Shantha Rau Barriga is director of the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch. She leads research and advocacy on human rights abuses against persons with disabilities worldwide including: the shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities, denial of education for children with disabilities, violence against women and girls with disabilities, institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, and the neglect of people with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies. She has worked on projects on Central African Republic, China, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Russia, Serbia, Uganda, the United States, Yemen and Zambia.  

Shantha was a member of the UNICEF Advisory Board for the 2013 State of the World’s Children report and is a founding member of the International Network of Women with Disabilities. 

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Shantha participated in the UN negotiations toward the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Shantha received degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the University of Michigan, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Austria. She speaks German and Kannada.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report on migration and education. Human Rights Watch has conducted research on children’s rights, including the right to education of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and migrants, for over two decades.

 SEPTEMBER 2014. Syrian Kurdish refugees look out from the back of a truck as they enter Turkey from the town of Kobane 
(Ayn al-Arab), Syria, and surrounding villages. 

© 2014 Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

This submission includes an overview of the international legal framework protecting the right to education, factors contributing to children’s involuntary migration, and systemic barriers affecting education in host countries, as well as our recommendations. Examples included in this submission are based on Human Rights Watch’s interviews with children who find themselves in various countries, including Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nauru, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden, and Turkey.

Children are often forced to move either internally or across international borders because of armed conflict, natural hazards, persecution, and violence. Our research has found that denial of education, often in violent settings, and systemic barriers to education can lead children to leave their home country. Moving involuntarily to a new country can have a devastating impact on the right to education for refugee, asylum-seeking, and migrant children (hereinafter collectively described as “involuntary migrant” children as per GEM terminology), particularly when host governments fail to take adequate measures to guarantee these children a right to access education on an equal basis with citizens of the host country.

Once in a new community or country, involuntary migrant and displaced children do not automatically have access to education. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 50 percent of primary school-age refugee children and 75 percent of secondary school-age refugees are out of school. The refugee agency also estimates that girls and women make up 70 percent of the world’s internally displaced population and are most likely to be out of school.

In many cases, governments adhere to policies and regulations that directly or indirectly prevent involuntary migrant and displaced children from going to school. Problematic policies include those that mandate school fees only for non-nationals, or require refugees to obtain government-issued documentation or legal status but in effect prevent many from doing so, as well as those that bar non-nationals from working. The effect of these policies leaves many children unable to register in school and many impoverished refugees unable to work lawfully. In many cases documented by Human Rights Watch, children often turn to exploitative and harmful forms of child labor to support their families. Many girls are married off before they reach age 18 after facing barriers to go to school.

Other factors also undermine the right to education of millions of involuntary migrant and displaced children around the world. These include: the lack or limited availability of education services in official and unofficial refugee camps; the limited availability of free secondary education and vocational training in host countries; and the lack of inclusive education and accessible services for children with disabilities. Within schools, involuntary migrant children, who often must adjust to school in a different language, and confront stigma and discrimination, will also feel the impact of existing barriers and harmful practices in host schools, including: oversized classes; a lack of adequate classrooms and trained teachers; widespread corporal punishment; and bullying and harassment on the way to school and in the classroom.

Some countries automatically detain children for immigration purposes, denying them their right to education, as well as other fundamental rights. In Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia, voluntary and involuntary migrant children, both accompanied and unaccompanied, are often arbitrarily detained in unhygienic detention facilities without access to any formal education and are generally not allowed to leave the facilities to attend school. Even for children who avoid detention, the threat of immigration detention or deportations may lead families to avoid registering their children in the official school system. 

The overall result of governments’ policies and practices, discrimination, and other systemic barriers is that millions of involuntary migrant children are being deprived of their right to education, which is essential for their future and for the development of their host countries and countries of origin. Removing obstacles to education is critical for children to recover from conflict, persecution, and other factors forcing their movement; and to realize their rights to and through education.

Legal framework

All children have the right to education, free from discrimination of any kind.[1] At the primary level, education should be compulsory and available free to all.[2] Secondary education and vocational training should be made generally available and accessible to every child.[3]

The UN Refugee Convention provides that governments hosting refugees must accord them the same treatment accorded to nationals with respect to primary education.[4] The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments adopt appropriate efforts to cater to the special needs of asylum-seeking and refugee children.[5] The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to ensure equal access to basic services such as education including in emergency situations, such as armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies, and the occurrence of natural disasters,[6] and failure to do so is a form of discrimination.[7] Refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls should be assured the right to education without discrimination.[8]

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has “confirm[ed] that the principle of non-discrimination extends to all persons of school age residing in the territory of a State party, including non-nationals, and irrespective of their legal status.”[9] The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also recommends that states “[r]emove obstacles that prevent the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by non-citizens, notably in the area of education” and “[e]nsure that public educational institutions are open to non-citizens and children of undocumented immigrants residing in the territory of a state party.”[10] According to the Committee of the Rights of the Child, separated and unaccompanied children should have access to education during all phases of the displacement,[11] including any time they spend in detention.[12]

Deprivation of the right to education or other economic, social, and cultural rights may also give rise to an asylum claim.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that, “Children’s socio-economic needs are often more compelling than those of adults, particularly due to their dependency on adults and unique developmental needs. Deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, thus, may be as relevant to the assessment of a child’s claim as that of civil and political rights.”[13]

Displaced children, as citizens of their countries, have a right to education and training in their new communities. The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement recommend that “authorities concerned shall ensure that such persons, in particular displaced children, receive education which shall be free and compulsory at the primary level. Education should respect their cultural identity, language and religion.”[14] Moreover, special efforts should be made to ensure the full and equal participation of women and girls in educational programs.[15]

The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families guarantees the basic right of access to education for children of migrant workers on an equal basis with nationals of the states concerned. Migrant workers should also have equal access to educational institutions and services, and vocational guidance and training.[16]

Widespread Violence and Conflict as Push Factors

Human Rights Watch interviews with asylum seekers and migrants in many contexts found that children are fleeing abuses, including recruitment as soldiers, child marriage, and attacks on schools or other effects of armed conflict.

Refugee and migrant children and parents from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who fled to Mexico told Human Rights Watch that children are at risk of recruitment and other abuses by gangs as they walked to and from school. “To get to school, we had to pass by the place where the gang members were,” said Carlos G., who left San Salvador in 2011, when he was 17.[17] As a result, some children stopped attending classes in order to avoid the gangs as they went to and from school, and some left their countries to live and pursue their education elsewhere. Many of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed in 2015 said that they were pressured to join gangs, often under threat of harm or death to themselves or to family members. Girls face particular risk of sexual violence and assault by gang members. Other children gave accounts of being held for ransom or targeted for extortion.[18]

In Greece, Afghan children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2015 had fled Iran, where they first sought asylum, because of police abuse and lack of access to education, and many had been barred from school or were unable to afford fees and had become trapped in exploitative labor situations.[19]

Attacks on schools or other conflict-related barriers to education also cause children and their families to flee. Tarek, a 16-year-old Afghan who fled the fighting in Helmand Province in 2014, and who was seeking asylum in Greece, told Human Rights Watch in 2015:

There are schools, but not so many students because people are afraid to send their children because of the Taliban. One school is only open one day a week. Children do not go. The Taliban doesn’t allow children to go to school. If families let children go, the Taliban will kill them because in the future they may work for foreigners.[20]

Attacks on students and teachers, fear of recruitment, and violence have caused some refugee families to flee again after they tried to go home.[21] In August 2016, Human Rights Watch spoke to Ruun, a 36-year-old Somali mother of nine children, after she had returned to Dadaab camp, Kenya. She said she returned because she was worried her 14-year-old son would be recruited as a fighter if she remained in Somalia, and she couldn’t afford to take her children to school. “I came back here to be safe and secure and for my children to go to school,” she said.[22]

Systemic Barriers: School Fees, Indirect Costs, and Enrollment Restrictions

In most host countries, primary education is tuition-free and compulsory, and secondary education is usually free and available.[23] However, school fees, other school-related costs, administrative barriers, and the lack of enforcement of compulsory education for non-nationals, prevent children from accessing education.

Human Rights Watch has documented barriers to education facing Syrian refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.[24] An inability to pay for transportation and education materials often prevents Syrian refugee children from attending school. Syrian families’ poverty has also contributed to an increase in child marriage among Syrian girls, who then often drop out of school.[25]

In Lebanon, we found that irregularities in the implementation of policies prevented the enrollment of many Syrian children. In many cases, school directors continued to require Syrian families to provide proof of legal residency, UN registration papers, health documents, and local attestation of residency to enroll, in contravention of Lebanon’s enrollment policy.[26] Lebanese authorities has allowed Syrian children to enroll in public schools and waived school enrollment fees. They also announced plans to open up afternoon “second shift” classes in 330 public schools.[27]

In Jordan, school officials have required Syrian children to produce official Syrian school certificates, which many families left behind when they fled, in order to enroll in secondary school, or at the grade level of their age group in primary school.[28] Jordanian authorities have not permitted most Syrians who left the country’s refugee camps after July 2014 to register their non-camp residence with UNHCR, receive humanitarian support, or obtain government-issued identification cards.[29] These cards had been required to enroll in public school, but Jordan’s education minister instructed public schools to allow Syrian children to enroll in the 2016-2017 school year. Jordan also doubled the number of schools operating “double shifts” to create spaces for up to 50,000 more Syrian students, and established a “catch-up” program to reach another 25,000 children ages 8 to 12, who have been out of school for three or more years.[30] Despite these positive steps, Jordan did not meet its enrollment targets: the education ministry implemented an improved enrollment monitoring system, which found that previous estimates had overstated enrollment.[31]

Similarly, Turkey issued a temporary protection regulation in October 2014 that ensured Syrians could remain lawfully in Turkey without official residency permits. Under its temporary protection regime, it has allowed Syrian children to attend public schools free of charge and accredited independent schools that teach a modified Syrian curriculum in Arabic—called “temporary education centers.” In addition, the government has provided avenues for qualified Syrian teachers to be compensated for their work in those centers, developed programs to offer language assistance, teacher training, and better oversight to ensure that schools across the country comply with their directives.[32]

Despite measures to expand enrollment, all three host countries enforce tough labor and immigration restrictions. Economic hardship particularly affects Syrian refugee children’s access to education in the host countries. Families in which the parents cannot work or do not earn a living wage are more likely to depend on child labor to survive, which means children miss school to work, often in hazardous conditions. Children turning 15 in Lebanon face particular challenges in maintaining legal residency because many do not possess the required passport or individual identification card, and are therefore at heightened risk of arrest while travelling to school. Syrians in Jordan who are caught working without work permits, which very few have, have been liable to arrest and transfer to a refugee camp. Thus, a large percentage of Syrian families in host communities depend on their children to work, as children are seen as at less risk of arrest. The government has established and extended grace periods in 2016 during which authorities refrained from arresting Syrians in order to allow them to apply for work permits; nearly 40,000 have been issued. However, Syrian children are still dissuaded from pursuing an education, since schooling will not help them in the only available job market for low-paid, unskilled labor.[33]

In January 2016, Turkey published a regulation that will allow Syrians with temporary protection status to apply for work permits six months after they receive temporary protection status.[34] Enabling Syrians to support themselves should have significant benefits for refugee children’s access to education, since child labor is a major cause of drop-outs and non-enrollment. However, by the end of 2016, only 13,298 permits had been issued to Syrian refugees in Turkey, which hosts 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees.[35]

In Pakistan, limited access to education for refugee children is one factor causing Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Pakistan to return to Afghanistan, according to research conducted by Human Rights Watch in October and November 2016. Many Afghan refugee and asylum seekers in Pakistan cited the closure of Afghan refugee schools and exclusion of Afghan refugee children from Pakistani government schools as one of the key reasons they felt compelled to leave Pakistan. About half of the Afghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that from May 2016, their children had been excluded from Pakistani state schools or the authorities had shut down Afghan refugee schools.[36] Upon return, many Afghan children face significant administrative barriers to accessing education. Schools often request identification and transfer documentation, and many school officials apply arbitrary ages of enrollment in primary school. These barriers can be particularly harmful for girls, as discriminatory gender roles may mean that girls are more likely to lack identification, and to seek to enroll late and thus be affected by age restrictions and restrictions when enrolling mid-year. When families face difficulty obtaining the documentation necessary for a child to register or transfer, they may be less likely to go to great efforts to secure these documents for girls.[37]

