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.
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.
To carry out the deal, the Greek government has adopted a containment policy, keeping asylum seekers confined to the islands, including in the so-called refugee hotspots and other reception facilities, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey. But continued arrivals, the mismanagement of aid funding, and the slow pace of decision-making, as well as the positive decisions of Greek appeals committees rejecting summary returns to Turkey as unsafe, have led to overcrowded and abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. These factors, combined with the Greek authorities’ failure to properly identify vulnerable asylum seekers for transfer to the mainland, have resulted in deteriorating security conditions, unnecessary suffering, and despair.
“The EU-Turkey deal has been an unmitigated disaster for the very people it is supposed to protect – the asylum seekers trapped in appalling conditions on Greek islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should ensure that people landing on Greece’s shores have meaningful access to asylum and put an end to the containment policy for asylum seekers.”
Human Rights Watch has made repeated visits to official and informal reception facilities on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, most recently to Lesbos in late February 2017. Dozens of interviews with asylum seekers and migrants trapped on the islands show the detrimental impact of the deal on their human rights. Human Rights Watch has also found abysmal conditions in official reception facilities on the Greek mainland, but with more prospects for improving reception conditions and asylum processing procedures there compared to the islands.
According to figures from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the maximum official reception capacity at official and informal reception facilities on the five main islands receiving asylum seekers and migrants is 8,759, compared with the 12,963 asylum seekers on the islands as of March 14. Facilities with almost twice as many people as they are meant to serve are not able to cope with the continuing arrivals of small numbers of people fleeing conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Conditions in some facilities on the mainland are also poor, and require improvement to bring them up to humanitarian standards, in line with Greece’s obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
While Greece has received significant assistance from European Union institutions and member states, the European Commission has also pressured Greece to weaken procedural safeguards and protections for vulnerable groups and to speed up operations under the deal to facilitate transfers to Turkey.
The deal’s flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers would allow Greece to transfer them back to Turkey without considering the merits of their asylum claims. But in the months after the deal was completed, Greek asylum appeals committees have rightly ruled in many instances that Turkey does not provide effective protection for refugees and that asylum applications should be admitted for regular examination on their merits in Greece.
Following EU pressure, however, Athens changed the composition of the appeals committees in June, and the restructured committees have ruled in at least 20 cases that Turkey was a safe country, even though it excludes non-Europeans from its refugee protection. That finding was challenged by two Syrian asylum seekers at Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, which heard their case on March 10.
No one has yet been forcibly returned to Turkey on the grounds that their asylum application was inadmissible because they could obtain effective protection in Turkey. But if the Council of State turns down the appeal, it could pave the way for mass returns of asylum seekers to Turkey.
In an Action Plan published in December 2016, the European Commission recommended tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns to Turkey, including ending exemptions for vulnerable groups and people eligible for family reunification from the requirement to remain on the islands and go through the fast-track admissibility process that could result in a return to Turkey. The commission also recommended expanding detention on the islands and curbing appeal rights. The Greek parliament was to consider legal changes to carry out those recommendations during the week of March 13, 2017.
Greece should resist EU pressure to weaken protections for vulnerable asylum seekers, to expand detention on the islands, to weaken appeal rights, and to send asylum seekers back to Turkey without first determining their protection needs, Human Rights Watch said.
While the EU-Turkey statement does not explicitly require keeping asylum seekers on the islands, EU and Greek officials cite implementation of the deal as a justification for the containment policy. Even if transferring asylum seekers to the mainland would complicate possible returns to Turkey, this is an unacceptable excuse for condemning people to conditions that threaten their health and cause huge anxiety, Human Rights Watch said.
“If the EU is serious about preserving the right to seek asylum, it needs to take a hard look at how the failings of the EU-Turkey deal apply in practice,” Cossé said. “A better-managed and rights-oriented approach by the EU would have put less of a burden on Greece and resulted in better protection and less suffering for thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.”
For more information on flaws in Greece’s current asylum system under the EU-Turkey deal and accounts from asylum seekers and migrants trapped in abusive conditions on the Greek islands, please see below.
Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
Despite significant financial and technical assistance to Greece, there are serious shortcomings in access to asylum for those on the islands. An April 2016 law to facilitate the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal creates a fast-track procedure to examine eligibility and admissibility for international protection claims on the islands within 15 days, including appeal. The law does not guarantee free legal assistance for the initial procedure and limits the possibility for an oral hearing during an appeal, undermining the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights.
In practice, the decisions are taking far longer, leaving people in limbo. Human Rights Watch has also documented discrepancies between the periods that people of different nationalities have had to wait to register their asylum claims or to have them examined. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants” are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained at police stations and detention facilities inside the hotspots on that basis, raising concerns about the use of arbitrary detention on the basis of nationality. This differential treatment and frustration at delayed procedures has led in some cases to unrest in detention centers. Other problems include poor or no interpretation during interviews in some cases, and serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance.
Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect are considered ineligible for relocation to other EU countries under a September 2015 EU relocation plan designed to alleviate pressure on Greece and Italy, even if asylum seekers meet other criteria.
Human Rights Watch has also documented failure to carry out the first reception process, which under Greek law provides for transferring “vulnerable groups” into the regular asylum system on the mainland with easier access to services. Instead, many members of “vulnerable” groups – including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture, and people with disabilities – have remained trapped on the islands, especially people with less apparent “vulnerabilities,” such as people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities or torture victims.
