Migrants in the Americas during COVID-19 outbreak
According to Amnesty International, 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. In doing so, they are pushing people into unhygienic and unsafe environments, contrary to international human rights and public health guidelines.
“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.” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.
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.
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.
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.
Detainees in a US immigration jail are begging to be released after potential Covid-19 exposure, saying the conditions are so brutal that they would rather suffer deportation than remain locked up. Three men incarcerated at the Winn correctional center in a remote part of Louisiana told the Guardian that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) has isolated 44 of them together after they were possibly exposed to coronavirus. Some of the detainees are so desperate to leave that they are seeking voluntary deportation. They say their cries for masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and cleaning supplies have gone ignored, including for elderly detainees and those with asthma.
One of the detainees speaking out and advocating for the release of immigrant prisoners is Dr Sirous Asgari, an Iranian scientist who was exonerated in a US trial last year but continues to face detention. The 59-year-old professor shared his story with the Guardian last week, prompting Iran’s foreign minister to call for his release. The men were first detained at the Alexandria staging facility (ASF) in Louisiana, where Asgari said Ice was continuing to bring in new detainees from around the country in cramped quarters where they were denied masks and basic supplies to protect themselves.
Karlyn Kurichety, an attorney with immigrant rights group Al Otro Lado, said that at California’s largest Ice jail, detainees lack basic sanitation supplies and that Ice has placed some detainees in quarantine without telling them why. “We’re concerned there’s going to be a massive outbreak in one of these facilities, and literally thousands of people could die,” she said.