Bulgaria bears a “big responsibility” for protecting the European Union’s external borders and should do so “in full respect” of migrants’ human rights, says Europe’s senior minister for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgarian border police stand near a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border on July 17, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

Speaking in the country’s capital, Sofia, Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said Bulgaria had the EU’s support as well as his “personal commitment” as it seeks to police Europe’s outer frontiers.

But can Avramopoulos really be confident that Bulgaria will respect migrants' rights in the way he hopes? Its track record suggests not.

Take the case of 16-year-old ‘Abdullah’ from Afghanistan, who experienced Bulgaria’s “respect” first hand.

“When Bulgarian police saw us, we tried to run away,” he said. “They chased us with dogs and shot at us. There were five police. When they caught us, they started beating us. They kicked me and the others wherever they could reach. They did this for about an hour and threatened us with the dogs. They took my money and mobile.”

Abdullah (not his real name) is one of several migrants and asylum seekers who told Human Rights Watch about summary returns from Bulgaria, and violence both at its borders and inside detention centers in late 2015. These are not new problems; we also documented similar abuses in April and September 2014.

Yet Abdullah’s and hundreds of others’ similar testimonies have fallen on deaf ears at EU headquarters in Brussels. While Bulgaria has the right to protect its borders, it doesn’t have the right to summarily return people to Turkey or physically abuse them. By focusing on border protection, Avramopoulos missed the chance to press Bulgaria on violence against migrants and asylum seekers.

The commission should forcefully remind Bulgaria of EU laws and standards, and urge Bulgarian authorities to investigate these credible reports of abuses and bring them to a halt. Because ignoring Abdullah’s story won’t make the allegations go away, and resorting to violence is no way to manage the refugee crisis.

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

14 March 2019

Dear European leaders,

We, the 25 undersigned humanitarian, human rights and volunteer organizations call on you, in the run up to the third anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal, to take immediate and sustained action to end the unfair and unnecessary containment policy which is preventing asylum seekers from leaving the Greek islands. We also call on you to urgently reach a common responsibility-sharing agreement for hosting asylum seekers across EU Member States.

The policy that traps people on the Greek islands and prevents them from reaching the European mainland has caused a recurrent and endless cycle of overcrowding, substandard living conditions and extremely poor access to services: the European “hotspots” continue to provide accommodation and basic services, such as food and medical assistance, well below minimum standards. The European response in Greece has proven to have disastrous consequences on refugees’ rights, including their health and safety. This has been exhaustively documented and brought to your attention through countless reports over the last three years[1].

As many as 20,000 asylum seekers were stranded in unsafe, unhygienic and degrading conditions on the Greek islands in 2018. Currently, around 12,000 people are still forced to live in inadequate reception and identification centers built for a maximum capacity of half this population: sleeping in unheated tents or overcrowded containers with limited access to running water and electricity, and often exposed to ongoing violence, harassment and exploitation, amid high tensions, lack of security and minimal protection.

While the number of asylum applications across Europe has dropped over the last three years, the number of asylum applications filed in Greece has increased exponentially. In Lesvos alone, for instance, the number of asylum applications more than tripled between 2016 (5,000 applications) and 2018 (17,270 applications). At the same time, organizations providing medical and legal assistance are stretched beyond capacity. By preventing most asylum seekers from leaving the islands and being transferred to the European mainland, European governments are putting undue pressure on the islands’ residents, local community resources, local authorities, and on Greece, while reception conditions, including the protection mechanisms for asylum seekers are still substandard.

The expectation that most newcomers could be returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal has proved to be dangerously unrealistic. According to Greek Asylum Service representatives in Lesvos, only up to 6% of the asylum-seekers arriving to Lesvos would be eligible for return to Turkey.

It is shameful that, despite this sobering reality, some European governments have been holding hostage any real responsibility sharing mechanism until returns are sped up and increased, focusing instead on deterrence policies and border controls at the expense of basic rights and safeguards. The current situation at the borders of Europe is the direct result of those short-sighted and unsustainable policies implemented following the EU-Turkey deal and the lack of aptitude and political will across Europe to find common ground on key aspects of a common European asylum system.

As civil society organizations from across the European continent, we are convinced that the EU has sufficient resources and capacity to respond humanely to the needs of all those seeking asylum in its territory. Taking immediate measures to improve the conditions of people seeking asylum in Europe and finding a solution to the current humanitarian and human rights crisis at Europe’s border is your responsibility and duty. We therefore call on you to live up to Europe’s human rights foundation and values. To that end, we, the undersigned organizations, call on you to:

  • urgently agree on fair and sustainable arrangements for sharing responsibility for asylum seekers arriving in Europe, that will ensure member states’ ability to provide decent and dignified conditions for people in need of protection. In this context, we welcome the recent announcement of an agreement between the governments of Portugal and Greece, to gradually relocate 1,000 refugees out of the camps.
  • urge the Greek Government to suspend immediately the restriction of movement that unnecessarily contains asylum seekers in the Greek islands, imposing squalid and dangerous living conditions on them and putting unfair pressure on Greece and the residents of the Aegean islands. To facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers off the islands, increased reception capacity in the mainland and more effective shelter allocation are needed.
  • urge the Greek Government to better allocate and use EU funding - not only prioritizing the support of the border control and asylum procedures, but also ensuring the provision of essential services - such as medical and legal services for the safety and rights of migrants - as well as the planning of a fair and an efficient asylum system and a long term and sustainable reception and integration plan for refugees and migrants in Greece.

Yours sincerely,                                                                             

ActionAid Hellas

Amnesty International

Avocats Sans Frontières France

Boat Refugee Foundation

Caritas Hellas

CEAR - Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado

Danish Refugee Council

DIOTIMA - Center for Research on Women’s Issues

Equal Rights Beyond Borders

Greek Council for Refugees

Greek Helsinki Monitor

Human Rights Watch

International Rescue Committee

JRS Europe

JRS Hellas

Legal Center Lesbos

Mare Liberum

Médecins du monde - Greece

Oxfam

Praksis

Refugee Legal Support

Refugee Rights Europe

Solidar

Solidarity Now

Terre des hommes Hellas

To:

- EU Member States’ Heads of State

- EU Member States’ Ministers of Migration, Justice and Home Affairs,

CC:

- European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos

- Deputy Director-General for Migration – DG Migration and Asylum (HOME), Simon Mordue

 

[1]  See e.g. Danish Refugee Council, Fundamental rights and the EU hotspots approach, 2017 at https://drc.ngo/media/4051855/fundamental-rights_web.pdf, Doctors without Borders at https://www.msf.org/moria-state-emergency or https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/story/refugees-further-traumatizedconditions-greeces-moria-camp as well as the International Rescue Committee at https://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/document/3153/unprotectedunsupporteduncertain.pdf, Greek Council for refugees in https://www.gcr.gr/media/k2/attachments/SCIZReportZfinalZPDF.pdf, Oxfam at https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/2019-01_greece_media_briefing_final.pdft, or International Center for Migration Policy Development at https://www.icmpd.org/fileadmin/ICMPD-Website/2019/Strive_Study_final_pdf.pdf

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A group Venezuelan “caminantes” (“walkers”) carry their belongings after leaving the border city of Cucuta, Colombia on July 29, 2018. Every day, hundreds of Venezuelans begin the journey on foot towards other cities in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, looking for a better life. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The United States Department of Homeland Security should designate Venezuelans for Temporary Protected Status because deteriorating conditions make it unsafe at this time to force people to go back there, Human Rights Watch said today.

The massive exodus of people from Venezuela is caused largely by a humanitarian crisis marked by severe shortages of medicine and food. Many Venezuelans have also fled because of a ruthless government crackdown that has led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, prosecutions of hundreds of civilians by military courts, and torture and other abuses of detainees.

“The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is a classic case of the need for blanket temporary protection,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “This is not the time to be deporting Venezuelans.”

Companion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would designate Venezuelans for Temporary Protected Status for 18 months. Both bills say, “Venezuela is enduring an unprecedented economic, humanitarian, security, and refugee crisis, consisting of extreme food and medicine shortages, severe infant and child malnutrition, rampant crime, and government-sponsored repression.” In addition, on March 7, 2019, Senators Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) led a bipartisan letter with 24 co-signers calling on President Donald Trump to designate Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status.

The responsibility for the humanitarian crisis, which has deepened since 2017, lies largely with Venezuelan authorities, Human Rights Watch said. During Nicolás Maduro’s presidency, the government has failed to address the crisis while making heavy-handed efforts to deny and conceal its severity.

More than 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, according to the United Nations. The vast majority – 2.7 million – are in Latin America or the Caribbean. But as of June 2018, more than 72,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers were in the US. The Venezuelan American National Bar Association estimates that there are about 150,000 Venezuelan nationals in the US who would qualify for Temporary Protected Status.

Temporary Protected Status is intended to protect nationals and habitual residents of countries experiencing extraordinary and temporary conditions from being returned to those countries if they are not able to return in safety. Unlike asylum, which is intended to provide permanent protection, Temporary Protected Status does not require a person to qualify for or to seek refugee or asylee status based on a well-founded fear of being persecuted. Instead it considers generalized conditions that violate human rights as the basis for protection.

Venezuela is facing a severe humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch research shows that its health system is in utter collapse, with increased levels of maternal and infant mortality; the spread of vaccine preventable diseases, such as measles and diphtheria; and dramatic surges in infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. Although Venezuelan authorities have stopped publishing official data on nutrition years ago, research by Venezuelan organizations and universities document high levels of food insecurity and child malnutrition.

In the last quarter for which statistics are available (July – September 2018), Venezuelans were the leading nationality seeking asylum in the US. The 6,763 Venezuelan asylum applicants were 30 percent of all asylum applications in the US during that three-month period in 2018.

Human Rights Watch has urged Venezuela’s neighbors to provide region-wide temporary protection that would grant all Venezuelans legal status for a fixed period, at least until decisions are issued on their individual claims for protection.

