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

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban before a photo at the European Union Tallinn Digital Summit in Tallinn, Estonia, September 29, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
Last week, the European People's Party (EPP) had a chance to stand up for its values and those of the European Union. But instead, it ducked the issue.

The umbrella group of center-right and Christian democrat parties in European institutions came together first in Warsaw and then in Munich. The elephant in the room? The conduct of its most renegade party member, Hungary's Fidesz.

A year earlier, the EPP leadership had warned Fidesz's leader and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban that the party needed to live up to EPP values.

But rather than doing so, Fidesz has further reduced space for civic debates in Hungary, demonising critics and smearing media and non-governmental groups.

Populist and xenophobic campaigns accompanied migration policies that are the most restrictive, brutal and degrading throughout the EU.

Hungary is on the verge of forcing the Central European University out of the country, only because Hungarian-born philanthropist and billionaire George Soros is funding it. And Hungary's parliament is now debating a new law that would make is virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to receive protection in Hungary, criminalise any assistance, research or advocacy on their situation, and make NGO and humanitarian workers face prison.

So, all eyes were on the EPP gatherings to see if the group were willing to follow their own standards, and expel Fidesz.

Yet, when the EPP meet in Warsaw on 5 June, its communique focused not on Hungary but on Poland. The EPP leaders stressed that "rule of law, the independence of justice and respect for all freedoms are the foundations of a healthy democracy".

The EPP is right to express concern about the rule of law in Poland, as judges there are being purged from their positions, and new appointments risk leading to a politicised takeover of the judiciary by the ruling coalition.

But while criticising Poland's government is right, it is also easy, since its ruling Law and Justice party is not in the EPP.

The EPP's silence on Fidesz shows a majority within the group still accept shielding Fidesz from criticism.

Voices of principle are starting to be heard within the group however. The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Dutch EPP member, supported suspending Fidesz if it fails to abide by EU's democratic standards; others, including within Germany's Christian democratic party, warned Orban not to cross the line.

Just last week, the congress of the Finnish member party discussed if they could move forward with sanctioning Fidesz at EPP's upcoming Congress in November in Helsinki, as it had crossed all the lines.

EPP - size versus principles?

The worry, however, is that the EPP leadership, far from recognising that Fidesz has no place in a party that is supposed to stand for human rights and rule of law, has decided to embrace it more tightly.

Its motivation is presumably in part to remain the largest political group at the European Parliament, including after next year's elections.

So, rather than act on the concerns of the Dutch CDA party, the EPP leadership has taken the side of Fidesz in its 'war of words' with the CDA, calling on the Dutch to apologise for speaking the truth on Hungary's democratic rollback?

It may get worse.

Some within the ruling Law and Justice party in Warsaw clearly see the best resolution to the cognitive dissonance of the EPP criticising Poland's ruling party while remaining silent on Hungary's is to join the club.

Law and Justice is reportedly considering joining the EPP ahead of next year's European elections. And Viktor Orban is seeking to rebrand his "illiberal democracy" as a "Christian democracy," suggesting he sees himself and his party as part of the EPP's future.

This is a real moment of truth for Europe's centre-right and its adherence to EU's values of democratic pluralism and the rule of law.

It's also a real moment of truth for Manfred Weber, the EPP leader in the European Parliament who is said to have ambitions to become the next president of the European Commission.

The choice should be clear: to save the soul of the EPP, the group should take a principled stand for their own core principles and reject members who pursue and promote anti-democratic, anti-rule of law, and anti-human rights policies.

This means the expulsion of Fidesz until Hungary's ruling party reviews its rights-damaging policies, and sending a clear 'no' to any request by the Poland's Law and Justice Party to join a mainstream European alliance as it wrecks the country's independent judiciary.

In short, the choice for the EPP is between sanctioning those promoting authoritarian populism or accepting that they will succeed to change the EPP into something far darker and less democratic.

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

(Washington, DC, June 20, 2018) – US government records summarizing investigations of the deaths of 15 people in immigration detention support a conclusion that poor medical care contributed to at least eight of the deaths, a group of research and advocacy organizations said in a report released today. More people died in fiscal year 2017 in immigration detention than any time since 2009. Human Rights Watch analyzed, with the help of independent medical experts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) death reviews from late-2015 to mid-2017 and finds evidence in nearly all of them of substandard and dangerous medical care practices including unreasonable delays in accessing care, botched emergency responses and poor-quality practitioner care. One of the 15 cases involved the suicide of a person with psychosocial disabilities who was inappropriately placed in isolation.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The arrival of over one million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 set off a political crisis in the European Union (EU), the effects of which are still being felt today. The chaos at borders and the strain on unprepared and under-resourced national asylum systems laid bare serious deficiencies in the EU asylum system.

EU institutions and national governments are drawing the wrong lessons from the challenges of managing mixed migration flows since 2015. The focus of EU policy over the past three years has been on preventing arrivals, outsourcing responsibility to countries outside the EU, and downgrading refugee protection inside the EU.

The current policy responses to migration and asylum from EU institutions and governments pose serious human rights concerns and threaten the integrity of the international refugee protection system. A different approach is possible and necessary. The paper presents Human Rights Watch’s recommendations towards an effective and principled approach that ensures EU global leadership on refugee protection, preserves the right to asylum, more equitably shares responsibility among EU member states, safeguards the rights of all migrants and allows EU governments to control their borders.

The EU’s Current Approach

Outsourcing Responsibility

“Externalization”—the prevention of irregular arrivals by outsourcing migration management and border controls to regions and countries outside the EU, including the processing of refugees and asylum seekers—has become a central plank in the EU’s response to mixed migration flows. Externalization is not per se harmful as a policy approach. It can lead to improvements in protection capacity in transit countries and countries of first arrival. However, in practice, EU externalization policy often leads to the violation of people’s rights.

It involves frustrating the right of any person to leave a country, whether their own or another, leading people to be trapped in abusive situations. It undermines the right to seek asylum, by forcing people to seek protection in countries that lack functioning asylum systems. It exacerbates human rights abuses that drive migration instead of ameliorating them, by providing support for abusive security or border forces or by muting human rights diplomacy with third countries in the name of migration cooperation.

The EU-Turkey statement

Agreed in March 2016, the deal seeks to provide a mechanism that would result in the return to Turkey of all asylum seekers who arrived after the deal entered into force without first having their protection claims determined, while increasing Turkey’s ability to humanely host and fairly process asylum seekers and refugees. It is based on the presumption that Turkey is a safe third country or a safe first country of asylum, despite the fact the country lacks a properly functioning asylum system. Syrian asylum seekers benefit from a temporary protection regime but since the deal entered into force they continue to face obstacles to employment, healthcare, and, despite some improvements, education. As of the end of April 2018, only 23 Syrians had been returned to Turkey on grounds of their asylum application being inadmissible because Turkey is a safe country for them. Almost 1,600 others had been removed to Turkey, but only after their claims were rejected on the merits or because they did not file an asylum claim or agreed to return voluntarily.

The European Union and its member states have largely failed to address the negative human rights impact of the EU-Turkey agreement in Turkey and on the Greek Islands. Human Rights Watch has documented violent push-backs, including live fire shootings by Turkish authorities at the effectively closed Syrian border, and summary deportations of Syrians and Afghans.  We have documented the human toll of containing asylum seekers on the Greek islands, which happened because the deal relates exclusively to asylum seekers and migrants entering Greece via the Aegean Sea, even though there is no evidence so far to indicate that most of them will be returned to Turkey.

There is also little evidence that the deal has delivered much improvement in Turkey’s protection of asylum seekers and refugees, especially for non-Syrians. While EU member states have resettled 12,000 Syrians from Turkey, the number is dwarfed by the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Migration cooperation with Libya

The EU and individual member states are providing training, equipment and funds to Libyan coast guard forces. Italy is increasingly enabling Libyan coast guard forces to assume control over operations in international waters, and ordering NGO rescue vessels to stand down, despite ample evidence of reckless, dangerous behavior by Libyan coast guard forces and the knowledge that everyone intercepted by Libyan forces will be disembarked in Libya and placed in indefinite, arbitrary and abusive detention. EU support for UN agencies and NGOs working to improve conditions and treatment in Libyan detention centers is positive, as is the European Commission’s pledge in March to work to end systematic detention of migrants in Libya. Efforts by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to evacuate refuges to Niger for resettlement elsewhere and by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to assist people to return to their home countries also represent important progress. However, aid groups do not have full and regular access, and Libya has yet to sign a Memorandum of Understand with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Premising development aid and diplomatic ties on migration cooperation

The EU adopted in June 2016 a Partnership Framework with third countries signalling an intention to recast the EU’s external relations by placing migration cooperation at the core of foreign policy and development aid. A central goal of the framework is to provide positive and negative incentives to countries of origin and transit to improve border controls and accept the return of migrants and rejected asylum seekers. This includes cooperation with countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. Making development aid and EU foreign relations conditional on countries’ agreement to cooperate with EU migration control objectives represents a sharp turn away from a forthright defense of human rights as a central plank of EU foreign policy, in ways that could ultimately prove self-defeating by failing to address the human rights abuses that often drive forced migration and by bolstering the very security forces that violate rights, including the right to leave.

Insourcing Misery

Across the EU, governments appear determined to create a hostile environment for migrants and asylum seekers. National governments seek to impede access to territory and asylum procedures, as well as to limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. At EU-level, efforts led by the European Commission to modify the Common European Asylum System risk downgrading protection, despite some positive aspects. 

Failing to share responsibility internally

The starkly unequal distribution of responsibility for incoming migrants and asylum seekers among EU member states—laid bare during the fall of 2015—is at the heart of the divisive political debate around EU policy. The Dublin Regulation imposes the general rule that the first EU country of entry is responsible for processing asylum claims, placing a significant responsibility on countries at the EU’s external borders, and repeated efforts by the Commission to reform it have yielded few results. A temporary relocation plan to alleviate the burden on Greece and Italy failed to meet even one-third of its objectives—30,310 people had benefitted from it by the official end of the program, in September 2017, out of the original 106,000 target. At the same time, a number of EU countries have reinstituted border controls and Dublin returns, while pressuring Greece to contain asylum seekers on the Greek islands and weaken its asylum safeguards to facilitate returns to Turkey.

Downgrading protection

The European Commission has proposed a raft of adjustments to EU asylum laws, including measures to make it harder to qualify for protection in EU countries, punish asylum seekers for moving between EU countries, and impose compulsory reviews to facilitate revoking protection and forced returns. More positively, the proposals would increase safeguards in asylum procedures and include siblings and families formed during the migration journey or in transit countries in the definition of family. Of particular concern is the proposal to make obligatory the application of the “safe country of origin,” “safe third country” and “safe first country of asylum” concepts, with watered-down requirements and safeguards. Numerous EU countries have adopted or proposed domestic legal or policy changes that effectively limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to appeal decisions and to family reunification and have rolled back entitlements.