According to the European Commission, since the deal entered into effect, 916 third-country nationals have been returned to Turkey, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis. The commission said that some did not apply for asylum, others withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision on their first hearing, and others were rejected for asylum after an examination on the merits. Human Rights Watch, other nongovernmental organizations, and UNHCR have documented many irregularities in the forcible returns to Turkey of those the Greek authorities portray as not having applied for asylum.
The EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek asylum in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection, including its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention that excludes non-Europeans from consideration for refugee status. In Turkey, Syrian refugees face obstacles to registration, access to education, employment, and health care, despite having access to temporary protection status. Others, including Iraqis and Afghans, do not have temporary protection status. Finally, Turkey’s border with Syria remains effectively closed.
The European Union and its member states are currently exploring the idea of similar arrangements to the EU-Turkey deal with North African countries, as part of a wider effort to move legal and administrative responsibility for asylum seekers outside EU borders.
Trapped in Dire Conditions: Recent Accounts
Reza, 23, from Afghanistan, arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, right after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force. He said, in February 2017, that the conditions on the island and uncertainty about the future cause mental anguish:
I arrived on March 21  so I’m almost a year here. I don’t have a legal paper to leave the island and I don’t have money to pay a smuggler. I feel I am nothing and that I don’t have control over my life anymore. I can’t leave from the island and after such a long time here, I feel that nothing has a purpose anymore. You feel like ‘crazy,’ wandering around without knowing why.
Heavy snow, rain, and strong winds in January exacerbated the already dire conditions on the islands that are housing refugees. Mazar Ali, a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan on Lesbos, said in February:
Our tent was outside in the snow and it got destroyed [because of the snow]. We went to Eurorelief [an aid organization in charge of accommodations] to get a new tent but it took them three days to give us a new one so we slept outside. We’re not allowed to leave from the island. You feel like being in a big prison here on the island. Many times, I feel I can’t breathe freely.
43-year-old Dilshad, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, said in February:
They told me to go to Eurorelief, take a tent, find somewhere to put it and live there.... Since then I am living inside a [summer] tent. As you can see living conditions are not good. Food is not edible.
Three men died on Lesbos in the six days between January 24 and 30. Although there is no official statement on the cause of these deaths, they have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast most likely caused by a cooking gas container killed an elderly Kurdish woman and her young grandchild at Moria.
Dilshad described the harsh conditions after the heavy snowfall in Lesbos, in January 2017:
My tent was coming down because of the snow. It was very hard and really, really cold. Once, a woman and a child died [inside the camp].... I want to be somewhere where I’m not in danger anymore. I am scared here.
Lack of Identification of Vulnerable Groups
The Reception and Identification Service – supported by EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), medical aid organizations, and the UNHCR – is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival. This should include torture victims, and people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. But this screening is not always effective.
Nearly all asylum seekers and migrants interviewed reported feeling that their current lives were meaningless. They said they were frightened, depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Living on the islands perpetuates the trauma of displacement and despair and increases other threats to their safety, including physical violence and mental health concerns. Even people who do not have specific vulnerabilities should not be living under conditions that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
“Arash,” 30, from Iran, described how conditions in the Moria hotspot, the EU-sponsored screening center on Lesbos where he’s been living since September 2016, have affected his mental state:
I’m suffering a lot here because I’ve lost my dignity. I’ve attempted three times to kill myself…. The conditions here remind me of the prison in Iran, the nightmares, the threats and the torture. The situation brings me to a very desperate condition. The medical certificates say this is not a place fit for me, but for the authorities this means nothing. Five days ago, they transferred me and my brother from the tent to a container. For six months, I was living in a small summer tent.
Arash said that during the first medical screening with Doctors of the World, he was assessed as not belonging to one of the vulnerable groups exempted from the EU-Turkey deal and allowed to move to the mainland, even though victims of torture are a protected category:
I told them I was a political prisoner, that I’ve been tortured, and suffered mock executions three times.... They asked me why I wasn’t executed and I explained this is a form of torture. I described all the physical and psychological problems I have but they wrote ‘No’ on my paper.
Human Rights Watch contacted a Doctors of the World representative in Greece about Arash’s case. The representative said that during his initial medical screening, Arash had no visible injuries on his body and declined when asked if he wanted to speak to a psychologist or social worker. Arash later did request psychological support from Doctors of the World, who then asked Greek authorities to give him “vulnerable” status as a possible victim of torture. The request was refused, the Doctors of the World representative said.
Arash said his mental health deteriorated while on Lesbos. He told us that three days before attempting to commit suicide, he tried to visit the camp’s psychologist and told them he was tortured in prison and still has nightmares. The camp reminded him of the prison. The psychologist’s response was that “there are 90 people ahead of you in the line and you have to wait.”
Earlier in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify people with disabilities. Human Rights Watch also found a lack of access to mental health care and psychosocial support that is much-needed by asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece.
Ahmed and Fatima, an Iraqi couple in their late twenties, both have physical disabilities that make it very difficult for them to stand or walk. They told Human Rights Watch in October 2016 that they were not allowed to register their disabilities because they did not have a medical certificate for proof. “When we went to register [on Samos Island] they asked us for proof that we have disabilities even though they can see we do,” said Fatima, who now uses a wheelchair.
Seeking Asylum Under the Deal
“Ahmad,” a 36-year-old Syrian asylum seeker from Homs, arrived at Lesbos in July 2016. In February 2017, he described his interview under the EU-Turkey deal, in which the interviewer did not explain the purpose of the interview, would not consider his claim for asylum based on his persecution in Syria, and focused only on his time in Turkey, but did not adequately consider the lack of protection he experienced there:
When I got here they told me “either you apply for asylum or you go back to Turkey.” I applied for asylum, I got rejected, and now I am waiting for the appeal. They said “the court considered Turkey is a safe country for you so you are rejected.” I felt disappointment. They said I have to appeal or I’ll go to prison or be deported.
