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Amnesty: MENA Governments Use COVID-19 as Excuse to Limit Human Rights
Kenyan women employed in Lebanon as domestic workers gather next to the Kenyan Consulate in Beirut on Aug. 20, 2020, as they demand to be repatriated back to their country. Foreign workers enter Lebanon under the controversial "kefala" system, which has been denounced by rights groups as enabling a wide range of abuses. (Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

Amnesty: MENA Governments Use COVID-19 as Excuse to Limit Human Rights

Meanwhile, at-risk populations, including refugees, fall further behind

Some governments exploited the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on dissent and in many places the gaps between rich and poor grew even wider, according to Amnesty International’s “The State of the World’s Human Rights” report for the year 2020, released on April 7.

Various states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) used COVID-19 to justify suppressing speech, the researchers found.

In five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – the government arrested people who criticized their national response to the novel coronavirus on social media.

In North Africa, leaders in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, under the guise of states of emergency, detained critics of their handling of the pandemic. The governments in these countries also prosecuted journalists and civic leaders for their less-than-glowing coverage of authorities’ responses.

Health care personnel who dared to sound the alarm over how the country was reacting to the virus found themselves subjected to criminal liability in Iran and Egypt.

The pandemic particularly hurt already at-risk populations in the MENA region.

“Across MENA, 2020 was a catastrophic year for prisoners, refugees, migrants and minorities who are already marginalized and due to COVID-19 have found their situation more precarious than ever. The pandemic has amplified divisions, discrimination and inequalities that already exist in the region,” Heba Morayef, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a press release. “It is crucial that governments in MENA ensure the health care they provide, including vaccines, is delivered without discrimination.”

Amnesty accuses Israel of such bias for not vaccinating Palestinians. Israel says that under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are responsible for their own health care services.

Elsewhere in the region in 2020, migrant workers, mostly from Asia and Africa, were subject to further exploitation from the kefala work sponsorship system. Found mostly in the GCC countries, the kefala system ties workers’ legal status in the country to their employment status.

According to Amnesty, many workers were fired, including thousands in Jordan, without cause and were not compensated or faced long delays in getting compensation for the labor they provided. This has been a common problem in the kefala system even before the pandemic.

Refugees in the region often lacked access to proper housing and health care, which made them more likely to catch the coronavirus, the researchers wrote.

Here are the latest COVID-19 numbers for the Middle East and North Africa as of 7:30 am Greenwich Mean Time (UTC±0) on Thursday.

CountryConfirmed CasesDeathsRecoveredActive Cases
Palestinian Territories259,1332,753226,09030,290
Saudi Arabia394,9526,719381,1897,044
United Arab Emirates476,0191,520460,84113,658


Steven Ganot contributed to this report.

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