Immigration Detention and Refugee Camps Put All Our Lives at Risk. What Are Governments Doing About It?

Social distancing need not apply. #FreeThemAll
  • Spain has now closed all their detention centers.
  • Riots have broken out in Australia in the Blaxland detention center. Some inmates are being detained longer because their deportations cannot go through.
  • New outbreaks in ICE facilities are happening all over the country, while a judge ordered ICE to say how many have been released by ICE on a case by case basis.
  • The Global Detention Project is seeking data on different government responses.
  • An overview of what is happening in the UK.
  • Human Rights Watch leads the global charge against dangerous detention, and see video by the Zolberg Institute and article on refugee camps by the Nation.
  • People in detention in Libya are at risk, UNHCR warns.
  • ICE is considering freeing some people as detention centers across the US report their first cases (see links)…but why only some? It’s important to keep stressing that keeping people cooped up in close, unsanitary conditions risks the health of everyone. A case by case approach is a public health disaster. Also, what is the plan for people who are released from detention, but have tested positive? Staying with family members is a bad idea, but where can they go?
  • Petitions are going around that you can sign to #FreeThemAll in the US.
  • In the US, in Louisiana, ICE detainees are now testing positive.
  • Greece has begun putting infected people into quarantine, housed separately from overcrowded refugee camps, but there are no signs the government will release anyone from the camps, which are being run, in part, by the International Organization for Migration.
  • A few people have been released from immigration detention in Mass, USA, but without a national strategy, the process must go district by district, often through the courts.
  • Detention continues in Australia — read about it here.
  • Some news outlets are slowly catching up to the risks posed by immigration detention. Here is a great article by Sam Levin at the Guardian and here is one by Arcacia Coronado from the Texas Observer about a lawsuit filed by rights groups in Texas.
  • Rather than taking steps to prevent viral hotspots by closing detention centers and cancelling deportations, the US government is now infecting people at the border as they cross and then transporting them, in vans and airplanes, back to their countries.
  • UN agencies have issued a joint press release urging countries to afford prevention and treatment options to all.
  • An update on conditions in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where almost nothing is being done to prepare for Coronavirus.
  • This BBC video captures the challenges of fighting COVID-19 in refugee camps. A public health disaster.
  • Judges, lawyers, advocates and others are calling on the US to temporarily close the immigration courts.
  • Budget cuts to UNRWA have curbed the response in the West Bank.
  • Not covered in this post is the need for immigrants, refugees and others to access economic aid. See here for a post on refugees and the relief package in the US.
  • People are rioting in a Mexican immigration centre to protest unsafe conditions during the epidemic.
  • NGOs and churches in Berlin are raising money to airlift refugees out of Greece’s crowded camps, where the first COVID-19 case has been confirmed.
  • Things in the Calais Camp in France are deteriorating fast, though as yet there are no confirmed cases.
  • HRW is calling on the government of Malaysia to provide healthcare to immigrants, stateless people and other vulnerable groups.
  • Calls for freeing people from immigration detention in the US are getting louder and have had some limited success, but are still piecemeal and not receiving the same level of action as calls for releasing people from prison. As the federal government controls the immigration detention system, including the vast network of private detention centers, it’s not possible for state governors to order releases. Already, cases are climbing.
  • Refugees International has released a new report on COVID-19 and immigration detention/refugee camps around the world.
  • Inmates in Quebec, Canada and Georgia, United States are on hunger strike.
  • The New York Times wrote an op-ed on the risks from the US immigration system during the pandemic, calling on the administration to make health services ICE-free and to stop conducting in person deportation hearings, but the Times stopped short of calling for the release of inmates. It didn’t mention risks from deportation at all.
  • Bosnia has moved refugees and asylum seekers to a remote camp.
  • The first children have tested positive in immigration detention in the US.
  • Here is a summary of how the coronavirus is affecting humanitarian aid.
  • The US is getting ready to release some people from jails, but what about immigration detention centers?
  • Germany continues to deport people to poor countries where there are fewer cases of the virus, helping to spread the disease to these countries. A crime under international law?
  • A person has tested positive in an ICE facility.
  • The EU is being asked to intervene to evacuate people from Greece’s cramped refugee camps.
  • *Update: Spain is releasing some people from immigration detention in response to the pandemic. Detainees in Canada have asked to be released and there are calls for a temporary halt to detention in Australia and in France and there is a hunger strike in the Vottem center in Belgium.
  • The former ICE director is asking that immigrants be released from detention and there is now lawsuits in the US, though at leas one lawsuit has been dismissed.
  • *Update: The UK will now release some people from immigration detention.
  • **Update: The Trump Administration may be planning to contain people at the border in some sort of “quarantine camps,” thereby risking a mass outbreak along the southern border. This link attaches to a petition for lawmakers against dangerous camp conditions.

To the novel coronavirus, we are all just sacs of tasty cells. The virus doesn’t know the difference between an American and an Italian, between a Tory and Labour voter, between a refugee and an asylum-seeker, between a stateless person and a citizen. The virus can’t see skin color. It knows nothing about religion. It doesn’t care about borders and passports. To it, the entire world is a giant Schengen zone. It can’t even tell the difference between Tom Hanks and your grandmother. It only knows that each person is a tasty sac of cells. Period. If the coronavirus can teach us anything, it’s that we are all human and no one is immune. To it, we are all the same.

Yesterday, ICE announced it was pausing its campaign of terror in order to lessen the spread of the Coronavirus. Yet, detention centers remain open. A campaign #FreeThemAll is trying to get leaders in the US to close detention centers to avoid exploding the virus by trapping people together in close quarters. We might as well take everyone in Tulsa and pack them together in a giant stadium for the next 6 months, for all the good immigration detention is going to do us.

Yet governments persist on seeing refugees and immigrants as the threat, even after we have all watched as coronavirus traveled around the world via tourists, conference attendees, business travelers, celebrities and cruises. Around the world, borders are closing long after community spread is occurring, closing the barn door long after the horse has escaped, yet huge detention centers and camps remain open, crowding healthy people together in enclosed spaces, like a nightmare cruise across the river Styx. UNHCR is sounding the alarm, but is still helping to operate camps around the world, even as it pauses refugee resettlement.

There is zero evidence that refugees are currently experiencing higher rates of infection than other populations. Yet Greece has quarantined refugees, allowing them only very limited movement outside of camps, despite the fact that numerous experts have explained that these types of quarantines, in which a group is isolated in close quarters together and cannot socially distance themselves, will only worsen the outbreak. Unable to practice social distancing, refugees will be trapped in close quarters with one another, exploding an infection. This will then spread quickly to the rest of the Greek population.

Many people have lamented the decline in trust for expertise and science that has accompanied the rise in xenophobia, racism and nationalism around the world. Our politicians seem trapped inside their own ideologies, unable to respond to any crisis without making it about nationalism, or capitalism, or socialism, or racism. Our leaders can’t listen to science. They see only their own ideology; they want to use this crisis to make a point, yet the virus sees only tasty sacs of cells. It is perfectly adapted to the moment; we have Boris Johnson.

Every refugee camp and detention center (see a map here) should be closed. Every occupant should be given a place to live, told to shelter in place, and given a stipend, access to a hospital and a temporary visa until the crisis is over. Deportation should be stopped, because deporting people forces them to travel, which spreads the disease. Somewhere, in an alternate reality, our leaders would be putting safety first. But in this reality, we are stuck with our hopeless leaders, still fighting the nonexistent wars of yesteryear.