“Some Venezuelans will qualify for asylum based on a well-founded fear of being persecuted if returned,” Frelick said. “Temporary Protected Status is the best available way to offer protection for people who do not qualify as refugees or are not seeking asylum but who nevertheless should not be sent back to their country because of generally unsafe conditions there.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Reference: B1935

Carmen Daniela Dan

Minister of Internal Affairs

Presidency of the Council of the European Union

6 March 2019

 
 
Dear Minister Dan,

I am writing to you to share the proposals put forward by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to address the policy crisis in the Mediterranean, following the closure of Italian ports to rescue vessels. The document Plan of Action: Twenty steps for a fair and predictable rescue system in the Mediterranean Sea proposes collective and workable solutions to save human lives and set up a fair system to share responsibility for examining and processing claims of people seeking protection disembarked in European ports.[1]

The scale of continuing incidents and loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea is unacceptable, and member states should be examining both the extent to which their policies contribute to endangering migrants’ lives and how they can save lives.  Nor is it acceptable to willingly ignore the devastating consequences of enlisting the help of Libyan authorities in preventing arrivals to the EU in order to characterize EU-Libyan cooperation on migration as a success.

Recently, Amnesty International[2] and Human Rights Watch[3] have highlighted yet again how the EU’s approach, far from dismantling the business of human smugglers and traffickers, is contributing to a cycle of violence and abuse, as people intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard – trained, equipped, funded and assisted by EU member states and institutions - are brought back to abysmal conditions in overcrowded and unsanitary detention centres where they are arbitrarily detained and exposed to torture, including rape and beatings sometimes inflicted to extract a ransom from their families. Despite this, the European Union and its member states have failed to reconsider their continuing assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard. Instead, they continue to commit material support, including vessels, to Libya, despite the lack of progress towards ending arbitrary detention and torture of people returned to Libya. As our recent research demonstrates, efforts by international agencies and even the opening by UNHCR of a Gathering and Departure Facility in Tripoli in December, have not resulted in systemic changes on the underlying level of abuses and violence.

At the same time, EU states have criticised the action of non-governmental rescue organisations, as reflected in the June 2018 European Council Conclusions. Some EU governments launched an unprecedented offensive against NGOs operating search and rescue vessels, thus driving them out of the Central Mediterranean and leaving no genuine ‘rescue’ capacity in place.

For the relatively few people that NGOs, states or commercial vessels have been able to rescue in the past eight months, the EU has offered a dismaying spectacle. The continuous political standoffs between governments forbidding or delaying disembarkation in their countries has left individuals in life-threatening conditions at sea for prolonged periods in a clear dereliction of the legal and moral duty to ensure prompt disembarkation in a place of safety. The fact that some EU governments eventually decided to allow disembarkation or receive those disembarked is certainly a relief. However, standoffs are likely to continue until a predictable and sustainable solution is found that ensures prompt disembarkation of rescued persons, and fair support to countries of first arrival, in compliance with EU asylum standards throughout the reception and relocation process.

At a time of high levels of forced displacement globally, the EU should be open to protect and help those in need and refrain from pursuing approaches that legitimise the views of those who see migrants and refugees arriving to Europe only as a threat. Cracking down on irregular migration, without opening safe and regular routes for refugees and migrants, can only trap people in countries where they are exposed to human rights violations at the hands of unscrupulous authorities which the EU is enlisting as partners as a way of externalizing border controls.[4]

We call on you to act with resolve against port closures and current standoffs which hinder responsibility-sharing arrangements, and to bring the EU’s external approach in line with EU law and obligations under international human rights and refugee law.

We enclose a list of actions which should form part of the effective, sustainable and human rights compliant solution we would like you to discuss and agree to.

Your sincerely,

Covadonga de la Campa

Interim head of European Institutions Office and Advocacy Director

Amnesty International

Lotte Leicht

Director, EU Advocacy

Human Rights Watch

 

March 6, 2019     EUR 01/9961/2019

PLAN OF ACTION: TWENTY STEPS FOR A FAIR AND PREDICTABLE RESCUE SYSTEM IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA

ACTION 1: Establish a temporary mechanism for predictable disembarkation and relocation
Against the backdrop of stalemate in the reform of the Dublin system, and drawing on recommendations put forward previously by the European Council for Refuges and Exiles (ECRE),[1] Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call on European governments to establish temporary arrangements for disembarking and relocating in Europe people rescued at sea, and make the following recommendations in this regard:

  1. Participation in the mechanism should be as wide as possible and should be decided from the outset rather than being declared on a ship-by-ship basis. Countries not intending to join the mechanism immediately, however, should be able to join later.
  2. There should be clear criteria for the determination of places of safety in Europe where people rescued at sea are to be promptly disembarked, consistent with international law and standards. 
  3. EU and Schengen Associated States should agree on an equitable system of sharing responsibilities with respect to people disembarked in the form of relocation arrangements.
  4. While participating states may decide to offer relocation to asylum seekers only, eligibility of asylum seekers for relocation should not be subject to additional criteria such as nationality or presumed manifest well-foundedness of their protection claim or other criteria such as age, religion or gender. Any filtering system would impose an additional administrative burden on the asylum authorities in the landing countries and might potentially result in the discrimination against certain asylum seekers.
  5. Relocation arrangements should comply with the legal framework of the Common European Asylum System. This requires that individuals rescued and disembarked in the EU are immediately informed of the possibility to apply for international protection, are promptly granted access to an asylum procedure and to adequate reception conditions and are ensured appropriate solutions if they belong to specific groups such as unaccompanied minors or victims of torture, sexual violence or trafficking.
  6. There should be no automatic or otherwise unlawful detention of people disembarked. Detention should be used only as necessary and proportional on a case-by-case basis for the shortest time possible.
  7. Transfers should be carried out in accordance with the Dublin Regulation. States should safeguard the primacy of family unity and submit requests under the humanitarian clause for those not entitled to family reunification under the Regulation. Participating countries should commit to accepting humanitarian clause requests issued by the member state of disembarkation, unless the number of persons requested for relocation exceeds the allocation share of the receiving country.
  8. The allocation share should be based on objective criteria (e.g. GDP and population size) and should be defined at the outset between participating member states and Schengen Associated States to avoid unpredictable and time-consuming processes of pledging during individual search and rescue operations.
  9. Arrangements should be in force for a specified period and be renewable until a reform of the Dublin system is agreed.

ACTION 2: Ensure proactive search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recommend that EU institutions and member states ensure and enable robust search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. In particular, EU states and institutions should:

  1. Ensure that an adequate number of vessels with search and rescue as their primary purpose are deployed along the routes taken by boats carrying refugees and migrants for as long as departures of refugees and migrants continue.
  2. Refrain from penalizing shipmasters for assisting people in distress at sea, minimize any economic loss for private shipmasters engaging in search and rescue operations, and ensure that any vessels in such situation are promptly granted a place of safety where survivors can disembark and receive adequate assistance.
  3. Ensure that NGOs can continue to contribute to rescuing refugees and migrants at sea, in compliance with relevant international law and standards, and that, in line with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, they can operate in a safe and enabling environment.
  4. Issue clear guidelines to shipmasters to prevent the disembarkation of any people rescued at sea in countries – such as Libya – that cannot be regarded as places of safety.
  5. Limit any cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard, until such time as they treat people intercepted humanely and do not send them back to detention and abuse, to cases where their intervention is essential to prevent immediate loss of life and make it conditional on measures to mitigate against the risks of disembarkation in Libya, including by asking that the Libyan Coast Guard limit their search and rescue activities to Libyan waters except when their vessels are able most quickly to respond to a vessel in distress in international waters; allow search and rescue operations by civilian vessels, including boats operated by NGOs, to take place unhindered; and refrain from instructing them to disembark in Libya those they have rescued or to transfer them onto Libyan ships.
  6. Ensure robust monitoring of the Libyan Coast Guard conduct and operations at sea, and an accountability process in case of breaches of international law.

ACTION 3: Protect migrants and refugees’ rights in migration-related cooperation with Libya

As European governments engage with Libyan authorities, emphasis should be geared towards promoting the protection of rights, including those of refugees and migrants. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recommend that EU governments and institutions make continuing cooperation with the Libyan authorities conditional on concrete and verifiable steps towards:

  1. The prompt release of all refugees and migrants being arbitrarily detained in Libya, and the end of the system of automatic, indefinite detention.
  2. The full and formal recognition of the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in the form of a memorandum of understanding that guarantees the organization’s full access to people of concern across the country and the possibility to carry out its full mandate, irrespective of the nationality of beneficiaries.
  3. The signing and ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and adoption and enactment of new legislation, policies and procedures on migration and asylum, providing for the decriminalization of irregular entry, stay and exit; an end to automatic detention; and the creation of an asylum system that complies with international standards.
  4. The establishment of independent, impartial, and transparent monitoring of human rights violations against refugees and migrants in Libya, with the aim to ensure accountability for state and non-state actors.

ACTION 4: Commit to global responsibility sharing and to facilitating regular migration pathways

In accordance with the 2016 Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call on EU states and institutions to:

  1. Step up efforts to implement and increase resettlement pledges and open alternative pathways to protection to people in need of international protection – including for the thousands stranded in Libya – and commit to reviewing migration policies with a view to facilitate regular pathways for would-be migrants.

[1] See ECRE’s Proposal for a predictable and fair relocation arrangement following disembarkation, January 2019

[1] These proposals reflect and endorse recommendations previously made by the European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). See ECRE’s Proposal for a predictable and fair relocation arrangement following disembarkation, January 2019.

[2] Amnesty International, Cut adrift in the Mediterranean, January 2019.

[3] Human Rights Watch, No Escape From Hell, January 2019.

[4] See, in this respect, the 2016 EU Global Strategy, Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe,  p 27-28: “We must stem irregular flows by making returns more effective as well as by ensuring regular channels for human mobility. This means enhancing and implementing existing legal and circular channels for migration.”

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 

 

 

Dear Minister,

 
We, the undersigned organisations, networks and platforms, write to you to express our grave concerns and urge you to act over the current crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. Since January 2018, at least 2,500 women, children and men have drowned in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, EU leaders have allowed themselves to become complicit in the tragedy unfolding before their eyes.
 
