45-percent capacity and are following all sanitary recommendations to prevent spread of COVID-19, some detention centres are reportedly overcrowded and even mixing children and teenagers with adult populations due to a lack of space, such as the detention centre in Tenosique in the state of Tabasco.
On 31 March, a Guatemalan asylum seeker died after a protest by migrants demanding their release led to a fire in the Tenosique detention centre. Amnesty International has received information that could indicate that law enforcement authorities present initially refused to open the gates despite the fire in the premises. To date, Mexican authorities have not made public any information on this death in migration custody, nor regarding over the over ten migrants and asylum seekers that information indicates were wounded in the events. This has not been the only protest in recent days.
On 24 March, hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers protested at Mexico’s largest migration detention centre, “Siglo XXI” in Tapachula, Chiapas state, while protests in other detentions centres have also been reported.
Detainees are still at serious risk of any outbreak and the response from authorities has been insufficient. Furthermore, with no clarity on how long migrants and asylum seekers will remain detained, Mexican authorities could be at risk of breaking their own migration laws and allowing for a regime of indefinite detention, flouting international human rights standards.
Mexican authorities have the responsibility to work towards finding viable and appropriate alternatives to detention, and must start working on doing so right now, especially for groups in a vulnerable situation. The National Migration Institute (INM) confirmed on 17 March that 3,059 irregular migrants remained in detention.
Mexico should swiftly release as many migrants and asylum seekers as possible from immigrant detention centres, whose right to physical and mental health cannot be upheld in these facilities.
Due to the dire security situation of migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico, where they are prime targets for violence and exploitation, Mexican authorities must not only release them from detention, but also provide them with emergency humanitarian protection to ensure all migrants and asylum seekers have access – free from discrimination – to essential services, care and safety, including adequate food and healthcare.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
On 18 March, Trinidad and Tobago responded to COVID-19 by banning entry of all non-nationals for 14 days, and four days later closed its international borders to nationals as well.
Trinidad and Tobago has no national legislation on refugees. The Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform estimates that some 24,000 Venezuelans live in the country as of March 2020. As of January 2020, 17,391 had applied for asylum with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency mandated to process such claims. Approximately 16,500 of those were also granted temporary visas and work permits in 2019, after the government registered them during a two-week period.
Nevertheless, the country continues to criminalize and detain migrants and refugees – particularly those fleeing the crisis in Venezuela – who enter irregularly, contrary to international human rights standards. Police said they detained 33 Venezuelans on 17 March, while, as of 23 March, 60 Venezuelan men and women were being detained for irregular entry at the Cedros police station, according to media reports.
Despite repeated formal requests sent to the Ministry of National Security, Amnesty International has been unable to visit Trinidad’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), where in recent years hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers have been held, among other nationalities. Other independent human rights organizations and NGOs are also not permitted access. The precise number of those currently detained at the IDC is unclear, though its capacity is estimated at 150.
One of the few institutions that has been able to visit the centre – the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity – observed in June 2018 a range of health and sanitation concerns in the detention facilities, which could put detainees at heightened risk of harm during any outbreak of COVID-19. The Committee specifically observed: “the lack of financial resources to construct a designated area for detainees who need to be quarantined due to illness or other considerations.”
The government of Trinidad and Tobago should release any migrants and asylum seekers held in immigration detention solely for irregular entry or while awaiting their asylum claims and grant them access to necessary healthcare and other essential services, free from discrimination.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The United States has the largest immigration detention system in the world, with an average daily population of nearly 40,000 immigrants and asylum seekers in over 200 facilities.
On 24 March, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a US immigration detention facility. Since then, ICE has revealed that 33 of its personnel and employees have contracted the virus, and dozens of detainees have been quarantined as potentially at risk.
Amnesty International has received disturbing accounts from detainees of dangerous conditions in ICE immigration detention facilities, which puts people with underlying medical conditions at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
Next week Amnesty International will release a report documenting how DHS officials and ICE facilities have failed to adopt adequate measures to ensure public health for everyone, including by supplying soap and sanitizer to those in detention, facilitating social distancing in line with global standards, and providing adequate and responsive health care to those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142, firstname.lastname@example.org
Americas: Do’s and don’ts for regional authorities when implementing public health measures to manage COVID-19 (Research, 24 March 2020)
Americas: States cracked down on asylum and the right to protest in 2019 (News, 27 February 2020) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/americas-states-cracked-down-on-asylum-and-the-right-to-protest-in-2019/
Amnesty International Americas annual report 2019 (Research, 27 February 2020) https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/amr01/1353/2020/en/