In Iran, Human Rights Watch also found that a sizeable portion of unregistered Afghans are deprived of education as a result of Iranian policies. Afghan refugees in Iran have to pay school fees and show residency documents to be admitted to school, even though Iranian nationals are not subjected to the same conditions.[38] In 2004, for example, the Iranian government promulgated regulations that introduced mandatory education fees for all Afghan children.[39] Authorities consider these fees nominal but some Afghans say they are onerous.[40] According to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2012 tuition fees for primary, junior high, and high school were raised as a consequence of the removal of subsidies, affecting both Iranian nationals and refugees.[41] Afghans without legal status or valid refugee documents face many difficulties in obtaining education for their children, with many children going uneducated or attending underground schools as a result.[42] In 2015, Iran reportedly allowed all Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling reaffirming the need for universal education.[43] However, some reports indicate that only 10 percent of Afghan children who were left out of school were able to enroll in schools.[44]

Ahmad, a 16-year-old Afghan who was raised in Iran, said:

I went to school, but my parents had to pay for me and my brother and sister because we were not Iranian. Iranian children do not have to pay. Two or three times I did well enough in exams to qualify for a special education program, but could not go, because I was Afghan. Refugees are also not allowed to study in university in Iran, so I decided for my future to go somewhere else. I didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan. Every day we heard about suicide bombings and someone or some group of people losing their life, even in Kabul. Every day there is a bomb blast. If I went back there, I imagine a dark future. I just want to have a chance to continue my education, nothing more.[45]

In Sweden, more than 35,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in 2015. Unaccompanied children are not detained in Sweden and are entitled by law to equal access to education.[46] However, the arrival of tens of thousands of children in 2015 has put a strain on this system, which has affected their right to education. Human Rights Watch found that delays in appointing guardians impacted children’s access to education, information, and support. No national agency has the responsibility to track guardianship appointments, living arrangements, school enrollment, health screenings, or assessments by social workers.[47] Four children reported that they were prevented from enrolling in school because they did not have a guardian.[48] Local officials told Human Rights Watch that, as the rate of arrivals increased and the delay in appointment of guardians began to significantly affect enrollment, informal arrangements were made with local school authorities so that staff from group homes could enroll children.[49]

Lack of Quality and Inclusive Education

Human Rights Watch found that language barriers, a lack of educational materials, such as textbooks, and inattentive or inadequately trained teachers have caused Syrian refugee children to drop out of school in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Lack of access to private, clean sanitation facilities at schools has also affected girls’ ability to manage their hygiene during menstruation and affect school attendance.[50] 

Lebanon’s public school system struggled before the ongoing refugee crisis, when only 30 percent of Lebanese students attended public schools, which suffer high rates of grade repetition and dropouts.[51] This problem is exacerbated for Syrian children enrolled in newly opened second shift classes, which are run in the afternoon to accommodate additional students. Under the ministry’s operating procedures, second shift teachers are drawn from the first shift, and new teachers are only hired if there are an insufficient number of teachers or qualified staff available from the first shift.[52] This leaves many teachers tired and overworked, reducing the quality of both shifts. Underqualified teachers and double shifts also affected quality of education in Jordan.[53]

Human Rights Watch documented that children with disabilities in Jordan and Lebanon have been largely excluded from efforts to provide Syrian children access to education.  Lebanese public schools are not inclusive, and many children with disabilities in Lebanon are unable to access quality education, despite a law that guarantees access to education for children with disabilities.[54] Syrians are not eligible for government funding that allows Lebanese children with disabilities to access institutions. Human Rights Watch found that public schools were turning away Syrian children on the basis of their disabilities. In Lebanon, a dozen humanitarian and disabilities organizations told Human Rights Watch that little or nothing had been done to ensure that children with disabilities could enroll in schools. Where Syrian children with disabilities in Jordan and Lebanon were able to enroll in schools, schools did not adequately accommodate the needs of children with disabilities to ensure they receive quality education on an equal basis with other children. This meant some Syrian refugee children with disabilities remain at home.[55] 

In Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Human Rights Watch found that widespread corporal punishment of children by teachers, school administrators, and bus drivers; violence, bullying, discrimination, and harassment on the way to school and in the classroom have caused Syrian refugee children to drop out of school in these three countries.[56] Girls are also particularly affected. Parents are more likely to keep older girls home due to safety concerns and fears of harassment.[57] Discrimination in school can also affect children’s ability to learn or motivation to attend. Halima, 30, who now lives in Beirut, told Human Rights Watch:

My kids hate school, they don’t want to go. The monitor stands on their feet and pulls their hair. There is no respect for the student or the parent. [Teachers] insult the kids in class, calling them cow or donkey. The way that Syrian children are treated differently makes them close their minds.[58]


In Nauru, where some 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers have been sent for “regional processing” by Australia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that, in part due to bullying and harassment, many asylum seeker and refugee children have stopped attending school.[59] Save the Children Australia estimates that 85 percent of refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru are not enrolled in school.[60] A school in the regional processing center closed in mid-2015 and refugee and asylum-seeking children attend local schools.[61] Harassment and violence against refugee and asylum-seeking children in local schools appeared to be prevalent. Parents and children reported that they are regularly called names, shoved, hit, have things thrown at them, and subjected to other forms of bullying and sexualized forms of harassment while at school.[62] Children reported being ignored when they complain of bullying and harassment to their teachers. Similarly, a July 2016 evaluation by Save the Children Australia found that refugee and asylum-seeking children, particularly girls, were subjected to physical violence by Nauruan students.[63]

Limited Access to Education in Refugee and Displacement Camps

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the situation of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children in northern France, living in the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais. The only form of education available in the camp was provided by nongovernmental organizations or volunteers in the camp. When the camp in Calais was closed by the French government in late October 2016, children were taken to temporary reception centers across France. Between December 5 and 16, Human Rights Watch interviewed 41 unaccompanied migrant children from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan and staff in six reception centers. Human Rights Watch found that children had access to limited informal educational and recreational activities in the reception centers.[64]

Like with all children, displacement and migration causes great disruption for children and young people with disabilities including their ability to attend school and receive an education. Unfortunately, while many efforts to support displaced and migrant children include providing them with access to education, Human Rights Watch research suggests that humanitarian needs analysis are most often not inclusive and do not factor in the specific needs of children and young people with disabilities, thereby affecting humanitarian aid allocations for inclusive education programs in camp and non-camp settings, impacting on children’s right to inclusive education.[65] In 2015, Human Rights Watch found that very few children with disabilities were enrolled in schools in camps like the M’Poko camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bangui, Central African Republic.[66] Of the nearly 3,800 children enrolled at the school in M’Poko, only 14 had disabilities. While the school itself was wheelchair-accessible, the route to the school was not. Children with physical disabilities needed a family member to drop them to school and pick them up, and they needed an assistive device. Without an assistive device, such as a wheelchair, children with physical disabilities can find it hard to sit all day on the floor.[67] School staff told Human Rights Watch that some parents were hesitant to send children with physical disabilities to school as they fear that their children will not be able to flee in case of an attack. Children with sensory or intellectual disabilities are unable to attend because the school does not have teachers trained in inclusive methods. The school staff has not actively sought to enroll children with disabilities.[68] The M’Poko camp has since been closed but Human Rights Watch research has not found evidence of children with disabilities getting access to inclusive education in camps for internally displaced people in other parts of the country.

In Greece, Human Rights Watch research conducted in 2017 found that children with disabilities who are refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are not properly identified and do not enjoy equal access to services, including access to education, in Greek reception centers. One of the people working in Souda camp in Chios, which held 1,150 people when Human Rights Watch visited, said that the lack of access to education affects the mental well-being of migrants and asylum seekers.[69]

Across northern Nigeria, where many have become displaced because of Boko Haram attacks on schools and other targets, Human Rights Watch found that many children have limited schooling in displacement camps or in private homes and communities where they are hosted by friends, families, and others. For about 10 percent of displaced children, who are living in camps, there is some access to primary and secondary education, though it is far from adequate. In such camps, schools consist of children grouped according to their age in large rooms or underneath trees for three to four hours of lessons per day, in most cases three times a week. School materials such as paper and pencils are provided in UNICEF-supplied bags, but there are no textbooks for the children, or other teaching aids for teachers.  The education programs in camps utilize public school teachers from the same areas as the children they teach.[70]

For parents, the poor quality of teaching at the camp learning spaces evokes nostalgia for what they left behind in their violence-ravished communities. A father of nine children said:

There is no school here. What we have is rubbish. The children go for some hours and come back. They are not learning anything. No books. Only writing paper. It is not worth keeping my children here [in Maiduguri]. When I have chance we will go back to our village.[71]

Denial of Education Through Immigration Detention

International standards provide that the detention of any asylum seeker, whether a child or an adult, should normally be avoided. In countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Thailand, migrant children are detained in immigration centers, where they often have limited to no access to education.[72]

Human Rights Watch found that Thailand’s immigration laws permit the indefinite detention of all refugees, including Rohingya and members of other ethnic groups from Burma, ethnic Uighurs from China, Pakistanis, and Somalis. Migrant children are held in squalid cells without adequate food or opportunity to exercise or receive an education.[73] 

In 2015, Human Rights Watch research into the situation of refugee and migrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Mexico found that children in detention appeared to be deprived of their right to education. Human Rights Watch heard of no instance in which children had access to regular, appropriate grade-level education in immigration detention centers and National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) shelters, regardless of the length of time they are held. At most, children may take part in activities, run on an ad hoc basis, that have a limited educational component, such as craft sessions and religious discussions.[74]

In mid-2016, Human Rights Watch investigated the situation of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children in detention in Greece, where children are often detained in so-called protective custody. Human Rights Watch found that unaccompanied children were routinely and arbitrarily detained in small, overcrowded, and unhygienic cells for prolonged periods, with little access to basic care and services. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the unaccompanied children had access to educational opportunities or recreational activities.[75] Some children only had access to educational activities in safe spaces set up by UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations in refugee camps, where on-site staff and volunteers provided support specifically to unaccompanied children.[76]


Governments should:

  • Ensure, under law and in policy and practice, every child’s right to free and compulsory primary education, and ensure secondary education and vocational training is made generally accessible and available to all.
  • Revoke any laws or policies that discriminate against children of foreign nationality and deny them the right to education.
  • Delink immigration-related requirements from enrollment criteria, including residence permits or school fees that are not regularly applicable to nationals of their countries, particularly where such requirements effectively serve to isolate or discriminate against refugee and asylum-seeking children.
  • Ensure that enrollment and education policies are properly implemented at all levels to ensure that all children can access quality education on an equal and inclusive basis, and monitor compliance at the local level.
  • Ensure non-nationals have access to quality language support programs in primary and secondary schools, and vocational centers.
  • Ensure the provision of education in crises and displacement, and adopt special measures to ensure children can continue to go to school in highly insecure areas, including by reducing the distance to school, offering distance learning programs, and setting up protective spaces for girls and teachers.
  • With humanitarian and development agencies:
    • Ensure that internally displaced, asylum-seeking and refugee children and youth are included in national education plans, and collect better data to monitor their situation.
    • Ensure children with disabilities are included in all education efforts. When implementing education programs in the context of migration, organizations and governments should ensure there is no inadvertent discrimination against children with disabilities. An inclusive education program should provide all students with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences, including accessible classrooms, education materials, and teachers trained to adapt to different learning abilities and styles.  
  • Curtail detention of children for immigration purposes. In the exceptional cases where children are detained they should receive services and care appropriate to their age, including access to compulsory education. Governments should provide access to educational activities designed to provide a measure of continuity and give children the opportunity to reenter the formal education system at a later date. For those children who are in detention settings for longer periods—including applicants for refugee recognition, who may spend months in detention—governments should ensure that they receive access to educational programs that cover at least the curriculum of compulsory education at the primary level, and preferably also at the secondary level.


Humanitarian and bilateral donors, and agencies providing international support should:

  • Provide resources and technical cooperation to assist in the continuity of education in planning for emergencies and early recovery.
  • Target support to governments struggling to meet the education needs of internally displaced and refugee children, particularly in remote areas. All programs should be inclusive of children with disabilities.

[1]  Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), arts. 2, 28. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), arts. 2, 13; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), arts. 1-4.

[2] CRC, art. 28(1)(a); ICESCR, art. 13(2)(a).

[3] CRC, art. 2, 28(1), (b), (d); ICESCR, art. 13(2)(b).

[4] Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, entered into force April 22, 1954, art. 22.

[5] CRC, art 22(1).

