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US: Migrants “held for processing” should be released from COVID-19 high-risk detention centres

27 April 2020

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GENEVA (27 April 2020) – The US Government must urgently use readily available alternatives to detention for migrants held in overcrowded and unsanitary administrative centres to counter the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, a UN human rights expert said today.

“It is very difficult to keep the necessary physical distance in overcrowded detention facilities. Significantly reducing the number of detained migrants by releasing them into alternative settings can easily solve this,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales.

“None of those migrants are detained for criminal offences, but are simply awaiting decisions on their immigration claims,” he noted.

González Morales said that UN human rights experts had received repeated reports of unsanitary conditions and lack of proper healthcare for the 1,500 detainees in the Northwest Processing Center, located in Tacoma, Washington State. This centre is run by a private company, the GEO Group, for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Together with a group of UN human rights experts*, González Morales has asked the US administration and the GEO Group to guarantee access to health care, adequate water and sanitation facilities, and strengthen the measures to prevent the outbreak and spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

“We heard that there is a lack of protective measures for detainees, that it is impossible to keep the recommended physical distance, and that new arrivals are not being put into isolation for medical observation. This raises grave concerns that the coronavirus could spread in the centre– a facility that has reported issues with providing inadequate healthcare and unsanitary conditions,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur said administrative immigration detention should be used as a last resort. Authorities must first explore alternative measures, which are essentially non-custodial, community- based accommodation and care solutions that are less restrictive, aiming at respecting the human rights of migrants, and limiting the use of immigration detention.

“The authorities should assess the capacity of readily available alternatives measures in the country and elaborate a set of criteria to identify those in administrative detention that could be immediately released to alternative placements,” González Morales said.

“Alternatives to widespread immigration detention in the U.S. would also ensure that migrants are not arbitrarily detained,” the Special Rapporteur underscored.

*The experts: Mr. Githu Muigai, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises; Mr. Dainius Puras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Mr. Chris Kwaja, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination; Mr. Nils Melzer; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and Mr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation


Mr. Felipe González Morales (Chile) was appointed Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants in June 2017 by the UN Human Rights Council, for an initial period of three years. As a Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. He is Professor of International Law at the Diego Portales University, in Santiago, Chile, where he is also the Director of a Master's programme in International Human Rights Law.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Yiyao Zhang (+41 22 917 85 94 / [email protected]) and Renate Bucher (+41 22 917 94 70 / [email protected]).

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9445 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter: @UN_SPExperts.

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