Interview: migration and asylum in the context of the pandemic

In the week when World Refugee Day is celebrated, the president of the National Human Rights Council identifies the main problems faced by migrants in the Covid-19 crisis

The public defender Renan Sotto Mayor was elected the new president of the National
Human Rights Council in February of this year (Photo: Press Photo / Federal Public
Defender’s Office) The public defender Renan Sotto Mayor was elected the new president of the National Human Rights Council in February of this year (Photo: Press Photo / Federal Public Defender’s Office)

The health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has exposed more than ever the vulnerability facing the nearly 40,000 refugees and 193,000 asylum seekers who live in Brazil. Having fled their countries due to political persecution, risk of death or serious and widespread human rights violations, these people are struggling to guarantee their rights and remake their lives.

In the week when Global Refugee Day is celebrated, on June 20, Conectas spoke to the president of the CNDH (National Human Rights Council), the federal public defender Renan Sotto Mayor, about the situation facing migrants and refugees in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Renan has a masters in Sociology and Law from the Fluminense Federal University and he is currently the secretary-general of liaison at the Federal Public Defender’s Office.

Conectas – What are the main problems faced by migrants and refugees in the Covid-19 pandemic?

Renan Sotto Mayor – The pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities in our country affecting several extremely vulnerable groups. The situation facing migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, which was already one of vulnerability, has deteriorated further. Apart from the matter of the recent inter-ministerial orders that permit
deportation and the suspension of asylum, the borders have also been closed, causing incalculable damage to these people. Another very serious issue is the difficulty accessing emergency assistance. Although this assistance was created to ensure a minimum subsistence income for people in need, migrants unfortunately have generally
encountered difficulties accessing this benefit. We’re now in June and the Brazilian State has not yet resolved the bureaucratic obstacles so these people can have their rights respected. The situation facing Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers is also dramatic. Things were already bad before the “coronacrisis” and now it’s even worse.

The Brazilian government ordered the closure of its borders as a health measure to combat the pandemic. What migrant and refugee rights could be threatened by this measure?

Several constitutional rights and also those protected by human rights treaties have been directly violated. For example, the fundamental right to equal treatment for nationals and non-nationals before the law, provided for in article 5 of the Constitution, and the right to universal access to health established in article 19, sole paragraph,
item I. Additionally, as we noted in CNDH Recommendation No 19 of May 6, 2020, the suspension of requests for asylum violates the international law principle of non-refoulement, contained in article 33, item 1, of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and also in article 22, item 8, of the American Convention on Human Rights
and article 7, paragraph 1, of Law 9,474/1997, according to which nobody may be deported to the frontiers of territories where their life or freedom would be threatened. It’s also important to highlight that article 31 of the 1951 Convention and article 8 of Law No. 9,474/1997 do not permit the suspension of asylum requests as punishment for irregular entry into Brazilian territory.

According to the NGO Compassiva, there are currently at least 400 foreign doctors who are unable to work in Brazil because examinations to recognize foreign medical diplomas have not been held for three years. In the meantime,there are not enough doctors available to open field hospitals like the one in Boa Vista. What do you think about relaxing the hiring rules for these doctors during the pandemic, like Germany, the United States and Canada have done?

This relaxing of rules would be temporary and as an emergency. I fully support this and I believe it would be fundamental to guarantee the right to health of people in situations of extreme vulnerability. We have noticed a serious lack of doctors in Brazil, mainly in the Northern region. This is a structural problem that needs be addressed broadly, pursuing definitive solutions. However, this inaction by the Brazilian State cannot continue any longer, especially during a pandemic. As such, I think the temporary and emergency measure to relax the rules for recognizing foreign medical diplomas is important for millions of people in Brazil to have effective access to the fundamental right to health.

Have migrants been able to receive the emergency assistance provided by the government during the pandemic and how important is this assistance for these people?

Migrants who meet the legal requirements are entitled to the emergency assistance. This assistance is a minimum subsistence income, which is why it is so essential for people to receive this benefit. Unfortunately, we have seen that the program was set up ignoring the situation of people who are truly hyper-vulnerable, such as people living on
the streets and various other groups that do not have access to a mobile phone to request the benefit. Similarly, the program was clearly set up for Brazilian nationals and did not take into account the specific situation of migrants, in particular with regard to documentation. The Federal Public Defender’s Office in São Paulo, observing this
situation, filed a public civil action against the [state-owned bank] Caixa Econômica Federal and the Central Bank of Brazil requesting emergency relief so that migrants, regardless of their immigration status, can receive the emergency assistance by presenting any identity document, even if it has expired. To date, unfortunately, no
court ruling has been given in this public civil action.

In late April, the municipality of Boa Vista removed more than 100 migrants from an occupation known as “Clamor do Rio” without a court order or prior eviction notice. The operation was carried out during the pandemic and did not even take the families to a new shelter. Can governments take this type of action in a health emergency like the one we are experiencing? What measures should be adopted to guarantee the rights and security of these families?

This type of action is incompatible with the constitutional rule of law. First, it is important to emphasize that the right to adequate housing should be guaranteed for all people. However, unfortunately this is not a reality for many people who live in Brazil. Considering the lack of an effective public housing policy, the federal government, the
State of Roraima and the Municipality of Boa Vista should try to guarantee the right to housing for these people. Seeing this situation, the Federal Public Defender’s Office, in partnership with Conectas, the Center for Migration and Human Rights and the Jesuit Service for Migrants and Refugees filed a public civil action requesting interimrelief, stressing the need to receive these people in appropriate shelters. Unfortunately, the case was rejected. Everyone who works with human rights experiences this discrepancy between what should be and reality. What happened was a clearly misguided and unlawful action by the municipal government of Boa Vista. This is why the National Human Rights Council issued Resolution No. 10 of 2018, which provides solutions guaranteeing human rights and preventive measures for collective and urban land conflicts. In this resolution, we highlighted that “the eviction and forced displacement of groups requesting special protection from the State may only occur with a court order, pursuant to this resolution, and never through a purely administrative decision”.

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