[6] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted December 13, 2006, G.A. Res 61/106, U.N. Doc A/RES/61/106, entered into force May 3, 2008, art. 11.

[7] CRPD, arts. 3(b), 4.

[8] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation No. 32 on the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women, CEDAW/C/GC/32, 2014, (accessed May 9, 2017).

[9] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 13: The right to education (article 13) (1999), E/C.12/1999/10, (accessed May 17, 2017), para. 34.

[10] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, General Recommendation No. 30: Discrimination against Non-Citizens,

, CERD/C/Misc.11/rev.3 (2004), paras. 29-30. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issues authoritative guidance on the binding content of the obligations set forth in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted December 21, 1965, 660 U.N.T.S. 195 (entered into force January 4, 1969).

[11] “Every unaccompanied and separated child, irrespective of status, shall have full access to education in the country that they have entered in line with articles 28, 29(1)(c), 30 and 32 of the Convention and the general principles developed by the Committee.” Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6, “Treatment of unaccompanied and separated children

outside their country of origin,” CRC/GC/2005/6 (2005), 9accessed May 9, 2017), para. 41.

[12] See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Detention Guidelines, para. 56 (“During detention, children have a right to education which should optimally take place outside the detention premises in order to facilitate the continuation of their education upon release.”); Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6, para. 63.

[13] UNHCR, Guidelines on Child Asylum Claims, para. 14. See also Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 11: Plans of Action for Primary Education, UN Doc. E/1992/23 (May 10, 1999), (accessed May 17, 2017) para. 4 (“The lack of educational opportunities for children often reinforces their subjection to various other human rights violations.”).

[14] UN Economic and Social Council, UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 11 February 1998, E/Cn.4/1998/53/Add.2, (accessed May 23, 2016), principle 23 (1) and (2).

[15] Ibid., principle 23 (3).

[16] Convention on the protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families, adopted December 18, 1990, G.A. Res 45/158, U.N. Doc A/RES/45/158, entered into force July 1, 2003, arts. 30, 43, and 45.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Carlos G., México, DF, April 30, 2015.

[18] Human Rights Watch, Closed Doors, Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children, March 2016,

[19] “EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 22, 2015,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon, July 2016,; They Set the Classrooms on Fire” Attacks on Education in Northeast Nigeria, April 2016, Studying Under Fire, Attacks on Schools, Military Use of Schools During the Armed Conflict in Eastern Ukraine, February 2016,

[22] “Kenya: Involuntary Refugee Returns to Somalia, Camp Closure Threat Triggers Thousands Returning to Danger,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 14, 2016, For context on attacks against education in Somalia, see Human Rights Watch, No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia, February 2012,

[23] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey, November 2015,; Seeking Refuge, Unaccompanied Children in Sweden, June 2016,; “Growing Up Without An Education” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon, July 2016,; “We’re Afraid for Their Future” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan, August 2016,; Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees, February 2017,

[24] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children,” undated,

[25] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[26] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education.”

[27] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do,” September 2016,; UNHCR, “Lebanon: Inter-Agency Update, August-September 2016,” October 19, 2016, (accessed May 11, 2017).

[28] Human Rights Watch, “We’re Afraid For Their Future.”

[29] In November 2015, Jordan relaxed requirements for Syrians in host communities to comply with requirements to verify their residences, and reduced costs for them to obtain required health tests.

[30] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do.”

[31] “Remove Barriers to Syrian Refugee Education,” Human Rights Watch press release, April 5, 2017,

[32] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do.”

[33] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education”; “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[34] “Karar Sayısı: 2016/8375,” (accessed January 27, 2016).

[35] “Turkey issues work permits to over 73,500 foreigners,” Andalou Agency, January 18, 2017,

[36] Human Rights Watch, Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity.

[37] Based on Human Rights Watch’s research on barriers to girls’ education in Afghanistan, conducted in 2016.

[38] Human Rights Watch, Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights, November 2013,

[39] Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, “Second-generation Afghans in Iran: Integration, Identity and Return,”April 2008, (accessed September 4, 2012).

[40] Frances Harrison, “Iran’s Afghan refugees feel pressure to leave,” BBC, November 1, 2004, (accessed December 9, 2015).

[41] UNHCR, “Update on the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees,” September 2012, (accessed December 9, 2015).

[42] Human Rights Watch, Unwelcome Guests.

[43] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2016 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2016), Iran,

[44] “Few Afghan Kids Enroll in Iran Schools,” Financial Tribunal, December 1, 2015, (accessed April 4, 2016).

[45] “EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 22, 2015,

[46] Swedish Education Act, 2010:800, sec. 8; Discrimination Act, 2008:567, sec 1.

[47] Human Rights Watch, Seeking Refuge, Unaccompanied Children in Sweden.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Isah G., Gothenburg, February 2, 2016.

[49] Human Rights Watch interviews with Kristin Lindberg, Nordmaling, HVB Operations, January 31, 2016, and Mats Omgren and Victoria Sundling, January 29, 2016.

[50] Human Rights Watch, When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[51] Ministry of Education and Higher Education, “Reaching all Children with Education in Lebanon,” June 2014, (accessed March 28, 2016), p. 7

[52] Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Decree no. 719/M/2015 Public Schools Afternoon Shift Schedule – Executive procedures for teaching non-Lebanese children 2015/2016, art. 9.

[53] Human Rights Watch, Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[54] Bassam Khawaja (Human Rights Watch), “War is No Excuse for Depriving Children with Disabilities of an Education”, May 16, 2016,

[55] Human Rights Watch, Growing Up Without An Education”; “We Are Afraid For Our Future;” Based on research to be published in an upcoming report.

[56] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children,” undated,

[57] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I see Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Halima, Beirut, November 25, 2015.

[59] Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, “Australia: Appalling Abuse, Neglect of Refugees on Nauru,” August 2016,

[60] See Nicole Hasham, “‘You Are Terrorists, You Make Bombs’: Racist Taunts Help Keep Nauru Refugee Kids Out of School,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2016, (accessed November 2, 2016)

[61] Ben Doherty, “School in Nauru detention centre to be closed,” The Guardian, March 30, 2015, (accessed May 3, 2017).

[63] See Hasham, “‘You Are Terrorists, You Make Bombs.’”

[64] “France/UK: Lone Children From Calais Left in Limbo, Ensure Fair, Transparent Process for UK Entry,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 21, 2016,

[65] Human Rights Watch, The Education Deficit: Failures to Protect and Fulfill the Right to Education in Global Development Agendas, June 2016,

[66] “Central African Republic: People With Disabilities Left Behind, Aid Agencies Should Include Them in Planning; Meet Basic Needs,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 28, 2015,

[67] Human Rights Watch, “Leave No One Behind,” pp. 19-20.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Greece: Refugees with Disabilities Overlooked, Underserved, Identify People with Disabilities; Ensure Access to Services, Human Rights Watch news release, January 18, 2017,

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with National Emergency Management Agency staff [name withheld], Maiduguri, September 10, 2015.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with a parent [name withheld], Maiduguri, Nigeria, September 10, 2015.

[72] See Alice Farmer (Human Rights Watch), “The Impact of Immigration Detention on Children,” Forced Migration Review, 2013,; Michael Garcia Bochenek, “Children Behind Bars, The Global Overuse of Detention of Children,” Human Rights Watch World Report (January 2017),

[73] Michael Garcia Bochenek, “Children Behind Bars, The Global Overuse of Detention of Children.”

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with DIF staff, Tapachula, Chiapas, October 23, 2015.

[75] Human Rights Watch, “Why Are You Keeping Me Here?” Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece, September 2016,

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Kaiman T., safe space for unaccompanied children, Diavata refugee camp, Thessaloniki, June 28, 2016.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Drugged, naked, left covered in feces and locked in a seclusion room for more than five hours without food or water. Repeatedly falling and hurting yourself in a dark cell while your distress and cries for help are ignored.

Miriam Merten shown on CCTV footage from a government hospital in New South Wales, Australia, 2014.

© Supplied

Nobody should be treated this way. But this is how Miriam Merten spent her final hours in the mental health unit of a government hospital in New South Wales, Australia, in 2014. 

Disturbing CCTV footage released by her daughter last week shows the 46-year-old Merten fell over 20 times in her cell, but no nurse came to her aid. When the cell door is finally opened the next morning, a disheveled Merten, covered in blood and feces, staggers through the corridors naked. Minutes later, Merten collapses to the floor and dies the next day of brain injuries.

The abuse came to light during an inquest. Until recently, Merten’s daughter did not even know the real cause of her mother’s death and found out purely by chance from a journalist. This raises the question, how many other Miriam Mertens are suffering in silence?

While many Australians were shocked by the footage, the use of isolation rooms remains common in the mental health system of Australia and other countries.

Isolation cells are used in psychiatric hospitals and prisons where people with psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, are so grossly overrepresented that these institutions act as de facto mental health facilities. Our research in prisons in Western Australia and Queensland found that people with psychosocial disabilities or at risk of self-harm were often locked up in specially designed isolation cells with little or no furniture, were forced to wear a tear-proof hospital gown, and were kept under surveillance with limited human contact and limited or no access to any leisure activities. They are kept in these cells anywhere from a few hours to weeks. While the intent may be to keep the person safe, isolation rooms often make a person’s mental state even worse. Instead of a last resort, isolation rooms were commonly used in at least half of the psychiatric hospitals and prisons visited by Human Rights Watch in Australia.

An independent review has been ordered into Merten’s death, which would look into all aspects of the state’s mental health system, including the use of seclusion rooms.

But that’s not enough. The Australian government should ensure independent and regular monitoring of mental health settings, including in prisons. It should order an independent and impartial investigation of restrictive practices used in the mental health system. Let’s hope Miriam Merten’s needless death can be the catalyst for needed change.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

More than 600,000 children with disabilities are out of school in South Africa. In a country that has claimed to have achieved universal basic education, children with disabilities experience systemic barriers and discrimination on a daily basis. These children are not guaranteed a quality education on an equal basis with children without disabilities.

Drawing of a female student holding a placard that says “I want to learn” found in Boitumelo Special School in Kimberley, South Africa.

© 2015 Boitumelo Special School

Unequal access is one of the most evident forms of discrimination. Children with disabilities continue to pay school fees and costs that children without disabilities do not pay, or are asked to pay for services so they can go to school. Many parents cannot afford to send children to school, so many stay at home. Others are turned down by schools that do not want to enroll children with disabilities.

Although the government has recently devoted more attention to inclusive education, it has a long way to go to implement its inclusive education policy. A strong, global reminder that South Africa must to do its utmost to ensure children with disabilities have a right to education would have ripple effects at home.

There’s an opportunity to do just that on May 10, when the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva reviews South Africa’s human rights record.

One of the most positive contributions UN member states could make for South Africa’s children would be to press the government on why children with disabilities have not been guaranteed free and compulsory education on an equal basis with children without disabilities. They could also ask the government for a specific timeline to adopt a national plan to make education free, in line with its international obligations, and also ask how it will enforce it so that all children can go to school on an equal basis.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2017 Mitch Blunt for Human Rights Watch


(Washington, DC) – New evidence has emerged of dangerously subpar medical care in United States immigration detention at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to increase its use, Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a group seeking to end immigration detention, said in a report released today.

The 104-page report, “Systemic Indifference: Dangerous & Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention,” reveals systemic failures, such as unreasonable delays in care and unqualified medical staff, that are likely to expose a record number of people to dangerous conditions under President Donald Trump’s ramped-up deportation and detention plans.

“The data reveals that people in immigration detention died needlessly under the Obama administration, even with its attempts at reform,” said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Trump administration has already announced its intent to roll back key reforms while detaining even more immigrants, which would likely mean more people will die needless and preventable deaths.”

New evidence has emerged of dangerously subpar medical care in United States immigration detention at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to increase its use.

The report is based on independent medical experts’ analyses of records from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own investigations into 18 deaths in detention from 2012 to 2015, and the medical records of 12 additional people from 10 privately and publicly operated facilities across the country. Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than 90 people who are or were detained, as well as family members, attorneys, immigration advocates, and correctional health experts.

The medical experts found numerous incidents of substandard and dangerous medical care, including failure to follow up on symptoms that required attention; medical personnel apparently practicing beyond the scope of their licenses and expertise; severely inadequate mental health care; the misuse of solitary confinement for people with mental health conditions; and sluggish emergency responses. The experts agreed that such subpar care contributed to seven of the 18 deaths.

