COVID-19 and Human Rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed extraordinary strain on Council of Europe member states. In their effort to protect the right to health and uphold the functioning of their health care systems, they had to impose strict virus containment measures, from full and partial lockdowns to school closures and significant limitations of cultural activities and public life. COVID-19 has thus had dramatic implications for the exercise of human rights in Europe, notably for the freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and the rights to education and private and family life.

The Commissioner has stressed that member states must ensure equal access to essential medical treatment, including testing and vaccines, for all, leaving no one behind and paying particular attention to the special needs of persons belonging to vulnerable groups, such as older persons, persons with disabilities, and persons living in crowded or unsanitary conditions. She has also urged governments to alleviate the enormous pressure faced by health and care professionals, the majority of whom are women, and called for transparency and inclusivity in health communication to promote trust and support for necessary government measures in the population.

Restrictive measures intended to protect public health can be temporarily justified under the condition that they are necessary, effective and proportionate. The proportionality of virus containment measures, such as lockdowns or vaccination mandates,  depends on the severity of the human rights restriction in question and the specific context in the country. It should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and ultimately by the courts, whether they are necessary, effective and the least restrictive means to achieve the desired aim of limiting hospitalisations, grave illness, and death.


Commissioner calls for release of immigration detainees while Covid-19 crisis continues

Strasbourg 26/03/2020
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Commissioner calls for release of immigration detainees while Covid-19 crisis continues

I call on all Council of Europe member states to review the situation of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants in immigration detention, and to release them to the maximum extent possible.

In the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic, many member states have had to suspend forced returns of persons no longer authorised to stay on their territories, including so-called Dublin returns, and it is unclear when these might be resumed. Under human rights law, immigration detention for the purpose of such returns can only be lawful as long as it is feasible that return can indeed take place. This prospect is clearly not in sight in many cases at the moment. Furthermore, immigration detention facilities generally provide poor opportunities for social distancing and other measures to protect against Covid-19 infection for migrants and staff.

Releases have been reported in several member states, including Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, with the latter country having just announced a review of the situation of all those in immigration detention. It is now important that this process continues and that other member states follow suit. The release of the most vulnerable should be prioritised. Since the immigration detention of children, whether unaccompanied or with their families, is never in their best interest, they should be released immediately. The authorities of member states should also refrain from issuing new detention orders to persons who are unlikely to be removed in the near future.

Member states should also ensure that those released from detention are given appropriate access to accommodation and basic services, including health care. This is necessary to safeguard their dignity and also to protect public health in member states.

The release of immigration detainees is only one measure member states can take during the Covid-19 pandemic to protect the rights of persons deprived of their liberty more generally, as well as those of asylum seekers and migrants.

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