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DemocracyWatch: Pandemic strands thousands at borders as temperatures soar

Restrictions on movement can kill.

30 July 2020
An Azerbaijani man stranded at the Russian border.
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The headlines here in the UK are full of grumbles about cancelled summer holidays. But across the world, restrictions on travel have been more disastrous still.

New research from the International Rescue Committee shows that COVID-19 is preventing people from fleeing violence, making routes even more dangerous for those who do flee, and pushing people to return home to unstable situations. 

Let’s pause for a moment to think of the thousand Uzbek migrants stranded at the Russian-Kazakh border as temperatures soar, or the 5,000 Congolese refugees stranded at the border with Uganda.

And it’s not just borders that are shut. As people under lockdown have turned to social media to vent their frustrations, governments across the world – including those of Turkey, Malaysia, Egypt and the US – have threatened major restrictions on free speech online.

Welcome to this fortnight’s DemocracyWatch, where openDemocracy and SourceMaterial gather together attacks on democracy, human rights and the environment around the pandemic-struck world.

Thank you for reading. The first stage in standing up against tyranny is mutual education. In that spirit, please do forward this email to a friend or two: the world that emerges from the pandemic will be a different one, it’s up to us to ensure it’s not a worse one.

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Step forward

The cost of preventing further pandemics over the next decade by protecting wildlife and forests would equate to just 2% of the estimated financial damage caused by COVID-19, according to a new analysis.

Step back

The pandemic could set back the fight against global poverty by between eight and ten years, according to a new United Nations-backed study. Researchers found that at least 131 million people could be pushed into non-monetary poverty across seventy countries unless predicted increases in hunger are prevented or swiftly reversed.

Asia 

Malaysia Everyone from of mainstream media producers to individuals posting personal videos will now have to apply for a film production licence and film shooting certificate from the National Film Development Corporation.

The requirement comes in the wake of the recent Al Jazeera documentary, ‘Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown’, which highlighted a crackdown on migrant workers. Soon after it was aired, Malaysian police launched an investigation into Al Jazeera and the journalists who produced the documentary.

Authorities have arrested Rayhan Kabir, a Bangladeshi man who criticised the country's treatment of undocumented migrants during the coronavirus pandemic in the documentary. He is to be deported.

Philippines Police have implemented new lockdown measures as cases continue to rise. The government has ordered police to accompany medics and transfer any infected patients to isolation facilities and encouraged citizens to report any infected neighbours in hiding.

China Chinese companies are producing personal protective equipment for both domestic and international consumers using the forced labour of Uighurs and other minority groups.

Sri Lanka On 13 July citizens began postal voting ahead of the 5 August general election, which was postponed from April. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been accused of asserting authoritarian tendencies with military support. The country has been without a parliament for nearly five months.

Indonesia As many shelters have closed due to coronavirus concerns, young people have had to fend for themselves. This has made life more dangerous for street children who are now even more at risk of sexual abuse.

Georgia In a vote boycotted by the opposition, Parliament extended its controversial emergency powers to the end of the year. Opposition politicians accused the ruling party of using coronavirus to "strengthen authoritarian rule".

Uzbekistan Doctors say they are being forced to write letters absolving their superiors if they are infected with COVID-19.

Uzbekistan Dozens are complaining that hospitals are coercing them to sign papers saying they spent up to 35 million soms (about $3400) on treatment, even for negative coronavirus tests. By one account, hospital workers threatened to cut up the corpse of an elderly woman who had died from COVID-19 if her relatives did not sign a claim that her treatment had cost such an amount. The demands are fuelling suspicion of a pandemic embezzlement scheme: already several doctors have been arrested for skimming money off hospital purchases since the start of the outbreak.

Uzbekistan About a thousand Uzbek migrants are stranded at the Russian-Kazakh border, living in the open air in stifling temperatures.

Kyrgyzstan: Police are investigating morgue employees for allegedly extorting money from victims' families to release bodies without autopsy.

