East African states should open their doors to asylum seekers due to the continued conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo despite the Covid-19 pandemic, a coalition of refugees’ organisations in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) has said.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa, said that while countries in the region are faced with a genuine public health emergency, those with support from international partners must find solutions that respect international human rights and refugee law commitments, including the right to seek asylum.
“Governments should consider measures such as medical screening or testing, preventative and time-bound quarantine facilities at border crossing points to allow access to asylum seekers,” said Mr Muchena in a joint statement released on June 22.
HECA, which boasts 39 members, wants Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda and Tanzania to reopen borders to asylum seekers. Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Somalia closed their borders in March. In Kenya, the borders with Somalia and Tanzania were shut on May 16.
Currently, tens of thousands of refugees are stranded in the borders between Uganda and the DR Congo, Uganda and South Sudan; Kenya and Somalia, and Kenya with South Sudan.
HECA argues that blanket border closures contravene international refugee law by denying people in need of international protection an effective opportunity to seek asylum.
They say such closures also violate the principle of the 1951 UN Convention non-refoulement, which prohibits states from turning away people at a border and returning them to a country where they would be at risk of persecution or danger.
However, Uganda on June 16 allowed the 10,000 displaced people who have been camping between its border with DRC since May to enter the country and while the country is preparing quarantine, and settlement procedures.
“We welcome Uganda’s decision to receive these Congolese asylum seekers. We urge the government and partners to ensure quarantine conditions are dignified, and to develop more measures to admit people needing international protection at other border points,” said Robert Hakiza, co-ordinator of the Global Refugee-Led Network-Africa Chapter.
The HECA region had approximately 4.6 million refugees and asylum seekers before the advent of Covid-19.