Making life miserable

Across the EU region, migrants and asylum seekers face pushbacks at borders, unlawful and/or degrading detention, containment in specific designated areas or in the case of Greece, on its island, and local measures designed to create a hostile environment by limiting or denying access to basic services. The European Commission and member states have largely failed to condemn or take action against deliberate policies aimed at harming asylum seekers or making access to asylum at borders meaningless such as implemented by Hungary at its border with Serbia and Poland at its border with Belarus. Nongovernmental organizations providing direct services face harassment in countries like France and Italy, while groups performing search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean are the subject of concerted smear campaigns and criminal cases alleging facilitation of irregular migration. Proposed legislation in Hungary would cast a person seeking asylum in Hungary as a threat to national security, and penalize and restrict groups working with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

What the EU and its Member States Should Do

In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, EU governments joined the global call for  “a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner,” and committed themselves to “a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees, while taking account of existing contributions and the differing capacities and resources among States.” European Union member states are also bound by EU law, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and by human rights and refugee law.

To live up to these commitments and duties, the EU should save lives at sea, expand safe and legal channels, create a fair mechanism for sharing responsibility within the EU, ensure fair asylum procedures, pursue the safe return of irregular migrants in a way that respects rights, and invest diplomatic and economic capital in ways that help tackle the abuses that drive migration and to improve protection in regions of origin.

Save Lives at Sea

According to the International Organization for Migration, over 15,800 people have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2014. As of early May, 619 people had died or gone missing since the beginning of 2018. The EU and member states have implemented various policies over the years, including everything from physical pushbacks to Libya to a vast humanitarian rescue operation. Overall, the default response has been to ignore, to prevent, and to shift responsibility. The focus now is on building capacity of Libyan coast guard forces and enabling them to intercept boats in international waters as well as preventing departures from Libyan waters. Increased insecurity in the central Mediterranean, smear campaigns, legal action and restrictions on their ability to operate effectively have led several major rescue NGOs to pull out. The Italian maritime rescue coordination center is increasingly shifting coordination of rescue operations to Libyan forces, and delaying disembarkation in Italy from NGO boats, citing breaches of a code of conduct the Italian government imposed last year. A German and a Spanish NGO are under investigation in Italy on charges of facilitating “illegal migration.”

Regional agreements on search-and-rescue and disembarkation can help ensure timely rescues and predictable procedures. Such an agreement in the Mediterranean region could include disembarkation in a country outside the EU only if there is prior independent verification that the country is capable of ensuring fair treatment for all migrants, including procedural guarantees around detention and unsafe returns, and of access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure with a chance to be recognized as a refugee in line with the 1951 Convention. Any such regional agreement and its implementation must be consistent with states’ obligations under regional and international human rights, refugee and maritime law.

There are no definitive data to support a strong correlation between presence of rescue NGOs and boat departures. To the contrary, a detailed statistical analysis by the Italian think-tank ISPI found no correlation between the presence of NGO rescue boats and departures. The push factor argument ignores the complexity of forced migration and the myriad reasons why people migrate; it also assumes a level of information and expectation among asylum seekers that is not borne out by field research. And even if a greater chance of rescue has an impact on some people’s decisions, the alternative—letting people drown—is unacceptable. Trapping people in Libya or favouring policies that send them back where they face torture, ill-treatment, rape, sexual violence and forced labour is neither consistent with EU values nor saves lives, since many later escape and attempt the boat journey again.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Adopt a commitment of shared responsibility for saving lives at sea. This means supporting, not smearing, NGOs performing search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean.
  • Refrain from enabling Libyan coast guard forces to intercept boats in international waters until Libya can be considered a place of safety within the meaning of international maritime law, human rights law, and refugee law.
  • Implement a dedicated rescue mission with an operational plan that provides for disembarkation in a place of safety in EU countries including but not limited to Italy.
  • Prioritize ending systematic, abusive detention of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. 

Expand Safe and Legal Channels

While even significantly expanded safe and legal channels will never satisfy all demand, they could help to avoid some dangerous migrant journeys, and allow for appropriate planning, preparation, and orderly arrivals. There are a range of policy options for safe and legal channels for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. We focus here only on refugee resettlement.

The EU has improved over its dismal previous record on resettlement, but the numbers are still far too low. As of mid-March 2018, EU countries had resettled just over 29,300 people through a temporary resettlement plan adopted in July 2015 and the resettlement provision of the April 2016 EU-Turkey Statement. Since November 2017, the UNHCR has evacuated almost 1,500 vulnerable refugees out of Libya to a transit facility in Niger with a view to resettling them in EU countries and elsewhere. Evacuations resumed in May following a two-month suspension due to Nigerien government concerns that resettlement was not keeping pace with arrivals. As of late April, UNHCR had received 2,681 pledges, with France pledging 1,500 places through October 2019, Sweden 400 places, and Germany 300 (other European countries have pledged smaller numbers, and Canada has offered 200 places).

The UNHCR also facilitated, in December 2017, the direct resettlement out of Libya to Italy of 162 refugees, and has received 1,100 more pledges for this program, the majority (650) from Canada. Out of the current 24,436 pledges for resettlement from countries along the Central Mediterranean migration route, only 30 percent have come from European countries.

A permanent EU resettlement program, proposed by the European Commission, is a good step in the right direction, but includes conditionalities and restrictive criteria that will undermine the overall goal. The Commission proposed that the EU resettle refugees from countries that demonstrate “effective cooperation” EU migration control imperatives. It also laid out restrictive criteria, such as “integration potential,” and the exclusion of anyone who tried previously to enter the EU irregularly. 

The EU should:

  • Establish a permanent EU-wide resettlement program commensurate with EU capacity and global need, with ambitious minimum targets rather than low maximums, based on UNHCR eligibility and exclusion criteria.
  • Ensure that refugees with family members in the EU are processed under family reunification mechanisms to reserve resettlement places for people without other means to reach the EU. Resettled refugees should receive a secure status in keeping with the goal of providing durable solutions and encouraging integration.
  • Ensure that resettlement out of countries of first asylum is not linked to the level of migration cooperation by those countries with the EU.
  • Do not use resettlement as a substitute for asylum procedures or as a rationale for returning asylum seekers in the EU to countries of first arrival.

Share Responsibility Among EU Countries

The number of arrivals at Europe’s external borders is manageable across all member states, but not across two or three. The failure to share responsibility drives a sense that the numbers of arrivals are unmanageable and undermines public confidence in policy responses to migration. Fixing the system to share responsibility equitably requires reforming Dublin Regulation which generally requires the first country of arrival in the EU to examine an asylum application. Reform of the Dublin Regulation is on the table as part of the general overhaul of EU asylum laws, but negotiations are stalled. Arguably the most controversial aspect among member states is the creation of a mechanism to ensure fair distribution of responsibility for examining asylum claims among EU countries.

The European Commission proposal as well as ideas discussed under the aegis of successive EU presidencies envision a distribution mechanism only in emergency situations, that would be triggered only when a country surpasses a pre-determined threshold for accommodating and processing asylum seekers. Such emergencies-only responsibility-sharing proposals would likely increase the burden on member states at EU external borders and impose greater restrictions and penalties on asylum seekers who move onward, and make it more likely (in conjunction with other changes to EU asylum law) that individuals in need of protection may be rejected in mandatory admissibility assessments or accelerated procedures on the grounds that they had or could have had sufficient protection in a country outside the EU. These admissibility and accelerated procedures based on safe country concepts could prevent applicants from being reunited with family members already in another EU country.

The European Parliament has issued a proposal for a permanent distribution mechanism that strikes a better balance between states’ concerns and the rights and wishes of asylum seekers. At the time of writing, there is no agreement among member states on the modalities of such a solidarity mechanism.

A forward-looking reform of Dublin should:

  • Create a permanent distribution mechanism that is not based on a triggering mechanism.
  • Include incentives for asylum seekers to remain (e.g. swift access to right to work), take into greater consideration individual circumstances (e.g. social and/or family ties) in determining the state responsible, and provide incentives for member states to share responsibility.
  • Refrain from punishing onward movement by limiting access to asylum procedures or limiting access to housing and decent material reception conditions.
  • Do not impose mandatory admissibility or accelerated procedures based on safe country concepts.

Ensure Fair Asylum Procedures

Expanding safe and legal channels is not a substitute for ensuring the rights of those who arrive spontaneously to seek asylum. EU institutions and member states are currently debating significant reforms to EU asylum directives that will affect criteria for refugee status or other forms of protection, asylum procedures, and reception conditions for asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch believes that any reform of the Common European Asylum System should improve, rather than weaken, access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, as well as ensure adequate material support for those seeking protection.

As such, we have deep concerns about changes that would make the use of safe country concepts mandatory and systematic. Their use in accelerated procedures in national asylum systems based on existing EU asylum rules has given rise to concerns about rushed and poor-quality decision making, especially in complex cases, and resulted in extended detention and in some cases removals to risk of human rights abuse.

If safe country concepts are further entrenched in EU asylum law, EU governments and institutions should at a minimum ensure the following:

  • Any list of safe countries of origin should be based on detailed, reliable information from a variety of authoritative sources and be subject to continuous monitoring and a flexible system for removing countries from the list due to changing circumstances.
  • Applicants from countries on such a list should be able to rebut the presumption of safety, with their removal suspended pending result of any appeal.
  • Only countries that have ratified without limitations and effectively implement the 1951 Refugee Convention should be included on any list of safe third countries, and applicants should be sent to such countries only where there is a meaningful connection (mere transit should not suffice to meet that criterion).

Conduct Safe Returns

EU countries have the right to return persons with no legal claim to remain, following fair procedures and in accordance with human rights and refugee law. While carrying out safe and timely returns for rejected asylum seekers who have exhausted their remedies is a reasonable policy objective alongside fair asylum procedures, removing people is difficult in practice and return rates are low. The Commission stated in September 2017 that the effective return rate stands at 36.4% but drops to 27% when returns to Western Balkans countries are discounted.

The European Commission and individual member states place a high priority on increasing effective returns of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers. The removal of all irregularly-staying migrants is an unrealistic objective, and it has proven difficult to reach agreements with countries of origin for the identification and return of their nationals. The European Commission has repeatedly—most recently in March 2018—threatened to tighten visa requirements for citizens of countries that are not cooperating on returns. Increased returns may also not have the deterrent effect policy makers project. 

A disproportionate emphasis on increasing returns without a sufficient focus on safeguards can lead to a series of negative rights consequences, including but not limited to: 1) increased resort to detention and lengthier detention; 2) emphasis on accelerated procedures and the overreliance on poorly defined safe country of origin, safe third country, and safe first country of asylum concepts to deem asylum applications inadmissible; 3) poor human rights safeguards in readmission agreements with other countries, including for the return of third-country nationals; and 4) shortcuts on procedural guarantees such as failure to ensure legal representation and interpretation services.

