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

Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Faj Attan, a densely populated neighborhood in Sanaa, on August 25, 2017. Two of the buildings were completely destroyed and the third suffered extensive damage.

© 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

(Paris) – President Emmanuel Macron of France should raise serious concerns with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince regarding laws-of-war violations in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said today. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will visit Paris on November 21, 2018.

The UAE plays a prominent role in the Saudi-led coalition’s military operations in Yemen. Since March 2015, the coalition has indiscriminately bombed homes, markets, and schools, impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid and used widely banned cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch has documented nearly 90 apparently unlawful coalition attacks, some of them likely war crimes. The UAE and UAE-led proxy forces have arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured Yemenis in southern and eastern Yemen, including Yemeni activists who have criticized coalition abuses.

“As the UAE’s de facto leader and deputy commander of its armed forces, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan could have acted to stop grave abuses in Yemen, but instead war crimes have mounted,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “If President Macron is truly concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he should tell the crown prince that France will stop selling weapons to the UAE if there’s a real risk of their unlawful use.”

Despite Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s records of abuse, France, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, continue to sell weapons to both countries. In June, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported that French special forces were on the ground in Yemen, alongside UAE forces.

Macron should press the UAE to investigate alleged serious violations by its armed forces and Yemeni forces it supports, to appropriately prosecute those responsible for war crimes, and to provide reparation to victims of violations, Human Rights Watch said. France should stop supplying weapons and munitions to the UAE if there is a substantial risk that these arms are being used in Yemen to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.

Despite leading considerable efforts to present the UAE as progressive and tolerant, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, the nation’s de facto leader, has largely failed to improve his country’s human rights record.

Domestically, UAE authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011. In 2014, the UAE issued a counterterrorism law that gives authorities the power to prosecute peaceful critics, political dissidents, and human rights activists as terrorists. UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure.

In March 2017, the UAE detained Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender, on speech-related charges and held him incommunicado for more than a year. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on May 29, 2018 for crimes that appear to violate his right to free expression.

UAE courts also imposed a 10-year prison sentence in March 2017 on a prominent academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, whom authorities forcibly disappeared in August 2015, for charges that included peaceful criticism of the UAE and Egyptian authorities.

On October 4, the European Parliament adopted a strongly worded resolution calling for the immediate release of Mansoor and all other “prisoners of conscience” in the UAE. The resolution expressed concern that “attacks on members of civil society including efforts to silence, imprison, or harass human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others has become increasingly common in recent years.” It said that European institutions should make respect for human rights activists “a precondition to any further development of relation between the EU and UAE.”

In addition, despite some reforms, many low-paid migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to forced labor. The kafala (visa-sponsorship) system ties migrant workers to their employers. Those who leave their employers can face punishment for “absconding,” including fines, prison, and deportation. A 2017 law extended key labor protections to domestic workers, previously excluded from such guarantees, but its provisions remain weaker than those of the country’s national labor law.

Yet over the past several years, the UAE and France have strengthened their bilateral relations across a range of areas, including security, trade, and cultural exchanges. In 2017, France increased its arms sales to the UAE and opened the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum amid serious concerns regarding labor abuses in building the museum. On October 11, the UAE joined the International Organization of the Francophonie, which promotes the spread of French language and values, as an associate member, although  human rights and democratic principles are at the heart of the organization’s charter.

“By failing to address the UAE authorities’ serious rights violations in Yemen, France risks glossing over a dark reality,” Jeannerod said. “Despite outward appearances, the UAE has repeatedly shown itself to be resistant to improving its human rights record at home and abroad.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In its latest attempt to harness the power of public relations to provide a sheen of respectability to its authoritarian government, the UAE is hosting the first ever World Tolerance Summit.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rohingya refugees walk inside Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh January 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
“How can we go back?” Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee in a Bangladesh camp called to tell me. “They will kill us if we go back.”

There is panic in the refugee camps, he said, after Myanmar and Bangladesh announced plans to start refugee repatriations very soon. While the Bangladeshi government accepted approximately 700,000 Rohingya refugees after the Myanmar army’s ethnic cleansing campaign, Rohingya say authorities are now pressuring them to return.

Around 30 families are supposed to leave shortly. Security forces have been deployed in the refugee camps even as Bangladeshi officials said that there won’t be any forced returns.

Myanmar authorities say they have verified the identities of 4,000 Rohingya to be returned, but no one quite knows who is on that list. Some, fearing that they are included, have fled from the camps. Others threaten or attempt suicide.

Despite numerous well-documented claims of mass killings, rape, arson, and other crimes that forced hundreds of thousands to flee northern Rakhine state for Bangladesh, the Myanmar authorities remain in denial, refusing to hold to account the troops responsible. Myanmar is blaming the messenger, so two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are in prison for investigating and exposing military atrocities.

The UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned that “returning Rohingya refugees to Myanmar at this point effectively means throwing them back into the cycle of human rights violations that this community has been suffering for decades.”

Bangladesh’s friends and donors should call on leaders in Dhaka to halt all attempts to return Rohingya refugees. Refugees have the right to return home if they wish, but all returns must be fully voluntary and safe with full respect for their human rights, including their right to security as well as international monitoring to protect them from further persecution.

Mohammad explained the stakes. “They say we are foreign settlers. My grandfather had a citizenship card. My mother. My father. My older brother. But they say I am not a citizen. This is forced. This is involuntary. Not one person in the camp wants to go back.”

 

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

Immigrants and community leaders rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to mark the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration in Washington, November 20, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

(Washington, DC) - United States President Donald Trump said he was preparing an executive order restricting US birthright citizenship. In response, Human Rights Watch US Program Executive Director Nicole Austin-Hillery released the following statement:

“The guarantee of birthright citizenship has been the law of land in the US for 150 years. Floating ideas about restricting it hastily by executive order ahead of midterm elections reeks of political pandering,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “It also threatens to stoke fear and uncertainty, and unravel the lives of countless families overnight.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.

© 2018 John Moore/Getty Images
After the Trump administration was slammed with lawsuits for separating migrant children and parents at the border, the US government has agreed to allow many of these parents, whose asylum claims were rejected, to reapply.

It’s the official beginning of recognizing the ways this policy harmed parents and children.

In the hours and days after families were forcibly separated, immigration officials informed some traumatized parents that they would have to undergo interviews for the first step in the US asylum process.

Ariel P., from Guatemala, told me his interview took place after he had not seen or spoken to his son in over 20 days and did not even know where he was. “All I could think about was how he was and when I would see him again. Every night when I went to sleep, I would think about where he was sleeping.. . . . It was impossible for me to focus on anything else,” he said.

The other separated parents I interviewed echoed these comments.

It’s not surprising that many of the parents who went through these interviews weren’t able to make their case for asylum, even when they had fled rape, other torture, or death threats. This settlement recognizes, and tries to remedy, this problem – for some.

But the proposed settlement doesn’t correct all the harm inflicted on all families.

For example, the settlement generally excludes deported parents who were unfairly blocked from an asylum interview before deportation, or who believed immigration officials’ lies that accepting deportation was the key to seeing their children again. Human Rights Watch interviewed deported parents in Honduras and El Salvador who were denied an initial asylum interview, which is not adequately remedied in the proposal.

And the proposed settlement doesn’t address the lasting harm of family separation on parents and children (many of whom still languish in detention centers); or the government’s latest attempts to remove time limits on family immigration detention, despite the “high risk of harm” to children; or the US Attorney General’s effort to impede people from making lawful asylum claims.

If accepted by the court, the agreement would be a vindication for the parents and children still in the United States who this policy harmed. It’s a significant step towards accountability for families who came to the United States seeking safety and opportunity and found new trauma instead.

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

Venezuela: Refugee Crisis Requires Concerted Regional Response

Venezuela’s deepening crisis has triggered the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history. Governments in the Americas should develop a collective and uniform response to the exodus of people fleeing Venezuela. 

(New York) – Governments in the Americas should develop a collective and uniform response to the exodus of people fleeing Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. They should consider adopting a uniform temporary protection regime to afford security and legal status to Venezuelans seeking protection. Venezuela’s deepening crisis has triggered the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history.

The 33-page report, “The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for a Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis,” documents efforts by South American governments to address the massive numbers of Venezuelans crossing their borders, as well as recent setbacks that threaten Venezuelans’ ability to seek protection. In some Caribbean islands, Venezuelans are subject to arbitrary arrests and deportations. Xenophobic incidents are a growing concern.

“While many governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome fleeing Venezuelans, the growing scale of the crisis requires a uniform, collective response,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should adopt a consistent response to ensure people forced to flee Venezuela get the protection they need to start anew.”

Ecuador’s foreign ministry convoked a regional meeting in Quito for September 3-4 to address Venezuelan emigration, and the Organization of American States Permanent Council will hold another meeting on this topic on September 5.

Human Rights Watch recommends that governments in the Americas consider adopting:

  • A region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans legal status, including work authorization and suspension of deportation, for a fixed but renewable period, at least pending adjudication of their individual claims for protection;
  • A regional mechanism to equitably share responsibilities and costs associated with the migration flows, including safe, orderly, and voluntary transfers of refugees and asylum seekers among host countries according to their capacity to receive, process, and integrate them; and
  • Strong multilateral strategies to address the root causes that lead so many Venezuelans to flee their country, including adopting and enforcing targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and cancelling visas against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights abuses, and pushing for justice for human rights violations.

