Refugees and People Seeking Asylum under COVID-19

By Clair Caird

Worldwide, three out of four countries have introduced complete or partial closures of their borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in dire consequences for the many people faced with the decision where staying in one country and crossing an international border is a matter of life and death.

COVID-19 may have taken over our lives but the circumstances that cause people to flee their homes have not ceased. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University in the United States has recommended that where borders are closed, they must remain open for those that seek asylum.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a briefing highlighting the importance of ensuring access to the territory for those persons in need of international protection in the context of COVID-19. It stated that whilst states are able to put in place border measures to ensure health, such as placing individuals in quarantine, these measures may not result in the denial of effective opportunity to seek asylum.

Whilst a blanket closing of the borders to non-nationals is not discriminatory in the sense that it is singling out those seeking asylum, these public health measures have far-reaching consequences for those seeking protection. A related issue of rising concern is the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps globally. Countries around the world are closing their borders.

Who is here for the 25 million people fleeing persecution and conflict?

Aotearoa is doing comparatively well in our efforts to contain COVID-19. As we are moving on with level 2 and life appears to shift almost towards normality, it is time to turn our attention to those in need. When the world is facing a crisis of this magnitude we must protect those who are the most vulnerable.

New Zealand is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and so it is crucial we uphold our international obligations.

Aside from considering what steps we can take at our borders to fulfil these obligations, we must also consider those who are already here and waiting on their claims to be processed. According to Immigration New Zealand, our Refugee Status Unit is closed until further notice. All interviews scheduled have been cancelled and the processing of documents has been placed on hold. For those who are fighting to gain refugee status, it is a very difficult time. Some have waited a long time for the chance to be heard, only for these life-altering interviews to be postponed.

There have been calls to resume these processes through online mechanisms, although there are concerns that this may impede people’s opportunities to argue their case due to the impersonal nature of online interviews.

We have all faced new stresses under COVID-19. People who are living here and those who are currently seeking asylum will have faced further stress due to their lack of access to support networks. In our new fragile economy, many will have increased difficulty accessing employment, leading to financial insecurity. This is especially true for those seeking asylum, many of whom do not qualify for work visas.

For quota refugees efforts have also been suspended. The 135 refugees currently in the Māngere Refugee Resettlement centre have had their settlement plans greatly affected by lockdown. The usually six-week-long programme has been extended. For those who have already been living in a state of uncertainty for many years, this was yet another complication.

Amnesty International strongly emphasises the need for those in New Zealand, whether they are quota refugees or people seeking asylum, to have access to goods and services which consider their language, mental health, religious, and cultural needs. Support from communities is critical in these troubled times. Those in the Māngere centre were given support including mental health, further educational support for children, and a recreation programme. This much-needed support would surely be appreciated for those seeking asylum.

In this new COVID-19 era it is of the utmost importance that Aotearoa New Zealand does not forsake its obligations to those who are most vulnerable and most in need. Understandingly, opening the border for those seeking asylum is a complex issue. In the meantime, the government must focus on re-opening the Refugee Status Unit as soon as practicable. Resuming with interviews for those people seeking asylum is a vital and necessary task. In trying times we must help others.