For over six months, European governments have tried – and failed – to agree on a system that would allow survivors to be disembarked safely when they reach a European shore. As it stands, every time a ship brings people who have just been rescued to a European port, EU governments engage in painful, drawn-out debates about where the ship can disembark and which countries can host the survivors and process their asylum applications. All the while, women, men and children, who often carry physical and mental scars from their journey, are left stranded at sea, sometimes for almost a month. The EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean, Operation SOPHIA, risks being terminated altogether because European governments cannot agree on where to disembark rescued people.
 
In parallel to this situation, European governments are putting undue pressure on the civil society organisations that conduct life-saving search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Rather than supporting these activities in an effort to save lives, a number of EU member states have made it more difficult for them to operate; made unfounded allegations against them; and prevented search and rescue boats from leaving their ports. Whereas this time last year, five organisations were conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, only one is able to do so today.
 
The actions of European governments have made it extremely difficult for search and rescue organisations to continue their life-saving work, and have deterred other vessels from upholding their obligations to rescue people in distress and return them to the nearest place of safety. As a result, the Mediterranean has become one of the deadliest seas in the world. In January, a naval helicopter rescued three people, who reported that their ship had left Libya with 120 women, children and men on board. Everyone else had drowned.  People who are forcibly returned to Libya are likely to be placed in arbitrary detention, abused, tortured or sold into slavery. According to the UN refugee agency, over 15,000 people were returned to Libya in 2018.
 
Under international law, people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest place of safety where they will be treated with respect and offered protection. Europe has committed to save lives in the Mediterranean and share responsibility in hosting refugees. The rights to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement are repeated in the Treaties of the European Union, which also declares that the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These are the values we all believe in and the law we are bound by. They should be upheld regardless of political disagreements.
 
We ask you, in the upcoming Informal Justice and Home Affairs Council, to reach an agreement on timely disembarkation arrangements that will save lives and respect people’s fundamental rights, including their right to seek asylum. Specifically, we ask the council to:
  1. Support search and rescue operations: Countries should allow all vessels conducting search and rescue activities to dock in their ports, disembark people who have been rescued, and return to sea in a timely manner.  Attempting to prevent the life-saving operations of NGOs and commercial vessels is a dangerous approach that puts lives at risk and undermines citizens’ trust in their governments to resolve the situation.
  2. Adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements: Until positive reform of the Dublin System, including a permanent responsibility-sharing mechanism, is adopted, arrangements should be put in place to ensure timely disembarkation and distribution of rescued persons among EU Member States. Concrete proposals for relocation arrangements following disembarkation have been made by NGOs. Given the urgent need for measures on responsibility-sharing and the obstacles to an EU-wide solution, the arrangements should be agreed immediately, and the participating states should be identified from the outset, not on a “ship-by-ship” basis. No arrangement should absolve other member states from their legal obligations under EU law, international refugee law or maritime law. 
  3. End returns to Libya: Libya is a country torn apart by war, where refugees and migrants are regularly detained in horrific conditions that violate their basic human rights. Women, children and men who are returned to Libya by the EU-supported Libyan coastguard or under instructions from Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres face automatic, arbitrary detention and the real risk of torture and other serious human rights violations.  Authoritative sources, including some of the signatory organisations, have documented specific cases in which intercepted or rescued persons were tortured and abused upon their return to Libya. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has urged states to refrain from returning any third-country nationals to Libya because of risk to their safety. European governments should establish clear benchmarks, including an end to arbitrary detention, and be prepared to suspend cooperation and assistance to the Libyan coastguard if not met.

The situation is becoming more urgent than ever and we urge you to take immediate action.

Yours sincerely,

List of Signatories

[Europe]

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

SOS Méditerranée        

ACT Alliance EU              

Action Against Hunger

Caritas Europa

Churches´ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME)

Danish Refugee Council

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles

European Evangelical Alliance

Human Rights Watch

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC)

Missing Children Europe

Mixed Migration Centre             

Oxfam

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM)       

 

[Belgium]

11.11.11.

CIRÉÛ

Médecins Sans Frontières

  

[Italy]

AOI (national network)

Arcs

CEFA Onlus

COMI

Concord Italia (national network)

Focsiv (national network)

Gcap Italia (national network)

IPSIA-ACLI

Legambiente

Marche Solidali (regional network)

Sonia per un mondo nuovo e giusto    

 

[Malta]

African Media Association Malta

Blue Door English

Kopin

Malta Microfinance

SKOP                                   

 

[The Netherlands]

Amnesty the Netherlands

Dutch Refugee Council

Oxfam Novib

Pax for Peace

 

[Spain]

La Coordinadora

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Video

Libya: Displaced Population Can’t Go Home

Most of the 48,000 former residents of the Libyan town of Tawergha, forcibly displaced for seven years, have not been able to return home. Despite reconciliation agreements that should have paved the way for Tawerghans’ return, the massive and deliberate destruction of the town and its infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of insecurity, have kept all but a few families from returning. 

(Beirut) – Most of the 48,000 former residents of the Libyan town of Tawergha, forcibly displaced for seven years, have not been able to return home, Human Rights Watch said today after visiting the town.

Despite reconciliation agreements that should have paved the way for Tawerghans’ return, the massive and deliberate destruction of the town and its infrastructure, and a pervasive feeling of insecurity, have kept all but a few families from returning. New satellite imagery analysis shows that between 2013 and 2017, when militias from the nearby city of Misrata effectively controlled Tawergha, over 20 kilometers of the city’s underground electric cable network was most likely removed and apparently stolen.

“The militias, predominantly from Misrata, that uprooted and expelled the Tawerghans didn’t stop there but presided over the city’s systematic destruction, apparently to ensure that the displaced would find it impossible to return,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Government of National Accord should urgently devise a strategy for Tawerghans’ safe return, ensuring reconstruction and security, and accountability for militia members and commanders responsible for deliberate displacement and destruction.”

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor should consider possible war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Tawergha community as part of her office’s ongoing investigative efforts to address ongoing grave abuses in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

An estimated 48,000 Tawerghans have been dispersed around the country since the uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In August of that year, the entire civilian population fled approaching anti-Gaddafi armed groups, predominantly from Misrata, fearing attacks and reprisals.

In what amounts to collective punishment and forced displacement, a possible crime against humanity, armed Misrata groups and civilian authorities subsequently blocked and threatened Tawerghans who tried to return home, accusing them of siding with Gaddafi and of committing atrocities against those seeking his overthrow. People from Tawergha were unable to visit, let alone return, to their homes until the signing of the peace charter in 2018.

Representatives of the two cities signed a reconciliation charter in June that in principle provided for the Tawerghans’ return. But as of December, only about 100 families have attempted to resettle in their hometown, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Returnees face a devastated infrastructure, with no electricity, running water, or telecommunications, and scant education and health services. Some said they still feared attacks and retaliation by Misrata militias.

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Human Rights Watch visited the Libyan town of Tawergha, where only a handful of the 48,000 former residents forcibly displaced for seven years have returned to their homes.

 

Human Rights Watch visited Tawergha in September and met with the Local Council, the main body representing and coordinating relief for the city, nongovernmental organizations, the commander in charge of security from the predominantly Misrata-staffed Central Military Region – a unit nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Defense Ministry, and eight Tawerghan families who had returned. Human Rights Watch also visited Misrata and met with municipal officials who negotiated the return process and are overseeing the implementation of peace agreements on Misrata’s behalf.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed by telephone in December five families from Tawergha living in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Ajdabiya, who have decided against returning, citing the destruction and security concerns. Names of those interviewed, other than officials, have been changed to protect them from possible reprisals.

Tawergha Local Council members told Human Rights Watch that all power stations, water purification plants, water distribution tanks, and underground electric cables had been looted or damaged to the point of being inoperable. A tour of the city confirmed that this appeared to be wholly or largely true. Researchers also found that all public administrative buildings, including the courthouse, and the main bank branch, the general hospital and many if not all 22 schools suffered damage, much of it apparently from arson, as well as looting.

Local Council members said that all of the town’s private houses and shops had also been looted and damaged. When researchers drove through the town, and in nearby agricultural areas close to the river, every structure they saw or stopped at appeared to have some structural damage, including some caused by fire.

Three council members said that when displaced Tawerghans first attempted to return to the town in 2013, armed groups from Misrata looted and destroyed the town further to prevent their return. Historic satellite imagery assessed by Human Rights Watch also shows continuing deliberate destruction of electricity infrastructure after April 2013.

Armed groups from Misrata and civilian authorities in that city have exercised effective control, without interruption, over Tawergha since August 2011. The armed groups were largely affiliated with the Misrata Military Council, which coordinated military activities of armed groups from Misrata in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution.

Armed groups from Misrata, given their effective control of the city since 2011 either destroyed and looted the town themselves, or allowed others to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights and humanitarian law, the GNA, as the recognized and competent government authority, is required to facilitate the voluntary, safe and dignified return of displaced people to their homes and help them recover their homes, property and possessions, Human Rights Watch said. The Libyan authorities are required to investigate and prosecute all those responsible for international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, including commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes committed by their subordinates and failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent the crimes.

During the visit, Human Rights Watch observed that, despite the GNA’s commitment, reconstruction and recovery have yet to start in earnest. As of December 2018, the state electricity company had installed only one electricity cable, for street lights, on part of the main road. One NGO was retrieving unexploded remnants, and international organizations had provided limited food and non-food parcels, residents said. The head of the Local Council of Tawergha, Abderrahman al-Shakshak told researchers during a meeting in Tawergha on September 24 that despite pledges by authorities, the initial phase of clearing debris and assessing damage was moving slowly.

All Tawerghan residents interviewed by telephone said the scale of destruction had prevented their return. Some expressed anxiety about being in a city that remained under the watch and effective control of Misrata militias. Four of the five displaced Tawerghans interviewed also said they objected to provisions in the Reconciliation Charter that curbed their rights, including to express themselves.

Acts aimed at preventing the return of the civilian population to their homes in safety and dignity, including physically blocking people from going back and deliberate destruction and looting, are unlawful, Human Rights Watch said.

The ICC prosecutor has a mandate to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. Rampant militia violations since then have largely gone unpunished at the domestic or international level. That includes violations against Tawerghans, such as mass long-term arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced displacement, and unlawful killings. The ICC prosecutor should probe ongoing grave crimes by all sides, including possible serious crimes against Tawerghans, including deliberate acts preventing their return.