In July and August 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted research missions to Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, where we interviewed United Nations and government officials and dozens of Venezuelans who had crossed the border. The report is also based on a thorough review of government and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publications and additional interviews with Venezuelans who have recently fled to other South American countries and the Caribbean, as well as lawyers, experts, and activists.

Over 2.3 million Venezuelans out of an estimated 32 million total population have left their country since 2014, according to the UN. However, many more whose cases will not have been registered by authorities have left.

The political, economic, human rights, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela creates a mix of factors that causes Venezuelans to leave and makes them unable or unwilling to return. Some fleeing will qualify for refugee status; others may not qualify but need protection.

Refugees may not be forcibly returned to their countries of origin if they face a well-founded fear of persecution under the principle of nonrefoulement in international law. Under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, 15 regional governments have adopted a broader definition of refugee that obliges them to offer protection to people fleeing “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”

Some South American governments, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, have adopted special rules to provide Venezuelans legal permits to stay. Argentina and Uruguay allow Venezuelans to apply for a special visa for nationals of the regional trade bloc Mercosur, even though Venezuela was expelled from the bloc in December 2016. Venezuelans in Ecuador can apply for a UNASUR visa to stay. 

These permits have provided legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, helping them establish themselves abroad, work, and gain access to basic services. Yet some Venezuelans have reported difficulties in getting them, and recently some governments have made it harder for Venezuelans to apply for legal status.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation, which severely undermines their ability to obtain a work permit, send their children to school, and access health care. This makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, and less likely to report abuses to competent authorities.

In the Caribbean, where several governments have close economic and political ties to the Venezuelan government, no country has adopted a special permit for Venezuelans to legally stay and most do not have laws to regulate the asylum-seeking process. Some Venezuelans with UNHCR-issued documents have been detained or deported to Venezuela. Venezuelans seeking refuge in Caribbean countries and Northern Brazil have also faced xenophobic harassment.

Venezuelans are the leading nationality requesting asylum in the United States and Spain, with only a small percentage receiving it.

“Venezuela opened its doors to people fleeing South America’s dictatorships and internal conflicts in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” said Vivanco. “Its neighbors now have the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for the Venezuelan people, and governments meeting in Quito this week to discuss the Venezuelan exodus should stand up to the task.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Summary

The current exodus of Venezuelans has generated the largest migration crisis of its kind in recent Latin American history. More than 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2014, according to the United Nations, and many others have left whose cases have not been registered by authorities.

Venezuelans are fleeing their country for multiple reasons. Severe shortages of medicine, medical supplies, and food make it extremely difficult for many families to have access to the most basic health care and to feed their children. A ruthless government crackdown has led to thousands of arbitrary arrests, hundreds of prosecutions of civilians by military courts, and torture and other abuses against detainees. Arbitrary arrests and abuses by security forces, including by intelligence services, continue. Extremely high rates of violent crime and hyperinflation are also key factors in many people’s decision to leave the country.

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© 2018 Human Rights Watch

This report provides an overview of where the more than 2 million Venezuelans who have left the country since 2014, at least half of them in the past year and a half alone, are now living, the conditions they face, their prospects of obtaining legal status in the host countries, and applicable international standards that should guide host governments’ responses.

Video

Venezuela: Refugee Crisis Requires Concerted Regional Response

Venezuela’s deepening crisis has triggered the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history. Governments in the Americas should develop a collective and uniform response to the exodus of people fleeing Venezuela. 

Given the scale and complexity of Venezuelan migration within the region, governments should come together to adopt a collective and concerted response to it. In particular, governments should consider adopting:

  • A region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans legal status for a fixed period of time, at least pending adjudication of their individual claims for protection;
  • A regional mechanism to distribute both financial costs, and the actual hosting of Venezuelans fleeing their country, on an equitable basis; and
  • Strong multilateral strategies to address the root causes that lead so many Venezuelans to flee their country, including adopting and enforcing targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and cancelling visas against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights abuses, and pushing for accountability for human rights violations.

***

The massive flow of people leaving Venezuela is one of the major challenges that governments in the Americas face today. Over the past two years, many of these governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome Venezuelans fleeing persecution, violence, and severe material deprivation. More recently, however, some countries have been shifting to a harder line, making it more difficult for Venezuelans to apply for legal status. Some of these moves could put the rights of Venezuelan asylum seekers in jeopardy. Recent incidents of xenophobic violence, and a climate that threatens to give rise to more of those attacks, are also a growing concern.

The political, economic, human rights, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela creates a mix of factors that cause Venezuelans to leave the country and makes them unable or unwilling to return. Some of these factors alone may qualify a person for refugee status, while for some others the cumulative impact of various factors could give rise to a valid claim for refugee status. In other cases, individuals fleeing Venezuela may not be able to claim refugee status but would face severe hardship if returned to Venezuela and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in the countries to which they have migrated.