Among them was Raul Ernesto Morales Ramos, who died of organ failure with signs of widespread cancer in 2015, after being detained at Adelanto Detention Center in California. The two experts who reviewed the records from his death investigation found that there had been symptoms of widespread cancer two years earlier, but that they essentially went unaddressed until a month before he died. Throughout this time, Morales-Ramos repeatedly begged for care.

Witness: A Needless Death in US Immigration Detention

Witness: A Needless Death in US Immigration Detention

When Tiombe Kimana Carlos committed suicide at 34, she had spent two-and-a-half years in immigration detention at York County Prison in Pennsylvania.

Tiombe Carlos, detained at York County Prison in Pennsylvania, died in 2013, in her second suicide attempt in the two-and-a-half years she was detained. Staff knew she had a mental health condition requiring substantial support, but failed to create a mental health treatment plan. One expert called the mental health care she received “woefully inadequate.”

ICE officials at Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey told Human Rights Watch that registered nurses review requests for care and that everyone is seen within 24 hours. But the medical records of one man indicated that when he sought care for abdominal pain so strong that he wrote, “I cannot walk with the pain,” he was only seen a month later.

The experts emphasized that in several instances there was evidence of substandard medical practices that could put people throughout entire facilities at risk of serious harm, even if it did not necessarily contribute to the person’s death. In the case of one man who died in 2014, the ICE investigation found a licensed vocational nurse was attempting to record vital signs four weeks after the fact “from memory.”

“The sheer number and consistency of cases involving inadequate medical care point to a crisis that warrants immediate action,” said Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-executive director of CIVIC. “The medical experts’ analyses confirm what we have been hearing from detained immigrants for years. It’s past time to put an end to the substandard medical practices that harm many people in immigration detention each year.”

Human Rights Watch and CIVIC concluded that the US government lacks effective means to monitor and correct these problems in facilities under its control. An audit of Eloy Detention Center in Arizona by ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations prior to a string of suicides stated there was appropriate policy and procedure for suicide intervention. However, successive death investigations conducted by the ICE Office of Detention Oversight after the suicides flagged the lack of a suicide prevention plan.

In addition, according to its annual report to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, an oversight body, sent ICE 49 recommendations to improve conditions at an unnamed facility in Arizona that is clearly Eloy. It took ICE two years to respond, and the civil rights office concluded that it had not responded appropriately to 30 of the recommendations. Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional health expert who reviewed all the documents in this report, concluded, “From the evidence that I saw in the cases that I reviewed, we have a system that is broken for detainee health care, and adding more detainees to that system can only make it worse.”

Other experts who reviewed records for Human Rights Watch are Dr. Allan Keller, an expert in access to health care for prisoners, and Dr. Palav Babaria, chief administrative officer of ambulatory services at Alameda Health System in Oakland, California.

True reform to protect the rights of the men, women, and children in immigration detention should include an overhaul of laws that often require detention for no good reason

Grace Meng

senior US researcher

The US currently detains about 40,000 people a day, or more than 400,000 per year, at an annual cost of US$2 billion. Many people in detention are blocked under US law from having a bond hearing to determine whether their detention is necessary. The Trump administration’s recent request for supplemental funding had included a request for $1.2 billion for increased detention capacity from the 34,000 beds to an unprecedented 45,700. It is likely some of the $1.5 billion for border security in the reported appropriation deal will be used for increased deportation and detention, and more funds are likely to be requested for the final fiscal year 2018 budget.

In California, which detains more immigrants than any state except Texas, a bill is pending that could improve conditions. Senate Bill 29, Dignity Not Detention, would require localities that hold immigrants in detention for the federal government to adhere to the 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards and make these standards enforceable by the California Attorney General’s Office and local district and city attorneys.

“The detention system was sprawling and bloated, with oversight mechanisms that had no teeth even before President Trump was elected,” Meng said. “True reform to protect the rights of the men, women, and children in immigration detention should include an overhaul of laws that often require detention for no good reason.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Despite making commitments to act on recommendations from its second UPR cycle, South Africa has struggled to stop attacks on the businesses and homes of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants, denying that such attacks were motivated by xenophobia or other forms of intolerance. The government has also failed to realize the right to education for an estimated half-a-million children with disabilities.

Violence against women, including rape and domestic violence, remains very high. Although annual crime statistics for 2015 released by the South African Police Services showed that sexual offences decreased slightly by 3 percent, many gender activists and human rights groups expressed concerns about the continued under-reporting of rape and the failure of the government to introduced a national strategy to combat violence against women. 


Rights of Children and People with Disabilities

The South African government has yet to fulfil its obligation to guarantee the right to education for many children and young adults with disabilities, affecting an estimated half-a-million children. Despite the government’s international and domestic obligations, many children with disabilities do not have equal access to primary or secondary education and face multiple forms of discrimination and barriers when accessing schools. They are turned away from mainstream schools and referred to special schools by school officials or medical staff simply because they have a disability. The referrals system needlessly forces children to wait for up to four years at care centers or at home for placement in a special school. Children with disabilities who attend special schools pay school fees that children without disabilities do not, and many who attend mainstream schools are asked to pay for their own class assistants as a condition to stay in mainstream classes. Once in school, many children with disabilities do not have access to the same curriculum as children without disabilities. Many children are exposed to high levels of violence and abuse by teachers and students.

In 2001, the government adopted a national policy to provide inclusive education for all children with disabilities, but key aspects of the policy have not been implemented to-date. South Africa has not adopted legislation that guarantees the right to inclusive education for children with disabilities. The majority of the government’s limited budget for learners with disabilities is allocated to special, segregated schools rather than to inclusive education.

South Africa became the first country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration at a global conference in Norway in May 2015. By joining the Declaration, it agreed to protect students and education in times of conflict, and to avoid using educational building for military purposes.


  • Adopt new measures to guarantee quality inclusive education for all children, access to free and compulsory primary education and to secondary education, enforce people with disabilities’ right to access adult education, and ensure adequate resources are invested in inclusive education.
  • Implement the Guidelines on Protecting School from Military Use during Armed Conflict in its domestic military doctrine, practice and trainings.


Asylum seekers and foreign nationals

The situation of foreign nationals and asylum seekers in South Africa is precarious and remains an area of serious concern.

In April 2015, thousands of people looted foreign-owned shops and attacked non-South African nationals in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal province. The targets of the widespread violence were immigrants of African origin, mostly from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic, Mozambique, Malawi, and Somalia. Although the police arrested at least 22 people following the violence, the authorities neither thoroughly investigated nor successfully prosecuted those involved. No one was held to account for the attacks.  Authorities also failed to prosecute those who had incited the violence against foreign nationals.

Government officials denied the violence was motivated by xenophobia or other forms of intolerance and said it was a result of “pure acts of criminality.” The secretary general of the African National Congress (ANC) Gwede Mantashe told the media in April 2015 that he believed the solution to xenophobia is the establishment of refugee camps. Xenophobic violence in 2008 led to the deaths of over 60 people across the country.  


  • Ensure that asylum seekers, refugees, and foreign nationals are protected from xenophobic violence throughout South Africa.
  • Ensure justice and accountability for xenophobic crimes.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

South Africa has a progressive constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protects the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has taken significant steps to improve coordination between government and civil society in combatting violence (including rape and murder) against lesbians and transgender men. Despite the country’s progressive legislation on the rights of LGBT people, discrimination remains institutionalized in families, communities, and in the behaviour of some government officials, such as police, some health care workers, and educators.


  • Require the police services, in collecting data on physical and sexual violence, to disaggregate the data by motive to track incidents of homophobic and trans-phobic violence;
  • Ensure the police and prosecution services have the requisite training to effectively identify crimes motivated by homo and trans phobia;
  • Work with the National Prosecuting Authority to ensure that cases of sexual and physical violence against women and transgender persons come to trial in a timely manner, and that prosecutors prioritize cases involving sexual offences.



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Jerusalem) – Two Israeli men with serious mental health conditions who crossed separately from Israel into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015 have apparently been held by the Hamas military wing, Human Rights Watch said today. Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who both have histories of wandering far on foot, including in the case of al-Sayed across borders without authorization, have not been heard from since they entered Gaza.

Hamas authorities have indirectly acknowledged in media statements holding the two men, but say they will divulge nothing about them – not even to confirm their detention – until Israel frees a group of detained Hamas members. Hamas authorities refer to the men as soldiers, but a Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the Israeli men were not combatants or affiliated with the Israeli government when they entered Gaza.


 Two Israeli men with serious mental health conditions who crossed separately from Israel into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015 have apparently been held by the Hamas military wing.

“Hamas’s refusal to confirm its apparent prolonged detention of men with mental health conditions and no connection to the hostilities is cruel and indefensible,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No grievance or objective can justify holding people incommunicado and bartering over their fates.”

Human Rights Watch conducted numerous interviews with the families and friends of the men and with Israeli and Palestinian officials, visited the men’s homes and neighborhoods, and reviewed official medical and military documents.

Avera Mangistu

© Private

Hamas authorities should officially and unconditionally disclose whether the men remain in their custody and release them unless they can provide a credible legal basis for continuing to hold them. Until they are released, Hamas should treat them humanely, and allow them to communicate with their families, as the formerly detained Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was reportedly allowed to do, albeit on only a limited basis in the form of three letters.

Mangistu, 30, a Jewish Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent who lived in the coastal city of Ashkelon, entered Gaza by crossing a barbed wire fence near the beach on September 7, 2014, as seen on camera, a representative of the Israeli government with knowledge of the cases told Human Rights Watch. Israeli authorities showed Human Rights Watch technical documentation they say is of Mangistu’s crossing; members of the family viewed the same material and confirmed that it showed Mangistu. Technological equipment provided proof of al-Sayed, 29, a Palestinian citizen of Israel of Bedouin descent who lived in the town of al-Hura in the Negev desert, walking across the Gaza border from the east on April 20, 2015, the Israeli official said.

A third Israeli citizen, 20-year-old Jumaa Abu Ghanima, appears to have crossed from Israel to Gaza in July 2016. His family told Human Rights Watch that they had grown concerned about his mental health and that he entered Gaza while tending his family’s sheep near the border. Human Rights Watch could not, however, independently corroborate their account or confirm his detention or status. The Israeli official indicated that Israeli authorities lack evidence that he is “a missing person held against his will” and the Israel Defense Forces did not respond to a request for information about him. When Human Rights Watch raised his plight with Hamas’s then-Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, he replied, “I don’t know about a third Israeli being held.” Abu Ghanima’s family members told Human Rights Watch that they have not heard from him since his disappearance.

