By Denis McClean
GENEVA - Widespread abuse of migrant workers and multiple examples of human rights violations were vividly highlighted by experts in the Asia and the Pacific Region speaking in a UNDRR-hosted webinar on “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The webinar’s 840 participants from 66 countries heard a call from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in south-east Asia for a moratorium on new arrests of undocumented migrants during the pandemic.
Introducing the latest in the webinar series which has attracted thousands of people in recent weeks, Loretta Hieber Girardet, chief of the UNDRR Asia and the Pacific Regional Office said it would focus on the impact of emergency measures on freedom of expression, rising xenophobia, human rights of migrants and persons deprived of their liberty.
In addition to calling for a moratorium on new arrests, Pia Oberoi, OHCHR Senior Adviser on Migration and Human Rights, also called for a suspension of forced returns and an end to pushing back boats of migrants as “we have unfortunately seen in the case of several vessels carrying Rohingya refugees looking for safe harbour in Bangladesh or Malaysia.”
Spikes in COVID-19 infections among marginalized migrant communities in Singapore and Thailand came about because of their exclusion from testing and preventive care and their confinement in overcrowded dormitories or unhygienic detention centres.
Ms. Oberoi said that in Malaysia young children and their families continue to be rounded up in large-scale raids, detained and blamed for spreading the disease.
She highlighted some inspiring examples of good practice including the Republic of Korea and the Maldives which protect undocumented migrants who seek health care.
New Zealand, Thailand and other countries have offered visa extensions and short-term amnesties for migrants who otherwise risked losing their legal status, Ms. Oberoi said.
Several countries throughout the region are restricting freedom of expression under the guise of limiting the spread of false information, through introducing states of emergency. “However, many other countries have restricted human rights in the absence of an official state of emergency,” said Eric Paulsen, representative of Malaysia to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
Mr. Paulsen stressed that “derogations from human rights must be of an exceptional and temporary nature and limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”
He was particularly critical of the use of the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh citing the arrests of cartoonists, bloggers, writers, journalists and activists for criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic on social media.
“We see that there is increasing hate speech that is targeted at minorities and communities or groups that are disenfranchised and marginalized. These are groups that may have little or no power in society,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, Open Society Fellow and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.
In the context of the pandemic, Ms. Satkunanathan drew attention to “the stigmatization and demonization of certain communities such as Muslims in India and Sri Lanka, the Chinese and people of Asian descent. We see the pandemic also being used to further racist and communal agendas even by the state.”
She called for the prosecution of those who propagate hate and engage in violence. Education has a role to play but “we need affirmative action such as diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
Ricky Gunawan, an Indonesian human rights lawyer and co-founder of Jakarta’s Community Legal Aid Institute (LBHM), argued that prisons are hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus.
“The new normal should bring us to focus also on prison reform. Coronavirus has taught us that (a) we must reduce prison overcrowding and (b) we must promote alternatives to imprisonment. How can we apply physical distancing in an overcrowded prison?
“Minor and non-violent offenders should not go to jail. In addition to minor and nonviolent offenders, in times like this governments should release immediately and unconditionally, for example, elderly prisoners, pregnant women in prison, political prisoners, prisoners sentenced for drug use and possession for personal consumption.”
Opening the session, Mami Mizutori, UN Secretary-General Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, said UNDRR regional offices were working with UN Member States to ensure that pandemic preparedness is included in national strategies for disaster risk reduction due in place by the end of this year.
These strategies must be in line with the global blueprint for reducing disaster mortality, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which “calls for the promotion and protection of all human rights.” Ms. Mizutori’s full statement is available here.
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