EU member states and institutions should:

  • Ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place as they work to carry out safe and timely returns. High-quality asylum procedures across the EU space will help justify confidence that returns of rejected asylum seekers are permissible, as will strong safeguards against unsafe returns of rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, who while not deemed beneficiaries of protection may face risks upon return or have other claims to remain, such as EU-citizen children, that should be factored into the removal decision.
  • Ensure that readmission agreements with third countries include strong human rights conditions, particulary with respect to the return of third-country nationals to countries they have transited. Removals should ensure procedural fairness, including the right to contest a removal decision.
  • Offer incentives to countries of origin to cooperate on returns of their own nationals in the form of visa schemes for legal migration for students and workers at all skill levels. If such visas are offered in sufficient numbers they could provide a meaningful alternative to irregular migration.
  • Ensure that detention pending removal is only used as a last resort, and only for the shortest time necessary for the purposes of deportation, during which time authorities should show due diligence in arranging the removal. The use of alternative measures to detention should be increased.
  • Children as a rule should not be detained.

Marrying an adequate focus on safeguards and a credible asylum system will ensure that returns are safe and consistent with EU values and legal obligations.

Promote Safety and Dignity in Regions of Forced Displacement

EU financial and political support for efforts to tackle the root causes of forced migration, including hardship circumstances and lack of durable solutions for refugees in first countries of asylum, are vital. Around 84% of the world’s refugees are hosted in the global south, and about twice the number of refugees are people internally displaced inside their own countries.

The EU and its member states are collectively the world’s leading donors of development aid and have contributed significantly to UN humanitarian appeals to support victims of displacement and their host communities.

The 2015 EU Agenda for Migration, the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement and the June 2016 Partnership Framework for relations with third countries all privilege migration cooperation as a top priority in relations with countries outside the EU. The primacy of this objective raises concerns about the distortion of development and humanitarian aid, as well as the diversion of funds. The EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) is financed predominantly by the European Development Fund, with only 12 percent of contributions coming from Member States and other donors (for example Norway and Switzerland, which are not EU countries). A portion of EUTF-funded programs focus explicitly on increasing border surveillance and security, such as the Italy-led 42 million euro project on “integrated border and migration management” in Libya. According to the European Commission, the EUTF is facing a €1 billion gap in funding for planned projects.

Long-term efforts to address forced migration should be informed by the commitment, explicitly laid out in the EU action plan on human rights, to ensure that human rights are a central plank in EU foreign policy. They should also be guided by principles of development effectiveness and refugee protection. Development assistance and aid to countries hosting large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers should not be linked to migration management objectives but focused instead on improving protection capacity and tackling human rights abuses in ways that may reduce the need for onward movement. These programs should be designed, implemented and monitored to ensure that cooperation does not trap people in abusive situations or contribute to human rights violations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl holds a placard during a protest held by migrants and refugees to call for the reopening of the borders at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni on March 23, 2016.

© 2016 ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
(Brussels) – The failure by European Union governments and institutions to develop an effective and rights-based policy response to migration causes real suffering and fuels a sense of political crisis around migration, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. EU heads of state will meet in Brussels on June 28-29, 2018, to discuss migration and asylum policy.

The report, “Toward an Effective and Principled EU Migration Policy: Recommendations for Reform,” contains concrete recommendations to ensure EU global leadership on refugee protection, uphold the right to asylum, and more equitably share responsibility among EU member states. Human Rights Watch policy recommendations are intended to safeguard the rights of all migrants while allowing EU governments to control their borders.

“EU governments only seem able to agree on outsourcing responsibility and insourcing misery,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Heads of state should take the opportunity of the summit to endorse rights-based migration policies that are both more humane and more efficient.”

Human Rights Watch provides a prescription for a fundamental reset in migration policy at a time when the EU is deflecting responsibility away from its borders. The EU is making it harder to seek asylum in Europe, creating a hostile environment for migrants and asylum seekers, and threatening the integrity of the international refugee system, Human Rights Watch said. An effective and principled approach to migration should be grounded in respect for human rights and the right to asylum.

The recent refusal of the Italian government to allow a nongovernmental rescue ship to dock reflects that country’s new hardline approach and willingness to flout its international obligations but also the breakdown in regional cooperation and solidarity, Human Rights Watch said.

The incident illustrated starkly the need for predictable and fair systems for sharing responsibility, not only for rescue at sea and landing at a port but also for legal processing of arriving migrants and asylum seekers.

Yet negotiations to reform the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims, are stalled, with many proposals likely to increase the current pressure on front-line EU countries rather than to distribute responsibility more equitably.

Numerous EU countries have already adopted or proposed domestic legal or policy changes that limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to appeal decisions and to be reunited with their families and that limit assistance. At the same time, EU countries have intensified efforts to prevent arrivals and deter asylum claims, with far-reaching disregard for their significant human rights consequences.

The 2016 EU-Turkey deal has led to a policy of containing thousands of asylum seekers in inadequate conditions on Greek islands, without noteworthy improvements in protection for refugees in Turkey or significant resettlement to EU countries. Cooperation with Libyan authorities, and particularly the Libyan coast guard forces, may be nurturing a cycle of violence and detention despite simultaneous efforts to evacuate vulnerable refugees to Niger for resettlement elsewhere and to repatriate migrants not needing protection from Libya to their countries of origin.

At the Council Summit, EU leaders should focus on strategies to minimize dangerous migration journeys while respecting the right to leave any country and acknowledging the myriad drivers of migration, including violence and persecution.

Efforts to save lives at sea and on land should be a priority, and the EU should expand safe and orderly channels such as refugee resettlement and legal channels for employment and study, while pursuing the safe return of irregular migrants in ways that respect their human rights. EU governments should invest diplomatic and economic capital in ways that help tackle the abuses that drive migration and that improve protection in regions of origin. The improvements in countries of origin should be based on solutions that would promote human rights, protect refugees, and foster effective development.

Preserving the EU as a protection space for those in need requires forward-looking reform of the Dublin system that distributes responsibility more equitably and provides an incentive to asylum seekers to stick to the constraints of the system, as well as efficient and fair asylum procedures in all EU countries. The use of safe country provisions to reject asylum seekers should be limited and subject to stringent safeguards to prevent what could be unsafe returns.

As EU countries work to increase repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and migrants who are not allowed to remain, the countries should ensure that their procedures are fair, with strong human rights provisions included in readmission agreements, and any detention pending deportation limited to the shortest time necessary. As a rule, children should not be detained. The EU should offer incentives, rather than threats, to countries of origin to cooperate on returns of their own nationals in the form of more visas for students and workers at all skill levels.

“The divisive political debate in Europe should not obscure the fact that a principled approach could both uphold human rights and manage migration,” Sunderland said. “EU leaders should to show genuine leadership and stand up for their shared values and commitments.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

After a nerve-wracking stand-off and intense negotiations, 629 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Aquarius, a rescue ship run by two nongovernmental groups, SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF, are finally heading towards Spain. Spain’s humane gesture stands in stark contrast to the disgraceful behavior by Italy and Malta.

The saga began on Monday when Italy refused to let the Aquarius dock and disembark passengers in Italy, insisting Malta should do so. Malta refused, insisting Italy had responsibility. Finally, the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped up to offer safe harbor in Valencia.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, architect of this drama, crowed that “It pays off to raise one’s voice politely.” Stranding hundreds of people at sea is hardly polite.

It’s true that Italy has shouldered an out-sized responsibility for saving lives at sea – including in waters well outside its designated search-and-rescue area – and for processing and accommodating disembarked migrants and asylum seekers. But closing Italy’s ports is an unconscionable way to pressure other European Union states to do more.

Malta, a tiny island nation with a vast search-and-rescue area, already hosts a high per capita number of asylum seekers and refugees. But this cannot excuse its refusal to allow the Aquarius to dock either.

Italy and Malta’s actions flout international maritime norms. Italy coordinated Aquarius sea rescues, and the Italian Coast Guard directly saved nearly 300 people and then transferred them to the NGO ship; Italy had the duty to promptly designate a safe place to disembark. The closest safe port Malta was a reasonable option.

Italy and Malta’s rejection of the ship’s passengers at the borders of their territorial waters, knowing some of those on board likely need international protection, denied those passengers the opportunity to exercise their right under EU, refugee, and human rights law to seek asylum.

Diverting the rescue ship to Spain – some four days’ away, with poor weather forecast – keeps the Aquarius away from the area where its search-and-rescue capacity is most needed, in international waters off the Libyan coast, putting other lives at risk. To ensure safe passage, 500 people were transferred off the Aquarius to Italian coast guard and Navy boats for the journey to Spain.

Blocking ships from disembarking rescued passengers could discourage both nongovernmental organizations and merchant vessels from responding to boats in distress. This episode should remind EU states that they share responsibility for saving lives at sea and making sure those rescued reach a place of safety.

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

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini arrives at the Republic Day military parade in Rome, Italy, June 2, 2018.

© 2018 REUTERS/Tony Gentile
After almost three months of jumping up and down in place, the newly invested Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has hit the ground running in the worst possible direction. The head of the anti-immigrant party, the League, Salvini has positioned himself as the strongman in the unlikely coalition government recently formed with the ideologically fungible Five Star Movement.

In a speech to supporters on May 31, the night before he was sworn in, Salvini upped the inflammatory rhetoric and doubled-down on the League’s worst campaign promises. He announced plans to cut the budget for reception centers for asylum seekers and, in an unnerving call-and-response with the excited crowd, said that sending all irregular migrants back home was a top priority.

On June 3, Salvini went to Pozzallo, a Sicilian port where many rescued migrants and refugees  disembark, to thunder that the “good times are over” for undocumented migrants and to insinuate that nongovernmental organizations saving lives in the central Mediterranean are complicit with smugglers.

The timing was heartless at best. It came just after a fatal day in the Mediterranean, with at least 112 people estimated drowned when a boat that departed from the Tunisian coast sank at sea, and nine people, including six children, died in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. Salvini insists he values human life but has yet to condemn the fatal shooting of a Malian labor rights activist in Calabria on June 2.

It is true, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said only recently, that the rest of the EU has largely abandoned Italy  to deal with large numbers of migrants and refugees. It is understandable that Salvini has intoned against a proposed reform of the Dublin Regulation, the EU rules that generally require the first country of entry to examine asylum claims. The proposed changes would arguably increase the pressure on Italy without ensuring a more equitable distribution of responsibility.

But there are no excuses for Salvini’s dangerous rhetoric, which is likely to inflame social tensions and intolerance while promoting policies that are both unrealistic and unsavory.

Increasing safe returns for migrants to their countries   after fair and efficient procedures is a reasonable policy objective. But Italy cannot simply expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants without severe repression, and Italy doesn’t yet have the agreements with many key countries of origin needed to facilitate returns. Cutting already minimal and often sub-standard accommodation and care for asylum seekers is no solution, while potentially violating binding EU rules and being just plain cruel.