“While nothing can reverse seven years of forced displacement and dispersal, a measure of accountability for causing and preventing their return will not only bring justice to victims of serious violations and restore dignity, but it could serve as a deterrent for future crimes,” Salah said.

Timeline
Since August 2011, anti-Gaddafi fighters and later other militias, mostly from Misrata, arbitrarily detained, tortured, disappeared, and harassed people from Tawergha with impunity. According to the Tawergha Local Council, 170 people from Tawergha remain missing, the majority of them, they said, having been disappeared by anti-Gaddafi fighters during, or in the immediate aftermath of, the 2011 revolution.

In June 2013 Tawergha residents who were dispersed around the country attempted to return, but militia barred them. Authorities in the eastern city of Ajdabiya intercepted and turned back a convoy of Tawerghans trying to make the journey from Benghazi. The government at the time, religious leaders, local leaders, and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) all cautioned against a unilateral initiative by Tawerghans to return, citing security concerns.

The UN helped open a reconciliation process in 2016 between the people of Tawergha and Misrata aimed at ending the forced displacement and compensating victims. Representatives of both sides signed an agreement in August 2016. It provided for a fund by the UN-backed GNA to compensate victims and for lifting obstacles imposed by Misrata groups to the Tawerghans’ return.

After months of wrangling, the two sides agreed in April 2017 to modify the agreement based on requests from Misrata. The final compensation plan appeared to favor victims from Misrata, who will receive a higher compensation, over victims from Tawergha and excluded compensation for anyone presumed to have been pro-Gaddafi fighters or sympathizers. The sole provision on justice says: “The Libyan State shall take all necessary legal action to prosecute those accused” of crimes.

The Presidential Council of the GNA ratified the agreement in June 2017, and pledged the government’s “continued commitment to coordinate security arrangements, and to prepare necessary services for the anticipated return of the people of Tawergha and work toward providing necessary requirements for a dignified life according to the terms of the agreement.”

Thousands of people from Tawergha decided to return on February 1, 2018, based on the agreement, but forces from Misrata blocked thousands of people from returning and threatened to use force against anyone else who tried, apparently because some members of these Misrata forces disagreed with the agreement’s terms. Hundreds of families were stranded in new makeshift tent-camps east of the city, most in Qararet al-Qatef, 35 kilometers to the east. Many ended up returning to where they had been temporarily living.

On June 3, representatives from Misrata and Tawergha signed a reconciliation charter that was met with substantial opposition from Tawerghan community leaders, elders and activists, to end the dispute and allow Tawerghans to return. Al-Shakshak said that the two sides signed the charter to overcome objections from some officials and armed groups in Misrata, who had been blocking the return of Tawerghans.

The charter, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, imposes conditions on the return of Tawerghans, some of which run counter to international human rights norms and international humanitarian law.

The charter threatens free-speech rights, saying that Tawerghans are to “cease media campaigns, statements and demonstrations that may fan the flames of strife […].” The charter stipulates that “return shall be ensured for those who were regular residents of Tawergha prior to the 17 February Revolution, who recognize and pledge to abide by the provisions this Charter and the Agreement signed by both parties.” Forcing Tawerghans to abide by a charter as a condition for their return compromises their right as displaced people to return to their homes and violates their right to peacefully choose to express their views (or not) on the agreements.

Moreover, the preamble of the charter assigns responsibility for crimes in 2011, including “crimes against humanity,” only to Tawerghans, even though there is evidence linking Misrata fighters to atrocities. It also limits accountability for current and future crimes only to Libyan courts, violating the right to effective remedy and ignoring the ongoing jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The charter does not apply equally the right to truth and knowledge about what happened to missing people and appears to favor victims from Misrata over victims from Tawergha.

Controlled Demolition, Looting of Infrastructure
The extensive damage to Tawergha’s infrastructure encompasses the electricity grid, above-ground and underground power cables, power conveyers, water tanks, telecommunication installations, and water purification plants.

Satellite imagery and evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch researchers on the ground in September indicated that Tawergha sustained extensive looting of underground power cables over 20 kilometers in length, starting in April 2013 and continuing intermittently until August 2017, at a time when the Misrata authorities and armed groups had full control over access to Tawergha, enforced through multiple checkpoints leading into the town. The looting likely involved the use of heavy machinery to extract the cables and would have required loading them onto trucks and passing through checkpoints if they were transported elsewhere.

This damage is distinct from damage captured by satellite images taken in 2011, which included damage inflicted by combat and probable NATO air strikes during fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces that ended in October 2011. According to a Human Rights Watch damage assessment from 2013, the first phase of controlled demolition, looting and arson by anti-Gaddafi fighters started after they captured the town, around August 15, 2011. The next phase of controlled building demolition, involving the use of explosives and arson, began on or after November 24, 2011, three months after the Tawerghans fled.

As of December 2018, the state-owned Electricity Company had laid out one over-ground power cable about three kilometers long to illuminate street lights along the main road. In addition, the UN had provided eight solar-powered street lights. Few residents who had returned had access to generators.

Al-Shakshak told Human Rights Watch that all the deep-water wells and drinking water networks needed rehabilitation due to years of neglect and damage during the demolition and arson attacks. Based on visits to three sites, interviews with Local Council members, and analysis of satellite imagery and video footage, Human Rights Watch determined that all four water distribution tanks in the town had been destroyed. The Local Council says they were deliberately demolished, and all eight water wells and the main water purification plant that supplied Misrata with drinking water had also been damaged and looted.

There is no cellphone, landline, or radio coverage in the entire town. Al-Shakshak said that one mobile network operator had installed a temporary cellphone coverage in a nearby gas station, but the signal did not reach the town.

Local Council members said that all of the approximately 7,000 housing units in Tawergha had been damaged to varying degrees since the 2011 conflict. Al-Shakshak said that the council had established a committee to survey the damage to private properties. Tawergha residents needed to submit their personal files to this committee, which forwarded the files to private architectural offices to survey the damage and estimate the cost of reconstruction. They said that 300 files had been submitted for assessment.

Access to Health Care, Education
Human Rights Watch visited the Tawergha General Hospital, the city’s main healthcare facility, and found extensive damage throughout. Nearly all the equipment appeared to have been looted or damaged, in some cases by fire, and patient records were missing.

The only healthcare post operating in Tawergha is an improvised clinic consisting of four shipping containers that were transferred to the town after the temporary camp for Tawerghans in Qararet al-Qatef was dismantled in June. The only attendant of the clinic, a staff nurse from the Tawergha General Hospital, said the improvised clinic lacked plumbing, running water, and electricity. He said it could only provide basic medication such as pain killers and could not treat chronic diseases, perform surgery, or deliver babies. He said that one doctor visited occasionally but that all serious cases had to be transferred to other cities.

All of Tawergha’s 22 schools and its one college have been extensively damaged, according to the head of the Local Council. Researchers visited four schools that had been damaged by fire and found them without furniture, equipment, and student files. The GNA Education Ministry provided 10 containers for a temporary school. Al-Shakshak said the objective was to enroll up to 500 children. However, about 50 children are attending the school on an irregular basis and without receiving the official curriculum for all age groups, one Tawergha resident said.

Legal Framework and Accountability
The GNA-endorsed reconciliation agreement from August 2017 lays out agreed duties on the parties and the compensation packages to be paid by the GNA to victims or their families from both sides for people who were killed, detained or reported missing, for people who suffered disabilities, and for limited personal property losses. Members of the Local Council said that the follow up June 2018 reconciliation charter should be considered a “social contract” with no binding legal consequences for the parties. However, some of the provisions appear to be one of the reasons why people are reluctant to return to Tawergha.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, based on human rights and humanitarian law provide that displacement should be limited in time and should not last “longer than required by the circumstances.” International law further stipulates that civilians forcibly displaced from their homes during a conflict should be allowed to return home as soon as possible without conditions.

Principle 21 of the Guiding Principles states that the property and possessions of internally displaced people should be protected from “pillage, direct or indiscriminate attacks or other acts of violence,” and should not be “destroyed or appropriated as a form of collective punishment.” The article also states that “property and possessions left behind by internally displaced persons should be protected against destruction and arbitrary and illegal appropriation, occupation or use.”

Certain abuses committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, including torture, arbitrary detention, and forced displacement, may constitute crimes against humanity. The UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya concluded in its March 2012 report that Misrata militias had committed crimes against humanity against Tawerghans and that the deliberate destruction of Tawergha “has been done to render it uninhabitable.”

While Libya’s judicial authorities have prosecuted crimes attributed to Tawerghans, including for killings and unlawful possession of weapons during the 2011 revolution, no militia members have been prosecuted for forcibly displacing Tawerghans or other serious abuses against them.

Accounts by Tawerghans
Researchers interviewed eight residents in person in September in Tawergha and five former residents who had not returned by phone in December.

When Musa R., a father of 12, displaced in Tripoli since 2011, met with researchers in Tawergha in September, he said he was only visiting for the day and explained why could not stay:

My home here in Tawergha has been destroyed. The whole ceiling has been brought down. I cannot come back. Winter is approaching, and people here will have to leave again. There is no medical care for my elderly, sick mother and some of my daughters need to continue their university education. 

Khalil L. and Ihsan A., a married couple with six children whom researchers met in Tawergha, decided to return to their hometown after seven years of displacement in Benghazi with some of their children, despite the hardships. Ihsan A. said:

We can only stay here if they soon open a school for our children and if teachers show up. Many displaced families are afraid to return to Tawergha because they fear attacks from Misrata [militias]. There is no electricity here and no water, and the destruction is total and systematic. I am worried for the children when it starts to get cold. Many people cannot come back. Those who made a living elsewhere won’t come back.

Khalil L. said:

All electricity cables, both over ground and underground and cables in private homes were stolen after the arson of homes because of the copper, which has become very expensive. I believe it must have been a company that did that because all the large electricity transformers have been looted as well. The looting mostly occurred in 2013, after the first attempt by the Tawergha community to return to our hometown.

