<Statement of migrant human rights organizations regarding administrative order for COVID-19 test of migrant workers>

We are all together suffering from the social catastrophe of COVID-19. Since we do not know when it will end, it is necessary to establish and apply preventive measures guaranteeing fundamental rights to all members of our society. It will be impossible to prevent the risk if we discriminate against and exclude a particular group. Therefore, we, the organizations for the human rights of migrants, ask the Central Disaster Management Headquarters to put in place health measures based on human rights and we convey the advice as below. 

Since last February, many local governments have implemented an administrative order to test for COVID-19, particularly among foreigners and migrant workers under the pretext of preventing the spread of the virus. Gyeonggi province enforced the administrative order for 15 days, from March 8th to 22nd, due to the mass infection among migrant workers in Namyangju and Dongducheon. Seoul City announced its application for 2 weeks from March 17 to 31 but withdrew it after 2 days of operation.

On March 19, after numerous complaints from organizations for the human rights of migrants, various embassies, and following an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, the city of Seoul changed the order to a recommendation. Prime Minister Sye-Kyun Chung expressed regret over the controversy of discrimination and human rights violations from the Seoul City administration order. On March 21 at the meeting at the Central Security and Disaster Control Headquarters, Prime Minister Chung announced, “We have learned a lesson from this situation, and will apply preventive measures with sensitivity by putting ourselves in the place of consumers. “

On the same day, at the regular briefing held at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters, the Central Disaster Management Headquarters also disclosed that they had immediately asked Seoul City to cancel the application of the administrative order. In addition, on March 19, the Central Disaster Management Headquarters said that they asked local authorities to exercise with caution in the case of COVID-19 screening of migrant workers, taking into account the risk exposure to the workplaces in question, the number of cases confirmed, type of work, etc. in order to avoid causing controversy over discrimination and the violation of human rights.

However, some local authorities are still enforcing this administrative order focusing only on migrant workers with no intention of withdrawing it. Gyeonggi province, in particular, maintained its administrative order until March 22, despite the recommendation of the withdrawal by the National Human Rights Commission. The province is proud to have been able to prevent the spread of the virus by detecting 146 confirmed cases, including 50 Koreans and 96 foreigners by maintaining the order.

We, the human rights organizations of migrants, do not deny the need to consider all the risks and to consolidate as much as possible the preventive measures against COVID-19. We accuse the irrational and unscientific way of forcing migrant workers specifically to be tested and we call for rectification. We are presenting the request to the Central Disaster Management Headquarters in an effort to prevent local authorities from continuing to ignore the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission.

1. Stop of the administrative order for the complete enumeration of migrant workers

First and foremost, we demand an immediate end to the administrative order targeting migrant workers in question. The problem of discrimination in the administrative order should be taken seriously as indicated by the National Human Rights Commission. We urge the Central Disaster Management Headquarters to prevent recurrence and to ask the local authorities to express their regret.

2. Creation of a non-discriminatory manual

Migrant human rights organizations have continuously called for improved accommodation and working conditions for migrant workers to prevent massive infection. The reason why many local authorities have maintained administrative order is to give the local residents a strong image in terms of health measures, as window dressing, sacrificing social minorities such as migrant workers. The Central Disaster Management Headquarters understand that this type of administration is of little use as a preventive measure, and on the contrary, it only has increased discrimination and violation of human rights. To correct this, we ask for the creation of scientific, reasonable and non-discriminatory diagnostic test manuals for migrant workers.

3. Prohibition of the use of words generating hatred and stigma

Surveys stigmatizing migrant workers and the use of negative terms that potentially exclude them from health measures should be avoided. We, therefore, call for an end to the use of the word “illegal migrant workers” in the press and at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters. In 1975, the resolution (resolution 3449) of the 2443rd General Assembly of the United Nations, devoted to measures intended to ensure respect for the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers, requested the organs of the United Nations and the specialized agencies related to use the term “undocumented or irregular migrant workers” in all official documents. The European Parliament resolution (in 2006) also suggests the use of the term irregular migrant worker rather than an illegal worker and the Human Rights Council (in 2009) also calls for the use of the term illegal migrant worker to be avoided. It would be closed-minded to continue using the term illegal migrant worker by government institutions and the South Korean press, despite the decisions and efforts of international organizations not to use the term.