Limiting the ability of nongovernmental groups to rescue people in distress at sea and take them in a place of safety could contribute to more deaths at sea, strip Italy of the moral standing it has acquired over the last several years for its leadership in rescue at sea, and undermine the valiant work of volunteers from nongovernmental groups and Italian Coast Guard and Navy personnel who have saved tens of thousands of lives at sea.

The outgoing Democratic Party government had already intensified cooperation with Libyan authorities to stop departures and enable Libyan coast guard forces to intercept migrant boats in international waters and take people back to horrific conditions in arbitrary detention in Libya. It’s not yet clear what Salvini and the new government have in mind, but it’s worth remembering that the League’s Roberto Maroni was interior minister in 2009 when Italy implemented its nefarious policy of literally pushing boats back to Libya.

Italy’s new government assumes power at a time when nativist populist parties have growing clout in Europe and its anti-immigrant stance will no doubt be welcomed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose government is currently trying to criminalize people working for groups that assist asylum seekers. Salvini has already said he wants to work with Orban, with whom he has already spoken on the phone, to “change the rules” of the EU.

Salvini’s migration policies may well face challenges not only from Italy’s vibrant civil society groups but also in the courts and from EU institutions.

Given the League’s and Five Star Movements’ anti-EU rhetoric and willingness to condemn institutional checks and balances like the Italian Constitutional Court and the Italian president, there is cause for concern they will have few compunctions about flouting constraints on their power.

Europe should recognize that Italy needs greater support to ensure a humane approach to migrants and to protect refugees, but also be willing to insist that Italy’s government respect human rights.

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

An anti-immigration poster by Victor Orban's Fidesz party during Hungary's April 2018 elections, April 8, 2018, Gyongyos, Hungary. 

© 2018 REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
(Budapest) – A revised draft bill published by the Hungarian government on May 29, 2018, would criminalize efforts to help migrants and asylum seekers and curb their access to protection, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill the government presented to parliament proposes amending nine existing laws related to asylum, the national border, and the police. It creates a new criminal offense in the Criminal Code of “enabling illegal immigration,” which is defined to include helping asylum seekers who are “not eligible for protection,” as well as to include border monitoring, producing and disseminating information, or “network building.” If committed “regularly,” or with the aim of “help[ing] several persons,” the offense would be considered aggravated. Anyone convicted would face a sentence of up to a year in prison.

“This bill is the latest salvo in the Hungarian government’s war on refugees and those who help them,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hungary’s government should withdraw this draft bill, honor the country’s duty to refugees, and end its odious campaign against rights defenders.”

The draft law would curb the right to asylum by introducing new admissibility criteria that would bar most asylum seekers from getting protection in Hungary. It would allow the authorities to declare asylum applications from people arriving through a country other than their own inadmissible, unless the person could show that they were facing a serious risk of abuse or that the other country did not provide “adequate levels of protection.”

The burden of proof would be on the applicant, who would be unlikely to be able to substantiate such a claim without necessary access to information and support, and within the bill’s tight three-day deadline. These new admissibility criteria could pave the way for a zero-protection system even for applicants fleeing mass human rights violations and generalized violence in Syria, Somalia, or Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said.

Some of the problematic elements in an earlier version of the bill published in February have been removed from the new version, including describing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants as a threat to national security. Earlier versions also gave the interior minister wide discretion to select organizations the minister favored to work with migrants. But by criminalizing working with asylum seekers and migrants, the new version is arguably more problematic, Human Rights Watch said.

The Hungarian government has cracked down on independent groups reporting on human rights issues, including the abuses migrants and asylum seekers face at Hungary’s borders. There are serious concerns that the criminal offense is being introduced as another tool to silence these groups and to prevent victims of human rights violations from being able to reach out to anyone to document the abuses or help them seek redress. People working for the few groups still able to provide essential services, such as legal counselling or providing information about migrants’ rights and responsibilities, could face criminal prosecution.

While the rationale of the new law is that these measures are necessary to fight “illegal immigration,” the bill punishes activities that are legitimate and necessary, especially in a country whose government is systematically dismantling its asylum system. Hungary’s current migration and asylum laws and policies already breach European Union law and international refugee and human rights law.

The draft bill would also give the police the authority to bar anyone suspected of “enabling illegal immigration” from the border areas. This could lead to effectively banning anyone from the areas where migrants and asylum seekers are subjected to abuse at the hands of Hungarian authorities, including Human Rights Watch researchers, and staff from international agencies. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has already called on the Hungarian government to withdraw the bill.

Simultaneously, the government has also submitted a proposal to amend the country’s constitution, banning the “settlement of foreign populations” in the country without specific, individualized permission by a national authority. This measure is likely to result in Hungary’s continuous veto against any relocation and resettlement schemes within the European Union.

The proposed Seventh Amendment to the Fundamental Law would also specify that people arriving to Hungary through a “safe third country” will not be eligible for refugee protection.

The constitutional amendment would also undermine the ability of the judiciary to review the new laws by specifying that judges should primarily use the legislator’s official reasoning when interpreting the law. The provision would undermine meaningful constitutional review, Human Rights Watch said.

“Governments have a responsibility to secure their borders, but the true purpose of Hungary’s proposed changes is to silence critics, remove its abuses against migrants from oversight and accountability, and evade the country’s responsibility to refugees,” Ward said. “The European Commission needs to activate Article 7 of the European Union treaty, which is designed to deal with governments that put the Union’s values at risk.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Qatar submitted documents to the United Nations on May 21, 2018, to join two core human rights treaties, following cabinet approval on March 14, Human Rights Watch said today. But Qatar’s accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights includes formal reservations that will deprive women and migrant workers of the treaties’ protections.

Qatar rejected gender equality provisions in marriage, divorce, and child custody on grounds that they contravene Sharia, or Islamic law. It also declared it would interpret several provisions in line with Sharia, including on defining cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment – avoiding bans on capital and corporal punishment – minimum marriage ages, and freedom of religion. And it said it would interpret the term “trade unions” in accordance with its national law, limiting migrant workers’ rights to form unions.

“Qatar’s accession to these core human rights treaties is an important public commitment to uphold the rights of everyone in the country,” said Belkis Wille, senior Qatar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the government undercuts its own actions by falling back on tired and outdated carve-outs to reject equal rights for women and migrant workers.”

Qatar is the third country of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to ratify both covenants, following Kuwait and Bahrain.

Qatar’s reservations relating to equal rights between men and women in marriage, divorce, and child custody are done on religious grounds, a position similar to that of several other countries that cite Sharia or other religious personal status laws for making such reservations. Qatar’s personal status law discriminates against women by requiring a male guardian to approve their marriage. The law gives men a unilateral right to divorce while requiring women to apply to the courts for divorce on limited grounds and women are required to obey their husbands.

Qatar also provides that fathers retain guardianship over their children following divorce even if the mother has custody. In most cases, boys live with their mother until age 13 and girls until age 15, when they automatically move to their father’s custody unless the court rules otherwise or extends the custody in the best interest of the child. Women, but not men, lose custody if they remarry. Under inheritance provisions, female siblings receive half the amount their brothers get.

Qatar also said it will interpret the right to profess and practice one’s own religion so that it “does not violate the rules of public order and public morals, the protection of public safe[t]y and public health, or the rights of and basic freedoms of others.” While people of other faiths can practice their religion in Qatar, the penal code prohibits proselytizing.

Article 116 of Qatar’s Labor Law allows only Qatari nationals the right to form workers’ associations or trade unions. As a result, migrant workers, who make up over 90 percent of the workforce, cannot exercise their rights to freedom of association and to form trade unions. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

24 April 2018

Mr. Viktor Orbán
Prime Minister
1357 Budapest, Pf. 6.


Dear Prime Minister Orbán,

I am writing to you following the re-election of your party to government in Hungary. As you take up a new mandate and consider your priorities for Hungary, I would like to share with you recommendations for steps your government can take to improve the protection of human rights of everyone in Hungary.

Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization working in over 90 countries worldwide. Human Rights Watch has worked extensively on human rights in Hungary since 2011 and has engaged with authorities on a range of issues. We are aware that in the past you have not agreed with Human Rights Watch’s analysis and recommendations. Nevertheless, we hope as you commence a new term of office you will consider engaging with Human Rights Watch on Hungary’s human rights obligations.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the supporters after the announcement of the partial results of parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, April 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

In recent years, Hungary has been scrutinised by United Nations, European Union and Council of Europe bodies and European institutions and human rights monitors for the effect of your government’s policies on human rights and the rule of law.

As Hungary enters into a new parliamentary term under your leadership, we hope you will take the opportunity to engage constructively with those institutions to which Hungary has a long-standing record of participation and commit to discuss and address their concerns.

We encourage you in particular to use your mandate to reaffirm the importance of civil society in a democratic society; enable a media landscape conducive to a pluralistic, facts-based debate; address legal and policy shortcomings with regards to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers; and, ensure that public funds are not used to fuel xenophobia and intolerance.

Civil society

There has been a troubling pattern of efforts to impede and discredit the work of civil society organizations in Hungary in recent years, particularly those that receive funding from abroad or help migrants and asylum seekers. The draft legal package referred to as “Stop Soros” would compound existing and unjustified restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations in 2017 and could curb or end their ability to carry out legitimate activities.

We call on you as a matter of priority to ensure that your government refrains from publicly alleging that these organizations – lawfully operating in Hungary – are engaged in illicit activities, or that they represent a threat to national security. Intimidation against employees and volunteers, seen during the electoral campaign by candidates or their supporters and in some media, should end and be replaced by a more genuinely democratic climate where everyone’s right to participate in political and public affairs, as guaranteed under international norms, is respected and protected. We encourage you to ensure that the Hungarian government respects and protects the freedoms of association, assembly and expression and urge you to participate in meaningful dialogue and constructive partnership with civil society actors, including human rights groups.

Similarly, the new Hungarian government should redouble efforts to address the ongoing uncertainty of educational institutions of international background, in particular the Central European University, whose continued operations are still in jeopardy, despite the university’s efforts to comply with 2017 legislation.

Media pluralism

We have observed in recent years a notable decline in the protection of freedom of speech and media under your previous mandates. Newly introduced media laws, a restructured public broadcaster with questionable editorial independence and disproportionate ownership of private media by figures close to the government have contributed to a dramatically polarized media landscape. Outlets critical of your government and state institutions have faced intimidation and restrictions on accessing information and engaging with decision-makers; they had to defend themselves in front of courts for alleged defamation and libel.

As Prime Minister, you have a renewed opportunity and responsibility to uphold free expression in Hungary, ensure that citizens have access to a diversity of opinion through media pluralism, and that critical media outlets and journalists do not risk retaliation for their views. Under international law, journalists should not face threats, sanctions or charges and penalties for criticizing public figures.