Under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugee status is contingent on a well-founded fear of persecution based on racial, religious, political or certain other grounds. In Latin America, however, non-binding regional norms as well as the domestic laws of some states embrace a broader eligibility for asylum. In particular, 15 regional states have incorporated the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which provides guidance to Latin American states in developing their refugee protection frameworks, into domestic law. In addition to their obligations under the Refugee Convention, these governments also cannot forcibly return people to their country of origin if they meet the Declaration’s criteria for refugee status.

Of particular relevance to the situation in Venezuela, the Cartagena Declaration includes as refugees people fleeing “massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), when interpreting the meaning of the clause “other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” noted that this phrase “is the least frequently applied by national adjudication bodies when determining refugee claims under the Cartagena refugee definition.” States need to carefully consider, in some cases without much in the way of domestic precedent to draw on, the extent to which their laws give rise to valid claims of protection by Venezuelans who have fled the country for humanitarian reasons rooted in the ongoing crisis. In a preliminary ruling, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge recently ruled that incorporating the expanded definition of the Cartagena Declaration into domestic law generates a “duty of humanitarian protection” with regard to Venezuelans seeking refuge in Brazil.

For its part, the UNHCR has argued that “the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelan nationals fall within the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration.”  In addition, UNHCR has stated that while not all Venezuelans left for refugee-related reasons, “it is becoming increasingly clear that a significant number [of Venezuelans] are indeed in need of international protection,” and are now unable or unwilling to return.

Some South American governments, despite daunting challenges, have made considerable efforts to welcome Venezuelans, including adopting special rules to provide them legal permits to stay, in addition to the possibility of seeking asylum. These permits have provided legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, helping them establish themselves abroad, work, and gain access to basic services. Yet sometimes Venezuelans have reported difficulties in getting these permits, because of prohibitive costs or requirements to present documents that they could not bring from Venezuela and are unable to obtain from abroad.

However, some of these governments have recently adopted measures that make it, in practice, extremely difficult to obtain these permits. For example, Chile, Peru and Ecuador announced they would require Venezuelans to present passports to apply. This is ostensibly a measure to ensure that governments are able to verify the identity of Venezuelans seeking legal status. Although Peru and Ecuador partially backtracked after the announcements generated a strong reaction, it is important to note that such measures ultimately represent a hurdle that would prove insurmountable for many. For the average Venezuelan, obtaining a passport in Venezuela is very difficult and may sometimes take up to two years.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain in an irregular situation, which severely undermines their ability to obtain a work permit, send their children to school, and access health care. This makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, as well as less likely to report abuses to competent authorities.

In the Caribbean, where several governments have close economic and political ties to the Venezuelan government, no country has officially adopted a special permit for Venezuelans to legally stay and most of the countries do not have laws to regulate the asylum-seeking process in general. In some cases, Venezuelans with UNHCR-issued asylum certificates have been detained or deported to Venezuela. Some Venezuelans seeking refuge in Caribbean countries and Brazil have also been victims of xenophobic harassment.

In July and August 2018, Human Rights Watch conducted research missions to the Colombian-Venezuelan and Brazilian-Venezuelan borders, where we interviewed United Nations and government officials and dozens of Venezuelans who had crossed the border. The report is also based on additional interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch via telephone, email, Skype, and text messaging services with Venezuelans who have recently fled their country, as well as lawyers, experts, and activists who monitor the situation of Venezuelan immigration in South American countries and the Caribbean. Unless noted otherwise, the information in the report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with experts with knowledge of conditions in the respective countries; all of the experts asked to remain anonymous. It is also based on a thorough review of official information published by government authorities and the UNHCR.

 

The Scope of Venezuelan Emigration

According to the United Nations, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans left Venezuela between 2014 and 2017.[1] However, given the number of Venezuelans who leave their country through irregular border crossings, and those who have not yet been able to obtain legal status, it is likely that many more have left in recent years. The total Venezuelan population is estimated to be around 32 million.

According to UNHCR, over 298,000 are asylum seekers and more than 567,000 obtained other forms of legal stay in various countries, which means that the rest—over one million Venezuelans—remain in an irregular situation.[2]

Where are Most Venezuelans Who Left Living Now?