Ahmad said he had spent two months in Turkey, where he tried unsuccessfully to register for temporary protection. He said without registration he was denied access to health care for serious back pain because he lacked the necessary residence documents. In his interview in Lesbos, he said:
They didn’t explain the purpose of the interview but said I am not allowed to have a lawyer. They said, “if your application is rejected, then you are allowed to have a lawyer.” The most important thing during the interview was that the questions were all about Turkey. But I am not a Turkish man escaping Turkey. They should ask me about Syria instead. I always try to forget this interview. During the interview, they tried to avoid listening to what I had to say about Syria. It’s like a deal: “We need something on Turkey to reject you.”
“Willias,” a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Nigeria who arrived in Greece in June 2016, in February 2017 described his interview four months earlier:
During the interview, I was alone, I didn't have a lawyer and there was no translator. I spoke in English and I’m not good in English. I asked for a translator and the man who was in charge of the interview said the translator was not around. Then I got the negative answer. They gave me a lawyer and we asked for appeal. I don’t know what will happen, they don’t give details. I can’t go back to Turkey. I would rather die. I was in jail and I don’t like that. And the same goes for my country.
43-year-old Dilshad, the Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, gave a similar account in February:
I’ve done two interviews. Very simple questions. I don't know who they were. The interpreter was speaking Farsi. They told me there was no available interpreter for Kurdish. They didn’t explain to me what the interview was. They just told me to wait in my tent and that they will call me…. During the second interview they asked me: “If you go back to Turkey and have the possibility to get papers is it OK for you?” and I said no because I was imprisoned there.
Hussein Sherif, a 37-year-old man from Iraq who arrived in Greece at the end of August, said in February that he had not yet been interviewed: “They told me the closest date for an interview is March 23. But other people who came after me have received a closer date for an interview. I feel they treat people depending on their mood. They treat animals better than us humans.”
Hussein said he had been attacked and repeatedly stabbed on the belly by three Iraqi men, in Mytilene, Lesbos. He was hospitalized for 10 days and underwent surgery: “I went to the police to file a complaint and they told me I have to pay 100 euros and that it will take time. I left it and hid for two months in an apartment in Mytilene because I was afraid.”
Reza, the 23-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who arrived in Greece one day after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, said that in the first two months on Lesbos, he had no information about the asylum process and what would happen to him: “Then, an NGO came and told us that borders have closed and that we have to apply for asylum. But I didn’t know how to do it.”
Reza said that six months after he expressed his wish to apply for asylum, he received an asylum seeker’s card, but he said he is one of the few Afghans who have been through an asylum interview:
In the beginning, only Syrians were going through an interview. I am one of the few who was interviewed, three months ago. But I don’t have an answer yet. There are people who’ve been here for 10 months and haven’t been through an interview and others who are 20 days here and have left for Athens.
Reza said that the purpose of the interview was not explained to him:
The man who was interviewing me was a foreigner, probably from the European Union, and there was also an interpreter. They said from the beginning that they don’t want to know if I had problems in my country and that they only care if I had problems on my way here. For many times, they asked me why I didn’t stay in Turkey, and explained to me that Turkey is a safe country. I explained to them that Turkey is not safe. It’s a harsh country and you don’t feel safe there. They’ve sent many people back in Afghanistan and when I was there authorities threatened me that they will deport me back.
Samir, 21, from Algeria, said in February that when he arrived on Lesbos, he was detained in a closed facility inside the Moria hotspot, though people of other nationalities were allowed to go in and out of the camp:
At sea [in the Aegean], Swedish coast guard caught us. After that, we were directly brought to Moria and put to prison. This is the problem. When they hear Algeria, they put us immediately into detention, even if we’ve done nothing. When I arrived, they told me that I will stay for 25 days in detention and after that, if I don’t get asylum I will be sent back to Turkey…. I stayed for eight days in prison and then I decided to escape, while going to the interview with EASO [European Asylum Support Office].
“Fezi,” a 23-year-old Pakistani man, said he fled the area he was living, in Peshawar, because of the high incidence of suicide bombings and drone attacks. He described in February what happened to him after he arrived in Lesbos:
I stayed in Moria for eight to nine months. During that period, they took me for two months to jail [immigration detention inside Moria]. I don’t know why. The police came, put me in handcuffs, and took me to jail inside Moria. They didn’t explain why. They took my papers and everything I had. After two months, they gave me my papers back and said, “You can go.” I was afraid because all Pakistanis go to the EASO interviews and they fail. Every single Pakistani is rejected except those who are Christian.
He pivoted to name several countries where Muslims live rather than Muslims per se, and to ban the entry of people from those countries in his first executive order. He temporarily banned entry from nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries, and suspended the refugee resettlement program, while setting up a new system of extreme vetting for these, and potentially other, groups.
But, as pointed out in an amicus brief challenging the order from 10 top national security figures, including former secretaries of State and Homeland Security, and former CIA and NSA directors, “since 2001, not a single terrorist attack in the United States has been perpetrated by aliens from the countries named in the Order.”
One of the courts staying the first order noted that the government had “not offered any evidence to identify the national security concerns that allegedly prompted this EO, or even described the process by which the president concluded that the action was necessary.”