Middle East and North Africa

Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia In an Interpol-coordinated operation, authorities seized thousands of counterfeit medical masks and drugs worth $14 million. 

Kuwait The government is considering a recent proposal on new quotas that would see roughly half of its two largest expatriate communities, 920,000 Indians and 520,000 Egyptians, ejected.

Pakistan A surveillance system built by military intelligence to combat terrorism has been converted into a contact-tracing platform, raising raises concerns among rights groups that the pandemic is being used as a pretext for monitoring citizens.

Egypt At least fourteen prisoners and detainees have probably died from COVID-19. Rights groups and the UN have repeatedly called on the government to improve conditions for prisoners.

Egypt The government has responded to a surge in popularity of the social media site TikTok during lockdown by arresting two prominent young female TikTok influencers.

Israel At least 34 people were arrested at a protest against an upcoming vote to grant the government sweeping authority to bypass Parliament in combatting the spread of the coronavirus. 

Israel and Palestine A dramatic deterioration in coordination between Israeli and Palestinian officials is hampering efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, as Israel threatens to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank and Israeli forces have demolished a quarantine centre in Hebron, sparking outrage.

Iraq At least two people were killed and many injured as police opened fire on protesters in Baghdad, where the pandemic and a heatwave have triggered a collapse in basic services. 

Africa

Nigeria Journalists are increasingly harassed and threatened by government security officers with at least five Nigerian journalists harassed, arrested and imprisoned for reporting during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Nigeria Police have been attacked and shot at while enforcing COVID-19 restrictions by arresting 150 people and impounding ten buses for violating interstate travel restriction.

Gambia Journalist Ebou Ndye Keita was detained for about six hours after photographing police arresting people protesting against the country’s COVID-19 restrictions. 

Zimbabwe Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested by state security on 20 July. He had recently published a report revealing COVID-19 procurement fraud within the health ministry which led to the sacking of the health minister. The arrest is allegedly part of a government crackdown on dissent before major protests against corruption planned for the end of the month.

Angola and Mozambique Several citizens have complained of extortion by police officers when they catch people breaching the country's rules on wearing a mask, with officers forcing them to pay in order not to be detained.

West and Central Africa Migration has dropped by nearly 50% in the region due to COVID-19 travel restrictions which have left 21,000 migrants stranded and 1,500 quarantined.

Democratic Republic of the Congo At least 5,000 Congolese refugees were stranded on the border with Uganda for a month without access to any humanitarian services.

Americas 

Argentina At least twelve people have been killed or ‘disappeared’ by security forces since the country’s COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, rights groups say.

US Two Chinese hackers have been charged with targeting vulnerabilities in the computer networks of US companies involved in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, testing technology and treatments.

US As coronavirus protections expire about 30 million could be at risk of evictions in the coming months unless legislators take action.

US Georgia’s Republican governor has sued Atlanta officials, seeking to block a mandate that would require residents to wear face masks in public. More than half US states have issued orders to wear masks in most public settings, but some officers resist enforcing the laws.

US The government has set aside rules on the treatment of immigrant children. Children as young as one are detained, sometimes for weeks at a time, in hotels before being deported. The policies have effectively shut down the country's asylum system during the pandemic.

US Hospitals have been instructed to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and send all patient information to a central database in Washington, raising questions about transparency. President Trump has suggested sending the National Guard to facilities that do not comply.

US The head of the World Health Organization has called "untrue and unacceptable" allegations by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reportedly said the health official had struck a deal with China that has influenced the body's decisions. The response comes after months of criticism of the UN health agency from the Trump administration.

Bolivia Police recovered more than 400 bodies found in the streets, vehicles and homes of some of the country's largest cities within five days, with 85% of victims believed to have died of coronavirus

Colombia Rights groups called on the government to do more to protect civilians from cartels killing those who don't obey their COVID-19 lockdowns after at least eight people were murdered

Colombia Medical workers called for total lockdowns to bring infections under control as a surge in coronavirus infections forced authorities to impose new restrictions in a number of cities.