Citing harassment by militias from Misrata, Mustafa M., an outspoken Tawerghan critic of the reconciliation charter between Tawergha and Misrata, who had spent the last seven years displaced in Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch by phone that although he briefly visited Tawergha twice he was not able to return permanently due to safety concerns:

I went to Tawergha twice in September to visit my home, which has been destroyed. Both times, at the checkpoint at the entrance to Tawergha, I am clearly [seen as] an undesirable as I do not agree with the peace accord. My car was singled out and I was checked thoroughly though no one else was. I felt insecure. The same situation happened with my brother. I have decided not to go back for the time being as the security situation is still tenuous.

Faraj H., 50, another displaced Tawergha resident who lives in a camp in Benghazi, and who visited Tawergha twice, described his experience at a checkpoint:

The Misrata side has weapons and I fear for my security. During my visit, I was stopped at a checkpoint in el-Ain area by Katibat al-Zerzah, which is part of the Misrata army. They took my car papers and I had to follow them to al-Krareem where I waited for two hours before they gave back my documents.

Ahmed B., 51, a father of seven who has been living in a camp in Benghazi since his family’s displacement in 2011, said he had visited his destroyed home in Tawergha only twice since June, and could not return to live there:

We are not displaced. We are in fact homeless, we can no longer be considered just displaced. We’ve been like this for eight years now. Most of the people in Tawergha feel that they’ve been implicated in a shameful peace charter. There are no schools or universities, yet all my children study. Tawergha is in a state of utter devastation. The entire city has been destroyed. There is no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, the conditions are very harsh. It’s a burned land now.

Ali S., 47, a father of five, and displaced with his family in Ajdabiya since 2011, said he rejected the reconciliation charter and had concerns about returning to Tawergha:

I do want to return but I refuse to return like this. I’m absolutely dissatisfied with the charter. It’s a weak and shameful agreement. Misrata cannot decide for the people of Tawergha and cannot be in charge of protecting us. My house is unlivable, and it’s awfully burned. It was also looted, and they even pulled out the electricity wires […] They also stole the doors and windows. Even on a security level, things are not very comforting. We were enemies and they hurt us very much.

Mustafa Karwad, the mayor of Misrata, told Human Rights Watch during a meeting in Misrata on September 23 that people from Tawergha had the right to unconditional return to their hometown since the signing of the reconciliation charter on June 3 and said there had been no security incidents involving Tawergha residents during that period.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya.

Human Rights Watch found violent abuse by guards in four official detention centers in western Libya, including beatings and whippings. Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in three out of the four detention centers. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in 2018 were children.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Video

Libya: Nightmarish Detention for Migrants, Asylum Seekers

European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya. 

(Brussels) – European Union policies contribute to a cycle of extreme abuse against migrants in Libya, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The EU and Italy’s support for the Libyan Coast Guard contributes significantly to the interception of migrants and asylum seekers and their subsequent detention in arbitrary, abusive detention in Libya.

The 70-page report, “‘No Escape from Hell’: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya,” documents severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and lack of adequate health care. Human Rights Watch found violent abuse by guards in four official detention centers in western Libya, including beatings and whippings. Human Rights Watch witnessed large numbers of children, including newborns, detained in grossly unsuitable conditions in three out of the four detention centers. Almost 20 percent of those who reached Europe by sea from Libya in 2018 were children.

“Migrants and asylum seekers detained in Libya, including children, are trapped in a nightmare, and what EU governments are doing perpetuates detention instead of getting people out of these abusive conditions,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “Fig-leaf efforts to improve conditions and get some people out of detention do not absolve the EU of responsibility for enabling the barbaric detention system in the first place.”

In a letter to Human Rights Watch as the report went to print, the European Commission indicated that its dialogue with Libyan authorities has focused on respect for the human rights of migrants and refugees, that the EU’s engagement in Libya is of a humanitarian nature, and that concrete improvements have been achieved though challenges remain.

Kemi, a Nigerian woman who was seven-months’ pregnant at the time, said a guard at al-Karareem detention center beat her with a hose.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch visited the Ain Zara and Tajoura detention centers in Tripoli, the al-Karareem detention center in Misrata, and the Zuwara detention center in the city of the same name in July 2018. All are under the nominal control of the Directorate to Counter Illegal Migration (DCIM) of the Government of National Accord (GNA), one of two competing authorities in Libya. Human Rights Watch spoke with over 100 detained migrants and asylum seekers, including 8 unaccompanied children, and each center’s director and senior staff. Researchers also met with the head of DCIM; senior officials of Libya’s Coast Guard, which is aligned with the GNA; and representatives of international organizations and diplomats.

Abdul, an 18-year-old from Darfur, was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in May 2018, when he attempted to reach Europe to apply for asylum. He was subsequently detained in abysmal, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions in the al-Karareem center. He said that guards beat him on the bottom of his feet with a hose to make him confess to helping three men escape. Abdul’s experience encapsulates the struggle, dashed hopes, and suffering of so many migrants and asylum seekers in Libya today, Human Rights Watch said.

Senior officials in EU institutions and member countries are aware of the situation. In November 2017, EU migration commissioner, Dimitri Avramopoulos, said: “We are all conscious of the appalling and degrading conditions in which some migrants are held in Libya.”  Yet since 2016, the EU and particular member states have poured millions of euros into programs to beef up the Libyan Coast Guard’s capacity to intercept boats leaving Libya, fully aware that everyone is then automatically detained in indefinite, arbitrary detention without judicial review.

Detainees said guards at al-Karareem detention center beat them on the soles of their feet. 

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Italy – the EU country where the majority of migrants departing Libya have arrived – has taken the lead in providing material and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard forces and abdicated virtually all responsibility for coordinating rescue operations at sea, to limit the number of people arriving on its shores. The increase in interceptions in international waters by the Libyan Coast Guard, combined with obstruction by Italy and Malta of rescue vessels operated by nongovernmental organizations, has contributed to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions in Libyan detention centers.

Enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people in international waters and return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in Libya can constitute aiding or assisting in the commission of serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. EU and member state support for programs for humanitarian assistance to detained migrants and asylum seekers and for evacuation and repatriation schemes have done little to address the systemic problems with immigration detention in Libya, and serve to cover up the injustice of the EU containment policy.

Elijah said guards forced detainees to sit on the ground and stare at the sun.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

Libyan authorities should end arbitrary immigration detention and institute alternatives to detention, improve conditions in detention centers, and ensure accountability for state and non-state actors who violate the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. The authorities should also sign a memorandum of understanding with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, to allow it to register anyone in need of international protection, regardless of nationality, in full respect of its mandate.

EU institutions and member states should impose clear benchmarks for improvements in the treatment of migrants and conditions in detention centers in Libya and be prepared to suspend cooperation if benchmarks are not met. The EU should also ensure and enable robust search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, including by nongovernmental groups, and significantly increase resettlement of asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants out of Libya.

“EU leaders know how bad things are in Libya, but continue to provide political and material support to prop up a rotten system,” Sunderland said. “To avoid complicity in gross human rights abuses, Italy and its EU partners should rethink their strategy to truly press for fundamental reforms and ending automatic detention.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We, the undersigned refugee and human rights organizations in Thailand, welcome today’s commitment by the Government of Thailand to stop detaining migrant and refugee children. This commendable step brings Thailand closer to international standards for the treatment of refugee and migrant children and recognizes their fundamental rights under international law.

We urge the authorities to immediately release all refugees arbitrarily detained in Thailand and fully protect the rights of refugees and children, including by reuniting separated families and prioritizing the best interests of the child.

Today, Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, representatives of the Royal Thai Police, the Ministries of Social Development and Human Security, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Health, Education, and Labour signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Determination of Measures and Approaches Alternative to Detention of Children in Immigration Detention Centers. The MoU acknowledges that children should only be detained as a measure of last resort and any detention period should be as brief as possible. The MoU prioritizes the best interests of the child, and affirms government responsibility to ensure children remain under their family’s care. Children should only be transferred into privately-run shelters or government custody as a measure of last resort. The government is in the process of adopting detailed procedures to implement these provisions. 

The MoU reflects a first step towards ending the immigration detention of children, but further efforts are necessary to protect the best interests of the child and to bring Thai policy and practice in line with basic international standards. The MoU fails to address family separation, and migrant mothers are only granted release from immigration detention following a cash bail payment of 50,000 Thai Baht (US$1,500) to reunite with children in holding shelters. The bail rate is exorbitant for most migrants and, particularly, refugees, who are prohibited from working in Thailand. Furthermore, the bail provision does not extend to fathers of migrant and refugee children, undermining the rights of a child to family life as enshrined in international law and best-interest practices. Bail is further restricted to mothers with children who are also in immigration custody.

Thai authorities continue to conduct immigration raids that result in the arrest and arbitrary detention of children and refugees. Since October 2018, immigration enforcement operations have continued to take place throughout Bangkok and other cities across Thailand. Thai authorities have arrested hundreds of refugees recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including children. These arrests violate international legal norms regarding the protection of refugees and undermine the government’s stated commitments to respect basic human rights.

We note with alarm that children remain detained at Bangkok’s Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center. Thailand is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the arbitrary or unlawful detention of a child. The CRC allows for the separation of a child from his or her parents against their will solely in cases where “competent authorities subject to judicial review determine . . . that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Article 22 of Thailand’s Child Protection Act of 2003 requires the best interest of the child to be given primary importance when considering the treatment of a child. The continued arrest and detention of refugees has not demonstrated adherence to Thailand’s commitments under international law.

Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, the Thai government has repeatedly expressed a commitment to protect refugees in Thailand, including by adopting the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and endorsing the  Global Compact on Refugees during the UN General Assembly in December 2018. The Thai government also affirmed a commitment to “humanitarianism and to take care of various groups of irregular migrants” during the UN Human Rights Committee review of Thailand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March 2017. On January 10, 2017, the government also adopted a cabinet resolution to develop a legal framework to identify and recognize refugees. However, at present, the Thai government has yet to enact legislative measures to advance this resolution.

Despite the commitments made by the government, Thai law still fails to recognize or provide protection for refugees, and all migrants found in Thailand without permission are subject to imprisonment and a fine in addition to deportation. In the case of refugees, this is in violation of non-penalization protections underscored in international law and basic protections underscored in multiple human rights covenants.

