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Detention in the Era of Physical Distancing: Migrants’ Rights and the Challenge of COVID-19

Immigrant Holding Centre,
Photo Credit: The Canadian Press / Graham Hughes
April 1, 2020

As a global health crisis reshapes and disrupts the daily rituals in which so many of us find belonging and connection, our lives look very different today even compared to just a few weeks ago. We are jointly consumed by uncertainty about the months ahead, and by fear about COVID-19’s ability to affect the health and wellbeing of our loved ones; for certain vulnerable populations however, these anxieties are considerably amplified. 

For the thousands of immigration detainees being held in nations across the world, COVID-19 exacerbates the intolerable nature of an already hostile environment. 

This is not an issue particular to one country – the Global Detention Project tracks immigration detention in 115 countries. With a pandemic that knows no geographical boundaries, detainees in countries around the world are all facing increasingly precarious conditions as a result of COVID-19. 

Immigration detention exists to facilitate deportation where necessary, rather than to punish the detainee; however, detainees are often forced to endure crowded, prison-like conditions with little to no hygiene options and limited access to medical care, even as new detainees continue to be brought in prior to being examined for symptoms of the virus. Moreover, personal visits to detention centres have been barred in response to the pandemic, compounding detainees’ feelings of fear and isolation. When examined through a lens of belonging, it is clear that detainees are not only deprived of safety and security in their surroundings, but are also forced to endure these challenges in the absence of the kinship networks that would otherwise provide them with a semblance of community. 

On March 27th, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article,“Europe: Curb Immigration Detention Amid Pandemic,” highlighting the risk that COVID-19 poses to detainees. HRW noted that countries such as Italy and France have not yet adopted any nation-wide measure to protect immigration detainees against the threat of COVID-19, further illustrating the lack of value placed on the rights of migrant detainees.

On a more local front, in Canada, the risks are similar. In a column titled “Canada’s immigration detainees at higher risk in pandemic,” in the Ottawa Citizen, Hanna Gros and Samer Muscati of HRW articulate the particular challenges being faced by immigration detainees in Canada with regard to both their physical and mental health. Gros and Muscati call for the release of detainees who pose no public safety risk and the protection of those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, in order to prevent widespread transmission within the tinderbox conditions of detention facilities across Canada. In the coming months, SCSC will be working with HRW to research immigration detention in Canada, examining migrants’ rights under international human rights conventions. 

One of the most vulnerable groups that is “housed” in detention in Canada and the United States, among other nations, at the moment are children – in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The detention of children has already been criticized by advocates as psychologically harmful, violating human rights, and undermining childrens’ long-term health. In the face of this pandemic, the threat to the health and safety of these children has become all the more pressing and tangible. In the United States alone, there are nearly 7,000 migrant children being held across federally licensed facilities. Four children being held at a shelter in New York have now tested positive for the virus, with a fifth child in quarantine and awaiting test results. Although the detention of children under any circumstances is hardly justifiable conduct, the compounded threat presented by COVID-19 demands an immediate response by government actors to release all child detainees currently held in custody. 

There is no doubt that as a global society, we need to do better.

Government must ensure that detainees, like their free counterparts, have the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” as stipulated by international human rights law. Spain has taken a step towards addressing this issue by stating they would begin releasing detainees after evaluating them on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, Belgium has released approximately 300 people from immigration detention facilities that did not allow for proper physical distancing measures.

COVID-19 presents uncharted territory and if we are to weather this pandemic as a global society, we must ensure that we protect and advocate for the more vulnerable members of society, ensuring that the right to health and the right to belong is upheld for everyone.