Mexico New figures reflect the increase in violence against women during the pandemic, while the government is implementing austerity measures.

Brazil A group of civil society organisations has brought charges against the government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for violating access to information and transparency during the pandemic.

US-Mexico Over 20,000 asylum seekers are stuck in Mexico waiting for their hearings in US immigration courts, which have been postponed due to court closures.

US-Mexico and US-Canada 40,000 asylum-seekers have been “expelled” without due process at the US-Mexico border due to a public health rule implemented in mid-March.

The New York City Bar Association has called on the Trump administration to restore humanitarian and due process protections to asylum seekers at the borders.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala Complete border closures have locked people wanting to flee from violence in countries with some of the highest pre-existing rates of urban and gang violence in the world. 

Latin America During the pandemic, gender-based violence has increased exponentially, in some countries rising by more than 60%.

Europe

EU The European Union is not interested in buying potential COVID-19 vaccines through an initiative co-led by the World Health Organization as it deems it slow and high-cost.

Italy and Bangladesh A hospital owner and a member of Bangladesh’s ruling party has been accused of issuing thousands of fake negative COVID-19 test results in exchange for money. Some of the buyers then returned to Europe with the fraudulent certificates, only to be tested positive with the virus upon arrival in Rome. Bangladeshis living in Rome have reported stigmatisation.

UK The severe impact of COVID-19 on people from minority ethnic groups has been linked to air pollution and overcrowded and poor-standard homes. 

UK Almost three-quarters of mothers in the UK have had to reduce their working hours during the pandemic due to a lack of childcare. 

UK At the height of the pandemic, the government stripped children in care of a number of legal rights and protections, a charity has found.

Greece Analysis has shown that outlets perceived as ‘opposition’ media received disproportionately lower levels of government advertising revenue compared with more government-friendly media, despite the fact that many have higher circulation and readership. 

Turkey Following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement on 1 July that social media platforms “should be completely shut down, brought under control”, a bill drafted by the ruling Justice and Development Party proposing major restrictions on social media was introduced in Parliament

Climate and environment

Africa and Asia Poaching in Africa and Asia is reportedly on the rise because patrol boats and other surveillance equipment are unable to make their rounds during the pandemic.

China/Ecuador Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have been discovered near the Galápagos islands.

China According to new data, China’s provinces have approved more new coal-fired capacity so far this year than during all of 2018 and 2019 combined.

Poland and EU Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki watered down the climate conditions for EU funds during talks in Brussels. Morawiecki secured access to EU funds earmarked for greening the economy without having signed the climate neutrality target and after his government had announced a rescue operation for Poland’s ailing coal mining industry. 

Nigeria COVID-19 restrictions have hampered field operations of conservationists, who are turning to creative and high-tech solutions in response. They fear that a reduction in patrols and enforcement leaves biodiversity, already under pressure due to a vast wildlife trade, extremely vulnerable. A ban on interstate travel seems to have not stopped the flow of wildlife products between forests and cities.

Nigeria Oil production is at risk as numbers of coronavirus cases among workers at offshore oil fields and platforms rise. Shell was forced to evacuate workers at the offshore Bonga oil field due to an outbreak.

India Increasing amounts of biomedical waste on landfill sites due to the pandemic are a huge risk for those who work there.

Kenya The amount of medical waste filling the dumps is putting thousands of people working in the informal waste collection sector at risk.

Japan Coasts and waters have recently witnessed an apparent increase in the number of disposable masks, according to environmental activists.

Seychelles With its marine sanctuary largely funded by tourism, many guides have been left without an income and have turned to fishing.

US President Trump weakened the National Environmental Policy Act to speed up permits for freeways, power plants and pipelines. 

Good news

UK Climate activists have launched a legal challenge to take the government to court over its COVID-19 bailout package, urging it to face up to its responsibility to tackle climate change.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

Sign up to take part in a free live discussion on Thursday 13 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET

In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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