We urge the Thai government to:

  • End the detention of all refugees held solely on the basis of their immigration status.
  • Ensure that migrants are never arbitrarily detained, and migrants are only detained in exceptional circumstances following an individualized assessment and after the exhaustion of all alternatives to detention in line with international law.
  • Undertake meaningful, formal consultations with groups representing refugees, other civil society organizations, and refugees where possible to develop a legal framework to recognize and protect refugees in line with international standards and ensure the right to work so that they have a proper standard of living while awaiting resettlement or repatriation.
  • Withdraw the reservation to Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which addresses the proper protection of refugee children.
  • Accede to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, and the Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Signatories

  1. Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN)
  2. Asylum Access Thailand (AAT)
  3. Center for Asylum Protection, (CAP)
  4. Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons (CRSP)
  5. Fortify Rights
  6. Human Rights Watch
  7. Migrant Working Group (MWG)
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A picture taken on December 4, 2018, shows workers at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al-Khor, a city in northeastern Qatar. 

© 2018 David Harding/AFP

(Beirut) – Qatar made some important progress on human rights in 2018 but failed to deliver on several key promised reforms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Among the promises not yet kept is the full repeal of the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, which gives employers excessive power over migrant workers.

“While Qatar has taken some important steps to protect human rights, there is still a long way to go before migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With the World Cup 2022 fast approaching, and as Qatar races to complete planned construction projects in time, now is the time to put in place durable labor rights reforms.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

In May, Qatar joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but did so with a range of formal reservations depriving women and migrant workers of some of the treaties’ protections.

In September, Qatar’s emir signed into law the Gulf region’s first refugee asylum law. The law demonstrates Qatar’s commitment to refugee rights but falls short of its international obligations, particularly with regard to its restrictions on refugees’ freedom of movement and expression.

Also in September, Qatar passed a law on permanent residency that would be available for the first time to children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men. With permanent residency, they can receive government health and educational services, and can invest in the economy and own real estate. However, the law falls short of granting women equal rights with men to confer nationality on their children and spouses.

On April 30, the ILO inaugurated its first project office in Qatar for a three-year cooperation program to help Qatar achieve its commitments on migrant rights. Its work will include replacing the kafala system with a new contractual system, setting a nondiscriminatory minimum wage, improving a system to ensure that wages are paid, and barring employers from confiscating workers’ passports. In September, Qatar also passed a law allowing most migrant workers to leave the country without an exit permit. But it excludes workers not covered by the labor law, such as domestic workers, and allows employers to apply to exclude some other workers.

“If Qatar truly wants to stand out in the Gulf region as a forward thinking and rights-respecting state, it should start by delivering fully and transparently on all its promised reforms,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

On September 4, 2014, a 23-year-old construction worker Alan Gonzalez stopped by a local store and discovered an armed robbery in progress. Children were attending pre-school a few doors down. Rather than turn away, Gonzalez went in and confronted the robbers. One pointed a fully loaded 9 mm handgun at his forehead and told him not to call the police. The gunman and his accomplice then fled, but Gonzalez ran after them. He quickly caught the gunman and put him into a headlock. During the ensuing struggle, Gonzalez was shot twice. After Gonzalez was shot a third time, the gunman was able to run away—but Gonzalez was so determined to stop the suspect that he chased him until eventually collapsing on the sidewalk covered in his own blood.

Miraculously, Gonzalez survived and became a star witness for the prosecution. The prosecutor said had Gonzalez not chased down the robbers, they might never have been caught.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Honduran migrant explains to Human Rights Watch research Carlos Rios-Espinosa the difficulties he has in making use of the bathrooms in El Barretal, Tijuana, Mexico.

© 2018 Luis Rodríguez Martinez/Human Rights Watch
In order to use the bathroom in the Tijuana migrant shelter, I had to be carried up a flight of stairs. Living in Latin America with a disability has never been a simple task; daily activities can be extremely difficult due to the lack of accessibility and specific supports for living independently. As a wheelchair user living in Mexico City, I had to be carried down two big stairs to be able to board my plane to get from the capital to Tijuana.

But things are much worse for the nine people with disabilities I met who traveled from different parts of Central America and Mexico to the US border as part of the migrant caravans. In November, their journey north in search of a life without violence and discrimination had stopped at El Barretal shelter in Tijuana, a town by the US border. Those who spoke with me were among the 12 migrants with disabilities registered by the Baja California state Human Rights Commission and other agencies. But the number is surely an understatement; people who may have less visible disabilities, such as developmental disabilities like autism or psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions), were not identified.

When I asked about migrants with disabilities, many representatives from international humanitarian agencies reacted with surprise and immediately acknowledged the need to more actively search for them.

Human Rights Watch researcher Carlos Rios-Espinosa interviews a Central American migrant with a disability outside the Benito Juárez stadium in Tijuana, Mexico. 

© 2018 Luis Rodríguez Martinez/Human Rights Watch

Violence and discrimination against people with disabilities in Central America

The stories of people with disabilities I met in the migrant caravan, although diverse, share common features. Most significant among these are experiences of violence and discrimination in the countries they’ve fled. But people with disabilities often experience other types of violence and discrimination that in some cases are intimately tied to their condition.

According to the Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities, a UN expert body that examines whether states are upholding the rights of people with disabilities, in Honduras, people with disabilities are threatened and extorted by the Maras and other criminal gangs. In the case of Guatemala, the Committee found that discrimination against people with disabilities in Guatemala is systematic and many of them are frequently victims of exploitation, violence, and abuse and that there are no measures for their protection, recovery, and reparation.

María and Ximena (not their real names) are two deaf women who arrived in Tijuana from Honduras. Like many other members of the caravans, they came to Tijuana by asking for bus rides and sometimes walking part of the way. Maria could communicate easily in sign language. A special education teacher from Guatemala, who also fled Guatemala as part of the caravan, helps interpret for the two women.

“I came with the caravan because there is no work in my country, and there is a lot of discrimination against deaf people, like me, in Honduras,” María said. “I worked in a maquiladora making lingerie, but when they realized that I was deaf, they began to pay me less money. They paid me 1,000 lempiras (US$41) a week, while the others earned up to three times more.” Also, her co-workers bullied her. “Everyone closed the door to me,” she said. “One day, I proposed to my friend Ximena that we leave with the caravan, and since then we have been on the road.”

Ximena's story was different and involves domestic violence. In sign language she told me, “My husband, who is also deaf, once hit my head against the wall.” She had to leave her five-year-old daughter behind. Unlike Maria, Ximena does not use sign language very well and had much less access to education. She cannot read and write. “If I go back to Honduras, my husband is going to kill me,” she said.

I also met Daniel Humberto Folgar Navas, a 49-year-old man from Guatemala with osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that causes his bones to break easily. “I have fractured my bones nine times, and I live with unbearably intense pain,” he told me. “In Guatemala, I do not have any disability benefits or social security, and although I am a school teacher, the only work I have been able to obtain is selling plastic bags in the market.”

Rafael Peralta has clubfoot. He left his country because he said that “as a disabled person, I have no hope; in Honduras disabled people don’t matter at all.”

He also experienced discrimination at work. “I worked in the fields doing agriculture, but I was paid just 400 lempiras (US$16) per week, while people without disabilities earn 1,200 (US$49) doing the same job. They made fun of me because of my physical disability.”

Traveling 3,000 miles with a disability

Getting to Tijuana from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador means traveling more than 3,000 miles and passing through different cities and towns. It’s a difficult endeavor for anyone. Most people with disabilities I interviewed said the people they met along the way were generally supportive, although social attitudes towards their disabilities sometimes placed them at risk, and they had experienced some dangerous and difficult moments.

Ximena and Maria both had guns pointed at them because they could not hear warnings. “Once, going through Guatemala, we had to relieve ourselves. We tried to do it in an open field because there were no bathrooms. Some men pointed their guns at us because we didn’t pay attention to their warnings to stay away…. When they understood that we were deaf, they let us go.”

For Rafael, there were moments of real anxiety. He told me, “Due to my clubfoot, I walk slower and to keep the pace with others in the caravan, I could not stop to drink water very often. In Chiapas, Mexico, I became dehydrated and my stomach began to hurt intensely, I could hardly urinate.” The walk demanded a lot of effort from Rafael, who walked with a cane. “Fortunately, in Oaxaca the Red Cross gave me some crutches and with those I continued my trip. They also gave me a wheelchair that I now use.”

In Tijuana, I had the opportunity to meet an older person with a disability who had been victimized by criminal gangs on the road. Gustavo Martinez, 68, who walks with a cane due to a knee injury, fled violence in his local community of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, together with his 25-year-old granddaughter. Unlike other migrants in the caravan, Martínez managed to save some money before setting out to pay for bus tickets. He said when they got off the train at the wrong stop, a gang of men with assault weapons stopped them. “They hung me by my ankles, and they pulled out one of my toenails, trying to force me tell them if I had relatives in the United States. They intended to extort money from us, but nobody said anything, and they released us.”

Living conditions in shelters for migrants

Life in shelters in Tijuana is harsh for people with disabilities. When the migrant caravan first arrived, people were placed in a sports stadium called Benito Juarez. Heavy rains in November flooded the camp and the local authorities moved people to an area called El Barretal. Although most of the Central American migrants from the caravans are there now, about 300 people remained near Benito Juarez until December 12, 2018. Juan Carlos Flores, member of Baja California Human Rights Commission, said that they refused to move to El Barretal due to its location, a 45-minute drive from the US border crossing. They wanted to stay near the border in case their names were called for the asylum petition.

In Benito Juarez, I interviewed two people with physical disabilities: Ramiro Carrera and Herbert Ramos, both from Guatemala. Ramiro has difficulty walking and Herbert has no mobility in his right arm. “In this place there is no bathroom and we have to use one that is two streets away from here. We are charged five pesos (26 US cents) each time we use it,” said Herbert. For Ramiro that meant getting pushed in his wheelchair to the bathroom by someone.

While El Barretal provides migrants with slightly better facilities, people with disabilities still face numerous challenges. “I cannot bathe every day because it's very difficult, I do it outside, but the bathroom costs 25 Mexican pesos (US$ 1.24) and it's difficult to get money,” Daniel Folgar, who uses crutches, said. “Although the authorities serve food twice a day, people have to stand a long time in line,” Folgar explained. “With crutches it's hard, I cannot carry the plate of food they give me. Although I get priority and many times others bring me food here, but not always. If I stand in line, I risk getting bumped by others and falling down.”