The revised order does try to cook up evidence to support a national security need—boilerplate descriptions of the six Muslim majority countries (Iraq is dropped from the list) whose nationals would be barred from entry for 90 days, as well as examples of two Iraqi refugees who were convicted for plotting terrorist activities and a Somali refugee who came as a child, became a naturalized citizen, and was convicted of another terrorist plot. The order vaguely alludes to 300 people who entered as refugees who are currently the subjects of FBI counterterrorism investigations.
While 300 people under investigation does, indeed, sound ominous, it is 0.01 percent of the 3 million refugees admitted since 1980, and there is no indication yet that any of them have actually been involved in any terrorist activities. There is also no indication of how long they have lived in the United States. If they came as children, like the Somali mentioned in the order, no amount of vetting would have predicted their potential as terror threats many years later.
Let’s not lose sight of the politics at work here. As Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, said in a case involving the display of the 10 Commandments in the McCreary County courthouse in Kentucky, “The world is not made brand new every morning.” The Supreme Court was not willing to confine its purview to the display per se, but rather looked at prior statements and actions of local officials who had made clear their intent to favor Judeo-Christian precepts over other religions.
The same principle applies to the revised executive order. Though cleansed of overt references to Muslims—while continuing to use code words like “honor killings”—the order is still contaminated by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises. As Justice Souter reminds us, that cannot be forgotten or ignored. On March 9, Washington State’s Attorney General, who successfully filed suit against the first order, said that “the core constitutional problems remain the same.”
To gain the presidency, Trump employed classic scapegoating tactics to whip up fear of refugees “pouring into our country” through the “Trojan horse” of the US refugee resettlement program and of Muslims, whom he broadly conflated with terrorism. His continuing ham-fisted efforts to tar all members of entire nationalities and to vilify refugees have less to do with protecting the country against actual threats than proving that he meant what he said during the campaign.
While great latitude remains for the president to take reasonable steps to screen would be immigrants and to choose which and how many refugees to admit, he has cast doubt on his own authority to do so by introducing noxious prejudice into the equation.
Hungary’s governing party is cranking up the heat on nongovernmental organizations. With its tight grip on parliament, and having undermined the courts and the media, the Fidesz government doesn’t like being held to account by pesky independent groups. Fidesz is a prime example of the danger of a type of populism that results in a government attacking basic European values like a free civil society. The February 27 hearing in the European Parliament’s Committee for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on the situation of fundamental rights in Hungary couldn’t be more timely.
On February 10, in his state of the union address, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described civil society organizations as one of five major “attacks” on Hungary that the government needs to defend itself against in 2017. He said that international organizations, headed by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and groups backed by him, secretly want to influence domestic politics. On February 21, Orbán announced that there will be a national consultation on each of these five ‘threats’.
Orbán described Soros and his Open Society Foundations as “large bodied predators swimming in our waters,” who through the paid activists want to bring hundreds of thousands of “illegal migrants” into Europe and who relentlessly work to undermine the Hungarian government and parliament. Labelling independent organizations as paid activists trying to topple the government is reminiscent of the Russian government’s style of branding independent groups as foreign agents.
In early January, Szilard Nemeth, the Fidesz party vice president, publicly stated that Hungary will use “all tools at its disposal” to “sweep out” organizations funded by the Hungarian-born Soros as they “serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments.” Nemeth said that with Donald Trump’s election as the US president, the timing is right. (Full disclosure: Human Rights Watch is among the many groups around the world that receive funding from Open Society Foundations).
The prime minister’s office named the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International Hungary, all Soros funded, as key “troublemakers.” Nemeth said that part of the “sweep out” plan will require the heads of these organizations to publicly declare their personal assets. The government has not provided any details of how this will work or about sanctions for those who refuse to comply. It’s not the first time Orbán has publicly aired his resentment toward core democratic principles and human rights and toward those who try to safeguard them. In July 2014, during his infamous speech in Romania, he declared that he wants to end liberal democracy in Hungary.
Since 2010, that’s certainly what his government has been busy doing. Step by step, Orbán and his government have taken control of key public institutions - the Constitutional Court, Media Authority, National Judicial Office, Data Commissioner, General Prosecutor, curbed media freedom and gone after independent groups.
Weeks before Orbán’s 2014 speech, the government targeted organizations that received grants from Norway, ordered a raid on their offices, and subjected them to financial inspections that found no financial irregularities. A Budapest court in January 2015 ruled these raids unlawful. Prior to the arbitrary financial inspections, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office published a list of 13 organizations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Transparency International, labelling them “left-leaning” and “problematic.” In fact those three groups have played a critical role in exposing abuses by the government across a wide range of policies and its disregard for the rule of law.
Nor is it the first time the government has publicly attacked Soros and his Open Society Foundations. This is despite the fact that Orbán and leading government officials and members of parliament have generously benefited from Soros’ support when Hungary was transitioning from communism to democracy in the late 80s.
Some may argue that the government criticizing civil society groups is just a part of the rough and tumble of politics.
But considering the direction of travel of the Hungarian government in recent years, its efforts to undermine checks and balances on the executive, and the importance of these groups to public life, there is no cause for complacency.
Unless the EU and other European institutions defend European values, and take steps to support civil society groups that are under attack in Hungary, all of Europe will be the poorer.
(Beirut) – A decision to lift a hefty fee that has prevented many Syrians from maintaining legal status in Lebanon is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. Yet the decision appears to exclude a number of the most vulnerable refugees.