The countries that have received the largest numbers of Venezuelans since 2014 are:

  • Colombia: An estimated 1 million people moved from Venezuela to Colombia and stayed in the country between March 2017 and June 2018, according to a Colombian government report. Colombian authorities reported then that the number included 442,000 Venezuelans in the country without legal permission, 376,000 with legal status, and 250,000 Colombians who had been in Venezuela but returned to Colombia.[3] (The Colombian government has since given legal permits to stay to the 442,000 Venezuelans who had registered with the government). The actual number of Venezuelans in Colombia is likely to be much higher, given that many cross through the more than 270 unofficial crossings along the border.
  • Peru: An estimated 395,000 Venezuelans are living in Peru.[4] More than 126,000 Venezuelans are seeking asylum in Peru, the largest number of registered Venezuelan asylum seekers in any country. In addition, 46,200 Venezuelans have benefited from a special temporary permit.[5]
  • Ecuador: An estimated 250,000 Venezuelans have arrived in Ecuador.[6] At least 83,400 obtained a residency permit or visa, and more than 7,100 sought asylum.[7]
  • Chile: More than 84,400 Venezuelans had received legal permits to live in Chile as of December 2017.[8]
  • Argentina: Nearly 78,000 had received legal permits to live in Argentina as of May 2018, and over 400 sought asylum as of June.[9]
  • United States: There are more than 72,700 Venezuelan asylum seekers in the United States as of June 2018.[10] Note that this number represents cases, not individuals, so the number of people represented by this figure is undoubtedly larger.
  • Panama: More than 7,100 Venezuelans have sought asylum and 51,400 sought alternative legal stays in Panama as of March 2018.[11]
  • Brazil: More than 32,700 Venezuelans had sought asylum and an additional 25,300 had obtained another legal permit to stay in Brazil as of April 2018.[12]
  • Mexico: Nearly 25,000 Venezuelans had legal permits to stay as of April 2018, and an additional nearly 6,900 were asylum seekers as of July.[13]
  • Southern Caribbean countries: Approximately 98,500 Venezuelans are living in the southern Caribbean—the largest numbers in Trinidad and Tobago (40,000), Aruba (20,000), and Guyana (15,000).[14]
  • Dominican Republic: There are approximately 25,800 Venezuelans living in the country, according to an official government survey.[15]

The number of Venezuelan applicants for international protection in the European Union increased from 325 in 2014 to 11,980 in 2017.[16] In April 2018, Venezuela appeared for the first time in the list of top five countries of origin of asylum applicants in the EU. During that month, 2,324 Venezuelans filed applications for international protection in the European Union, a 62 percent increase from March. In June, Venezuelan applicants lodged fewer applications than in May (when 3,070 were lodged), but applications were still at a much higher level than at the beginning of the year. [17] Venezuelans had a very small share of repeat applications, which suggests that they tended to be newly arrived in the European Union.

In 2016 and 2017 alone, more than 40,000 Venezuelans arrived in Spain, where the largest number of Venezuelans have arrived in Europe.[18] In those years, more Venezuelans filed asylum requests than nationals of any other country. According to official statistics, 10,350 Venezuelans requested asylum in 2017—up from 3,960 in 2016 and 596 in 2015.[19] More than 26,000 Venezuelans have sought asylum in Spain since 2014.[20]

Applicable International Refugee Law

Some Venezuelans may qualify as refugees under the definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Some others may be considered refugees under the broader refugee definition included in the Cartagena Declaration, which has been incorporated into the legal framework of 15 countries in the region.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, a refugee is defined as anyone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[21]

The right not to be forcibly returned under these circumstances is called the principle of nonrefoulement. The American Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as customary international law, include nonrefoulement protections.[22]

The Cartagena Declaration of 1984, while not a binding legal instrument, has provided influential normative guidance in developing the international refugee protection framework in Latin America. The Cartagena Declaration embraces a broader definition of refugee that includes “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” (emphasis added).[23]

This provision of the declaration is of obvious potential relevance to the situation in Venezuela, but there is a dearth of legal precedent to guide states in interpreting and applying it. The UNHCR, when interpreting the meaning of the clause “other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order” noted that this phrase “is the least frequently applied by national adjudication bodies when determining refugee claims under the Cartagena refugee definition.” UNHCR has however maintained that in applying an analogous clause included in the OAU Refugee Convention in Africa, a “lack of food, medical services and supplies” should be taken as “factual indicators” of the existence of “events seriously disturbing public order.”[24] 

Although the Cartagena Declaration is non-binding, its refugee definition has been incorporated into the national laws or practices of 15 countries in the region: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.[25]

In an August 2018 preliminary ruling, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge ruled that Brazil has bound itself to respect the Cartagena Declaration’s expanded refugee definition by incorporating it into domestic law, which now recognizes as refugees “those who are forced to leave due to grave and generalized human rights violations.” The ruling, which explicitly discussed Venezuelans seeking protection in Brazil, concluded that “the expansion of the concept of refugee generates, for the State, a duty of humanitarian protection.”[26]

UNHCR has stated that “it is becoming increasingly clear that a significant number are indeed in need of international protection.”[27] UNHCR considers that “the broad circumstances leading to the outflow of Venezuelan nationals would fall within the spirit of the Cartagena Declaration, with a resulting rebuttable presumption of international protection needs.”[28]