Human rights of migrants and asylum seekers

The Hungarian government has faced criticism by international and regional human rights bodies, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, and is being challenged at the European Court of Human Rights for violating the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch is concerned at the continued automatic detention, solely on the grounds of immigration status, of almost all asylum seekers in substandard border “transit zones”; the summary removal of all persons detected inside Hungary after irregular entry to the external side of the border fences, sometimes violently; the arbitrarily applied restrictions on accessing the asylum procedure; and the criminalization of irregular entry. We call on you to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are treated fairly and humanely by revising, as necessary the existing legislative framework and to repeal or review the March 2017 asylum law.

In this context, we hope that the next Hungarian government will refrain from using public funds to falsely depict migrants as “threats” to national security and to the Hungarian nation’s survival, often increasing the racial prejudices prevalent in Hungarian society, and will instead engage in meaningful discussions and genuine policy making on asylum and migration management nationally and within the European Union.

Rule of law

Finally, we turn to you at this important moment to urge you to make a renewed commitment to the separation of powers and institutional checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial institutions, including by restoring the mandate and independence of the Constitutional Court without delay. We urge the Hungarian government to commit to engage constructively with international and European human rights bodies, including the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, UN Special Procedures, and the Council of Europe expert bodies with regards to best practices and necessary steps to restore the protection of human rights and the rule of law in Hungary, and to commit to consider the recommendations addressed by these institutions to the Government of Hungary.

I hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters and would welcome an opportunity to discuss them with you in person at a convenient time.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) approaches the MV Open Arms, the search and rescue ship of Proactiva Open Arms, in the central Mediterranean off the coast of Libya, December 16, 2017.

©2017REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
WE MAY NEED to curb our enthusiasm over an Italian judge’s April 16 decision to release the rescue ship Open Arms, operated by the Spanish group Proactiva, which Italy impounded a month ago.

Although the Open Arms may soon sail again and perform vital rescues in the Mediterranean, two crew members face unjustified criminal charges. But Italy’s determination to enable Libyan coast guard forces to intercept migrant boats in international waters is cause for the deepest concern.

The case against the Proactiva rescuers hinges on their refusal, on March 15, to hand over people they had rescued to a Libyan coast guard unit in international waters despite instructions from the Italian maritime rescue coordination center that Libya had taken over responsibility for the operation.

A prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Catania opened an investigation and ordered the Open Arms impounded. A preliminary investigations judge in Catania dismissed the initial charge of criminal association but upheld the charge of facilitating irregular migration and the impounding of the Open Arms. The case was transferred within Sicily to Ragusa, where a preliminary investigations judge released the ship.

On his way to concluding that there is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing to justify continuing to sequester the ship, the Ragusa judge presented some positive but also potentially dangerous – and somewhat contradictory – arguments.

The judge made the important point that the abuses migrants face in Libya justified Proactiva’s refusal to hand people over to Libyan forces. He cited a “state of necessity” provision in Italian law that absolves someone of a criminal act if it was necessary “to save others from a real threat of serious harm.” The judge rightly noted that under international maritime law, a rescue operation only ends when the people rescued disembark at a safe place and that nowhere in Libya can be considered such a place.

This is critical, as it goes to the larger issue of the legitimacy of E.U. and Italian cooperation with Libyan coast guard forces. There is overwhelming evidence of abuse in Libyan migrant detention centers in all parts of the country, including those under nominal control of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The abuse includes torture and other ill treatment, rape, extortion and forced labor, as well as deprivation of food, water and healthcare, and unsanitary conditions.

Yet Italy is increasingly providing logistical support to enable Libyan coast guards to intercept boats in international waters, even when there are properly equipped vessels operated by nongovernmental groups or others on or closer to the scene. The evidence considered in the Proactiva case clearly illustrates that the Italian rescue center, which received the first distress alert, is determined to hand over responsibility to Libyan authorities. And it shows the active role of Italian navy personnel on board the Capri, an Italian warship docked in Tripoli at the time, in coordinating the movements of Libyan patrol boats.

The same judge upheld the legal fiction of a Libyan search-and-rescue region that the Italian government supports. The Government of National Accord declared such a region in August 2017, but the International Maritime Organization has yet to include that region in its Global Search-and-Rescue plan. No amount of wishful thinking can hide the fact that Libyan coast guard forces lack the equipment, capacity and professionalism to perform these duties. In fact, Libyan patrol boats have on numerous occasions engaged in reckless and abusive behavior against migrants and members of rescue organizations during sea operations.

Libyan coast guard units have a right to operate in their own territorial waters. But legitimizing intervention in international waters by coast guard units only nominally controlled by the Government of National Accord contributes to increasing insecurity and chaos on the high seas, further endangering lives. The Italian rescue center recently instructed the rescue group SOS MEDITERRANEE to refrain from assisting over 100 people crowded onto a rubber boat because Libyan coast guard forces were taking over coordination of the operation.

The group was forced to negotiate with Libyan forces to be allowed to stabilize the situation and evacuate families with children and urgent medical cases to their ship in what SOSMEDITERRANEE described as a “tense and dangerous emergency situation.” The Libyan patrol boat intercepted all the other people on the rubber boat in a move that cannot properly be called a rescue.

Affirming a Libyan search-and-rescue region means accepting that the people Libyan forces take onto its patrol boats will be disembarked in Libya, which we know will lead to detention and abuse. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration are not always there when the people disembark, nor do these agencies have regular access to Libyan detention centers.

Efforts to reform Libya’s detention regime and the treatment of migrants and refugees will be relevant when the situation for migrants and refugees in Libya actually improves. But the possibility of reforms cannot justify policies that place people in harm’s way today. Working with the Libyan coast guard to enable them to intercept people in these circumstances may be tantamount to aiding or assisting the commission of serious human rights violations.

Proactiva is being prosecuted for refusing to return people to a cycle of detention and violence in Libya. Instead, it is Italy and the E.U. that face moral and quite possibly legal sanctions for helping Libyan coast guard forces intercept people in international waters and take them back to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

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

Buraika detention facility for migrants in Aden governorate, Yemen.

© 2018 VICE News Tonight on HBO

(New York) –Yemeni government officials have tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in the southern port city of Aden, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have denied asylum seekers an opportunity to seek refugee protection and deported migrants en masse to dangerous conditions at sea.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that guards beat them with steel bars and sticks, whipped them, kicked and punched them, threatened to kill or deport them, sexually assaulted them, and fatally shot at least two men. Male guards forced women to take off their abayas (full-length robes) and headscarves. They took migrants’ money, personal belongings, and documents provided by the United Nations refugee agency.

“Guards at the migrant detention center in Aden have brutally beaten men, raped women and boys, and sent hundreds out to sea in overloaded boats,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The crisis in Yemen provides zero justification for this cruelty and brutality, and the Yemeni government should put a stop to it and hold those responsible to account.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight migrants, including seven ethnic Oromo from Ethiopia who had recently been held at the center, as well as Yemeni government officials and members of migrant communities.

The migrant detention center, in Aden’s Buraika neighborhood, is a converted marine science research center. Since early 2017, it has held several hundred Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, though as of April 2018, only about 90, primarily Eritrean, migrants remained.

Past videos and photos of the detention facility show hundreds of men and boys in a crowded concrete hangar, with women and girls sitting on a stone floor. Former detainees reported that the facility was overcrowded, with dire sanitation conditions and little access to medical care. The provision of food was inconsistent, and guards would occasionally withhold food.

Former detainees said guards sexually assaulted women, girls, and boys regularly. Boys would be taken at night: “Every night, they would take one, to rape them,” a former detainee said. “Not all of them. The small ones. The little ones. I know seven boys who were sexually assaulted… You could hear what was happening.” Several former detainees said the boys would come back unable to sit, sometimes crying, and occasionally telling the others what had happened. An Ethiopian woman who had been held at the facility said she still suffered pain after a guard beat her severely for refusing to have sex with him. She said women and girls were regularly raped and saw guards rape two of her friends.

Yemeni officials have not given asylum seekers an opportunity to seek protection or otherwise challenge their deportation, former detainees said. The former head of the center told VICE News Tonight on HBO that he used smugglers to return migrants to Djibouti, claiming he deported between 500 to 700 migrants a month this way: “And all the trips that we did are by the ministry’s instructions. No, [the interior minister] doesn’t ask us to contact the smuggler, but we return them in the same way they came in… They smuggled them in, they should smuggle them out.”

An Ethiopian man told Human Rights Watch the guards would take 10 people outside and have them write their names and why they left their country. He said, “If any one of them say ‘persecution,’ they tell them, ‘Be quiet, you are lying’ and then register them as migrants looking for job opportunities.” After this questioning, the man saw guards take about 150 people away from the center, including eight children he knew had been raped. The guards said they were taking them across the Red Sea to Djibouti.

The Yemeni authorities have prevented international humanitarian organizations that have visited the center from examining migrants with serious injuries, former detainees said. Guards remained near visiting aid workers, making it impossible for detainees to safely report on conditions.

Yemen’s Interior Ministry, in response to the Human Rights Watch preliminary findings, wrote in a April 2 letter that they had removed the center’s commander and begun procedures to transfer the migrants to another location, and promised to investigate complaints or evidence of abuse. Two detainees said that after the commander’s removal, some of the worst abuses had stopped.

The authorities have continued to send large groups of migrants out to sea without allowing them to seek protection or otherwise challenge their deportation, Human Rights Watch said.

In early April, the center’s new authorities put the remaining Ethiopians – about 200 people – on trucks and transported them to Bab al-Mandab, on the coast about 150 kilometers from Aden, two witnesses said. Guards sent one boat of about 100 Ethiopians out to sea. The engine of a second boat was not working, so the guards forced the remaining Ethiopians into a large, guarded yard near the shore. After a day in the yard without food, some detainees managed to escape.

The Houthi armed group, which controls the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, has also arbitrarily detained migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in a facility near the western port of Hodeida, a former detainee and migrant community activists told Human Rights Watch. The former detainee said the conditions in Hodeida were “inhumane,” including overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse: “Some of the guards were very cruel and merciless. They used to beat us indiscriminately.”

Human Rights Watch examined photos showing men with sores and festering wounds. In early 2018, at least one group of migrants – 87 people, including 7 children – held in the Hodeida facility were released on condition they travel to Aden, the former detainee said. Yemeni soldiers stopped the group along the way and took them to the Buraika detention facility.

“Both the Yemeni authorities and the Houthis need to work with the United Nations refugee agency to establish a process that would allow African migrants to seek asylum or otherwise get needed protection,” Frelick said. “The horrific mistreatment of these vulnerable people only brings Yemeni leaders, whether from the government or the Houthis, into global disrepute.”

Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Yemen

Yemen has traditionally been a destination, source, and transit country for migrants. Of the estimated 10 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, up to 500,000 are Ethiopian nationals, many of whom travel irregularly to Saudi Arabia via Yemen. While many migrate for economic reasons, a significant number have fled because of serious human rights violations by their government.