The new policy, announced last week by General Security, would waive the annual $200 residency fee for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, provided that they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before January 1, 2015, or obtained residency through their UNHCR certificate at least once in 2015 or 2016.
“If it’s carried out, the decision to waive residency fees for some refugees will have a real and positive impact for many Syrian families living in Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet excluding large parts of the refugee population only serves to further marginalize already vulnerable people.”
The policy excludes Syrians not registered with UNHCR, almost 500,000 people by government estimates. On May 6, 2015, UNHCR suspended registration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government. General Security also confirmed to Human Rights Watch by phone, on February 13, that the policy excludes registered refugees who renewed their residency through sponsorship by a Lebanese national. General Security also said that the waiver does not apply to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Human Rights Watch and aid organizations have long called for waiver of residency renewal fees for all Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Lebanon introduced new residency regulations in January 2015 that most refugees have been unable to comply with. Without residency, refugees can be arrested, restricting their movement. This makes it difficult for them to work, send their children to school, or get health care. It has also hindered their ability to register marriages and births, leaving tens of thousands of Syrian children born in Lebanon at risk of statelessness. An inability to work has exacerbated poverty among refugees, leading to increased child labor and early marriages. The lack of legal status has also left refugees vulnerable to a range of abuses, including labor exploitation and sexual abuse, unable to turn to the authorities for protection for fear that police may arrest them for expired residency.
In 2016, Human Rights Watch found that half of the nearly 500,000 Syrian school-age children registered with UNHCR in Lebanon were not getting a formal education, and that lack of residency was a key barrier.
Lebanese authorities have not published any statistics on the number of Syrian refugees without legal status, but the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, published in January 2017, estimates that 60 percent of those over age 15 lack legal residency, compared with 47 percent in January 2016. At a February 2016 donors conference in London, Lebanon committed to a review of existing regulatory frameworks related to residency conditions and work authorizations for Syrians.
The residency regulations introduced in January 2015 required all Syrians 15 and over to pay an annual $200 renewal fee per person, present valid identification and an entry slip obtained at the border, submit a housing pledge confirming their place of residence, and provide two photographs stamped by a Lebanese local official.
To maintain residency, Syrians not registered with UNHCR have to provide a “pledge of responsibility” signed by a Lebanese national or registered entity to sponsor an individual or family. Human Rights Watch found that some Lebanese nationals charge refugees up to $1,000 for sponsorship and that in many cases, General Security required sponsorship even for refugees registered with UNHCR.
More than 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, although the government estimates that there are 1.5 million Syrians in the country. General Security and aid groups operating in Lebanon should publicize the new policy broadly so that eligible Syrian refugees can benefit from the fee waiver, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch found that General Security offices have applied residency policies inconsistently, including by requiring refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain a sponsor and by requiring Syrians to sign a pledge not to work, even after this requirement was dropped in 2016. Lebanese authorities should ensure that the new fee waiver policy is applied consistently by all General Security offices in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said.
The residency renewal announcement comes amid troubling public statements about the possible return of refugees, including reports of negotiations between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces to return refugees from Lebanon to Syria. This policy risks cementing a category of refugees without residency who would be highly vulnerable to any forced returns. Conditions in Syria do not permit the creation of safe zones and any forcible or coerced return of refugees would be illegal under international law, whether or not the Syrians have residency status or are registered with UNHCR. Refugees are entitled to protection and should not be forced to return to countries where they face persecution.
“Lebanon shouldn’t leave out Syrians who were unable to register with UNHCR or resorted to a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal status,” Fakih said. “It is in Lebanon’s own interest to ensure that all refugees are able to live legally here without fear of arrest, until such time as conditions in Syria permit their safe return.”
The 16-year-old boy had been following us last week as we made our way through Nargizlia. It is one of the most recent additions to the camps housing the 160,000 people who have fled the fighting as the Iraqi government tries to retake Mosul, its second largest city, from the Islamic State
Ghazi, who had been hiding behind tents each time we stopped to speak with someone, finally approached. He quietly told me he was living in a tent with a group of unaccompanied men and boys he didn’t know. He looked at me, so full of fear at his surroundings, and asked if there was anything I could do to help him join his family, who had been sent to a different camp.
I took him to the manager’s office and found a staff member who said he would take Ghazi in to see the manager. We had to leave, it was late in the day, but it absolutely broke my heart to leave this boy, with no guarantee that he would be able to join his family.
The people in these camps were terrorized by ISIS and have had to leave their lives behind. Some were separated from family members in the chaos in 2014, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over the region. Some were separated from family members by accident as they fled recently, and others were separated from the men and older boys in their family for security checks, to make certain they aren’t ISIS fighters.
But none of the camps housing Mosul’s displaced allow for free movement, a fundamental right, and only one is allowing family reunification at the moment as far as I know. At least two camps prohibit visitors and ban cell phones, ostensibly for security reasons. Ghazi’s was confiscated as he arrived at the camp’s euphemistically named “reception center,” or screening facility. This makes the displaced significantly more vulnerable—those whose loved ones were detained for alleged affiliation with ISIS have no way of reaching out to contacts to help locate them.
Since the first days of the Mosul operation in October, husbands and sons in the four Kurdish Regional Government-controlled camps I have visited have come to me asking for help to re-join their families -- who happened to leave on a different bus either because they were held back in screening, or because they left Mosul at a different time.
Ghazi’s parents fled Mosul in a wave of escapees, while he stayed behind to check on an ailing uncle. They called him as they reached the Iraqi Security Forces checkpoint to say they were being sent to the Qaymawa camp. He then fled Mosul alone. When he reached the security checkpoint, he asked the soldiers to send him to join his family. But they ignored him and sent him with hundreds of other displaced families to Nargizlia.
