UNHCR concerned over U.S. expulsion flights under COVID-19 asylum restrictions

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UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is concerned about the new U.S. practice of transferring asylum-seekers and migrants, expelled under a U.S. public health order, by aircraft from the United States to southern Mexico. Individuals or families aboard those flights who may have urgent protection needs risk being sent back to the very dangers they have fled in their countries of origin in Central America without any opportunity to have those needs assessed and addressed.

These expulsion flights of non-Mexicans to the deep interior of Mexico constitute a troubling new dimension in enforcement of the COVID-related public health order known as Title 42. Under Title 42, individuals and families are denied access to protection screening and U.S. asylum procedures. Removal from the U.S. to southern Mexico, outside any official transfer agreement with appropriate legal safeguards, increases the risk of chain refoulement – pushbacks by successive countries – of vulnerable people in danger, in contravention of international law and the humanitarian principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention. All governments have the obligation to uphold these laws and principles at all times. UNHCR recently issued a global warning against initiatives which shift asylum responsibilities elsewhere or result in denial of the right to seek asylum altogether.

At a time of significantly increased movement of asylum-seekers and migrants in the region, the Title 42 expulsion flights will also further strain the overburdened humanitarian response capacity in southern Mexico, heighten the risk of COVID-19 transmission across national borders and run counter to steps being taken to share responsibility among countries of the region in addressing the root causes of forced displacement and migration.

UNHCR has maintained since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that protecting public health and ensuring access to asylum are fully compatible. Even where COVID-19 has surged at times, many countries have put in place effective protocols such as systematic health screenings, testing and quarantine measures that have simultaneously and successfully protected both public health and the human right to seek asylum.

UNHCR reiterates the May 2021 appeal by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi for the United States government to swiftly lift theTitle 42 public health-related asylum restrictions that remain in effect and to restore access to asylum for people whose lives depend on it.

UNHCR stands ready to support the United States, Mexico and all countries in actions and approaches that effectively safeguard public health without sacrificing the basic right of any person fleeing war, violence or persecution to access safe territory and humane asylum procedures, promptly and without obstruction, including those recently proposed in the U.S. government’s Blueprint for a Fair, Orderly and Humane Immigration System.

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