Ethiopian migrants walking on road in Shabwa governorate, Yemen

© 2018 VICE News Tonight on HBO

Yemen is in the midst of an armed conflict, involving the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, and has what the UN calls the world’s worst and largest humanitarian crisis. But that did not stop more than 50,000 migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia, including more than 30,000 children, from going to Yemen between January and August 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). By February 2018, Yemen was hosting about 281,000 refugees, including many Somalis, who are recognized as refugees on a prima facie basis, and asylum seekers. The numbers are most likely much higher, given the problems migrants have registering with humanitarian agencies.

Since 2015, the Yemeni government and the Houthis have detained migrants in poor conditions, refused access to protection and asylum procedures, deported migrants en masse in dangerous conditions, and exposed them to abuse. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia opened a major campaign to deport undocumented workers and by April 1 had apprehended over 885,000 people violating labor or residency laws, including 12,477 whom Saudi border guards caught trying to cross the border from Yemen. About 38 percent were identified as Ethiopian. Saudi Arabia has not established an asylum system for migrants to prevent their forced return to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled Ethiopia since late 2015 following security forces’ brutal crackdown against protesters, particularly in the Oromia region, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths and tens of thousands of arrests. Further government-initiated clashes between ethnic communities in eastern Ethiopia since 2016 left over 1 million people displaced and hundreds more dead. Many people from eastern Ethiopia move to Yemen fleeing both abuses in Ethiopia and the long arm of Ethiopian security in neighboring countries. Thousands of Eritreans leave their country every month fleeing indefinite military conscription. In Somalia, conflict-related abuses, massive internal displacement from conflict and drought, insecurity in government-controlled areas, and targeted violence against civilians by the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab have caused many people to flee.

Role of Yemen and the United Arab Emirates

The migrant detention center in Aden’s Buraika district is officially under Yemeni government control. It is housed in a building owned by the Yemeni Ministry of Fisheries that was converted into a detention facility for migrants in early 2017. Yemeni soldiers have apprehended, detained, and helped to coordinate transporting migrants to the center.

Men and boys from the Horn of Africa detained in the Buraika detention facility in Aden governorate, Yemen

© 2018 VICE News Tonight on HBO

Col. Khalid al-Alwani, the former police chief of Buraika district, served as director of the Department of Refugees Affairs and Migration and commander of the center under the Interior Ministry. Former detainees alleged that he had overseen abuse, including the beating and rape of detainees and threats to aid workers. Al-Alwani denied any wrongdoing when interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

The Interior Ministry said in its April 2 letter to Human Rights Watch that it had suspended al-Alwani in mid-March and that he had “overstepped his jurisdiction.” The ministry stated it would support investigations, legal action, and suspension of any of its employees at checkpoints or at the center involved in abuse, but said it had “received no complaints.” It said it did not have the means to provide support to the center but acknowledged it had coordinated with the Defense Ministry to provide food for the center.

The Interior Ministry said that Yemeni forces arrested and transported migrants to the center but conceded it did not control the elite units known as the Security Belt, which were “rounding up and transport[ing]… migrants and displaced people to the detention center.” These units are supported and take orders from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A UN panel of experts determined that Security Belt and other elite forces were UAE proxy forces. The UAE plays a leading role in directing coalition operations in Aden and along Yemen’s southern and western coasts. In Aden, UAE-supported forces have a particularly strong hold in certain neighborhoods, including Buraika. The UAE government did not reply to a Human Rights Watch letter raising questions about the UAE’s role regarding the center.

While al-Alwani told Human Rights Watch the UAE did not play a role in the center’s operations, multiple sources and local media reported that al-Alwani coordinated with UAE-backed Yemeni forces to arrest and transport migrants to the center and was receiving some support from the coalition. He publicly asserted that Yemeni security forces were coordinating with the coalition to deal with the migrants in a “legal and humane manner” while they were detained before deportation. At least five people, including those who know al-Alwani personally or have interacted with him in a professional capacity, said he received support from the Saudi-led coalition. They cited examples in which al-Alwani or his associates asked others to seek permission from the UAE-backed Security Belt or the coalition to provide access to the center. At least once, al-Alwani refused entry to a Yemeni government official, telling the official he only recognized the coalition’s authority, a witness said.

The Interior Ministry letter said that, due to the war, state institutions did not have the capacity to adequately respond to migrants. It said that the government had formed a ministerial committee to oversee closure of the Buraika detention center and transfer migrants to a new facility in Ras al-Ara in Lahj governate. Ras al-Ara is infamous for its strong network of smugglers, increasing the risk to migrants.

Forced Returns, Smugglers, and Death at Sea

An Ethiopian man released from the center in 2018 said there were “two ways” to leave the Buraika detention center: by paying smugglers or by being “deported into the sea.”

In March 2017, Colonel al-Alwani told the media that security forces had detained more than 200 Ethiopian and Eritrean nationals in Aden and Lahj, who were then brought to the center and deported, presumably to their home countries. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the arbitrary detention and torture of Ethiopians and Eritreans who have been forcibly returned.

Two Ethiopians recently held at the center said that the guards allowed smugglers to enter and solicit money from detainees in exchange for promises to take them to Saudi Arabia. They witnessed Yemeni men in civilian clothes and guards asking people for their relatives’ phone numbers. They would then call the family members and tell them they could have their relatives released and sent to Saudi Arabia for a fee. More than 100 people whose relatives agreed to send money were eventually released, a third man said, with promises they would be taken to Saudi Arabia. He said an interpreter worked with the guards to take names, details, and negotiate payment between the migrants and the smugglers.

The Yemeni government bears responsibility for the deaths of deported detainees at sea. In a January 26 statement, IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 51 Somalis and 101 Ethiopians left Aden on January 23 on a boat operated by “unscrupulous smugglers who were attempting to take refugees and migrants to Djibouti, while also trying to extort more money from these refugees and migrants.”

Three people detained in the Buraika center at the time told Human Rights Watch the boat left from the center under al-Alwani’s supervision. Hours after leaving the center, the smugglers tried to force the Somali passengers onto a second boat, which capsized. The smugglers took the surviving Somalis and Ethiopians back to Yemen, but “left the others in the sea,” a survivor told a former detainee when he came back to the center. At least 30 people died. Two former detainees said that after the incident, a Somali official came to the center and yelled at al-Alwani for deporting people who perished at sea – soon afterward, the Somalis held at the center were moved elsewhere. 

Accounts of Abuse

Pseudonyms been used to protect sources’ security.

Ahmed, 16, from Oromia, Ethiopia, said he went to Yemen in early 2018, walking for three days before reaching Aden. He registered with UNHCR as an asylum seeker. After about a week, a soldier in a local market apprehended him and took him to a nearby checkpoint, where he was held with 10 other Ethiopians, including women and other children. The soldiers took them to the Buraika detention center.

Guards searched them, taking their personal items, including their money. They also took Ahmed’s UNHCR document. Late at night, someone gave Ahmed some food; he hadn’t been given food or water since the soldier had found him that morning.

The guards regularly hit the prisoners, Ahmed said. One day he did not hear guards ordering the prisoners in the yard back inside. A guard began yelling, hitting him on his shoulder with a stick. “Beating was normal,” he said. “They beat anyone.”

About 10 days after he arrived, the guards told the men that one Ethiopian man had escaped. They took a large group of men and boys to the main yard and ordered them to strip naked, whipping seven and saying the men would not be given food or water until after sunset. The guards ordered the women to look at the naked men and boys and beat those who did not. Ahmed heard a gunshot. He saw the guards take an Ethiopian man’s limp body into a truck. Later, other detainees told him the man had been killed. “We don’t know how long we stayed,” he said. “When you are standing there, heat and hunger don’t matter. What matters is the gun. We are waiting for the gun.”

The nights were horrible, Ahmed said, as the guards would yell at the men and boys to go to sleep: “They would scare people with their guns... Some of my friends, who were kids, they [the guards] took them. And then when they came back they could not sit.” Some of the children told Ahmed the guards had raped them. He knew 10 children taken at night, including some held at the checkpoint with him the first day. Most were younger than he was.

One night, Ahmed saw a guard enter the ward and order a child who was asleep next to Ahmed to go with him. Ahmed heard the child screaming. He and his friend, terrified the guard would come back for them, decided to flee. They ran toward a part of the detention center they were prohibited from entering, managing to jump over a broken part of the wall. Ahmed heard shots. His friend fell: “I was just running, running, running. Then I slept. Somewhere. Then I walked…”

Another man, detained at the same time, confirmed that Ahmed had been held at the facility. Ahmed told Human Rights Watch, “When I see any military uniform, I get terrified.”

Mohammed, 29, an ethnic Oromo from Harar, Ethiopia, had taught secondary school math. He took a boat with about 170 other men and women across the Red Sea. After about 30 hours with the passengers crammed together “like stairs on top of one another,” the smugglers began shouting and hitting them with sticks, ordering them to jump into the sea. Mohammed did not feel he had a choice. He and the others swam to shore and immediately lay down on the beach, exhausted. They began walking in the morning, breaking into groups. They left one sick woman behind. “At that moment, it is very difficult to try to carry anyone or to stop for who is sick,” Mohammed said.

At a nearby checkpoint, a group of about 20 soldiers stopped Mohammed and about 50 other men and women; when some began to run the soldiers fired in the air. The soldiers gave them food and then forced them – including by hitting them – into three trucks made for transporting livestock and took them to the Buraika detention center. Over the next two months, Mohammed said, all 170 people with whom he had traveled to Yemen ended up there.

The guards beat him, repeatedly using a wooden stick to hit his foot, breaking it. He showed the disfigured foot to Human Rights Watch researchers. The guards shot two detainees while he was there, he said. When the detainees asked what happened to these men, the guards said they were sent for medical treatment, but he believed they died. Another time, the guards beat a group of men with metal rods, and the men’s wounds bled for more than two days. The guards would beat or whip those who resisted in front of the others. He said that IOM visited the center while he was there, but the guards refused to let them see the people they had mistreated, and the detainees weren’t able to tell them what was happening because the guards were always nearby and anyone who tried to tell visitors what was happening “would get beaten.”

The guards raped some of the young Ethiopian boys who were detained with him, he said. When other men refused food in protest, guards beat them. “The big men, they didn’t use them, but the boys, they used them, and the women,” he said. “They would change who every night…They sexually abused anyone without a beard, men and women, and anyone who resisted, they beat.” The guards would come at night, screaming at the detainees to go to sleep, and sometimes shooting in the air. When the boys came back, they would not be able to sit or walk well. The guards raped one Ethiopian boy about 10 years old. “Every time after that at night…. he would hold my hand.” Mohammed said the boy was terrified. “One of those times, the guards beat him with a metal stick.”