One woman in Nargizlia told me that when the 100 families from her area of Mosul escaped from the ISIS-controlled territory and reached an area under Kurdistan Regional Government military control, the women and girls and young boys were separated from the men and boys 15 and above in their family, and all of them were held in a school, in different rooms. When buses arrived to take them all to the camp, this woman’s husband and son were missing. She asked security forces at the “reception center” and later at the camp about their fate, but she said they refused to answer her. Now she is sitting in her tent, unable to leave the camp and without even a phone to be able to call any friends, family, or international organizations for help in locating her loved ones.
Aid workers tell me that they have not been able to press for freedom of movement of displaced people to reunite with their families in light of the demands on them to provide urgent services for the people in camps. One worker said to me candidly, when they speak to camp residents, free movement is not their main complaint. In light of the focus of aid organizations, it’s probably no surprise that camp residents instead focus on highlighting all the help they are not receiving.
But when I ask residents about their human rights concerns, the feeling that they are being held in open air prisons and the impact this has on their ability to communicate with their families is one of the first thing they regularly raise.
One man at Nargizlia begged for my help to leave the camp, to meet a 2-year old daughter he never met who is now in Kirkuk, a major city 160 kilometers away, and to mourn the death of his mother with his siblings, who escaped Mosul before ISIS took control. He said to me, “We escaped from prison, just to be put in another prison,” and shook his head as he walked away.
(Washington, DC, January 12, 2017) – The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said today in launching the World Report 2017. Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Western Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk.
Meanwhile, strongman leaders in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and China have substituted their own authority, rather than accountable government and the rule of law, as a guarantor of prosperity and security. These converging trends, bolstered by propaganda operations that denigrate legal standards and disdain factual analysis, directly challenge the laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality, Human Rights Watch said.
While many in Serbia prepare for Orthodox Christmas, others in the country and neighboring Hungary are bedding down in freezing cold weather hoping to survive.
Temperatures in Hungary and Serbia have dropped to minus 20 degrees centigrade at night. Yet nearly 2,000 asylum seekers and migrants are sleeping rough in Belgrade, in front of Hungary’s “transit zones” on the Serbian border, or inside a tattered government-run tent camp in Hungary without enough aid.
In some cases, not only have authorities failed to provide humane conditions, they have also tried to prevent humanitarian organizations from aiding those in need.
When I was in Belgrade in late November, the Serbian government banned aid organizations from helping asylum seekers and migrants sleeping rough. Still, one aid group continues to distribute hot meals for more than 1,000 people, including children, stuck in abandoned warehouses behind the Belgrade train station. These people are stranded without heating, toilets, and showers. They burn whatever scrap they find to keep warm, inhaling poisonous fumes. To date, authorities have taken no action against the aid group, but the threat remains.
The Serbian government ignored several requests by aid groups in November and December, including from Médecins Sans Frontières, to build temporary and winterized camps. Today, authorities finally relocated 80 of the most vulnerable people in the warehouse to already overfull camps around Serbia, hardly an ideal solution given existing concerns about overcrowding.
Hungary’s government has made life miserable for asylum seekers. In late December, the government closed the largest, and likely best, refugee camp in Bicske. No official explanation was given.
Asylum seekers were dispersed to other camps, including a temporary tent camp in Kormend, close to the Austrian border. Kormend has no proper insulation, heating consists of wood stoves, and the tents stand on frigid, damp bare ground. The local priest took pity on the asylum seekers and offered them to stay in a community hall in his parish.
The situation is no better for those waiting to enter Hungary through the two transit zones on its Serbian border. Some 134 people are camping in squalid conditions, having been given only sawdust briquettes to burn, and blankets and insulation foil to keep warm.
Let’s hope the holiday season inspires Serbs and Hungarians to welcome these “strangers”. The EU, its member countries and those who want to join it – like Serbia – have a duty to ensure humane treatment for asylum seekers or migrants. Winterized accommodations are essential.
In October 2016, Seleka rebels armed with machetes and machine guns attacked and destroyed a camp for displaced people in the Central African Republic. They killed at least 37 civilians, wounded 57, and displaced thousands of others in and around the town of Kaga Bandoro.
In northwest Central African Republic, an armed group called “Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation” (3R) has killed civilians, raped, and caused largescale displacement over the past year. In turn, anti-balaka fighters in the area killed unarmed ethnic Peuhl and raped women and girls. As violence has increased in the eastern provinces the northwest was largely neglected by the national government and international forces.
(Berlin) – Egypt’s first law addressing irregular migration is a positive step toward shielding asylum seekers and migrants from criminal responsibility but fails to affirm important refugee rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
The new law imposes serious penalties for human smuggling activities but lacks guarantees for the rights to seek asylum or to freedom of movement and education. It also does not guarantee protection against refoulement – deportation to a country where the migrant might be at risk of serious harm.
“Punishing human smugglers is an important element for protecting asylum seekers and migrants against abuses,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But refugees remain vulnerable unless their fundamental rights are protected.”
The law, in article 2, states that criminal liability lies with smugglers and not migrants, who are regarded as victims, but it remains ambiguous about punishments migrants could nevertheless receive, stating in article 27 that they will be prosecuted “if they commit offenses punishable under Egyptian laws.” Crossing Egypt’s borders without permission can be a crime.
The government should issue regulations clarifying the law and removing the ambiguity regarding whether migrants can be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament should amend the law or pass supplementary legislation to protect basic refugee rights, in line with international standards.