Hisham al-Sayed

© Private
An April 2016 video issued by the Hamas military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, refers to both Mangistu and al-Sayed as soldiers, showing each in photographs, which appear to be photoshopped, in military uniforms, alongside photographs of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, Israel Defense Forces soldiers apparently killed during the 2014 war, whose remains are reported to be in the custody of Hamas authorities. The Israeli authorities have called on Hamas to return Mangistu and al-Sayed – who they maintain were neither soldiers nor had any affiliation to the Israeli government when they entered Gaza – and the bodies of the two soldiers.
The Hamas co-founder, Mahmoud al-Zahar, refused to acknowledge the detention of Mangistu and al-Sayed in a September 2016 meeting with Human Rights Watch, but said that “there are no civilians in Israel” since all serve in the army, and that “Israelis who enter Gaza are spies.”
The Human Rights Watch research cast strong doubt on these claims. Documents Human Rights Watch reviewed indicate that an Israeli Defense Forces medical committee found Mangistu “unfit for [military] service” in March 2013 and exempted him from mandatory conscription. They also indicate that al-Sayed volunteered for military services in August 2008, but was discharged less than three months later after the military determined him “incompatible for service,” and is not part of the reserve forces.
In interviews, family and friends of both men said their mental health conditions deteriorated in the years before their disappearance. Israeli Health Ministry documents show that Mangistu spent 19 days in psychiatric hospitalization in January 2013 – 12 days at Beersheva Hospital on a voluntary basis and seven on an involuntary basis – though his specific diagnosis is edited out of the documents released to his family.
Medical reports also reveal that doctors diagnosed al-Sayed with schizophrenia and “personality disorder,” among other conditions, and had him institutionalized many times. A 2013 discharge from a Beersheva Hospital describes him as a “recurring patient” who is “known to psychiatric services for several years,” stating that he fled the facility after a prior hospitalization only to be apprehended near the Gaza border and confined for a “lengthy period of time” in a mental health clinic in northern Israel.
Both Mangistu and al-Sayed had also previously gone missing – Mangistu to northern Israel on two or three occasions, his brother Ilan Mangistu said, and al-Sayed to the West Bank at least 15 times, Jordan twice, and Gaza twice, his father said. An Israeli official with knowledge of the cases said that Israeli records show that al-Sayed entered Gaza and Jordan on multiple occasions. News reports from February 2010 indicate a man fitting al-Sayed’s profile with a mental health condition crossed into Gaza – one identifies him by name.
In an April 15, 2017 speech, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, declared that “any information about the Israeli captives would carry a price.” Hamas officials in Gaza have stated, including to Human Rights Watch in September 2016, that they would divulge nothing about the missing Israelis until Israel releases the 54 Hamas members whom Israel had re-arrested in the West Bank in June 2014, after freeing them as part of the deal to release the former prisoner Gilad Shalit three years earlier. Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the time that the re-arrests, which came in response to the abduction several days prior of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, “sent an important message” to Hamas, who he blamed for the abductions. The teenagers were later found dead.
In light of indications that Mangistu, al-Sayed, and possibly Abu Ghanima have at some point been in Hamas custody, Hamas officials should officially and unconditionally disclose whether each of the men is, or was, in its custody and, if no longer in its custody, whether Hamas has information about his present whereabouts. Revealing the identity of people in custody is an unconditional obligation under international law that cannot be contingent on the fulfilment of actions being demanded of another party. Their incommunicado detention, particularly given their mental health conditions, could amount to cruel or inhumane punishment or even torture.
A government’s refusal to officially acknowledge that a person has been detained or to reveal a person’s whereabouts or fate following detention or arrest, thereby placing the detainee outside the protection of the law, amounts to an enforced disappearance under international law. Enforced disappearance violates many of the rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the state of Palestine ratified in 2014, including the requirement to bring detainees promptly before a judge. Enforced disappearances leave detainees exceptionally vulnerable to torture and other abuse.
The 54 Hamas figures whose release from Israeli custody Hamas demands are among the 6,159 “security” inmates Israel holds, the vast majority Palestinian, and including 493 administrative detainees held without charge, according to Israel Prison Service figures from April 4, 2017 obtained by the Israeli nongovernmental group Hamoked. Human Rights Watch has documented Israel’s use of the “Unlawful Combatants Law” to hold Palestinians from Gaza without meaningful judicial review and with excessive restrictions imposed by Israel on family visits to Palestinian prisoners from Gaza.
“Mangistu and al-Sayed, an Ethiopian Jew and Palestinian Bedouin with mental health conditions, come from among the most marginalized communities in Israeli society,” Whitson said. “There is nothing patriotic or heroic in forcibly disappearing them.”
Avera Mangistu
The fourth of ten children, Avraham (“Avera”) Mangistu emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with his family at age 5, said his brother Ilan Mangistu. The family settled into a modest apartment in a low-income neighborhood in Ashkelon, where Mangistu lived until his disappearance. His mother, Agurnesh, cleans homes for a living, while his father Haili Mangistu has been unemployed for the past decade, Ilan Mangistu said. The parents divorced in 2012 and Mangistu’s father, unable to afford housing, lived with relatives until he received compensation following his son’s disappearance and was able to move into an apartment.
A childhood friend, who requested anonymity, described Mangistu as a “totally normal boy,” who “laughed, sat in restaurants, had friends.” Upon finishing high school, Mangistu worked on and off in recycling and other odd jobs, Ilan Mangistu said.
Ilan Mangistu said that his brother’s mental state declined in 2011 after the death of an elder brother, Masrashau, from complications related to prolonged anorexia. The family had been unable to obtain proper treatment for him. The childhood friend said that Mangistu coped with his grief alone, withdrawing from family and friends, sitting for hours, going on trips by himself, and growing visibly thinner. 
Mangistu said he could feel his deceased brother in his hands, Ilan Mangistu said. Unbeknown to the family, he tied a piece of string around a finger in his right hand, cutting off the blood flow and keeping the finger hidden in his pocket so his family wouldn’t see, until family members discovered he had developed severe gangrene. Doctors had to amputate the finger. He quit working, refusing to even collect a stipend from the National Insurance Institute, and spent much of his time wandering the neighborhood and asking people he knew for money.
Hospital records Human Rights Watch reviewed indicate that Mangistu submitted voluntarily to a psychiatric hospitalization in Beersheva Hospital from January 3 to 15, 2013. Ilan Mangistu said that his brother, who had resolutely refused treatment, only agreed that time after he had gone missing and police located him alone on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias, nearly 200 kilometers from home. He was released, however, with no apparent improvement, Ilan Mangistu said. Five days later, family members committed Mangistu to an institution for seven days under an “order for urgent involuntary admission.” Mangistu threw away the psychiatric drugs doctors prescribed as soon as he left the hospital, and resumed his wandering, disappearing to other parts of Israel on one or two other occasions.
Mangistu “would bother people, scream, throw things,” his brother said. “It was very painful. His condition worsened. He had suicidal thoughts. ... He could do dangerous things – put his hand in fire and say it doesn’t hurt.”
In March 2013, a medical committee within the Israel Defense Forces found Mangistu “unfit” and exempted him from compulsory military service, according to documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
His childhood friend said that Mangistu’s mental state got “a lot worse” in the year before his disappearance: “He began to hurt himself. You could see the signs of a person who didn’t sleep for a few days. He began to talk about things that weren’t logical.”
At about noon on September 7, 2014, Mangistu asked his mother for money. When she said she had none, he became angry and then left the house without saying anything.
Later that day, Israeli soldiers noticed on camera a man of dark complexion struggling to climb a barbed wire fence on the Gaza-Israel border near the beach, a representative of the Israeli government with knowledge of the cases told Human Rights Watch. When troops arrived, they shouted at the man, who had reached the top of the fence, and shot in the air, but he did not react, the official said.
The man left behind a school bag and, unsure of his motivations, soldiers decided to evaluate its contents before deciding whether to fire on or otherwise engage him, bringing an EOD robot for the task. The bag contained slippers, a towel, a Bible, and books including an accounting book with the name Avera Mangistu on it that allowed soldiers to identify him, Ilan Mangistu said. The identification process took a few hours, by which time Mangistu had entered Gaza, Israeli security cameras near the border showed. The footage showed him passing a fisherman who did not notice him and later conversing with people beside a shack, the Israeli government representative said.
Mangistu has not been heard from since. The Israeli official said that, in response to third-party queries about Mangistu’s disappearance shortly after he went missing, Hamas presented another man, an Eritrean who had barricaded himself in the border facility between Israel and Gaza requesting international asylum.
The Israeli government officially announced Mangistu’s disappearance in July 2015, following the lifting of a gag order that it had requested be imposed on the case. The same month, the deputy head of Hamas’s Political Unit, Musa Abu Marzouq, told Al Jazeera that Mangistu had disappeared while fighting during the 2014 war, not subsequent to it, and denied that he had a mental health condition. An April 2016 video issued by Hamas’s military wing shows Mangistu in military uniform, but appears to be a photoshopped version of the same photo used in media reports the prior year.

Image from a video released by the Hamas military wing on April 1, 2016 purporting to show photographs of Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed in military uniform.

The video can be found here:
Agurnesh Mangistu told Human Rights Watch that she misses her son dearly: “I just keep thinking about him and crying all the time. … Sometimes I go out … when I come back at night his memory keeps me up. … I just want my son to come back here so I can see him.”
Hisham al-Sayed
The eldest of eight, Hisham al-Sayed, 29, was born and raised in the Bedouin village of al-Sayed, which was eventually incorporated into the town of al-Hura, in the Negev desert. Al-Sayed finished high school, but, performed poorly, said his father Sha’ban al-Sayed. Sha’ban told Human Rights Watch that he tried to involve his son in his construction business, but that he refused to work and remained at home.
Al-Sayed’s mother, Manal, described him as “never content with the life he has at home and always looking at other people and wishing he had what they have.” Sha’ban al-Sayed noted that “if he sees a truck driver, he wants to become one; a doctor, he wants to be one.” Manal said he wanted to get married and have a job. Al-Sayed married, but he and his wife divorced within a week. Al-Sayed had approached his mother one week before his disappearance to express interest in marrying again. But she said he largely would spend his time watching TV, listening to music, and wandering into the homes and shops of neighbors, who would sometimes tease him or kick him out. Many in al-Hura knew of his mental health condition, Sha’ban al-Sayed added. He said they sent him for short-term study programs in Cyprus in 2005 and London in 2010, hoping a change in scenery would help.
A shopkeeper in al-Hura who has known the family for years said that al-Sayed used to wander into his shop every week or two, depicting him as the “kind of person who if he has something in his mind, does it; if he wants to go to a certain place, he just goes to that place.” He added that al-Sayed “shares everything with everyone and doesn’t hide anything.”
Medical records of al-Sayed’s that Human Rights Watch reviewed show a diagnosis that includes loss of hearing, vertigo, and tinnitus in 2007, “personality disorder and emotional unspecified behavioral and emotional disorders” in 2009, “acute psychotic disorder” in 2010, and schizophrenia in 2013. Al-Sayed also spent significant stretches, spanning from days to weeks, in hospitals and psychiatric institutions throughout the country, including by order of courts and doctors. Sha’ban al-Sayed said that his son tried to escape from at least one institution and that “there is a voice in his head that tells him what to do and he can’t control it.”
A late 2013 letter from a mental health center notes that his admission relates to “behavior exhibiting lack of judgment.” It also states that he was admitted “after having been caught jumping off a fence in Tel Aviv in order, he says, to get to Palestinian taxis so they could take him to Jordan,” and that “he wants to go to Jordan or Thailand and live there in order to see Muslims and Jews together.”
Al-Sayed attempted to go on his own to Jordan five times, his father said. On three of those occasions, security personnel or other people stopped him from crossing. On the two occasions, he entered Jordan, police detained him, the second time for ten days roughly a week before his April 2015 disappearance to Gaza. A representative of the Israeli government with knowledge of the cases said that al-Sayed crossed to Jordan twice, but could not confirm that one of the crossings took place in April 2015.
Sha’ban al-Sayed also said that al-Sayed entered the West Bank in at least 15 separate occasions, three times resulting in his detention by Palestinian Preventive Security.
Al-Sayed also crossed into Gaza in 2010 and 2013, Sha’ban al-Sayed told Human Rights Watch. The Israeli officials said that Israeli records show the crossings took place on February 2, 2010, and January 16, 2013. Reuters, AFP, Haaretz, and YNet, among others, reported on February 3, 2010 that a Bedouin man fitting al-Sayed’s profile with a mental health condition crossed into Gaza the prior day. Another source identified him by name as Hisham al-Sayed. The Israeli official also said that al-Sayed crossed into Gaza on May 8, 2011, but Sha’ban al-Sayed said he has no knowledge of this.
A 2016 statement from the Israel Defense Forces reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that al-Sayed volunteered for military service on August 18, 2008, but was discharged on November 6, 2008 after being found “incompatible for service.” The letter further notes that he is “not a part of the reserve forces.”
On April 20, 2015, al-Sayed left the house with his mobile phone and ID without saying where he intended to go. The Israeli official told Human Rights Watch that photos captured by Israeli authorities that day show him walking across the Gaza border from the east. When he did not return home several days later, his parents said, they reported him missing and searched for him in places he had disappeared to before, including Jordan.
He has not been heard from since.
In its July 2015 statement acknowledging Mangistu’s detention, Israeli authorities noted that a second man, “a Bedouin resident of the south,” is “also reported missing in Gaza,” but did not reveal his identity. The al-Sayeds went public with their son’s disappearance shortly after his picture appeared in a video issued by Hamas’s military wing in April 2016. The picture shows him in military uniform, but appears to be a photoshopped version of the same photo used in media reports the prior year.

Photograph of Hisham al-Sayed, which appeared in media reports as early as May 2015.

