Comment: What happens to human rights when borders are closed?

There are 79.5 million people currently displaced in the world and the coronavirus pandemic has seen many nations take measures against asylum seekers that are not based on human rights. The Senior Policy Advisor for World Vision calls for sanity, and humanity, from countries who can afford to help.

Fadi Chalouhy was born in Lebanon 1991.

Fadi Chahouy was born in Lebanon 1992. But as his father didn’t register his birth, he did not exist. Source: Fadi Chahouy

Fadi Chalouhy was born in Lebanon 1991 to a Lebanese mother and Syrian father. But as his father didn’t register his birth, he did not exist. Not officially.

At school, Fadi hid if school inspectors visited. He could not go to the doctor’s or apply for a library card or a driver’s licence. If he got into a fight, he would not strike back for fear of being trapped in prison because no lawyer could vouch for him. And consider this: if he was murdered, officially no crime would be committed.

This is the Kafkaesque nightmare of statelessness, a condition experienced by an estimated 10 million refugees – including the tragic Rohingya people in Bangladesh.

Rohingya refugee child.
Rohingya refugee child. Source: World Vision

Fadi sent more than a thousand emails, seeking a way out. His luck changed last year, when he became the first stateless person to be granted an Australian skilled migrant visa through the skilled migrant scheme designed by an NGO called Talents Beyond Boundaries. Now working for Accenture, Fadi is on the path to citizenship and a basic sense of humanity and he has huge gratitude towards Australia.

But Fadi has grave fears for other stateless and displaced people being crushed under COVID-19 border closures.

Forced displacement now affects more than one percent of humanity – 1 in every 97 people – and with fewer and fewer of those who flee able to ever return home, according to UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report.

Seeking asylum is a basic human right and essential to life, Fadi argues.

“These are human beings. They’re facing wars, a bad pandemic, severe economic downturns everywhere and even NGOs are experiencing funding difficulties. But how do we make people see that way? That is the biggest challenge, especially in these times.”

Fadi is right to be concerned.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing many nations take measures against asylum seekers that are not based on human rights. In addition to border closures, these include quarantines, forced repatriation, and lock-downs in refugee and detention camps.

If you’re jammed in one of these situations, life becomes terrifying. Right now, you might even be excluded from aid programs, including health and food.

Receiving hand sanitizer in Beqaa refugee camp
Receiving hand sanitizer in Beqaa refugee camp. Source: World Vision

Women are fighting to keep their children alive with little to eat. Families are forced to sleep anywhere, under trees in Syria, on African roadsides, in boats floating off the coast of Bangladesh.

No wars have stopped because of the pandemic.

Atrocities continue daily against civilians in places like Libya and Syria, subjecting millions of children and women to sexual violence and starvation. Women are forced to give birth in terrible conditions. Just last weekend, a woman among a group of refugees from Iran and Afghanistan went into labour on a dinghy stranded between the Turkish coast and the north west coast of the island of Lesbos.

These are the most desperate forms of human existence imaginable. With borders shut, these people have nowhere to go.

We are also seeing disturbing new rhetoric, with some of the unprecedented 79.5 million people currently displaced vilified as the source of the virus – and then denied access to medical treatment with some memes going as far as suggesting they’re also the most expendable.

Increasingly COVID-19 is the excuse to enforce harsher migration policies or turn people away – this happened recently when Malaysia turned around boats with Rohingya refugees, leaving them  in the sea for weeks.  Some reportedly died from starvation.

Learning about sanitation in Bequaa Valley Refugee Camp
Learning about sanitation in Bequaa Valley Refugee Camp. Source: World Vision

And the USA indefinitely  access to asylum at its borders and forcibly deported asylum seekers.  Among them were unaccompanied children and people who have tested positive to COVID-19. Similar measures were taken by Hungary and Cyprus.

And the world’s refugee camps are almost defenceless, as social distancing is impossible in crowded and unhygienic conditions.

There’s no doubt that the virus has shaken the world to its core and according to the UNSG, . Since 1945, never has been the need for global solidarity, compassion and humanity been greater than now.

So we cannot let a virus erode right to seek asylum!  Every single one of us, you and me, and people like Fadi, have the right to life, liberty and personal security under Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When one person is denied this right, everyone’s rights are diminished.

If we allow the pandemic to destroy what we have all agreed on as basic rights under international law, then we make the world a more brutal place.

We know from past experience that wealthy nations can be inclusive in times of a disaster. Many countries have shown that border control measures can be safely implemented in full respect of the rights of people on the move. This can and must continue beyond COVID-19.

Exclusion is costly in the long-run, while inclusion pays off for everyone. It’s now understood that the only way to combat the virus is to ensure equal and inclusive access for all.

The truth is, no-one is safe until everyone is safe.

And there have been generous developments, that Australia could emulate.

For example, at least 10 member states European Union have stopped or significantly reduced deportations of undocumented migrants, while Japan and Mexico released people from immigration detention centres to prevent outbreaks in overcrowded, unhygienic facilities. Spain went one step further and emptied its immigration detention centres completely in early May.

Italy, one of the first and most affected countries by COVID-19, provided legal residency to migrants and asylum seekers, valid for a few months. Unlike Australia, Ireland gave them much needed access to healthcare.

It’s easy to turn inward in times of trouble, but this is exactly what we must avoid. We are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic, on top of unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers.

We must think and act globally.

Nations like Australia can be leaders in sane and humane responses to people fleeing wars and persecution and statelessness, because it’s the right thing to do, and because asylum seekers like Fadi Chahouy make a significant contribution to Australia, both financially and culturally.

As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Nadine Haddad is the Conflict and Fragility Senior Advisor for World Vision. Nadine has led responses to emergencies in Iraq, Jordan, Vanuatu and the Philippines and has worked in some of the world’s most fragile contexts, including Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Lebanon. Nadine is passionate about improving the lives of children in these hard to reach places.  

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6 min read
Published 25 June 2020 at 4:14pm
By Nadine Haddad