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Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers should not be held in detention centres. Alternatives to detention are needed.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to Europe continue to face uncertain times amidst the COVID crisis. Drahoslav Štefánek, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees describes some of the challenges and the support that the Council of Europe is offering to member states.


Hello, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to Europe are continuing to face uncertain times, as the continent starts to emerge from its worst crisis since the second world war. For a better idea on what’s being done to help, I’m joined by Drahoslav Štefánek, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees.

What would you say, is the Council of Europe doing in response to the Coronavirus health crisis concerning migration?

Drahoslav Štefánek: The Council of Europe has many tools and many organs to address the situation which we are now all in. We are not a humanitarian organisation, I have to say, but we are a human rights organisation so we are here to set out the principles of conduct, of behaviour of the states during the pandemic, during the COVID crisis. We have different bodies to address the situation from different angles. For myself, I should say that we are kind of overseeing the work of the various organs in the system. What we did at the beginning; my office, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General, together with the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU, we produced, I think, a very good and short paper where we set out the basic principles – how states should behave or what should be the conduct of business at the borders. That was a joint statement on the human rights at borders, issued in March together with the Fundamental Rights Agency. Then we devoted one part of the special measures in case of pandemic, addressing the COVID situation. Of course, there are other measures and other parts of the Council of Europe system – I should mention the European Court of Human Rights. There have been many submissions seeking protection. There is Article 39 of the Rules of the Court where people can seek interim measures for protection – and I know that this has been used as well. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture issued principles in confinement. There was also the European Social Charter Committee which is overseeing the European Social Charter; we have articles 11 and 13 guaranteeing access to health and rights to access medical services. Also, the Secretary General of the Organisation – the Council of Europe – has issued a toolkit of human rights protection during COVID. It not only deals with health issues but also with political rights. We also have a very good programme in the Council of Europe which is called European Qualifications Passport for Refugees which is evaluating the qualities or education or the skills of migrants and refugees and provides them with a sort of a document which is acknowledging those qualities and there are some examples where these passports – and there have been some 500 issued already – help the migrants or refugees to find work, to be better placed in the labour market but also to be admitted to the education system.


And then, what would you say is the biggest challenge at the moment, according to you, in the protection of migrants during the COVID-19 crisis?

DŠ: The biggest challenges are two-fold: one is that already, before the COVID crisis, the camps and centres have been overcrowded; let’s say the situation on Greek islands like Lesbos or Pharos. The facilities for a few thousand people were hosting 20-thousand people or 18-thousand people so the situation was already dire before that. Now, we have found ourselves in a situation when we need to respect social distancing or more sanitary measures in places which are totally overcrowded with not enough sanitation facilities. That was challenge number one. Challenge number two is that many states have closed borders. I am speaking about the ports. Then we have found situations where many migrants and many refugees were stranded at sea on boats and no states wanted to or were willing to receive them so of course, there is some understanding for these measures – to protect the populations – but on the other hand, we have a number of people who are in some sort of limbo. I should also say that the states have the right to manage their borders; they also have the right to manage the public health emergency situations but at the same time, it should not be at the expense of human rights. Asylum procedures have to be open and in place even during the pandemic situation, as in COVID and it can’t be justified to not process the requests for protection. It is clear, states can derogate. There is Article 15 of the Convention where states can derogate in a state of emergency and many member states of the Council have taken this opportunity and have invoked Article 15 of the Convention but at the same time there are some rights that are not subject to derogation. I am speaking about Article 2, right to life, of course and Article 3, prohibition of torture and then Article 3 of the Convention is often used for the refugee and migrant situation because if you don’t accept the processing of asylum seekers or you are not processing those requests, you can create a situation of refoulement and that can be within the remit of Article 3 and again within the remit of prohibition of torture because if you force the people to come back, then you are infringing the principles of refoulement which can be also taken from Article 3 of the Convention.


And in conclusion - what would you say is the added value that the Council of Europe puts into the protection of vulnerable people – migrants, refugees?

DŠ: We have taken this situation. I am always trying to think positively. We can turn the situation around. We have been advocating – and this has happened in a number of states – the best prevention against the pandemic and against the spreading of the virus is to release people and not to hold them in detention centres. We were advocating before that, and now, even more, that there should be alternatives to detention and that the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers should not be held in detention centres.

There was a judgment of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg – it is not a court in the system of the Council of Europe – which is confirming that direction. I’m very happy with a good example for instance, that Hungary closed the transit centres on the border between Hungary and Serbia. We have also provided positive examples through the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees and then also the migrants can help in the situation. They can help in many charity organisations. There is also a huge labour force for the healthcare system. There are many people who are qualified as nurses and even doctors who are also helping in combatting the pandemic as healthcare volunteers. There has been a very good example from Portugal who provided temporary residents’ status for migrants who had been ‘illegal’ before in that territory. Italy is also going in that direction. It seems as though we should think positively in that Europe needs, to a certain extent, migrants and the COVID crisis also shows that so I don’t see the COVID crisis only from a negative point of view. I have outlined some of those issues but also it can provide opportunities for member states. This is what we would like to do. Also, my objective – or my goal – was to change the narrative a bit because if you have negative narratives about migration and refugees then it is difficult to do something – it is difficult to implement the projects etc. We have to change the overall context and then we will see that the tide will change and the population and the people will be more acceptable and more open to migration.