Rafael Peralta, who also uses crutches, talked about the challenges he faces accessing showers and a toilet. Selling cigarettes in the camp, he manages to earn some money to shower in a neighboring private bathroom from time to time. “It is very difficult to bathe in this place; sometimes I spend four or five days without bathing, until I manage to save some money.”

When Rafael took me to El Barretal showers and bathrooms, I was able to see the difficulties he was talking about. The latrines were dirty and had a horrible stench. There were puddles of water in the entrances. “If I try to enter the latrine with the crutches I can slip; that's why I prefer to use a plastic can to go to the bathroom,” said Rafael. Entering with a wheelchair would indeed be impossible.

The United States government might take a long time to process asylum petitions that are still pending. More so because of the US government’s announcement on December 20 that “individuals arriving in the United States from Mexico – illegally or without proper documentation – will be returned to Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings.” Before the arrival of the caravans, there was already a significant backlog managing the requests. For the time being, the Mexican government should implement a specific program to meet the requirements of people with disabilities who are in El Barretal. That could include the provision of an accessible latrine, and the appointment of support staff so that these people can perform personal hygiene and are provided with food in a safe manner.

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

(Athens, December 18, 2018) – Greek law enforcement officers at the land border with Turkey in the northeastern Evros region routinely summarily return asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch said today. The officers in some cases use violence and often confiscate and destroy the migrants’ belongings.

“People who have not committed a crime are detained, beaten, and thrown out of Greece without any consideration for their rights or safety,” said Todor Gardos, Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek authorities should immediately investigate the repeated allegations of illegal pushbacks.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants including asylum seekers in a dilapidated building in Borici camp, Bihac, Bosnia Herzegovina. November 19, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch
(Budapest) – Croatian police are pushing migrants and asylum seekers back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in some cases violently, and without giving them the possibility to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 people, including 11 heads of families and 1 unaccompanied boy, who said that Croatian police deported them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without due process after detaining them deep inside Croatian territory. Sixteen, including women and children, said police beat them with batons, kicked and punched them, stole their money, and either stole or destroyed their mobile phones.

Tent camp on outskirts of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia Herzegovina, close to Croatian border, where migrants including asylum seekers sleep rough. November 21, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

“Croatia has an obligation to protect asylum seekers and migrants,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern EU researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Croatian police viciously beat asylum seekers and pushed them back over the border.”

All 20 interviewees gave detailed accounts of being detained by people who either identified themselves as Croatian police or wore uniforms matching those worn by Croatian police. Seventeen gave consistent descriptions of the police vans used to transport them to the border. One mother and daughter were transported in what they described as a police car. Two people said that police had fired shots in the air, and five said that the police were wearing masks.

These findings confirm mounting evidence of abuse at Croatia’s external borders, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2016, Human Rights Watch documented similar abuses by Croatian police at Croatia’s border with Serbia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in August 2018 that it had received reports Croatia had summarily pushed back 2,500 migrants and asylum seekers to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina since the beginning of the year, at times accompanied by violence and theft.

In response to a call by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner to investigate the allegations, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in September denied any wrongdoing and questioned the sources of the information. Police in Donji Lapac, on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, refused to provide Croatia’s ombudswoman, Lora Vidović, access to police records on treatment of migrants and told her that police are acting in accordance with the law.

In a December 4 letter, Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic responded to a detailed description of the Human Rights Watch findings. He said that the evidence of summary returns and violence was insufficient to bring criminal prosecutions, that the allegations could not be confirmed, and that migrants accuse Croatian police in the hope that it will help them enter Croatia. He said that his ministry does not support any type of violence or intolerance by police officers.

Croatia has a bilateral readmission agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina that allows Croatia to return third-country nationals without legal permission to stay in the country. According to the Security Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina, under the agreement, between January and November 27, Croatia returned 493 people to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 265 of whom were Turkish nationals. None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed underwent any formal return procedure before being forced back over the border.

The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to European Union asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Croatian authorities should conduct thorough and transparent investigations of abuse implicating their officials and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure full cooperation with the Ombudswoman’s inquiry, as required by national law and best practice for independent human rights institutions. The European Commission should call on Croatia, an EU member state, to halt and investigate summary returns of asylum seekers to Bosnia and Herzegovina and allegations of violence against asylum seekers. The Commission should also open legal proceedings against Croatia for violating EU laws, Human Rights Watch said.

As a result of the 2016 border closures on the Western Balkan route, thousands of asylum seekers were stranded, the majority in Serbia, and found new routes toward the EU. In 2018, migrant and asylum seeker arrivals increased in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from fewer than 1,000 in 2017 to approximately 22,400, according to the European Commission. The Commission estimates that 6,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently in the country. Bosnia and Herzegovina has granted international protection to only 17 people since 2008. In 2017, 381 people applied for asylum there.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has only one official reception center for asylum seekers near Sarajevo, with capacity to accommodate just 156 people. Asylum seekers and migrants in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, where Human Rights Watch conducted the interviews, are housed in temporary facilities managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – a dilapidated building, a refurbished warehouse, and former hotels – or they sleep outdoors. The IOM and UNHCR have been improving the facilities. The EU has allocated over €9 million to support humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Just because the EU is sending humanitarian aid to refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that does not justify turning a blind eye to violence at the Croatian border,” Gall said. “Brussels should press Zagreb to comply with EU law, investigate alleged abuse, and provide fair and efficient access to asylum.”

For detailed accounts by the people interviewed, please see below.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 men, 6 women, and one 15-year-old unaccompanied boy. All interviewees’ names have been changed in order to protect their security and privacy. All interviews were conducted in English or with the aid of a Persian or Arabic speaking interpreter. Human Rights Watch informed interviewees of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, and they verbally consented to be interviewed.

Denied Access to Asylum Procedure, Summarily Returned

All 20 people interviewed said that people who identified themselves as Croatian police or whom they described as police detained them well inside Croatian territory and subsequently returned them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without any consideration of asylum claims or human rights obstacles to their return.

Nine said that police detained them and others and took them to a police station in Croatia. The others said that police officers took them directly to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina and made them cross.

Those taken to police stations said they were searched, photographed, and questioned about details such as their name, country of origin, age, and their route entering Croatia. They were not given copies of any forms. They said they were held there in rooms with limited or no seating for between 2 and 24 hours, then taken to the border. Three people said they asked for asylum at the police station but that the police ignored or laughed at them. Six others said they dared not speak because police officers told them to remain quiet.

Faven F. and Kidane K., a married couple in their thirties from Eritrea, said they had been walking for seven days when they were detained on November 9, close to Rijeka, 200 kilometers from the border. They said that four men in green uniforms detained them in the forest and took them in a windowless white van without proper seats to a police station in Rijeka:

They delivered us to new police. One was in plain clothes, the other one in dark blue uniform that said “Policija” on it…. At the station, they gave us a paper in English where we had to fill in name, surname, and place of birth…. A lady officer asked us questions about our trip, how we got there, who helped us. We told them that if Croatia can give us asylum, we would like to stay. The lady officer just laughed. They wrote our names on a white paper and some number and made us hold them for a mug shot. Then they kept us in the cell the whole night and didn’t give us food, but we could drink tap water in the bathroom.

Yaran Y., a 19-year-old from Iraq, was carrying his 14-year old sister Dilva, who has a disability and uses a wheelchair, on his back when they were detained along with at least five others at night in the forest. Yaran Y. said he told officers he wanted asylum for his sister, but that the police just laughed. “They told us to go to Brazil and ask for asylum there,” Yaran Y. said.

Ardashir A., a 33-year-old Iranian, was travelling with his wife and 7-year-old daughter in a group of 18 people, including 3 other children, the youngest of whom is under age 2. He said that Croatian police detained the group 12 kilometers inside Croatian territory on November 15 and took them to a police station:

They [Croatian police] brought us to a room, like a prison. They took our bags and gave us only a few slices of bread. There were no chairs, we sat on the floor. Two people in civilian clothes came after a while, I don’t know if they were police, but they took a group picture of us and refused to let us go to the toilet. A 10-year-old child really needed to go but wasn’t allowed so he had to endure. After two hours they took us … to the border.

Adal A., a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan traveling on his own said that he was detained on November 15 near Zagreb and taken in a white windowless van to a police station:

They searched us at the police station and took our phones, power banks, bags, and everything we had. They took three kinds of pictures: front, side, and back. We had to hold a paper with a number. I was asked questions about my name, where I am from, my age, and about the smuggler. I told them I’m 15. We then sat in a room for 24 hours and received no food but could get water from the tap in the toilet.

Palmira P., a 45-year-old Iranian, said that a female police officer mistreated Palmira’s 11-year-old daughter during a body search in a police station courtyard on the outskirts of Rijeka in early November: “She pulled my daughter’s pants down in front of everyone. My daughter still has nightmares about this policewoman, screaming out in the middle of the night, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it!’”

Everyone interviewed said that Croatian police confiscated and never returned or destroyed their phones and destroyed power banks and phone chargers. Four people said that Croatian police forced them to unlock their phones before stealing them.

Madhara M., a 32-year-old from Iran, said a police officer found a €500 bill in his pocket on November 15: “He looked at it, inspected it, and admired it and then demonstratively put it in his pocket in front of me.”

Accounts of Violence and Abuse

Seventeen people described agonizing journeys ranging from 15 minutes to five hours in windowless white police vans to the border. In two cases, people described the vans with a deep dark blue/black stripe running through the middle and a police light on top. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw a police van matching that description while driving through Croatia.

Croatian roads close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina cross windy, mountainous terrain. People interviewed said they had experienced nausea, vomited, or felt extreme cold or heat in the van. A 23-year-old Syrian woman said she believed the difficult van ride and pushback caused her to miscarry her 7-week pregnancy. Amez A., a 28-year-old Iraqi, said police sprayed what he thought was teargas into the van before closing the back doors and driving off, making everyone in the car vomit and have difficulty breathing.