© 2015 Private
The extended al-Sayed family, of Palestinian Muslim Bedouin origin, has longstanding ties to Gaza, including through marriage, and has relatives living there, the father said. He said that his son used to weep watching the news about Gaza and talk often about how beautiful it was.
His mother described the void al-Sayed has left: “I feel that there is something missing at home. Like I lost something. I am always stumbling, and something major has changed in my life. Hisham was our blessing. He’s been there for a long time now. I feel confused and I don’t know what to do.”
Jumaa Abu Ghanima
Jumaa Abu Ghanima, 20, is a Palestinian Bedouin resident of Beer Abu al-Hamaam, a village not recognized by the Israeli government that is located near the village (moshav) of Nevatim in the Negev desert. Abu Ghanima was found to be missing on July 12, 2016, said his family and media reports. He had just completed his courses at the Abu Tlol high school in the nearby Abu Tlol village, but had not yet taken his required examinations. He was not employed.
Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, Jumaa’s father, told Human Rights Watch that his son had gone that day for the first time to tend to sheep the family owned between the town of Nahal Oz and the eastern border with Gaza. Abu Ghanima did not return home that night as planned, and the next day an Israeli soldier called one of his brothers to say that someone, who the army believed to be Abu Ghanima based on his clothing, had crossed into Gaza the previous day. The Israel Security Agency (or Shin Bet) questioned the family over the course of 30 hours, but left without providing them with conclusive information, the father said. He said that the family has not heard from his son or received proof that he is in Gaza or had contact with Israeli or Palestinian authorities about his whereabouts.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, the father and several of Abu Ghanima’s brothers said they grew concerned about Abu Ghanima’s mental health in the year before his disappearance. They said they took him to see a doctor and a religious leader to address his condition. The relatives did not provide a name or diagnosis for his condition. Abu Ghanima’s brothers said he had difficulty focusing, kept largely to himself, not sharing things even with his family, had no friends, and was not active on social media. They said that his condition would not be apparent to someone who had just met him and that he was not taking medications. They added though that he had not disappeared before or been to Gaza, was not particularly religious or political, and did not take drugs, smoke, or drink alcohol.
A former teacher of his provided a consistent description in an interview with Human Rights Watch, highlighting his inability to concentrate and tendency to keep to himself.

Human Rights Watch could not corroborate this account. The family did not provide documentation of his medical history. Human Rights Watch attempted to interview others in Abu Ghanima’s community, but the family indicated that no one else knew him.

An Israeli official indicated that Israeli authorities lack evidence that he is “a missing person held against his will.” Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israel Defense Forces on March 29, 2017, to inquire about Abu Ghanima’s status and date of entry into Gaza, but has received no response.

Hamas officials have not made reference to Abu Ghanima, either by name or picture, in any public commentary. When Human Rights Watch raised his case with Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas-then-deputy foreign minister, he said, “I don’t know about a third Israeli being held. There were reports that [Abu Ghanima] was wandering near the Gaza border.”

Family members said they had not heard from him since he went missing.

Additional Legal Considerations

Under international law, countries must investigate enforced disappearances, hold anyone responsible to account, and properly compensate victims. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the state of Palestine ratified in April 2014, also provides protections for people with psychosocial, or mental health, disabilities, including freedom from cruel and inhuman treatment and equal access to justice, which may include reasonable accommodations that take into account their disability.

If, as seems the case, Mangistu and al-Sayed entered Gaza in conditions unrelated to the international armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, international human rights law would require authorities to detain them solely according to clear domestic law, which would mean either to charge them with a recognizable crime or release them. The same principles would apply to Abu Ghanima if he is in custody.

Whatever the legal basis for detention, the men have the right to humane treatment that takes into consideration their mental health conditions and any reasonable accommodation required while in detention, as well as access to healthcare services including mental health care on the basis of free and informed consent. Detainees also have the right to contact with their families and visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. In case of criminal prosecution, information regarding any accusation should be provided in language they can understand, and the procedural accommodations, such as support persons to facilitate communication, should be available based on their needs and preferences.


Human Rights Watch has conducted several interviews with members of the Mangistu, al-Sayed and Abu Ghanima families since 2016, visiting each in their homes. Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva facilitated the initial meeting with the Mangistu family, in March 2016. Human Rights Watch reviewed extensive documentary evidence on Mangistu and al-Sayed, including medical records and military service paperwork, which the Mangistu and al-Sayed families gave Human Rights Watch permission to share, and spoke to people who knew the men from their communities.

After obtaining permission from Israeli authorities to enter Gaza in September 2016, for the first time since 2008, Human Rights Watch raised the cases with senior Hamas political official Mahmoud al-Zahar, and with officials of the Gaza authority, then-Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, then-Deputy Justice Minister Omar al-Borsh, then-General Inspector of the Interior Ministry Mohammad Lafi, and then-Deputy Interior Minister Kamal Ahmed Abu Mady. It also interviewed a representative of the Israeli government with knowledge of the Mangistu and al-Sayed cases and viewed technical documentation which Israeli authorities say shows Mangistu’s crossing.

Human Rights Watch sought, but was unable to obtain, information about Abu Ghanima beyond what his family and a former high school teacher told us. His family had no documentation on his health condition and, when asked for contacts of other people, said no one else in the community knew him. Human Rights Watch sought official comment from the Israel Defense Forces on Abu Ghanima’s status and date of entry into Gaza, but has received no response. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Two Israeli men with serious mental health conditions who crossed separately from Israel into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015 have apparently been held by the Hamas military wing. Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who both have histories of wandering far on foot, including across borders without authorization, have not been heard from since they entered Gaza. Hamas authorities have indirectly acknowledged in media statements holding the two men, but say they will divulge nothing about them – not even to confirm their detention – until Israel frees a group of detained Hamas members. Hamas authorities refer to the men as soldiers, but a Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the Israeli men were not combatants or affiliated with the Israeli government when they entered Gaza.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters with ADAPT, a disabled people's rights organization, stage a demonstration at the gates of the White House in Washington, April 20, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

“I get the sense that my government would rather that I die.” That’s how Alana Theriault, a 50-year-old woman with spinal muscular atrophy, feels about proposed cuts of US$880 billion in Medicaid funding to US states.

If a version of the Trump administration’s proposed American Health Care Act (AHCA) bill eventually passes, it could mean that Theriault can no longer work, get dressed, or even breathe at night.

Sixty percent of Medicaid spending supports people with disabilities and older people. The proposed cuts would mean many could no longer hire people to help with essential daily activities, such as eating, bathing, and transportation. The cuts would eliminate federal Medicaid match funds that give states more freedom and incentive to move resources to home and community-based services – something people have a right to – instead of institutions. Over the next decade, the bill would cut 25 percent of Medicaid’s budget that serves over 10 million Americans with disabilities.

The current version of the bill, which may be brought before the House on Wednesday, includes a provision that would allow states to waive some of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and permit insurers to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions. People like Theriault.

Without adequate support, people with disabilities in the United States may face the possibility of being placed in institutions, which flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the 1999 Olmstead case. In Olmstead, the Supreme Court held that people with disabilities are entitled to receive “support and services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

For Theriault and other Americans like her, having personal assistance means having a full life. With support from Medicaid and the state of California, she goes to work daily. She goes on dates with her partner of 16 years. She meets with friends. Her life as such will end if the Medicaid cuts go through, as she won’t be able to pay for people to assist her in performing daily tasks, such as bathing and feeding herself.

Theriault fears that if the AHCA is passed, she will have no other choice but to live in a hospital or institution, and will no longer be able live independently.

Voices like Theriault’s need to be heard in the current healthcare debate. As the AHCA currently stands, there are real consequences for millions of real people. 


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video footage showing an Angolan police officer beating a peaceful protester in a wheelchair, Luanda, Angola, April 22, 2017.

Video footage from Saturday captured a uniformed police officer in Angola’s capital, Luanda, beating a peaceful protester in a wheelchair until he falls to the ground. More officers wrench banners and leaflets from other protesters with physical disabilities. The police then leave the scene, as people struggle to help the beaten man.


The activists, including those in wheelchairs, had gathered in Luanda to protest the lack of accessible infrastructure for people with physical disabilities. It is estimated that more than 650,000 of Angola’s 25 million people have a physical disability, according to Angola’s 2016 census.



Disturbing video: Police in Angola beat activist in a wheelchair who was protesting for accessible infrastructure

— Jim Murphy (@jimmurphySF) April 25, 2017

The key group fighting for their rights, Associação Nacional dos Deficientes de Angola (National Association of Disabled People of Angola), says the government is not doing enough to include people with disabilities in education and in employment, and not providing people with disabilities with equal access to transportation, facilities, and infrastructure available to the public.

On Saturday, members of the association had gathered to express their frustration together with other activists. But before the protesters reached their meeting point, a contingent of police officers had blocked their way. They said the protest had not been authorized, and moved to disperse the group. They beat those who refused to leave. Eventually they allowed the protest to proceed, but only under the close watch of police officers with dogs.

Angolan police have a long history of using unnecessary or excessive force to disperse peaceful protests. Last month, the police used dogs and batons to disperse non-violent protesters demanding the resignation of a minister.

The Angolan government should abide by its obligations as a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, beating up peaceful protesters in wheelchairs is a very odd way of treating all Angolans equally.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

My 4-year-old son came home from school as I was reading an article about the abuse of children with disabilities in orphanages. This time it was in Belarus. But I’ve seen it with my own eyes in Serbia, India, and Ghana.

Roman K., 18, (left) and Lyuba P., 15, in a “lying-down” ward of an orphanage for children with disabilities in northwest Russia. Roman K. was awaiting transfer to an institution for adults with disabilities. A pediatrician specializing in the health of children with disabilities told Human Rights Watch that, based on photographs, both Roman K. and Lyuba P. appeared significantly underdeveloped for their ages, a possible result of lack of adequate nutrition, stimulation, and health care. © 2013 Andrea Mazzarino/Human Rights Watch


“Their legs are toothpicks covered with skin,” the director of one Belarus orphanage put it. One 20-year-old weighed only 11.5 kilos (roughly 25 pounds). The images made me want to vomit. They reminded me of the photos my colleague took of children and young adults with disabilities in Russian orphanages, some as old as 18, still wearing diapers and lying in cribs, motionless and malnourished.

Although authorities in Belarus are investigating how these children and adults with disabilities ended up in this life-threatening condition and several orphanage directors were fired, it’s hard to grasp that such inhumanity could even happen in the first place. 

My son, noticing my horror, curled up next to me and asked what I was working on. I explained that children with disabilities sometimes don’t get enough attention and care, so they are not able to walk or play or go to school like everyone else.

Sveta L., a 13-year-old girl in her crib in a “lying-down” room of an orphanage for children with disabilities in northwest Russia. A pediatrician specializing in the health of children with disabilities told Human Rights Watch that, based on photographs, Sveta L. appeared significantly underdeveloped for her age, a possible result of lack of stimulation and a well-rounded diet. © 2013 Andrea Mazzarino/Human Rights Watch


Then he asked: But why, Mama?

That’s precisely the question. Why is this happening in the 21st century? Why are these children viewed as less human than the rest of us? One of the doctors in Belarus even referred to the children saying, “there is no brain there.”

How do I explain this to my 4-year old?

I told him that children with disabilities, like all children, do best when they are cared for at home with their families, instead of in institutions or orphanages. But families often need help from their governments to do that.

Instead of investing in institutions, donors and governments should build up community-based services for children with disabilities and their families, such as inclusive schools and adequate health services. Governments should also support foster families and adoption. Advocates around the world are pushing for this, but progress has been excruciatingly slow.

I told my son that people should think about children and adults with disabilities as regular people who have the same rights as everyone else. That includes treating them with respect and kindness.

“Like the Golden Rule, Mama? Treat others like you want to be treated,” he said. If only it were that simple.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

No child should be denied their right to learn because of poverty.

Two years ago, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that primary education should be free and compulsory for all, came into force in South Africa. The Covenant requires governments that do not already provide free primary education to at least have a proper action plan in place to make primary education free to all children.

Two children sit on chairs in the New Covenant day care center, a center set-up and led by parents in Orange Farm township, Johannesburg, to cater to children with disabilities who are not admitted in the township’s mainstream schools

© 2015 Diane McCarthy/Human Rights Watch

But the government has yet to fulfil this basic obligation. In South Africa, public schools are not automatically free of charge. While many are “no fee” schools, no special schools – where most children with disabilities are erroneously sent to – fall into that category. So, while most primary school age children do not pay fees, those with disabilities often do. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities in South Africa are still not in school.

The current fee-based system particularly discriminates against students with disabilities. Not only do children who attend special schools have to pay fees when others don’t, they also have to shoulder additional costs, such as uniforms, food, transport, and special assistants to help them. Fees in special schools typically range from R350-R750 (US$32-$68) per term.

Many parents told Human Rights Watch their children are not in school because the often hefty fees are unaffordable. Reneilwe, whose 10-year-old son with autism is still out of school, told us: “The only school that can offer a placement [for my son] is the one I can’t pay for.”