Parliament passed the new law on October 17, 2016, several weeks after a boat carrying people from Egypt capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving at least 300 dead or missing. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed the law on November 7.
The law on “Combating Illegal Migration and Smuggling Migrants” came more than two years after then-prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab established the National Committee for Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration to study the migration issue and draft legislation. The committee head, Naela Gabr, said in a statement that the committee based its work on international standards and treaties ratified by Egypt. The committee also designed the first national strategy addressing irregular migration, with support from the International Organization for Migration. Human Rights Watch was not able to obtain a copy of the strategy.
In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch said that the Egyptian government needed to increase its efforts to identify and prosecute smugglers who detain, abuse, and torture asylum seekers and migrants, especially Eritreans, in the Sinai Peninsula. A boat originating from Egypt capsized in April 2016, killing about 500 migrants – likely the deadliest incident in the Mediterranean of the year. Neither Egypt nor any other country opened an official inquiry, and Egyptian authorities did not arrest or charge the smugglers, who were Egyptians, according to an investigation by Reuters and BBC Newsnight published in December.
According to the independent news website Mada Masr, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded 3,742 detentions of asylum seekers and migrants on the north coast of Egypt between January and August 2016. Authorities typically do not prosecute migrants, despite sometimes initially charging them with crimes such as illegally entering the country, but often hold them for long periods in administrative detention before deporting them
The new law fails to state how migrants should be treated pending deportation, including where and how they will be accommodated, and sets no time limits for administrative detention.
Significantly, the law does not affirm the principle of nonrefoulement – the right not to be forcibly returned to a country where there is a real risk of persecution, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, or a threat to life and physical integrity. The UNHCR has described this right as “so fundamental that no reservations or derogations may be made to it.” Egypt is a state party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol that enshrine the principle of nonrefoulement.
Article 27 of the law states that the government will “facilitate the safe return of migrants” to their countries or any other country that will receive them. The law fails to affirm Egypt’s commitment under the convention to allow anyone seeking asylum in Egypt, including people intercepted by law enforcement as they try to reach Europe with smugglers to lodge an asylum claim. Authorities should only deport those who do not need international protection.
Refugees in Egypt fall under the authority of the UNHCR in accordance with a memorandum of understanding signed with the Egyptian government in 1954, before Egypt’s accession to the convention in 1981. But the new law does not state how detained migrants who want to seek asylum might access or be referred to the UNHCR or an Egyptian government body to determine their refugee status. The law does not include the term “refugee,” only “migrant.”
Egypt’s border areas are subject to military jurisdiction, and Egyptian forces have in the past carried out an apparent stop-or-shoot policy against Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the Israeli border from the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian nationals have sometimes been sent for military prosecution for attempting to leave the country irregularly. Egyptian security forces killed 15 African migrants in separate incidents in the Sinai Peninsula in November 2015. In 2005, Egyptian police violently dispersed a sit-in of Sudanese migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who were protesting in front of the UNHCR’s Cairo office seeking resettlement to other countries, killing at least 20.
Article 8 of the law provides for a prison sentence for anyone who provides accommodation, a gathering place, transportation, or any services to smuggled migrants. By failing to include an exception for family members or humanitarian service providers, this article risks punishing groups and individuals providing humanitarian assistance to migrants.
As of October 31, the UNHCR had registered 49,738 asylum seekers and 140,986 refugees in Egypt. Another 9,000 people were awaiting registration.
Egypt’s new migration law states that the government will provide “appropriate measures” to protect “migrants’ rights,” including their right to life and health care, and would ensure awareness of their right to legal assistance, especially for women and children. The law establishes a fund for “Combating Illegal Immigration and Protecting Immigrants and Witnesses.” But the law fails to adequately address other rights, such as primary education, health care, work, freedom of movement, and access to courts.
In 2013, after al-Sisi, then the defense minister, orchestrated the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsy, Human Rights Watch documented the Egyptian government’s detention and refoulement of Syrian refugees, as well as a sudden change in visa policy that impeded Syrians’ access to the UNHCR in Egypt. Amnesty International documented that many refugees and asylum seekers, especially Syrians and Ethiopians, faced increasing attacks from the public as a result of the political polarization in Egypt. Amnesty said that some asylum seekers were made to wait more than three years to examine their requests. Recent media reports said that many stranded asylum seekers spend months homeless in the streets, vulnerable to abuses such as sexual harassment
The law contains a vague provision that criminalizes encouraging irregular migration, even if it does not lead to any illegal action. This provision could be used to restrict freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 91 of Egypt’s constitution acknowledges the right to “political” asylum for “[any] foreigner persecuted for defending the interests of people, human rights, peace or justice.” This article does not meet the UN definition of refugee or Egypt’s obligations under the UN refugee convention and the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Human Rights Watch said.
Egypt should amend article 91 of the constitution to include a right to asylum also grounded in a fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, ethnicity, and membership in a particular social group, as well as the broader protections under the African refugee convention for people displaced by external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, and events seriously disturbing public order, Human Rights Watch said. The law should be amended so that it and its implementing regulations meet international standards regarding the rights of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.
“Egypt’s new immigration law needs modification to ensure that refugees will not to be returned to danger and that they have access to courts, primary education and health care,” Stork said.
(Tunis) – Libyan authorities should urgently respond to a new United Nations report documenting a pattern of torture, forced labor, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers. Libya’s coast guard intercepts thousands of migrants each year as they try to reach the European Union and returns them to centers operated by the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM).
