Principles of Protection for Displaced Persons During the Pandemic

Principles designed to guide policy-makers, public health workers, migrant and displaced communities, and advocates, as they navigate the pandemic response

April 30, 2020

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, and Cornell Law School’s Migration and Human Rights Program, are jointly releasing a 14-point series of principles to protect migrants, refugees, and other displaced populations, as the world confronts the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 800 international experts have endorsed the document.

The necessity for these principles is critical, as the world bears witness to an increasing series of egregious acts against asylum seekers and the erosion of international legal rights. A few recent examples:

  • On April 20th, President Trump announced his plans to sign an executive order to suspend all immigration to the United States for an undetermined period of time, the most far-reaching of recent efforts by the administration to restrict immigration and the right to seek asylum.

  • Malaysia has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups for not allowing Rohingya refugee boats to land in that country. The Malaysian government cites Covid-19 concerns for turning them away.

  • Migrant farmworkers from Jamaica participating in the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program are being compelled to sign Covid-19 waivers to release the Jamaican government from any liability caused by exposure to COVID-19. 

Over the last several weeks, Columbia’s Program on Forced Migration and Health, the Zolberg Institute (The New School) and the Cornell Migration and Human Rights Program, have been working with a group of eminent legal experts to craft a statement of key international law principles designed to guide policy-makers, public health workers, migrant and displaced communities, and advocates, as they navigate the pandemic response. 

The document’s key principles include:

  • Equal treatment and non-discrimination: State policies responding to COVID-19 must guarantee equal and non-discriminatory treatment of all persons, irrespective of their immigration and citizenship status or the fact of their displacement. 

  • Right to health: States must respect the right to health of migrants, refugees, and other displaced persons, including by ensuring that the provision of essential medicines, prevention, and treatment are provided in a non-discriminatory manner. 

  • State obligations to combat stigma and xenophobia: States should ensure that neither their actions nor the actions of others stigmatize or incite violence against persons on account of their actual or perceived health status, in particular when such stigmatization is linked to nationality or immigration status. 

  • Restrictions on movement between states end migrant detention where it risks their health: States are required to ensure that restrictions on mobility adopted in response to COVID-19 respect the rights of all persons to leave any state and to re-enter their home states. 

  • Non-return and access to territory: A state’s pursuit of legitimate health goals must respect the fundamental principle of non- refoulement, including non-return to a real risk of persecution, arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

"It is precisely in moments of crisis that our common humanity is challenged and must be reaffirmed,” said Monette Zard, director of the Forced Migration and Health Program, Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Protecting the rights and dignity of all people, including migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers is critical to conquering this pandemic and ensuring the right to health for all.” 

“At this time of global crisis, it is vitally important to reaffirm both that all migrants, including refugees, have fundamental human rights and also that these fundamental rights apply and protect us all even in the midst of a pandemic,” said Ian M. Kysel, a visiting assistant clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School and a core faculty member of the Migration and Human Rights Program.  “I am hopeful that these principles, endorsed by hundreds of leading experts around the world, will give governments and advocates the tools they need to ensure rights are safeguarded, even now.”

“Among COVID's many victims are migrants and refugees, who of course are susceptible to the virus but also suffer additional harms due to discrimination and xenophobia,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, director of the Zolberg Institute. “In many places around the world they are blamed for the disease, locked down in living arrangements without adequate medical care, denied information crucial to their well-being, excluded from benefits programs for workers who have lost their jobs. International human rights law offers protection against these kinds of harms."

The Program on Forced Migration and Health (PFMH) is housed in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. It is one of the world’s leading centers of humanitarian research, training, and continuing education, professionalizing the field of humanitarian response. It was founded in 1998 as one of the first interdisciplinary, practice-based humanitarian research and educational programs offered by a major university. Today, the program continues to lead the development of evidence-based approaches to humanitarian response and to train the next generation of global leaders.

The Migration and Human Rights Program at Cornell Law School sits at the nexus of practice and research on immigration laws in the United States. The Program’s work grounds migration analysis in international human rights standards. The Program supports the collaboration of scholars at Cornellfocused on immigration and human rights across many disciplines. Founding faculty members of the Program also provide free legal assistance to immigrants through the Asylum and Convention Against Torture Appellate Law Clinic and the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic.

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility supports critical and applied scholarship and provides opportunities for social action and policy engagement for faculty, students and the broader New School community. The Institute fosters concentric circles of scholarship and action—in the University, New York City, and the world. The Institute offers courses, hosts lectures and events, and supports extended visits of leading scholars. The Zolberg Institute is deeply engaged in initiatives that inform and influence public debate and public policy at the national and global level.