United Nations human rights experts have consistently reminded South Africa that it must ensure free and compulsory primary education for everyone. Last year, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child also expressed alarm at the large number of children with disabilities not in school and urged the government to ensure free education.

But little progress has been made since then.

Next month, South Africa undergoes its third UN Universal Periodic Review, where countries’ human rights records are scrutinized by their peers. It is essential that countries press South Africa on its plan for free, compulsory primary education, so that all children can go to school.


Absence of personal wealth should never be a barrier to education.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Brussels) – The European Parliament should ensure that European Union funds for refugees also reach those with disabilities, Human Rights Watch and the European Disability Forum said in advance of an event at the European Parliament in Brussels tomorrow, March 28. Thousands of asylum seekers have been trapped for over a year in horrifying conditions in Greece, since the adoption of the EU-Turkey deal, and the organizations are deeply concerned that refugees with disabilities are being overlooked in the humanitarian response.

Lagkadika camp, Thessaloniki, home to 234 asylum seekers and other migrants, as of January 5, 2017. The rocky terrain in many camps makes it difficult for people who use wheelchairs to move independently, including to access basic services such as toilets or showers. Photograph by Emina Cerimovic. © October 2016 Human Rights Watch

The event, “Refugees with Disabilities: Overlooked, Underserved,” is organized by the European Disability Forum, Human Rights Watch, and Brando Benifei, member of the European Parliament and vice-chair of the Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament, a cross-party grouping of Members of the European Parliament actively promoting the rights of people with disabilities. The event will bring together Parliament members, European Commission representatives, organizations of people with disabilities, refugees, United Nations agencies, and aid organizations.

“Refugees with disabilities are at heightened risk of violence, including sexual and domestic abuse, discrimination and exclusion from access to humanitarian assistance, education, livelihoods and health care,” said Gunta Anca, vice-president of the European Disability Forum and panelist at the European Parliament event. “The European Union has the legal obligation to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in its humanitarian response.”

Other panel members are Christos Stylianides, the commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management; Nujeen Mustafa, a young Syrian refugee with a disability; Edouard Rodier, Europe director of the Norwegian Refugee Council; and Emina Ćerimović, Disability Rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants with disabilities are not properly identified and do not enjoy equal access to services in reception centers in Greece, Human Rights Watch said today. Together with thousands of other migrants and asylum seekers, they remain unprotected from freezing temperatures.

Participants will discuss the specific problems that refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants with disabilities face in Europe and steps the EU should take to address the problems. Nujeen Mustafa, who uses a wheelchair and who sought refuge from the war in Syria in Germany in 2015, will highlight that behind the statistics on migration are human beings fleeing deadly violence, some in the most challenging circumstances. They deserve dignified reception conditions, whether or not they have a disability.

In January, Human Rights Watch published its findings that people with disabilities were not being properly identified in the refugee reception system in Greece. The European Disability Forum’s mission to Greece in October 2016 had similar findings. Both documented that people with disabilities had difficulties getting access to basic services such as shelter, sanitation, and medical care, and like others, had limited access to mental health care.

In October, in the Elliniko camp in Athens, Human Rights Watch met 8-year-old Ali, from Afghanistan, who uses a wheelchair and could not use the camp’s toilets, which had narrow stalls and no ramps. As result, he had to start wearing diapers. After his conditions deteriorated for lack of adequate health care and physical rehabilitation, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, finally moved his family from the squalid conditions in the camp to an apartment in Athens, UNHCR told Human Rights Watch in January 2017. But the needs of many other people with disabilities in Greece have not been met.

Addressing the rights and needs of people with disabilities and other at-risk people, such as unaccompanied minors, older people and pregnant women, should be at the core of the EU’s response to refugees.

Emina Ćerimović

Disability Rights Researcher

One problem is poor management of humanitarian funds by the Greek government, UNHCR, and other humanitarian aid agencies. Another problem is the lack of control and monitoring by the EU, and particularly the European Commission, to ensure that these funds benefit people with disabilities and other at-risk groups.

“Addressing the rights and needs of people with disabilities and other at-risk people, such as unaccompanied minors, older people and pregnant women, should be at the core of the EU’s response to refugees,” Ćerimović said. “There needs to be sufficient accountability of the European Union’s abundant funds for refugees and asylum seekers so that we know where this money is going.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by the European Union in 2010, requires European authorities to ensure the protection and safety of people with disabilities in situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies, and natural disasters.

The humanitarian response in Greece is the most expensive in history when measured by the cost per beneficiary, according to humanitarian aid specialists. The Greek government, with the support of the EU and its member states, should remove all obstacles in its asylum system preventing refugees from receiving the assistance they need.

The European Commission should also ensure that the allocated aid benefits all refugees without discrimination, including people with disabilities. As a first important step, the European Commission should clearly instruct the Greek government and its partner agencies operating aid programs for refugees to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities, and request information about how the programs it funds benefit people with disabilities and other at-risk groups.

The European Parliament should use its oversight role to ensure that the EU’s response is not discriminatory and that there is improved accountability for the use of EU funds for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Europe.

The member states of the EU should also accelerate relocation of asylum seekers, including those with disabilities, from Greece to other EU countries.

“As the umbrella organization representing over 80 million people with disabilities in Europe, we will keep on reminding the European Union of its obligations to protect and promote the rights of persons with disabilities, until every refugee and migrant with a disability in Europe is received in dignified conditions,” Anca said.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Athens) – The EU-Turkey deal has trapped thousands of people in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands for the past year, while denying most access to asylum procedures and refugee protection, Human Rights Watch said today. This assessment of conditions is released ahead of the first anniversary of the agreement, signed on March 18, 2016.

A refugee squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living in fear of being forcibly returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

To carry out the deal, the Greek government has adopted a containment policy, keeping asylum seekers confined to the islands, including in the so-called refugee hotspots and other reception facilities, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey. But continued arrivals, the mismanagement of aid funding, and the slow pace of decision-making, as well as the positive decisions of Greek appeals committees rejecting summary returns to Turkey as unsafe, have led to overcrowded and abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. These factors, combined with the Greek authorities’ failure to properly identify vulnerable asylum seekers for transfer to the mainland, have resulted in deteriorating security conditions, unnecessary suffering, and despair.

“The EU-Turkey deal has been an unmitigated disaster for the very people it is supposed to protect – the asylum seekers trapped in appalling conditions on Greek islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should ensure that people landing on Greece’s shores have meaningful access to asylum and put an end to the containment policy for asylum seekers.”

Asylum seekers from Algeria at a refugee squat on Lesbos. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants,” such as Algerians, are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained on that basis. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has made repeated visits to official and informal reception facilities on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, most recently to Lesbos in late February 2017. Dozens of interviews with asylum seekers and migrants trapped on the islands show the detrimental impact of the deal on their human rights. Human Rights Watch has also found abysmal conditions in official reception facilities on the Greek mainland, but with more prospects for improving reception conditions and asylum processing procedures there compared to the islands.

According to figures from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the maximum official reception capacity at official and informal reception facilities on the five main islands receiving asylum seekers and migrants is 8,759, compared with the 12,963 asylum seekers on the islands as of March 14. Facilities with almost twice as many people as they are meant to serve are not able to cope with the continuing arrivals of small numbers of people fleeing conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Conditions in some facilities on the mainland are also poor, and require improvement to bring them up to humanitarian standards, in line with Greece’s obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

While Greece has received significant assistance from European Union institutions and member states, the European Commission has also pressured Greece to weaken procedural safeguards and protections for vulnerable groups and to speed up operations under the deal to facilitate transfers to Turkey.

The deal’s flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers would allow Greece to transfer them back to Turkey without considering the merits of their asylum claims. But in the months after the deal was completed, Greek asylum appeals committees have rightly ruled in many instances that Turkey does not provide effective protection for refugees and that asylum applications should be admitted for regular examination on their merits in Greece.

Following EU pressure, however, Athens changed the composition of the appeals committees in June, and the restructured committees have ruled in at least 20 cases that Turkey was a safe country, even though it excludes non-Europeans from its refugee protection. That finding was challenged by two Syrian asylum seekers at Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, which heard their case on March 10.

No one has yet been forcibly returned to Turkey on the grounds that their asylum application was inadmissible because they could obtain effective protection in Turkey. But if the Council of State turns down the appeal, it could pave the way for mass returns of asylum seekers to Turkey.


A makeshift shelter at a squat in an abandoned building, on Lesbos, where Syrian asylum seekers live. Since the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, in March 2016, thousands of people have been trapped in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

In an Action Plan published in December 2016, the European Commission recommended tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns to Turkey, including ending exemptions for vulnerable groups and people eligible for family reunification from the requirement to remain on the islands and go through the fast-track admissibility process that could result in a return to Turkey. The commission also recommended expanding detention on the islands and curbing appeal rights. The Greek parliament was to consider legal changes to carry out those recommendations during the week of March 13, 2017.

Greece should resist EU pressure to weaken protections for vulnerable asylum seekers, to expand detention on the islands, to weaken appeal rights, and to send asylum seekers back to Turkey without first determining their protection needs, Human Rights Watch said.

While the EU-Turkey statement does not explicitly require keeping asylum seekers on the islands, EU and Greek officials cite implementation of the deal as a justification for the containment policy. Even if transferring asylum seekers to the mainland would complicate possible returns to Turkey, this is an unacceptable excuse for condemning people to conditions that threaten their health and cause huge anxiety, Human Rights Watch said.

“If the EU is serious about preserving the right to seek asylum, it needs to take a hard look at how the failings of the EU-Turkey deal apply in practice,” Cossé said. “A better-managed and rights-oriented approach by the EU would have put less of a burden on Greece and resulted in better protection and less suffering for thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.”

For more information on flaws in Greece’s current asylum system under the EU-Turkey deal and accounts from asylum seekers and migrants trapped in abusive conditions on the Greek islands, please see below.

Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
Despite significant financial and technical assistance to Greece, there are serious shortcomings in access to asylum for those on the islands. An April 2016 law to facilitate the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal creates a fast-track procedure to examine eligibility and admissibility for international protection claims on the islands within 15 days, including appeal. The law does not guarantee free legal assistance for the initial procedure and limits the possibility for an oral hearing during an appeal, undermining the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights.

In practice, the decisions are taking far longer, leaving people in limbo. Human Rights Watch has also documented discrepancies between the periods that people of different nationalities have had to wait to register their asylum claims or to have them examined. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants” are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained at police stations and detention facilities inside the hotspots on that basis, raising concerns about the use of arbitrary detention on the basis of nationality. This differential treatment and frustration at delayed procedures has led in some cases to unrest in detention centers. Other problems include poor or no interpretation during interviews in some cases, and serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance.

Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect are considered ineligible for relocation to other EU countries under a September 2015 EU relocation plan designed to alleviate pressure on Greece and Italy, even if asylum seekers meet other criteria.

Human Rights Watch has also documented failure to carry out the first reception process, which under Greek law provides for transferring “vulnerable groups” into the regular asylum system on the mainland with easier access to services. Instead, many members of  “vulnerable” groups – including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture, and people with disabilities – have remained trapped on the islands, especially people with less apparent “vulnerabilities,” such as people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities or torture victims.

According to the European Commission, since the deal entered into effect, 916 third-country nationals have been returned to Turkey, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis. The commission said that some did not apply for asylum, others withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision on their first hearing, and others were rejected for asylum after an examination on the merits. Human Rights Watch, other nongovernmental organizations, and UNHCR have documented many irregularities in the forcible returns to Turkey of those the Greek authorities portray as not having applied for asylum.

The EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek asylum in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection, including its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention that excludes non-Europeans from consideration for refugee status. In Turkey, Syrian refugees face obstacles to registration, access to education, employment, and health care, despite having access to temporary protection status. Others, including Iraqis and Afghans, do not have temporary protection status. Finally, Turkey’s border with Syria remains effectively closed.

The European Union and its member states are currently exploring the idea of similar arrangements to the EU-Turkey deal with North African countries, as part of a wider effort to move legal and administrative responsibility for asylum seekers outside EU borders.


Trapped in Dire Conditions: Recent Accounts
Reza, 23, from Afghanistan, arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, right after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force. He said, in February 2017, that the conditions on the island and uncertainty about the future cause mental anguish:

I arrived on March 21 [2016] so I’m almost a year here. I don’t have a legal paper to leave the island and I don’t have money to pay a smuggler. I feel I am nothing and that I don’t have control over my life anymore. I can’t leave from the island and after such a long time here, I feel that nothing has a purpose anymore. You feel like ‘crazy,’ wandering around without knowing why.

