Migrants bake 'naan' bread, an Indian traditional flat bread in an underground oven they made themselves near the Moria refugee camp, Lesvos island, Greece | Photo: EPA/STRATIS BALASKAS
Migrants bake 'naan' bread, an Indian traditional flat bread in an underground oven they made themselves near the Moria refugee camp, Lesvos island, Greece | Photo: EPA/STRATIS BALASKAS

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that the coronavirus pandemic has deepened the plight of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, warning that fundamental norms of refugee and human rights law are at risk.

The coronavirus pandemic has deepened the plight of people fleeing war, conflict and persecution, UNHCR said in a statement issued on April 22. 

While countries are striving to protect their populations and economies, fundamental norms of refugee and human rights law are at risk, the statement said.

"The core principles of refugee protection are being put to test -- but people who are forced to flee conflict and persecution should not be denied safety and protection on the pretext, or even as a side effect, of responding to the virus," said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Securing public health and protecting refugees are not mutually exclusive. This is not a dilemma. We have to do both. Long-recognized refugee laws can be respected even as governments adopt stringent measures to protect public health, including at borders."

Some measures have suspended the right to apply for asylum 

The UNHCR estimates that 167 countries have so far fully or partially closed their borders to contain the spread of the virus. At least 57 states are making no exception for people seeking asylum, the agency said in the statement. 

Although wars and violence are continuing in many parts of the world, such measures are effectively suspending the right of people to seek asylum, according to the organization. People seeking safety and shelter are being turned away at land borders or at sea and returned or transferred to other countries where they may face serious threats to their life or freedom, it said.

"Particularly when people come from relatively fragile countries of origin or transit, with limited public health infrastructure, pushing anyone back at borders may put them and others at risk when quarantine measures are not applied and health care is insufficient," said Grandi. 

Risks and measures observed by UNHCR 

According to the UN agency, national measures to combat the spread of the virus are having ''far-reaching consequences''.

"We are observing a disproportionate use of immigration detention, a rise in the risk of sexual violence, discriminatory restrictions on access to health and social services and a dramatic loss of livelihoods that is driving many refugees and others on the margins of society deeper into poverty and destitution," the organization said.

The organization has repeatedly urged States to manage border restrictions in ways that also respect international human rights and refugee protection standards, including through quarantines and health checks.
 

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