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GENEVA (15 April 2020) – Responding to a weeks-long impasse that developed on the Bolivia-Chile border, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday urged countries in Latin America, and elsewhere in the world, to open their borders to their own nationals stranded abroad, many of them with little or no access to healthcare and other basic needs.
“Under international law, everyone has the right to return to their home country – even during a pandemic,” the High Commissioner said, calling on States to do all they can to ensure the safe, dignified and voluntary return and sustainable reintegration of their nationals.
“When migrants wish to return home voluntarily, Governments have an obligation to receive their own nationals, and to ensure that they have access to health care and other rights,” Bachelet said. “Otherwise, they are placing migrants in situations of extreme vulnerability, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. By and large, it is the poorest migrant workers trying to return home across land borders, in many cases after lock-downs have deprived them of any income, who are being prevented from doing so.”
“States should include all migrants, regardless of migration status, in national COVID-19 prevention, response and recovery plans and ensure equal access to information, testing, health care, and social protection,” Bachelet added.
She welcomed the cooperation and steps taken by Chile and Bolivia to end the impasse over the return of Bolivian nationals, which began when the pandemic undercut their livelihoods in Chile, and Bolivia closed its borders on 26 March. As a result some 1,300 Bolivians including older people, children and pregnant women, who were trying to return to their home country were stuck on the Chilean side of the border, where they ended up sleeping rough with little food and water, in sub-zero temperatures.
“This need not have happened,” Bachelet said. “It shows how essential for countres everywhere to resolve such problems as soon as they arise, or foresee them in advance, in order to prevent unnecessary suffering.”
On 12 and 13 April, the Chilean authorities transported around 800 Bolivian migrants from Colchane to the regional capital city of Iquique where they were placed in schools and given access to health care and basic services. On 13 April, a new group of around 200 Bolivians arrived in Iquique.
The Government has announced that around half would be transferred from Iquique at the end of the week to Pisiga, a camp on the Bolivian side of the border, where a UN team including some of Bachelet’s staff have been assisting the local authorities and humanitarian actors to provide basic supplies and services for the returning migrants, as well as assessing their needs and promoting their protection. The rest are expected to be taken directly from Iquique to their homes in Bolivia at the end of the compulsory 14-day quarantine required by the Bolivian authorities.
With hundreds of other Bolivian migrants potentially planning to return across borders with other neighbouring countries, it is crucial that the State and local actors ensure they can all return safely to their place of origin, and help them to reintegrate into their communities.
Similar issues have been affecting migrants trying to cross land borders elsewhere in the region, and some of those who have managed to return have been subjected to hostility, discrimination and even acts of violence.
“I am appalled to see how the COVID-19 pandemic is generating stigmatization and discrimination both within and between States in many parts of the world,” Bachelet said. “People who may have the disease need care, not to become the targets of hatred and rejection. All countries, including those of origin and destination, have an obligation to respect, protect and guarantee the human rights of migrants. Migrants who are returning to their home countries must be included in national response, social protection and recovery strategies without discrimination, and they should also be protected against stigma and exclusion in the private and public sphere.”
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