Sixteen people, including women and children, said that they were slapped, pummelled with fists, beaten with police batons made of rubber or wood, or kicked by people they described as or who identified themselves as Croatian police during the pushbacks.

In many cases, the violence was accompanied by abusive language in English. Human Rights Watch observed marks and bruises on nine people and viewed photographs of injuries on four more who said they were the result of beatings by Croatian police officers. Four people said that they required treatment at Bosnian hospitals.

Adal A., the 15-year-old unaccompanied boy, described a particularly vicious beating on November 16:

They wore dark blue uniforms with masks, and as I exited the van, both police hit me with their batons. I felt a blow to my neck and I fell forward and wanted to get up. At that point, I was on the Bosnian side of the border stones, where another six Croatian police officers stood waiting. They were all over me, beating me. I don’t know how they beat me, but it was hard and strong, and I tried to protect my face. I was so badly beaten on my back that I still can’t sleep on it properly because of the pain. When they saw that my nose was bleeding, and that my hand was injured and that I couldn’t walk, they stopped…. They yelled “Go!” and as I was trying to leave, they fired guns in the air.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Adal A. four days after he said this had happened and observed marks and bruises on his legs and arms.

Aftab A., 37, from Iran, said that police officers in dark blue uniforms beat him and his 12-year-old son in what he called the “Tunnel of Death:”

They [police] make this tunnel [lined up on each side] and you have to pass. They took us out of the van one by one and they started beating me with batons from both sides. I was beaten on my arm, shoulder, and on my knee with batons. My son was beaten with batons on his back and on his head…We kept screaming ‘my son my son!’ or ‘my dad my dad!’ but they didn’t care. They kept beating at us until we crossed the border. Even my wife was struck across her back with a baton. The child was so scared and was crying for half an hour and then wouldn’t speak for a long time.

Madhara M., 32, from Iran, was taken to the border on November 15 along with four others, including a married couple. He said that Croatian police beat him and then threw him into a ditch he said separates Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina:

There were about eight police officers in front of the van. But there were more behind them making sure we can’t run away. The first punch broke my tooth… I fell, and the officer rolled me over, and punched me in the eye. It was so painful, I tried to escape by crawling, but the police struck me with the baton on my back. Suddenly, I received a second blow on the same eye. Then the police officers grabbed me and threw me into the ditch. All along, they were laughing and swearing in English, things like ‘I will fuck your mother.’

Bahadur B. and Nabila N., both 32 and from Iran, are a married couple who were traveling with Madhara M. Nabila N., who was three-months’ pregnant at the time, described the violence at the border:

They [Croatian police] were standing four on one side and four on the other side. We call it the ‘terror tunnel.’ They told us to get out. Bahadur tried to help me down from the van, as I was stiff from the ride. When he did, the police started beating him…I turned and screamed at them to stop beating my husband, but…. I stumbled on a bag in the darkness…When I got up, I was face-to-face with a police officer who was wearing a mask. I kept screaming, “Please don’t do it, we will leave” but he deliberately hit me hard with his baton across my hand. I kept screaming “baby, baby!” during the whole ordeal but they didn’t listen, they just laughed.

Both Yaran Y., 19, and his sister Dilva, 14, who has a physical disability, said they required medical treatment after Croatian police used physical force during the pushback in early July. Yaran Y. said:

I was carrying Dilva on my back the whole way while others pushed her wheelchair. Our family travelled with five other people. It was dark, when the police surprised us by firing shots in the air. They police wore dark or black color uniforms and there were six or seven of them. I asked one of the police officers for asylum but he harshly pushed me so I fell with my sister on my back. In the fall, my sister and I landed on a sharp wooden log which severely injured her foot and my hand.

A Human Rights Watch researcher observed scars on Dilva’s foot and Yaran’s hand and saw pictures of the fresh injuries.

Sirvan S., 38, from Iraq, said Croatian police in dark blue uniforms beat him and his youngest son, age 6, during a pushback on November 14: “My son and I were beaten with a rubber baton. I was beaten in the head and on my leg. My son was beaten with a baton on his leg and head as well as he was running from the police.” Sirvan’s wife, 16-year-old daughter, and 14-year-old son witnessed the violence.

Gorkem G., 30, travelling with his 25-year-old pregnant wife, 5-year-old son, and 2-year-old daughter, said that Croatian police pushed his son, so he fell hard to the ground. “He only wanted to say “hi” to the police,” Gorkem G. said

Family members described the anger, frustration, and trauma they experienced seeing the police officers beat their loved ones. A 10-year-old Yazidi boy from Iraq said, “I saw how police kicked my father in his back and how they beat him all over. It made me angry.” His father, Hussein H., said that police officers had dragged him out of the van at the border and kicked and punched him when he was on the ground.

Fatima F., 34, a Syrian mother of six, travelled with her husband’s 16-year-old brother and three of her children, ages 2, 4, and 10. She said that three police officers in dark uniforms beat her husband’s brother in front of her and her children:

They were merciless […] One officer was by the van, one in the middle of the line of people, and one close to the path [into Bosnia and Herzegovina]. They kept beating the others with batons, and kicking. They [the officers] saw me and the kids but they just kept beating the men despite the kids crying. They didn’t beat me or the children, but the children were very afraid when they saw the men being beaten. My oldest girl kept screaming when she saw my husband’s brother get beaten…[she] screams out in the middle of the night.

In three cases, people said they were forced to cross ice-cold rivers or streams even though they were near a bridge.

Thirty-year-old Abu Hassan A. from Iran, travelling in a group of seven other single men, said:

They [police] were wearing masks. There was a bridge about 50-60 meters away. More than six police were guarding the bridge. It [the stream] was about 5-6 meters wide and waist high and muddy. They told us we have to cross. Then the police… beat me with batons and kicked me, and the first handed me over to the second police who did the same thing, and then handed me over to the third, who did the same thing. After that, I was close to the riverbank, where two other police were waiting. The first one beat me again with baton and pushed me toward the other. They beat me on the legs, hands, arms, shoulders. This is what they did to force us to go into the water and across. I could barely stand or walk for a week after.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Asylum seekers outside their tent in the "Olive Grove", a makeshift camp outside Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on October 31, 2018.

© 2018 Giorgos Moutafis
 (Athens) – The Greek government and its European Union partners should urgently ensure that all asylum seekers on the Aegean islands are transferred to suitable accommodation on the mainland or relocated to other EU countries as winter approaches, 20 human rights and other organizations said today.

Despite the Greek government’s recent efforts to transfer asylum seekers from the islands to more suitable accommodation in the mainland, as of December 3, 2018, over 12,500 people were still living in tents and containers unsuitable for winter in five EU-sponsored camps known as hotspots on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros – almost triple their capacity. In addition to serious overcrowding, asylum seekers continue facing unsanitary and unhygienic conditions and physical violence, including violence based on gender.

The lack of basic protection measures leaves women and girls, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) people, particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, and afraid to use site facilities including bathrooms and showers. Medical care, trauma counseling, and psychosocial – or mental health – are insufficient, as is legal counseling and support during the different stages of the asylum procedure. Mental health among asylum seekers has deteriorated amid harsh living conditions and emotional distress.

The humanitarian crisis in the hotspots is the result of Greece’s EU-backed policy of containing asylum seekers on the Aegean islands, until their asylum claims are adjudicated or until it is determined that they fall under one of the “vulnerable” categories listed under Greek law. “Vulnerable” asylum seekers are exempted from the border procedures, and they are allowed to move to the mainland. Greek authorities have periodically accelerated the transfer of “vulnerable” asylum seekers to the mainland but as of late November, an estimated 2,200 people identified as eligible for transfer are still waiting because accommodation facilities on the mainland have similarly become overcrowded during past months, amidst the ongoing lack of an EU-wide responsibility sharing mechanism. Others have fallen through the cracks of lengthy and inefficient vulnerability assessments and are confined to the dire conditions on the islands.

The containment policy was designed and justified as a means to carry out the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal that would return to Turkey asylum seekers who reached the Greek islands by crossing the sea, for their asylum claim to be processed there. The policy imposes unjustified and unnecessary suffering on asylum seekers, while unduly limiting their rights to have their case examined on its merits – as opposed to its “admissibility” – the organizations said.

Speeding up returns, a measure foreseen under the deal, would not solve the crisis on the islands. Many of those trapped on the islands are protected against return and could not be sent back to Turkey, other third countries, or their countries of origin under EU law.

Greece and other EU countries should share responsibility to provide an adequate standard of living for asylum seekers, guaranteeing their subsistence and protecting their physical and mental health throughout a fair and efficient asylum procedure. A recent pledge to move 6,000 asylum seekers to the mainland to provide them with an adequate standard of living is a first step, albeit not one that can ensure sustainability in the long-term.

Greece, with the support of EU institutions and countries, should end its inhumane containment policy and facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers from the Aegean islands. Special care should be given to the needs of children, women survivors of violence, pregnant women and new mothers, and LGBT+ people, among other groups.

European governments should be ready promptly to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and ensure their access to adequate living conditions while their asylum applications are being processed. Portugal’s recent agreement to transfer 100 asylum seekers and potentially up to 1,000 through 2019 is a positive step that other EU countries should follow.

EU governments should follow the lead of the European Parliament in reaching an agreement on a functioning and fairer EU asylum system, which supports Member States, including through a mandatory distribution mechanism; protects people in need; and enables families to reunite in the EU.

The Greek and European authorities should show genuine, humane leadership in addressing the deplorable conditions for the people trapped on the Greek islands. Women, men, and children seeking protection in Europe should be treated in accordance with their rights and not be forced to spend another winter in squalid and unsafe camps.

The Organizations Supporting This Statement:

Amnesty International
ASB - Arbeiter Samariter Bund
Campfire Innovation 
Caritas Hellas
CEAR – Spanish Commission for Refugees
Centre for Research on Women’s Issues – DIOTIMA
Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe
Greek Council for Refugees
Greek Forum of Refugees
Greek Helsinki Monitor
HumanRights360
Human Rights Watch
Jesuit Refugee Service
Legal Centre Lesvos
Medecins Du Monde – Greece
Oxfam
PRAKSIS
Refugee Support Aegean
SolidarityNow
Terre des hommes Hellas

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am