The adjective “illegal” is not accurate terminology to explain the legal situation of a subject. The crime an undocumented migrant worker has committed is only about administrative one and not the ones about threatening the life, fortune or security of a nation. The term “illegal” could engender prejudices and lead to a misunderstanding of the situation. The international covenant defines migrant workers as beings benefiting from human rights, regardless of their residence status in the respective countries where they are located. Examining the human rights violation would be fundamental to ensure its protection. Treating a particular individual or group as “illegal” is to deny the existence of their legal rights.

To call migrant workers “illegal” is to deny their dignity and human rights. If the existence of migrant workers is defined as illegal, the very experience as a worker and the existence of the family, children, or the elderly or could also become illegal. If such an inhuman world is adopted as an official term, migrant workers could become a target of attack and their lives could be threatened.

The term “illegal” portrays migrant workers with a dishonest and criminal image. The use of this expression suggests that migrant workers can be punished and forced to perform unreasonable tasks. As a result, undocumented migrant workers are treated as criminals and excluded from any type of preventive efforts from the government. This will give rise to racism and hate crimes, and subsequently prevent smooth social integration, and ultimately lead to the failure of infectious disease prevention and control measures.

The term “illegal” is discriminatory because it is negative. As no country considers the existence of a citizen as “illegal” nowadays, the widespread phenomenon still using the term for migrant workers is discriminatory, aggressive, and oppressive. Because the use of the term “illegal” is opposed to human values, that word should not appear in official documents. Therefore, the Central Disaster Management Headquarters should use a neutral, fair and non-discriminatory term such as “undocumented migrant workers” rather than “illegal migrant workers”.

4. Elimination of uncertainty on the priority vaccination list

Commissioner Eun-kyeong Jeong of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on February 28 that “Foreigners with long-term residence permits and registration cards will be vaccinated according to the same process as for Koreans. Illegal aliens will be vaccinated, if necessary, depending on the spread of COVID-19 and its influence on those at high risk. “

The majority understood from this announcement that foreigners were going to be vaccinated like Koreans. However, it is also likely that the phrase “if necessary” could discriminate against undocumented migrant workers or even exclude them afterward. On March 8, The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CMW), the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and local human rights specialists proposed the principles on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. According to the principles, when establishing the priority list for vaccination, one must consider the high exposure to the virus risks of migrant workers, their vulnerability, the necessity, so that no migrant worker is excluded in the process. For this, full access to the rights to health must be guaranteed to all migrant workers without any discrimination, regardless of their residence status and nationality. All migrant workers should equally have a chance to get vaccinated. Regretfully, many migrant workers in South Korea, especially those without documents, are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and their non-Korean status does not facilitate access to the medical system. As a result, they remain weak in the area of ​​health.

Migrant rights organizations, which have long observed undocumented migrant workers’ situation and the works of immigration office control, believe there should be a clear guideline on vaccination and health measures. It should be clarified that during the process of vaccination migrant workers will not be sanctioned or expelled because of their residence status. Even migrant workers without documents should not be subject to discrimination and their access to vaccination should be guaranteed.

In addition, it would be guaranteed that no vaccination-related information be shared with the immigration office to limit the risks of postponement of residence status, detention, deportation, and other sanctions. In the announcement of the campaign on vaccination, it should be clearly communicated that those undocumented workers will not be sanctioned or checked. Perhaps the safest procedure to include them is to legalize their residential status. Therefore, the Central Disaster Management Headquarters should ask the immigration office for collaboration on health measures.

5. No more window dressing administration making migrant workers the scapegoat

As recommended by the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, administrative orders of migrant workers focused screening are not only discriminatory, but neither based on an epidemiological investigation, nor consistent with the objective of preventing the mass infection. It is merely a showcase administration to make people believe that governments are doing something even if it is not effective and also to ascribe blame originally headed to the government to a social minority. There is no social guarantee that this will not happen again by using migrant workers as a scapegoat. Therefore, the Central Disaster Management Headquarters should declare principles of health measures based on human rights.

Categories: Statement