Abubakr, about 30, an Oromo from Harar, Ethiopia, arrived in Yemen in 2011. He said that in 2017, his younger brother was arrested at a checkpoint on the way to Aden, and then taken to the Buraika detention center.

Abubakr went with a Yemeni official to try and negotiate this brother’s release. He felt safe because he had a UNHCR refugee card, he said. When he arrived at the center, an official yelled at the man who had accompanied him, accusing them of trying to destroy his way of living. Abubakr said the official slapped him on the face, pain that Abubakr still feels, and took his UNHCR ID card and a large sum of money he had with him. Abubakr was detained there for a month.

Abubakr said that every night the guards would order the men and boys asleep, come into the hangar, stomp on some children’s feet, and order them to go with them. He said the boys would sometimes return crying, saying the guards had raped them. The guards also beat the prisoners, including with steel bars. After being beaten severely, one of his brother’s friends was sent away. Abubakr did not know what happened to him.

After a month in the center, the official told Abubakr he was releasing him, but that if he returned to ask about his brother he would be detained again. He made Abubakr sign a document that had the official Yemeni government seal, which he described to Human Rights Watch and identified.

“I would die if I stayed in the prison, I would die. I am still afraid,” said Fatima, 25, an Oromo woman from Harar, Ethiopia.

Yemeni soldiers arrested Fatima and her husband with a few dozen other Ethiopian men and women. When they arrived in Buraika, Fatima was separated from her husband. She saw the guards beating the men, ordering them to strip and checking their pockets. The male guards made the women take off their abayas and headscarves and checked their bodies and hair. They took them to a room with about 100 other women.

The guards would beat them regularly, she said, when the women would wail or yell. They could see the guards mistreating the men through holes in the wall of their enclosed space. The guards did not provide much food, a small plate of rice for 12 women, and the supply was not consistent.

Every night, the guards would take one or two women with them, she said. Most women were eventually forced to go with the guards. If a woman refused to sleep with the guards, they would retaliate by withholding food for two days, she said. She knew five girls – a 12-year-old, two 15-year-olds, and two 17-year-olds – who were held in the facility with her and who had been raped.

She said that two weeks after she was detained, one of the guards forced her to go with him. He took her into a nearby room, where she saw two other guards raping two of her female friends. The guard told her to take off her clothes. She refused, telling him she had a husband. The guard said she could choose: sleep with him or hang herself. There was a rope in the room. She began praying. The guard beat her, hitting her with his hands and with a large stick on her back.

Fatima became very sick, in severe pain and often crying and moaning. After the beating, she said the guards mostly left her alone, eventually releasing her when her health further deteriorated.

One of the two women Fatima saw being raped remains in the detention facility. The other was released after the guards “used her seriously and she became weak.” The guards promised to send this woman to Saudi Arabia, and Fatima heard they put her on a smuggler’s boat, but she did not know where the woman ended up.

Omar, 30, from Bale, Oromia region, Ethiopia, traveled to Yemen from Somalia in late 2017. He said that he and about a dozen others, including four women, arrived off the coast of Shabwa, an area largely controlled by the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces. Soldiers at a checkpoint stopped them and gave them food. More Ethiopians arrived, until the group had about 30 people.

The soldiers made a phone call. A few hours later, men in civilian clothes came in a truck used for transporting livestock. They had an Oromo language interpreter with them. Omar heard the men and soldiers negotiating and believed the men were paying the soldiers for the migrants. The process appeared organized: He heard them asking the soldiers to sign a paper, so the men had a record they had paid.

The soldiers forced the group onto the truck, where they remained cramped for hours. Checkpoints along the road stopped the truck a few times, and Omar and others who spoke Arabic would yell that they were being smuggled, but each time the soldiers at the checkpoint let them pass. Omar said he saw the men showing the soldiers a piece of paper, which he thought was a permission form.

That night, the truck arrived at the Buraika detention center. The guards forced the men to strip, searching them and taking all of their belongings. They told everyone to turn over their money – if they found someone had hidden money, they would punish him. They took Omar’s money and phone.

The guards beat Omar and the two others who had been yelling along the way with a steel bar until they had fallen to the ground, bleeding, or fainted. Omar had a scar on his right eyebrow.

The third night he was detained, after hearing rumors the guards were raping some of the boys, Omar decided to stay awake. He positioned himself near a part of the wall that had a hole in it and peered out. He saw one of the guards raping one of the children. He said, “They do this every night, but I saw it two times, because if anyone tries to see them, they shoot them, and if anyone refuses, the next morning they take them out, and the one who refused, they beat him.”

One day a man suffering from diarrhea needed to use a toilet but there was none nearby. After he tried to explain this to the guard, who didn’t understand, he walked a bit away to defecate. The guard shot him. Omar said guards also shot another man during his detention.

Omar said he fled Ethiopia because he participated in the Oromo protests and feared government abuse. He intended to apply for asylum but was detained before he was able to. He still wants to apply for asylum, but said he was afraid to go to the UNHCR office, because was worried he would be apprehended en route. “The problems are still going on,” Omar said. “Many people in the [detention center] deserve asylum but have no way to ask for asylum.”


The Yemeni government should:

  • Transfer migrant detainees to centers that meet international standards.
  • Work with donor governments and international agencies to bring migrant detention centers in line with international standards under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (“Mandela Rules”). These set out limits on the number of people per room; appropriate sleeping arrangements and bedding; adequate facilities for personal hygiene; adequate clothing and food; and access to medical services, among other things. No male staff member should enter the part of the prison set aside for women unless accompanied by a female staff member, and women prisoners should be attended and supervised only by female staff members.
  • Stop detaining children and their families for immigration violations, and work with UN and other impartial humanitarian agencies to identify children in detention and facilitate their safe release. In the interim, the authorities should ensure that detained children are kept separate from unrelated adults, and have appropriate food and medical care, and can communicate with their families.
  • Ensure that detention center staff act in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules, particularly with respect to humane treatment and the use of force against detainees.
  • Investigate allegations of abuse, and appropriately discipline or prosecute those found responsible. Ensure redress for victims of abuse.

The Yemeni government and Houthi authorities should:

  • Ensure that detained migrants who may be facing deportation have the opportunity to make asylum claims or otherwise challenge their forced removal. Detaining asylum seekers should be a last resort.
  • Work with UNHCR and other impartial humanitarian agencies to establish a presence and procedures at known migrant landing points so that new arrivals can register and make asylum claims.
  • Provide UNHCR and other impartial humanitarian agencies unfettered access to all migrant detention centers and to individual migrants.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rony and Ronyde Ponthieux in Miami, FL. © 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Miami) – US law should be changed to offer a path to permanent legal status for people who have lived in this country for many years with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Human Rights Watch said today. Hundreds of thousands of people have built lives in the United States while living here legally under that program.

In March 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed Haitian families in Miami whose lives, built in the US, hang in the balance as they risk losing their protected status. In December 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the harm caused by deporting authorized and unauthorized immigrants without adequate consideration of their rights to home and family.

“The average Haitian TPS holder has been in the US for 13 years, and the average Salvadoran for 21 years,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch, citing figures calculated by Center for Migration Studies. “Congress should not leave them at the mercy of a broken immigration system that pays little heed to the family and community ties they have built in the US.”

In 2017, the Trump administration said that it would not renew TPS protections for citizens of Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador after granting them a final 18-month extension. Nearly 1,000 Sudanese, 5,000 Nicaraguans, 60,000 Haitians, and 260,000 Salvadorans are scheduled to lose TPS by September 2019. The government will decide by May 2018 whether 86,000 Hondurans will be able to renew their status.

International human rights law requires a fair, individualized hearing for anyone facing deportation. The law should also weigh a person’s ties to US families and communities against the government’s interest in deporting the person. A humane and rational system should not wait until the point of deportation to consider these issues, Human Rights Watch said. Instead, Congress should create a fair and inclusive legalization program that accords due weight to immigrants’ ties to the US.

Human Rights Watch has long called on the US government to respect and protect families in its immigration policies, protect immigrants from workplace violations and crimes, provide a legalization process that effectively protects the basic rights of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, and focus enforcement efforts on genuine threats and protect due process rights for all.

Haitian families told Human Rights Watch about their lives in the US and their concerns about their future:

  • Rony Ponthieux, 49, has been in the US since 1999 and obtained Temporary Protected Status in 2010. He became a registered nurse in 2013, taking care of patients with respiratory problems like pneumonia and tuberculosis at the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. If he loses TPS next year, he said, he doesn’t know what he will do about his 10-year-old US citizen daughter, Ronyde Ponthieux. “Who is going to take care of me if I stay here?” Ronyde said. “And if we go to Haiti it’s going to be really hard for my parents. I don’t speak French and if I want to go to American school that will cost a lot of money.”
  • “Erick F.,” 47, came to the US nearly 10 years ago. He has been driving for Uber because, he said, employers are leery of hiring people with temporary status. He previously had a job with a major US delivery company. “We can’t make any plans,” he said. “We don’t know how we would go to Haiti because my family lost everything in the earthquake.” Erick’s 6-year-old US citizen daughter doesn’t speak French or Creole, he said. “When you are living in a country for so many years this place becomes your country. We followed the law. We followed the rules. We didn’t expect that the government was going to say, ‘you have to go.’”
  • “Leomar P.” has been in the US for 12 years and has two US-born children. He said he bought a house after working as a dishwasher in the Miami area for years, but if he were deported he would have to leave all of that behind. “I pay taxes; I pay bills,” he said. “If I’m deported I’m going to be deported without anything.
  • “Danielle J.” has photos of two children in the back of her cell phone case: her daughter and the little boy with autism she takes care of as a home health aide. “I’ve been with the family for three years,” she said. “He’s my baby. His mom says I need you to be with him, how can they deport you?” Danielle’s 4-year-old US citizen daughter has asthma, she said, and she worries that if she is sent back to Haiti she wouldn’t be able to get the medicine her daughter needs.

These concerns are reflective of broad anxiety in the Haitian community, said Marleine Bastien, director of the Miami-based Family Action Network Movement. “It’s really a tragedy if these people are deported.”

The Family Action Network Movement was among the plaintiffs in a suit filed this month seeking to reverse the Trump administration’s decision not to renew TPS for Haitians. As a result of the fears now plaguing South Florida’s Haitian community, the suit alleges, the group has also seen an increase in the number of child referrals to its mental health program for treatment of anxiety and situational depression.

Last month, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alleged in a federal lawsuit that the government’s decision on TPS was “irrational and discriminatory” and influenced by President Donald Trump’s “public hostility toward immigrants of color.”

Congress should urgently get to work on ensuring that long-term deeply settled immigrants, including TPS recipients, can continue giving back to their communities, contributing the US economy and supporting their families.

