East Africa: People seeking safety are trapped at borders due to COVID-19 measures

A coalition of international, national, and refugee-led organizations in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) have today called on governments in the region to reopen borders for asylum seekers. The organizations are calling on governments to put in place measures that manage the current health emergency while ensuring asylum seekers can seek protection. 

Countries in the HECA region host approximately 4.6 million refugees and asylum seekers and have a long history of receiving asylum seekers and providing them with protection. Before the pandemic, the countries continuously received new people seeking safety and protection from violence and conflict, political persecution, or other threats to their lives. States started closing their borders in March as a public health measure to contain the transnational spread of COVID-19, without safeguards for the many women, men and children fleeing threats to their lives and freedoms and needing to seek asylum.

While countries in the region are faced with a genuine public health emergency, governments, with support from international partners, must find solutions that respect international human rights and refugee law commitments, including the right to seek asylum

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa

“While countries in the region are faced with a genuine public health emergency, governments, 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 Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Somalia closed their borders in March 2020. In Kenya, the borders with Somalia and Tanzania closed on 16 May. Asylum seekers and refugees who cross into Kenya are sometimes arrested and returned to the border point of entry.

Blanket border closures contravene international refugee law by denying people in need of international protection an effective opportunity to seek asylum. They also violate the principle of 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.

Along the DRC-Uganda border, approximately 10,000 displaced people have been camped out since May, waiting to seek asylum in Uganda. Following a 16 June decision by the Uganda government to allow them to enter the country, efforts are underway to prepare for their safe entry, quarantine, and settlement.

“We welcome Uganda’s decision to receive this specific group of Congolese asylum seekers. We urge the government and partners to ensure quarantine conditions for this group are dignified, and to develop more general measures to admit people needing international protection at other border points,” said Robert Hakiza, Coordinator of the Global Refugee-Led Network-Africa Chapter.

On Uganda’s border with South Sudan, for example, hundreds of people displaced by recent fighting between government soldiers and armed groups in Central Equatoria State are stuck, hoping to cross into Uganda. They are living in makeshift structures and are in urgent need of food, proper shelter, medical care, and access to clean water. Uganda closed its borders on 20 March.

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

“Regional bodies such as the East African Community (EAC), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) should provide more leadership and guidance on how countries can safely open their borders to asylum seekers. The international community must also step in to provide the needed assistance to displaced persons, whichever the side of the border they are on,” said Lydia Zigomo, Oxfam’s Regional Director in the Horn, East and Central Africa.

The organizations are calling on regional bodies to help and encourage governments develop procedures and policies that would allow movement across borders for individuals wanting to seek asylum. This should include workable protocols for COVID-19 screening, testing and quarantine, and special measures that address the needs of marginalized groups, such as unaccompanied children, particularly in quarantine facilities.

“While the EAC has been instrumental in supporting harmonized border screenings to allow the movement of cargo across the region, they have been silent about access to asylum seekers. Regional bodies must not leave refugees out of their COVID-19 response plans,” said George Kegoro, Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.  

Notes to editors:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, require states to respect the right of people to seek asylum and to uphold the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits them from rejecting and returning asylum seekers who arrive at their borders. All the Horn, East and Central African countries are state parties to the 1951 Convention.
  • The right to seek and be granted asylum and protection from return is also provided for in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the 1969 OAU (now AU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Again, both treaties have been signed by all countries in the Horn, East and Central Africa region. In addition, these rights and protections have been included in the constitutions and refugee laws of many countries in the region including Uganda and Kenya. 
  • There are currently over 1,420,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda, 763,000 in Ethiopia, 1,089,000 in Sudan, and 494,649 in Kenya. 
  • The EAC published a regional COVID-19 response plan on 30 April. It aims to facilitate free movement of goods and services in the EAC region, while minimizing cross border movement of people. It does not mention refugees or asylum seekers.
  • IGAD published a regional COVID-19 response strategy on 20 April. The strategy notes the importance of protecting refugees, IDPs, migrants, host communities, and other populations in border areas, and provides that IGAD will support members states to: Establish screening measures for travellers and migrant people at border crossings; share information on cross-border migration of refugees and other migrant populations with national health authorities for appropriate care and management; set up isolation and quarantine facilities at border crossing for migrant populations as well as for refugees and IDPs; and share best practices and knowledge on protective measures for vulnerable and high-risk groups with limited access to health care.
  • The African Union has appealed to governments to adhere to international law and respect of the rights and human dignity of migrants and refugees, but has to date not provided practical guidance on how to do this, especially in relation to complex issues such as  border management during the pandemic.
  • The 10,000 displaced people at the border of DRC and Uganda fled attacks on villages in the War-Palara and Panduru chiefdoms. The displaced, most of whom are from the Alur ethnic group, are staying in the locality of Mon-Zeu, in the chiefdom of Alur Djuganda, in Mahagi territory, in the west of Ituri province near DRC’s border with Uganda’s Zombo district.

Organizations supporting the press release:

  1. AAMIN Organization (Mogadishu, Somalia)
  2. African Youth Initiative for Development (Nairobi, Kenya)
  3. Amnesty International
  4. Care and Assistance for Forced Migrants (Uganda)
  5. Centre for Peace and Advocacy (Uganda)
  6. Community Action for Creative Innovation (Koboko, Uganda)
  7. Community Action for Transformation (Imvepi, Uganda)
  8. East African Centre for Forced Migration
  9. DIGNITY Kwanza (Tanzania)
  10. Finn Church Aid
  11. Global Refugee-Led Network-Africa Chapter
  12. Good-Deeds (Nairobi, Kenya)
  13. ICAN South Sudan (Bidibidi, Uganda)
  14. Initiative for Nurturing Vulnerable and Empowerment for Resilience (Kakuma, Kenya)
  15. International Refugee Rights Initiative
  16. International Rescue Committee
  17. IYOUTH IFUTURE (Kakuma, Kenya)
  18. Jesuit Refugee Service
  19. Jump Over Seven Feet (Kajiado, Kenya)
  20. Kandana Refugee Association (Kenya)
  21. Kenya Human Rights Commission
  22. Kintsugi (Nairobi, Kenya)
  23. Kituo cha Sheria-Legal Advice Centre (Kenya)
  24. L’Afrikana (Nairobi, Kenya)
  25. Oxfam International
  26. Refugee Consortium of Kenya
  27. Regional Network on Peace and Stability (RENOPS)
  28. Shabab Peace and Environment Action Group (Adjunami, Uganda)
  29. Solidarity Initiative for Refugees (Kakuma, Kenya)
  30. SOS Women and Children in Disaster (Kampala, Uganda)
  31. South Sudan Civil Society Forum (SSCSF)
  32. South Sudan National Consortium of Human Rights Defenders
  33. South Sudan Transitional Justice Working Group
  34. The Organization for Children Harmony (Kiryandongo, Uganda)
  35. Vijana Twaweza (Kakuma, Kenya)
  36. Young African Refugees for Integral Development (Uganda)
  37. Young-Adult Empowerment Initiative (Kiryandongo, Uganda)
  38. Youth Education and Development Association (Kakuma, Kenya)
  39. Youth Social Advocacy Team (Rhino Camp/Arua, Uganda)