Heavy snow, rain, and strong winds in January exacerbated the already dire conditions on the islands that are housing refugees. Mazar Ali, a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan on Lesbos, said in February:

Our tent was outside in the snow and it got destroyed [because of the snow]. We went to Eurorelief [an aid organization in charge of accommodations] to get a new tent but it took them three days to give us a new one so we slept outside. We’re not allowed to leave from the island. You feel like being in a big prison here on the island. Many times, I feel I can’t breathe freely.

43-year-old Dilshad, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, said in February:

They told me to go to Eurorelief, take a tent, find somewhere to put it and live there.... Since then I am living inside a [summer] tent. As you can see living conditions are not good. Food is not edible.

Three men died on Lesbos in the six days between January 24 and 30. Although there is no official statement on the cause of these deaths, they have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast most likely caused by a cooking gas container killed an elderly Kurdish woman and her young grandchild at Moria.

Dilshad described the harsh conditions after the heavy snowfall in Lesbos, in January 2017:

My tent was coming down because of the snow. It was very hard and really, really cold. Once, a woman and a child died [inside the camp].... I want to be somewhere where I’m not in danger anymore. I am scared here.

A refugee tent at a squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living. Due to the dire and dangerous conditions in official facilities, many chose to live in abandoned buildings around Mytilene. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Lack of Identification of Vulnerable Groups
The Reception and Identification Service – supported by EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), medical aid organizations, and the UNHCR – is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival. This should include torture victims, and people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. But this screening is not always effective.

Nearly all asylum seekers and migrants interviewed reported feeling that their current lives were meaningless. They said they were frightened, depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Living on the islands perpetuates the trauma of displacement and despair and increases other threats to their safety, including physical violence and mental health concerns. Even people who do not have specific vulnerabilities should not be living under conditions that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arash,” 30, from Iran, described how conditions in the Moria hotspot, the EU-sponsored screening center on Lesbos where he’s been living since September 2016, have affected his mental state:

I’m suffering a lot here because I’ve lost my dignity. I’ve attempted three times to kill myself…. The conditions here remind me of the prison in Iran, the nightmares, the threats and the torture. The situation brings me to a very desperate condition. The medical certificates say this is not a place fit for me, but for the authorities this means nothing. Five days ago, they transferred me and my brother from the tent to a container. For six months, I was living in a small summer tent.

Arash said that during the first medical screening with Doctors of the World, he was assessed as not belonging to one of the vulnerable groups exempted from the EU-Turkey deal and allowed to move to the mainland, even though victims of torture are a protected category:

I told them I was a political prisoner, that I’ve been tortured, and suffered mock executions three times.... They asked me why I wasn’t executed and I explained this is a form of torture. I described all the physical and psychological problems I have but they wrote ‘No’ on my paper. 

Human Rights Watch contacted a Doctors of the World representative in Greece about Arash’s case. The representative said that during his initial medical screening, Arash had no visible injuries on his body and declined when asked if he wanted to speak to a psychologist or social worker. Arash later did request psychological support from Doctors of the World, who then asked Greek authorities to give him “vulnerable” status as a possible victim of torture. The request was refused, the Doctors of the World representative said.

Arash said his mental health deteriorated while on Lesbos. He told us that three days before attempting to commit suicide, he tried to visit the camp’s psychologist and told them he was tortured in prison and still has nightmares. The camp reminded him of the prison. The psychologist’s response was that “there are 90 people ahead of you in the line and you have to wait.”

Earlier in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify people with disabilities. Human Rights Watch also found a lack of access to mental health care and psychosocial support that is much-needed by asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece.

Ahmed and Fatima, an Iraqi couple in their late twenties, both have physical disabilities that make it very difficult for them to stand or walk. They told Human Rights Watch in October 2016 that they were not allowed to register their disabilities because they did not have a medical certificate for proof. “When we went to register [on Samos Island] they asked us for proof that we have disabilities even though they can see we do,” said Fatima, who now uses a wheelchair.

Seeking Asylum Under the Deal
“Ahmad,” a 36-year-old Syrian asylum seeker from Homs, arrived at Lesbos in July 2016. In February 2017, he described his interview under the EU-Turkey deal, in which the interviewer did not explain the purpose of the interview, would not consider his claim for asylum based on his persecution in Syria, and focused only on his time in Turkey, but did not adequately consider the lack of protection he experienced there:

When I got here they told me “either you apply for asylum or you go back to Turkey.” I applied for asylum, I got rejected, and now I am waiting for the appeal. They said “the court considered Turkey is a safe country for you so you are rejected.” I felt disappointment. They said I have to appeal or I’ll go to prison or be deported.

Ahmad said he had spent two months in Turkey, where he tried unsuccessfully to register for temporary protection. He said without registration he was denied access to health care for serious back pain because he lacked the necessary residence documents. In his interview in Lesbos, he said:

They didn’t explain the purpose of the interview but said I am not allowed to have a lawyer. They said, “if your application is rejected, then you are allowed to have a lawyer.” The most important thing during the interview was that the questions were all about Turkey. But I am not a Turkish man escaping Turkey. They should ask me about Syria instead. I always try to forget this interview. During the interview, they tried to avoid listening to what I had to say about Syria. It’s like a deal: “We need something on Turkey to reject you.”

“Willias,” a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Nigeria who arrived in Greece in June 2016, in February 2017 described his interview four months earlier:

During the interview, I was alone, I didn't have a lawyer and there was no translator. I spoke in English and I’m not good in English. I asked for a translator and the man who was in charge of the interview said the translator was not around. Then I got the negative answer. They gave me a lawyer and we asked for appeal. I don’t know what will happen, they don’t give details. I can’t go back to Turkey. I would rather die. I was in jail and I don’t like that. And the same goes for my country.

43-year-old Dilshad, the Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, gave a similar account in February:

I’ve done two interviews. Very simple questions. I don't know who they were. The interpreter was speaking Farsi. They told me there was no available interpreter for Kurdish. They didn’t explain to me what the interview was. They just told me to wait in my tent and that they will call me…. During the second interview they asked me: “If you go back to Turkey and have the possibility to get papers is it OK for you?” and I said no because I was imprisoned there.

Hussein Sherif, a 37-year-old man from Iraq who arrived in Greece at the end of August, said in February that he had not yet been interviewed: “They told me the closest date for an interview is March 23. But other people who came after me have received a closer date for an interview. I feel they treat people depending on their mood. They treat animals better than us humans.”

Hussein said he had been attacked and repeatedly stabbed on the belly by three Iraqi men, in Mytilene, Lesbos. He was hospitalized for 10 days and underwent surgery: “I went to the police to file a complaint and they told me I have to pay 100 euros and that it will take time. I left it and hid for two months in an apartment in Mytilene because I was afraid.”

An abandoned factory on the island of Mytilene, that has been turned into a squat and shelter for asylum seekers stranded there. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Reza, the 23-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who arrived in Greece one day after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, said that in the first two months on Lesbos, he had no information about the asylum process and what would happen to him: “Then, an NGO came and told us that borders have closed and that we have to apply for asylum. But I didn’t know how to do it.”

Reza said that six months after he expressed his wish to apply for asylum, he received an asylum seeker’s card, but he said he is one of the few Afghans who have been through an asylum interview:

In the beginning, only Syrians were going through an interview. I am one of the few who was interviewed, three months ago. But I don’t have an answer yet. There are people who’ve been here for 10 months and haven’t been through an interview and others who are 20 days here and have left for Athens.

Reza said that the purpose of the interview was not explained to him:

The man who was interviewing me was a foreigner, probably from the European Union, and there was also an interpreter. They said from the beginning that they don’t want to know if I had problems in my country and that they only care if I had problems on my way here. For many times, they asked me why I didn’t stay in Turkey, and explained to me that Turkey is a safe country. I explained to them that Turkey is not safe. It’s a harsh country and you don’t feel safe there. They’ve sent many people back in Afghanistan and when I was there authorities threatened me that they will deport me back.

Samir, 21, from Algeria, said in February that when he arrived on Lesbos, he was detained in a closed facility inside the Moria hotspot, though people of other nationalities were allowed to go in and out of the camp:

At sea [in the Aegean], Swedish coast guard caught us. After that, we were directly brought to Moria and put to prison. This is the problem. When they hear Algeria, they put us immediately into detention, even if we’ve done nothing. When I arrived, they told me that I will stay for 25 days in detention and after that, if I don’t get asylum I will be sent back to Turkey…. I stayed for eight days in prison and then I decided to escape, while going to the interview with EASO [European Asylum Support Office].

“Fezi,” a 23-year-old Pakistani man, said he fled the area he was living, in Peshawar, because of the high incidence of suicide bombings and drone attacks. He described in February what happened to him after he arrived in Lesbos:

I stayed in Moria for eight to nine months. During that period, they took me for two months to jail [immigration detention inside Moria]. I don’t know why. The police came, put me in handcuffs, and took me to jail inside Moria. They didn’t explain why. They took my papers and everything I had. After two months, they gave me my papers back and said, “You can go.” I was afraid because all Pakistanis go to the EASO interviews and they fail. Every single Pakistani is rejected except those who are Christian.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, I think of “Merri,” one of the most formidable and resilient women I have ever met. A 50-year-old Aboriginal woman with a mental health condition, Merri grew up in a remote community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. When I met her, Merri was in pre-trial detention in an Australian prison. It was the first time she had been to prison and it was clear she was still reeling from trauma. But she was also defiant.

“Six months ago, I got sick of being bashed so I killed him,” she said. “I spent five years with him [my partner] being bashed; he gave me a freaking [sexually transmitted] disease. Now I have to suffer [in prison].”

Merri’s story is not uncommon. Studies show that women with physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence and abuse than other women. More than 70 percent of women with disabilities in Australia have experienced sexual violence, and they are 40 percent more likely to face domestic violence than other women.

Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of domestic violence than non-indigenous women. Indigenous women who have a disability face intersecting forms of discrimination because of their gender, disability, and ethnicity that leave them at even greater risk of experiencing violence—and of being involved in violence and imprisoned.

I recently traveled through Western Australia visiting prisons, and I heard story after story of indigenous women with disabilities whose lives had been cycles of abuse and imprisonment, without effective help. For many women who need help, support services are simply not available. They may be too far away, hard to find, or not culturally sensitive or accessible to women. The result is that Australia’s prisons are disproportionately full of indigenous women with disabilities, who are also more likely to be incarcerated for minor offenses.

For numerous women like Merri in many parts of the country, prisons have become a default accommodation and support option due to a dearth of appropriate community-based services. As with countless women with disabilities, Merri’s disability was not identified until she reached prison. She had not received any support services in the community.

Merri has single-handedly raised her children as well as her grandchildren, but without any support or access to mental health services, life in the community has been a struggle for her. Strangely—and tragically—prison represented a respite for Merri. With eyes glistening with tears, she told me: “[Prison] is very stressful. But I’m finding it a break from a lot of stress outside.”

Today, on International Women’s Day, the Australian government should commit to making it a priority to meet the needs of women with disabilities who are at-risk of violence and abuse. In 2015, a Senate inquiry into the abuse people with disabilities face in institutional and residential settings revealed the extensive and diverse forms of abuse they face both in institutions and the community. The inquiry recommended that the government set up a Royal Commission to conduct a more comprehensive investigation into the neglect, violence, and abuse faced by people with disabilities across Australia. The government has been unwilling to do so, citing the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Quality and Safeguard Framework as adequate.

While the framework is an important step forward, it would only reach people who are enrolled under the NDIS. Its complaints mechanism would not provide a comprehensive look at the diversity and scale of the violence people with disabilities experience, let alone at the ways in which various intersecting forms of discrimination affect people with disabilities.

The creation of a Royal Commission, on the other hand, could give voice to survivors of violence inside and outside the NDIS. It could direct a commission’s resources at a thorough investigation into the violence people with disabilities face in institutional and residential settings, as well as in the community.

The government urgently needs to hear directly from women like Merri about the challenges they face, and how the government can do better at helping them. Whether or not there is a Royal Commission, the government should consult women with disabilities, including indigenous women, and their representative organizations to learn how to strengthen support services. Government services that are gender and culturally appropriate, and accessible to women across the country, can curtail abuse and allow women with disabilities to live safe, independent lives in the community.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am