Many countries are starting to release people in custody at risk of contracting Covid-19. In Russia, attorneys and human rights defenders are calling for pretrial detention facilities and prisons to release people who have committed minor offenses and violations and elderly people at risk and to replace custody with other preventive measures that do not involve deprivation of liberty.
It is abundantly clear that urgent measures must be taken to release people who have not committed any crimes but are being held in custody for the purpose of “forced expulsion,” i.e., migrants held in foreign national detention centers, since the purpose of their custody is not feasible.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović has called on COE member states to free the highest possible number of immigration detainees.
The Commissioner noted that: “In the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic, many member states have had to suspend forced returns of persons no longer authorised to stay on their territories, including so-called Dublin returns, and it is unclear when these might be resumed. Under human rights law, immigration detention for the purpose of such returns can only be lawful as long as it is feasible that return can indeed take place. This prospect is clearly not in sight in many cases at the moment. Furthermore, immigration detention facilities generally provide poor opportunities for social distancing and other measures to protect against Covid-19 infection for migrants and staff.”
The Commissioner also called for the immediate release of all migrant children, “Since the immigration detention of children, whether unaccompanied or with their families, is never in their best interest,” and of all remaining immigration detainees. She stressed that those released from detention must be ensured access to accommodation and basic services, including health care: “This is necessary to safeguard their dignity and also to protect public health in member states.”
The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights previously signaled its concern about this problem: Tatyana Merzlyakova, head of the Committee for Migration Policy and a member of the Presidential Council, stated that foreigners facing forced return would remain in special facilities for an indefinite period of time because of the suspension of air travel due to the pandemic and that entire families are waiting to return home. The Council’s website notes that “Merzlyakova noted in particular the case of a Kyrgyz citizen who has spent over one month in a foreign national detention center with her children.” The recommendation to release immigration detainees was made following the roundtable “The Coronavirus Pandemic and Human Rights,” which was hosted by the Committee for Civil Rights, whose head, Andrei Babushkin, is also a member of the Presidential Council.
In a judgment of May 23, 2017, Russia’s Constitutional Court found that custody in a foreign national detention center when deportation is not feasible contravenes the Russian Constitution: in these cases, detention has no attainable legal purpose and translates into arbitrary and illegal deprivation of liberty.
We call on the Russian government to take urgent measures to release migrant detainees whose swift expulsion is not feasible.
This decision must be expedited without red tape to protect the lives and health of people in these detention centers, which are not able to provide a robust system of protection or effective health care.
This measure might be of help against spread of the desease in the detention institutions and around.
Svetlana Gannushkina, The Civic Assistance Committee
Alexander Cherkasov, Human Rights Center Memorial
Lev Ponomarev, “For Human Rights” movement
Lidia Grafova, Forum of Resettlement Organizations
Stefania Kulaeva, ADC Memorial