In a resolution published in March 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an authoritative body that interprets regional human rights standards, urged Organization of America States (OAS) members to adopt a series of measures in response to massive Venezuelan immigration to the Americas.[29] These include:

  • Guaranteeing refugee status to Venezuelans with a well-founded fear of persecution in case of return to Venezuela, or who consider that their life, integrity, or personal freedom would be threatened due to the violence, massive violations of human rights, and serious disturbances of public order, under the terms of the Cartagena Declaration;
  • Respecting the principle of nonrefoulement of Venezuelans in danger of persecution or other serious violations of human rights, which the Commission interprets to include serious risk to their health or life due to medical conditions, in accordance with a broad interpretation of the definition of refugee in the Cartagena Declaration.
  • Expanding regular, safe, accessible, and affordable channels for migration through the progressive expansion of visa liberalization and easily accessible visa facilitation regimes or other measures to legally stay in the country, taking into account the need for these mechanisms to be economically accessible and ensure access to Venezuelans who may not have all required documentation for reasons beyond their control;
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans within national jurisdictions;
  • Guaranteeing access to the right to nationality for stateless people, as well as for children of Venezuelans born abroad who are at risk of being stateless; and
  • Carrying out positive measures such as educational and awareness campaigns to fight discrimination and xenophobia.

Similarly, the UNHCR issued a Guidance Note on the outflow of Venezuelans that encourages countries to consider, in addition to granting asylum to Venezuelans, the creation of “protection-oriented arrangements to enable legal stay for Venezuelans.” These arrangements should be provided by law; accessible to all Venezuelans irrespective of when they arrived in the country, with minimal or no cost; and guarantee access to basic services and fundamental rights, including access to health care, education, and shelter, freedom of movement, and family unity.[30]

The political, economic, human rights, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela creates a mix of factors that cause Venezuelans to leave and that make them unable or unwilling to return. Some of these alone may qualify a person for refugee status, while for others the cumulative impact of various factors could give rise to a valid claim for refugee status. Whether one qualifies under the 1951 Refugee Convention definition or under the Cartagena standard in jurisdictions where that definition is applied, refugee status would be the same with all the rights that attach to it, including the right not to be forcibly returned to the country of origin.

Since relatively few Venezuelans outside their country have had their status as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or the Cartagena Declaration definition recognized, many are living without any legal status or with various temporary or special statuses that are not explicitly linked to a need for international protection. It should also be noted that refugee status does not depend on legal presence in the receiving country or even on formal recognition. A person is a refugee when they fulfill the refugee definition. Recognition of one’s refugee status does not make a person a refugee, but is simply the formal recognition of a status they are entitled to.  

Major Difficulties that Venezuelans Abroad are Facing

A first difficulty for many is finding the means to leave Venezuela, which they sometimes do with limited resources and through clandestine, dangerous border crossings.[31] Once Venezuelans are outside their country, an important difficulty for many is obtaining legal permits to stay in the countries where they are living.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have left the country remain in an irregular situation in the countries where they are now living. Their precarious status severely undermines their ability to obtain a work permit, send their children to school, or get health care. Even some with legal permits to stay cannot fully exercise their fundamental rights. Their irregular situation makes them more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, and less likely to report abuses to competent authorities, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and several interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch.[32]

There have also been credible reports of xenophobic and discriminatory practices against Venezuelans by multiple sources in several countries, including abuses by authorities and individuals, extortion, and rhetoric that stigmatizes Venezuelans, blaming them for increased rates of violence in the countries where they have arrived and accusing them of taking jobs away from nationals.[33]

For example, in addition to xenophobic practices described in the next chapter suffered by Venezuelans in some Caribbean islands, there have been some isolated xenophobic incidents in Brazil.

In March 2018, residents in Roraima state —which shares the border with Venezuela— organized several demonstrations against Venezuelan immigrants. During a protest in Macajaí, in Southern Roraima, organized after a Venezuelan was accused of killing a Brazilian citizen, Brazilian demonstrators expelled Venezuelans —including women and children— from an abandoned building that they had taken over to live in. The demonstrators destroyed and set on fire some of the Venezuelans’ belongings, according to press reports.[34] Brazilian authorities have opened investigations into this incident, as well as into messages that incited racism and xenophobia published in social media.[35]

In August 2018, residents of Pacaraima, the Brazilian town that borders with Venezuela, attacked Venezuelans living on the street, beat them, set their personal belongings on fire, and threatened them. This took place following a protest against Venezuelan immigration that occurred after a Brazilian man had been robbed, allegedly by Venezuelans. Several Venezuelans told Human Rights Watch that they and others ran away during the attack; some sought shelter in a church and others at a federal government building or a federal police checkpoint. More than 1,200 Venezuelans returned to Venezuela after the incident, including some that may have been asylum seekers, according to a local prosecutor. The police did not intervene to stop the violence or arrest those who were attacking the Venezuelans.[36]