Clara Long

US Program Senior Researcher

Another lawsuit filed in California on behalf of the US citizen children of TPS holders says that the government’s cancellation of protected status for long-term residents from Haiti and El Salvador “violates the constitutional rights of school-age United States citizen children of TPS holders, by presenting them with an impossible choice: they must either leave their country or live without their parents.”

“Congress should urgently get to work on ensuring that long-term deeply settled immigrants, including TPS recipients, can continue giving back to their communities, contributing the US economy and supporting their families,” Long said. “Putting hundreds of thousands more deeply rooted immigrants under the constant threat of deportation is a recipe for rights abuse.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ibtissam, 22, a mother of two hoping to reunite with her husband in Germany, pictured at the Souda Refugee Camp on Chios island, Greece, June 10, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Thousands of asylum seekers are trapped in crowded and filthy processing centers on the Greek islands, with many spending the winter in lightweight tents or even sleeping outside on the ground. Greece contends it has to keep the asylum seekers on the islands because a March 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey provides that asylum seekers who arrive by boat from Turkey should be sent back there to have their asylum claims processed. 

After a December campaign by 13 nongovernmental groups, including Human Rights Watch, to move the asylum seekers to safer conditions on the Greek mainland, more than 7,000 people have been moved. But thousands more have arrived on the islands or remain trapped there. By the latest count, more than 13,000 people are on the Greek islands, many of them in vastly overcrowded centers.

The following questions and answers explain the situation and what needs to be done about it.

Q: Why is Greece forcing asylum seekers to remain on the Greek islands?

An EU-Turkey “statement” from March 2016 committed Turkey to accept the return of all asylum seekers who reached the Greek islands by traveling through Turkey and crossing the sea. In return, the EU agreed to provide billions of euro in aid and other benefits, and to resettle an equal number of Syrians who were already in Turkey.

The Greek government, under a “containment” policy, decided to keep asylum seekers confined to the islands to facilitate their speedy processing and return to Turkey.

Members of vulnerable groups – including pregnant women, older people, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture or sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities – and people eligible to be reunited with family members already in the EU are supposed to be exempt. But they are not always identified by the authorities and there has been considerable pressureon Greece from the EU and its member states to narrow the criteria to minimize the numbers of people eligible.

Q: What are the consequences of this containment policy?

The islands have become places of indefinite confinement for thousands of people where they do not have timely access to asylum procedures nor benefit from the protection they are entitled to. Many have been stuck there for months on end.

This has significant consequences for their health and wellbeing. In addition to dire living conditions, including insufficient food, many can’t get physical and mental health services or education for their children or even police protection if violence breaks out in these tense conditions.

Many people have attempted to end their lives due to the extreme distress and emotional pain they experience. In October, Medecins Sans Frotieres (MSF) reported that between June and September, an average of six to seven people per week arrived at their clinic on Lesbos for mental health consultations following suicide attempts, incidents of self-harm, or psychotic episodes.

Women and girls say they experience sexual harassment and threat of violence daily, deterring them from leaving their shelters or even going to the bathroom alone. They express little confidence that Greek authorities would help or protect them if they report incidents.

Q: How does the containment policy affect local people on the islands?

The containment policy has caused significant tensions on the islands. Mayors from the five Greek islands affected said in December that the containment policy had turned their communities into “island prisons.”

While many Greek people continue to offer help, some residents and local authorities who showed support and solidarity before the EU-Turkey deal are increasingly having a hard time accepting the strain on the local infrastructure. Nongovernmental groups on the islands have reported some racist and xenophobic incidents, exacerbating fear and anxiety among the asylum seekers trapped there.

Q: Aren’t conditions on the mainland just as bad?

Even though the conditions on the mainland need improvement, they are much better than on the islands. The mainland has facilities that are not overcrowded, are protected from the winter weather, and offer better security and access to services, with some room for expansion.

In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) accommodation program provides 22,000 rented housing places to vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees, including to asylum seekers transferred from the islands.

People on the mainland have better access to services such as hospitals and specialized health care support, and children, the vast majority of whom have no access to education on the islands, can enroll in school on the mainland where programs are in place.

The EU and other member states should financially support Greece to expand asylum seekers’ accommodation on the mainland and take steps to relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries. Other EU member states should also refrain from resuming returns of asylum seekers to Greece, which would exacerbate its problems with reception conditions for asylum seekers.

Q: Wouldn’t speeding up asylum procedures on the islands end the overcrowding and the dire conditions?

The initial EU-Turkey plan envisioned that most asylum seekers would quickly be sent back to Turkey to have their asylum claims processed there.

In reality, the majority of asylum seekers trapped on the islands lack a realistic prospect of return to Turkey under the deal, either because they are considered “vulnerable” and protected from the expedited proceedings that are in place to implement the agreement, have family elsewhere in the EU and are entitled to reunite with them, or come from countries with conditions that make it likely they will be admitted to the regular Greek asylum system for a full examination of their claim. Migration control is not grounds for harming the wellbeing, health, and dignity of those trapped on the islands.

The only way to increase the number or speed of returns to Turkey would be by weakening the safeguards or quality of the process. This is no way to treat a traumatized population, and the wrong way to alleviate overcrowding or address the systemic issues linked to the containment policy and EU-Turkey deal that have created this inhumane situation on the islands.

Such an approach would be inconsistent with Greece’s obligations under EU asylum law and international refugee and human rights law.

Q: Won’t opening the islands encourage more asylum seekers to take a risky journey by sea from Turkey to Greece?

The aim of the EU-Turkey deal, and subsequently of the containment policy, is to discourage migrants and asylum seekers from making the crossing from Turkey to Greece to enter the EU.

But it is unclear how much of a role the policy of containment has played in decreasing arrivals in comparison with other factors. The border closures along the Western Balkans route to the north of Greece, making it very difficult to reach other EU countries by land via Greece, increased Turkey’s action against smuggling networks, and the prospect of having to remain in Greece, even on the mainland, are also likely to be important factors in discouraging arrivals alongside the containment policy.

Containing asylum seekers on the Greek islands in substandard and appalling conditions that violate their rights and Greece’s international obligations in the hope that it will deter others from coming is bad policy. The EU should look instead at sharing responsibility across member states, tackling root causes of migration, and increasing availability of more safe and legal channels into the EU.

Q: What can the rest of the EU do to help improve the dire conditions on the islands?

The EU and its member states should agree on the need to end the containment policy and to immediately transfer the asylum seekers to Greece’s mainland. They should support the Greek government’s efforts to meet the protection needs of all asylum seekers in its territory, and ensure their safety and dignity, including relocating asylum seekers from Greece.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Proactiva’s rescue ship Open Arms on mission in November 2017. 

© 2017 Pau Coll
(Milan) – Italy has impounded a rescue ship and threatened criminal charges against two members of its crew and the coordinator of the organization after they refused to turn migrants over to Libyan forces, fearing that they would be abused.
On March 18, 2018, an Italian prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, impounded the Spanish rescue group Proactiva’s ship Open Arms and is considering levelling charges of criminal association for the purposes of facilitating irregular migration after Proactiva refused to transfer people rescued in international waters to a Libyan patrol boat. Everyone intercepted by Libyan forces or handed over to them is taken to Libya and placed in detention.
“Proactiva acted to save migrants’ lives and then prevented them from being abused in indefinite detention,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is perverse to try to characterize as criminal a refusal to hand victims to Libyan coast guard forces knowing they could face possible torture and rape in Libyan detention centers.”
International human rights and refugee law prohibits returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment – the nonrefoulement principle. Empowering Libyan forces to capture people on the high seas, when it is known that they will return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention exposes Italy and other European Union (EU) states involved to charges of aiding and abetting in serious human rights violations in detention, Human Rights Watch said.
Italy’s strategy to reduce boat arrivals is in line with the EU’s approach to migration cooperation with Libya. The EU is supporting training and technical assistance to Libyan coast guard forces nominally under the United Nations (UN) and EU-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, and wants to expand those efforts. Despite EU insistence, the International Maritime Organization has not yet recognized a Libyan search-and-rescue zone, and Libya does not yet have a fully functioning maritime rescue coordination center.
Italy has delivered four patrol boats to Libyan coast guard forces. The Libyan forces included patrol boat 648, which was involved in this incident as well as a deadly intervention in November 2017 that cost the lives of at least 50 people, according to the German nongovernmental group Sea-Watch.
Based on a detailed incident report provided by Proactiva, the Open Arms responded on March 15 to an overcrowded rubber dinghy in international waters, 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) informed the Open Arms after it reached the rubber boat that Libyan forces had command over the operation, but told the Open Arms crew to use their judgment. For the security of the people on board the rubber dinghy, Proactiva decided to provide everyone with life jackets and to transfer all the women and children to Proactiva’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats and stayed nearby.
Libyan coast guard patrol boat 648 reached the scene approximately 30 minutes later. Anabel Montes, the search-and-rescue coordinator on board Open Arms, told Human Rights Watch that coast guard officers threatened via megaphone and radio, in English, to kill the crew on the Proactiva boat holding women and children if it did not turn them over. Eleven men jumped out of the rubber boat into the water and were also taken on board by the Proactiva boats. At one point, the Libyan patrol boat and its own rubber dinghy sandwiched one of the Proactiva boats, and an unarmed Libyan officer boarded to convince people to transfer to the patrol boat. He desisted in the face of everyone’s refusal to cooperate.
After a three-hour stand-off, the Proactiva crew were able to safely transfer all women, children, and men to the Open Arms ship and proceed north. For more than 24 hours, the crew was unsure where they would be able to disembark the rescued people. The Italian Maritime rescue coordination center told them Italy had not coordinated the rescue and was therefore not responsible.
The national coordination center in Madrid, Spain, the ship’s flag state, told them they couldn’t help because Proactiva had performed a rescue in “Libya’s SAR zone.” Malta agreed to evacuate an infant and her mother for medical reasons. The Spanish government interceded on Proactiva’s behalf, and Italy eventually allowed disembarkation in Pozzallo, Sicily, on the morning of March 17.
The prospect of charges against Proactiva is the latest in a series of measures to discredit nongovernmental rescue groups, Human Rights Watch said. Anti-immigrant groups and some media carried out a concerted smear campaign in 2017. Carmelo Zuccaro, the Sicilian prosecutor who opened the investigation against Proactiva, made the news last year with broad accusations of complicity between rescue groups and smuggling networks, even though Zuccaro later confirmed to a parliamentary inquiry he had no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Another Sicilian prosecutor sequestered the Iuventus, a ship operated by the German group Jugend Rettet in August and is still pursuing an investigation into alleged facilitation of irregular migration. The Italian government imposed a code of conduct in July on rescue groups that serves a dual purpose of implying they need management and of restricting their ability to operate effectively.
“It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalizing rescue at sea,” Sunderland said. “Europeans should support, not smear, people saving lives in the Mediterranean, and remember that EU and Italian policies are propping up a cycle of detention and violence in Libya, while groups like Proactiva are saving lives.” 
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am