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Will COVID-19 halt asylum in the United States for good?

‘Lives continue at a standstill for people who have already experienced trauma and instability.’

The border wall between Nogales in Mexico and Nogales in Arizona Eric Reidy/TNH
The border wall between Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, and Nogales in Arizona, United States.

Violence and persecution don’t stop for a pandemic. Every day, people arrive at national borders urgently seeking protection. While there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused havoc around the world, there are also man-made consequences that could be avoided. 

Since the public health crisis began, more than 150 countries have closed their borders, fully or partially, to contain the spread of the virus. The problem is that at least 99 of those countries have made no exceptions for asylum seekers, according to the UN. As a result, vulnerable families and children across the globe have been halted at borders; those with pending asylum claims wait in limbo; and lives continue at a standstill for people who have already experienced trauma and instability. 

Arguably, the situation at the US southern border is among the most dire. 

For decades, the United States has been a global leader in welcoming people seeking protection from violence in their home countries. Yet, since March nearly 43,000 asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, have been turned back at the US southern border after the US government implemented travel and asylum restrictions. 

Public health experts point out that these restrictions do little to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The policy targets asylum seekers while providing broad exemptions to US citizens, permanent residents, and those travelling to the United States for education, trade, or commercial purposes. In May, the US government announced that the policy would remain in place until it was “no longer necessary to protect the public health”, extending it indefinitely.

The current ban on asylum is one of the latest in a series of efforts by the US government to limit long-held protections inherent in the US asylum system. In January 2019, the US government announced the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico”, which force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claim is processed. New MPP cases are no longer being accepted while the border is closed, but those impacted by “Remain in Mexico” over the past year continue to live in limbo.

“The current ban on asylum is one of the latest in a series of efforts by the US government to limit long-held protections inherent in the US asylum system.”

Since it was launched, MPP has returned more than 65,000 people to Mexico as they petition for safety in the United States. Their return to Mexico forces these asylum seekers to live in dangerous and uncertain circumstances, targeted by gangs and criminal activity, stranded without resources, with fewer than five percent able to secure legal representation.

Court hearings for asylum seekers currently waiting in Mexico have been suspended through at least 17 July. This means that asylum seekers face prolonged homelessness as well as further dangers as they wait in Mexico, including kidnapping, extortion, sexual assault, and violent crimes. On top of this, Mexico has recently emerged as a new hotspot for COVID-19. 

Protections for individuals fleeing violence and arriving at the borders are written into US law, and the United States has signed on to the international Refugee Convention, which sets forth the principle of “non-refoulement”, prohibiting countries from sending asylum seekers back to dangerous conditions.

Despite this, MPP and the US government’s response to COVID-19 have denied asylum seekers their right to protection. Many are abandoning their efforts to petition for asylum in the United States.

Maria, a 30-year-old mother of two young children is facing this challenge. Gangs in Honduras targeted and physically assaulted her daughter. She didn’t feel safe and decided to make her way to the United States. After petitioning for asylum, she was sent back to Mexico and then placed on a bus to southern Mexico to wait until her court date. 

“I’m very afraid because of what I suffered in the northern border of Mexico,” she said. ”I don’t want to face again everything I already faced.” Ultimately, she decided to forego her asylum claim, rather than place her family in further danger.

“The US government could re-instate access to asylum at its borders while putting in place measures that manage risks to public health.”

Given that a long-term plan for treating COVID-19 is not yet in place, its impact is expected to last far into the foreseeable future. Access to asylum in the United States – and elsewhere around the world – could easily become a casualty. But it doesn’t have to be. 

The US government could re-instate access to asylum at its borders while putting in place measures that manage risks to public health. Countries do not need to deny persons seeking international protection from lawfully petitioning for asylum. A combination of screening, testing, quarantine, and other safety measures at ports of entry would allow for asylum procedures to be reinstated sooner rather than later. 

Nothing is preventing the US government from taking these steps, except for a lack of political will. Providing protections for individuals seeking asylum is a universally recognised human right. It is written into international and US laws. It is a critical part of the role the United States has played in the global community. 

The legacy of COVID-19 will already be rife with heartache and death. It does not have to include bringing further harm to those seeking safety and security.

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