OPJ presents findings on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fundamental rights

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The Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra, through its Permanent Observatory forJustice (OPJ), has just released the results of another study on the promotion and protection of fundamental rights in Portugal, under the contract signed with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

The FRA's “Fundamental Rights Report 2021” [REFER HERE], whose Portuguese contribution was prepared by CES/OPJ, has a special focus on the analysis of the impacts of the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on fundamental rights, reporting on the worsening of the socio-economic vulnerabilities of the most affected social groups.

The CES/OPJ team, composed by Conceição Gomes (coord. ), Ana Cristina Santos, Carlos Nolasco, Carolina Carvalho, Fernando Fontes, Marina Henriques, Paula Fernando and Rui do Carmo developed the report on Portugal [REFER HERE], carrying out an analysis around two axes: the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the fundamental rights of some social groups subject to special vulnerabilities, namely the elderly, Gypsies and other ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, children and people with disabilities; and the public policies and measures implemented for the promotion and protection of those rights

With regard to the first axis, the indicators collected show that the COVID-19 pandemic of had a particularly negative impact on the fundamental rights of the following groups of citizens:

(a) Older people. Being the age group with the greatest vulnerability to the disease, they were especially affected by the pandemic. They recorded the highest number of deaths, especially of residents in nursing homes (more than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths by 2020) and suffered dramatically from the impact of confinement, which aggravated their processes of social isolation. The 12% increase in calls to the Ombudsperson's Elderly Hot-Line by September 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, is one of the symptoms of this worsening.

(b) Roma and people from other ethnic minorities. The number of complaints made to the Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination in 2020 for discriminatory practices, including complaints related to the pandemic context, considering racial and ethnic origin, colour, nationality, ancestry and territory of origin, increased by 50% compared to 2019.

(c) Children and young people victims of physical, psychological and emotional violence, neglect and abandonment. The pandemic increased the number of children exposed to these situations and the frequency with which they were exposed. The “Children in Danger” hot-line of the National Commission for the Promotion of the Rights and Protection of Children and Young People (CNPDPCJ), created during the pandemic, has received since May 2020 more than 1,000 reports and an additional 1,696 complaints registered through the form available online.

(d) Persons with disabilities, namely students. The imposition of confinement measures and the start of distance learning left most of these students without the necessary support, aggravating the context in which families remained the main caregivers.

Regarding the second axis, the following policies or measures stand out:

(a) Extending the situation of regular stay in the country of people with processes pending with the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF), thus seeking to mitigate the effects of the pandemic among immigrants.

(b) Right of access of immigrants and refugees to the National Health Service (SNS), with equal rights and duties as national citizens. The Health Regulatory Authority, following some complaints from foreigners due to difficulties in access to health care, issued a supervision alert to reinforce this right.

(c) Support for children and young students. Among the measures to minimise the impact of the pandemic on children, it is worth highlighting the provision of meals by schools to students who benefit from social support during the distance learning period. On the other hand, several public and private entities campaigned to deliver computers and tablets to students who needed this support, to reduce unequal access to information technologies.

The report also highlights some developments that have occurred regarding the promotion and protection of fundamental rights not exclusively related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in 2020, although there were no setbacks in terms of political-legal developments regarding equality and antidiscrimination of LGBTQI+ persons in Portugal, the advances registered in issues in the field of education, health and care provision were not significant, which raises concerns as the current social context remains hostile to sexual and gender diversity, with reported incidents linking right-wing extremism to homophobic and transphobic hate crimes.

The integration of CES/OPJ within FRANET, the FRA's multidisciplinary research network, for the period between 2019 and 2022, has assumed enormous relevance in systematic research on matters related to the promotion and protection of fundamental rights in Portugal. This participation has been a permanent stimulus to the systematization and analysis of data on the main challenges faced by the European Union, particularly in Portugal, in terms of fundamental rights, contributing to the Agency's comparative analyses published in its reports.