Legal Avenues to Stay and Obstacles to Pursuing Them

Central and South America

In addition to the possibility of applying for asylum, several governments in South America have adopted various measures to provide Venezuelans with legal permits to stay in their countries. For example, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Chile have created a special permit for Venezuelan immigrants.[37] Argentina and Uruguay allow Venezuelans to apply for a special visa for nationals of the regional trade bloc Mercosur, even though Venezuela was expelled from the bloc in December 2016.[38] Venezuelans in Ecuador can apply for a UNASUR visa to stay.[39] 

These permits have provided legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, allowing them to re-start their lives without immediate fear of expulsion. Yet even in countries that have the permits, Venezuelans have reported difficulties in obtaining them, including prohibitive costs and having to present documents that they could not bring from Venezuela and are unable to obtain abroad.[40]

More recently, countries that had until now implemented policies to welcome Venezuelans have adopted some worrying measures that could, in practice, sharply limit the ability of Venezuelans to apply for such permits.

Chile requires Venezuelans to apply for the visa in Venezuela, and requires that they present a passport.[41] In practice, given that obtaining an appointment and then a passport in Venezuela is extremely difficult and may take up to two years, Chile’s passport requirement will effectively close the door to many Venezuelans.

In August 2018, Ecuador, noting that more than 4,200 Venezuelans were entering the country daily, declared a humanitarian emergency in three provinces of the country to cope with the influx and provide humanitarian assistance. Days later, however, authorities announced that they would require Venezuelans to present a passport to enter the country.[42] The Ecuadorean government withdrew the measure after a judge ruled against it, but also announced it would require Venezuelans without passports to present valid certification of their Venezuelan IDs issued by an international or Venezuelan authority recognized by Ecuador.[43]

Similarly, Peru announced that as of August 25, 2018 it would also require Venezuelans entering the country to present a passport; Peruvian authorities claimed they would still welcome Venezuelans and justified the measure by arguing that it would allow them to have a better and more controlled migration. After the measure generated a strong reaction, Peru’s foreign minister said that Peru would allow Venezuelans to enter with an expired passport, that children and older people could enter without passports, and that not having a passport would not be an obstacle to seeking asylum.[44] Under a recent decree, only Venezuelans who enter the country by October 31 can apply for the special legal status that exists for Venezuelans.[45]

States are well within their rights to take rigorous steps to verify the identities and nationalities of asylum seekers and others, but under no circumstances should Venezuelan asylum seekers be turned away simply for lack of passports or any other particular form of identification. Such a result would constitute refoulement and violate their obligations under international refugee law.

In 2017, Panama limited access to the country by imposing a new visa requirement on Venezuelans before entering.[46]

In Colombia, which has received by far the largest number of Venezuelan immigrants, the government has been adopting a series of measures to provide Venezuelans arriving in the country with urgent access to health care and to enroll Venezuelan children in schools. Other initiatives in coordination with UN agencies and local groups provide them meals, vaccination, and shelter.

In July 2017, the Colombian government created a special permit that allows Venezuelan citizens who entered the country legally, but have overstayed their visas, to regularize their status and have work permits and access to basic public services.[47] Between 2017 and the first months of 2018, 180,000 Venezuelans were granted this permit.[48] In July 2018, the Colombian government adopted a decree granting the more than 400,000 Venezuelan irregular immigrants who had registered in a government survey access to basic public services and work permits, and regulating their children’s enrollment in schools.[49]

Many Venezuelans in Colombia who have not registered with the government still have irregular status and face an array of difficulties. In May, authorities said that more than 2,700 Venezuelans had “voluntarily decided to return to their country” to “avoid being sanctioned” by Colombian authorities for not having permits to stay.[50] Yet credible sources who requested anonymity and have been monitoring the situation questioned whether the returns were voluntary, telling Human Rights Watch that many Venezuelans had been detained, ordered to get in a truck, and driven to the border.[51]

In 2018, the Brazilian federal government deployed the armed forces at the border with Venezuela to respond to Venezuelan immigration, including to assist in implementing Brazil’s humanitarian policies. In cooperation with UN agencies, they have set up a facility at the border where Venezuelans can request asylum or a special residency permit, and get vaccinations and emergency medical care. In addition, together with UNHCR, the federal government opened 10 shelters to house Venezuelans in the northern state of Roraima. At time of writing, more than 4,000 Venezuelans were living in these shelters, and two more were under construction. An ongoing program to move Venezuelans to other parts of the country has been slowly implemented; as of August 28, 2018, only 820 Venezuelans had resettled elsewhere in Brazil.[52]

The Venezuelan Walkers

 

More than 200 Venezuelans set out on foot from the Colombian-Venezuelan border each day to try to reach their final destination, either other cities in Colombia or other countries in the region.