The UN said that the EU, which started training Libya’s coast guard in November 2016, should press the Libyan authorities to end the abuses. It also urged Libya to end the arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers, close all unofficial detention centers, and dismiss and prosecute anyone suspected of abusing the migrants and asylum seekers.
“The UN has made clear that Libyan authorities should end the torture, forced labor, and sexual violence that has been the lot of detained migrants for years,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The partners in Libya’s policies toward migrants, including the EU, should insist on nothing less.”
The report was published jointly by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya. The agencies reported that migrants detained in Libya suffer widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture of men and women alike, confiscation of documents and possessions, and lack of basic health care. The agencies also cited abuses by smugglers and traffickers.
Human Rights Watch has reported since 2009 on the abuse of detained migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. In July 2016, Human Rights Watch documented cases in which Libyan coast guard members subjected intercepted migrants to physical and verbal abuse. Human Rights Watch said that the EU, as a primary destination for migrants, should ensure that none of its training, financing, or material assistance to the Libyan coast guard and other Libyan authorities contributes to human rights abuses. It also urged the EU to support UN and EU monitoring and public reporting on migrant detention center abuses.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels on December 15 are expected to endorse increased capacity-building measures for the Libyan coast guard. These efforts reflect a general trend in EU migration and asylum policy towards outsourcing responsibility to third countries, Human Rights Watch said.
Internal fighting in Libya has caused a humanitarian crisis, with a half million Libyans displaced, and a breakdown in the economy and the judicial system. The country has three rival authorities competing for legitimacy: a UN-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, the Government of National Salvation, also based in Tripoli, and a third, Interim Government, based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk.
DCIM operates about 24 “official” detention facilities for migrants, and is formally under the control of the Tripoli-based Interior Ministry. Militias and criminal gangs detain migrants at parallel, unofficial centers.
To date in 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded more than 175,200 arrivals to Italy by sea from North Africa, most from Libya. At least 4,742 died or were reported missing while crossing the Mediterranean, according to UNHCR. The International Organization for Migration estimated in September that about 770,000 migrants and asylum seekers were in Libya, of whom 4,000 to 7,000 are held in detention facilities operated by DCIM, according to the UN report.
(Athens) – Plans to resume returns of asylum seekers to Greece put the rights of thousands of people at risk, Human Rights Watch said today. The move demonstrates once again the European Union’s failure to uphold its human rights obligations and share responsibility for refugees.
The European Commission announced on December 8, 2016, that EU countries should be able to gradually return asylum seekers to Greece under EU asylum rules, as of mid-March 2017. National courts in a number of EU states have blocked returns to Greece after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2011 that deficiencies in the Greek asylum system and its degrading treatment of migrant detainees meant it was not safe to return asylum seekers there. The EU’s own Court of Justice has also ruled against transfers.
“It’s astonishing that the European Commission thinks asylum seekers should be sent back to Greece, where thousands are already suffering as a direct consequence of the EU’s policies,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of adding to Greece’s burden, EU governments and institutions should be working to alleviate it, by relocating asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries.”
More than 62,500 women, men, and children stranded in Greece face abysmal and volatile conditions as a result of Western Balkan border closures, a deeply flawed EU-Turkey deal, and a poorly executed EU relocation plan. Asylum seekers and migrants in Greece face multiple human rights violations, including obstacles in accessing adequate protection, and reception conditions that are well below international human rights standards. The situation is particularly dire for vulnerable people such as pregnant women, female heads of household, unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, and the elderly.
The European Commission wants Greece to resume accepting returns under an EU asylum rule known as the Dublin Regulation, contending that Greece has made “significant progress in putting in place the essential institutional and legal structures for a properly functioning asylum system.” The Dublin Regulation generally requires the first EU country an asylum seeker reaches to take responsibility for their claim, and permits other EU countries to send them there if they travel onward from that first country.
While the Commission points to improvements in the Greek asylum system and in reception capacity, in reality Greece’s asylum and reception systems still have severe deficiencies. These are made worse by the closure of the Western Balkan migration route that traps asylum seekers in Greece, and by the EU-Turkey deal, which keeps them on Greek islands.
The government is not making adequate provision for the basic needs of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants contained on the Aegean islands, or in camps and official reception facilities in mainland Greece.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented severely overcrowded and unhygienic conditions on the Islands. Many people sleep on the ground in small tents or makeshift shelters constructed from blankets, plastic sheeting, and scraps of fencing and cardboard. Health care is inadequate, and food is insufficient and of poor quality.
On the mainland, many asylum seekers are left unassisted, destitute, homeless, or living in substandard conditions and unprotected from the cold. That includes people with disabilities, women with newborn babies and pregnant women, elderly people with serious health problems, and other vulnerable groups. Due to lack of space in dedicated shelters despite considerable increase in capacity over the past year, unaccompanied children are often detained, sometimes with adults, for lack of a better alternative.
Instead of focusing on returning asylum seekers to Greece, the European Commission should take urgent steps to alleviate the sufferings of asylum seekers in Greece, by accelerating relocation of asylum seekers, in particular unaccompanied migrant children, to other European Union countries, and by transferring larger numbers of them from the overcrowded hotspots on the Islands to adequate and safe facilities in mainland Greece.
“The Commission’s announcement could only be justified if Greece’s abysmal detention and reception conditions had improved since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that returning asylum seekers there would violate the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment,” Cossé said. “But conditions for asylum seekers in Greece are every bit as degrading now as they were six years ago.”