Human Rights Watch interviewed several Venezuelans walking by the side of the road, including women and children. For example, 25-year-old Rosa Márquez (pseudonym), who was walking with her 6-year-old daughter, said she had left Maracay, her home town in Venezuela, because she could not afford enough food to feed her family or medicines to treat her daughter’s kidney stones. They traveled through Venezuela by bus for hours and crossed the border into Colombia heading for Medellín, where the girl’s father was waiting for them. But without legal papers to stay in Colombia, they were unable to purchase a bus ticket and decided to walk to a town from where they would travel to Medellín. The hike through the hills to that town, including areas with freezing temperatures, takes more than 47 hours on foot.[53]

A survey conducted in July by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that the Venezuelans who leave on foot walk an average of 16 hours per day and expected to walk for about 13 days. Many walk because they have no legal papers, while many others cannot afford a bus ticket. Few had enough resources to cover their journeys, many were not getting enough to eat, and more than 90 percent were sleeping in the streets.[54]

The Colombian Red Cross has set up tents in a few places on the side of the road. In one of them, an average of 80 Venezuelans a day stop to drink water, eat crackers, rest, and make phone calls, a volunteer said.[55]

The Caribbean

In the Caribbean, where several governments have close ties to, and are economically dependent on, the Venezuelan government, no country has officially adopted a special permit for Venezuelans to legally stay and most of the countries do not have laws to regulate the asylum-seeking process. Venezuelan immigration has had a particularly strong impact on the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and Curaçao, given their geographic proximity to Venezuela, their smaller size, and limited capacity to absorb immigrants. [56]

Some of the major problems Venezuelans face in the Caribbean include:

  • Trinidad and Tobago: There is no legal framework to regulate the asylum-seeking procedure or to govern the rights of refugees. The government issued a refugee policy in 2014 that is still in the process of being implemented. Approximately 4,000 of the estimated 40,000 Venezuelans on the island had sought asylum as of August 2018.[57]

A local nongovernmental organization called Living Water Community serves as a point of contact for asylum seekers on behalf of UNHCR. All asylum seekers and refugees are issued a UNHCR certificate denoting their status. Certificate holders are legally able to stay in the country, but they are not allowed to work.

Although Venezuelans had previously been able to get health care and enroll their children in primary school, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports from multiple sources that requested anonymity that local authorities have disregarded UNHCR-issued certificates, detaining people with asylum-seeker certificates. In April, in what appears to have been an isolated incident, 82 Venezuelans, including some UNHCR certificate-holders and others who had declared an intention to apply for refugee status, were returned by immigration authorities to Venezuela.[58]

On April 9, 2018, uniformed policemen conducted a raid at the port of entry in San Fernando, and detained Isabel Gabriela González Herrera. González Herrera, a Venezuelan national who had arrived in Trinidad and Tobago a month earlier, was there to deliver a bag with food to Venezuelans who would take it to her 4-year-old son in Venezuela, according to a witness who spoke to Human Rights Watch. She was taken to a police station, where an immigration officer asked her for evidence of her legal status in the country. Since she did not have any, she was detained. On May 12, González Herrera was taken before an immigration judge, who sentenced her to one year in detention and to pay 18.000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (approximately 2,700 US dollars), despite the fact she had a UNHCR-issued asylum certificate. González Herrera is being held at a maximum-security prison at time of writing.[59]

  • Curaçao: In July 2017, the government stated publicly that it had taken over responsibility from the UNHCR for registering asylum seekers and issuing asylum-seeker certificates. To the best of our knowledge, however, the Curaçao government has not issued a single certificate since then, even though hundreds of Venezuelans have requested an interview to seek asylum in Curaçao.

Although Curaçao is not bound by the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol, as a constituent country of The Netherlands, Curaçao is bound by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Article 3 of the ECHR prevents refoulement in cases of torture or inhumane treatment, including some cases of lack of access to health care. The government of The Netherlands is answerable for violations of the ECHR that occur in Curaçao, including any deportations that violate the nonrefoulement provisions of Article 3.
 

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports from several sources who requested anonymity that government authorities are actively conducting immigration raids, verbally and physically harassing Venezuelans, and detaining Venezuelans for indefinite periods in inhumane conditions and without access to legal counsel. They also report that authorities have deported some Venezuelans who attempt to seek asylum, including those whose claims may qualify for protection under Article 3 of the ECHR, and have pressured detained parents to inform the authorities of the whereabouts of their children so they can be deported together.

These sources also said Venezuelan children are legally allowed to go to school in Curaçao, but they face practical barriers for enrollment and some fear going to school given that authorities have conducted raids to take children away from schools.
 

Nineteen-year-old Santiago Hernández (pseudonym) deserted from the Venezuelan Army after witnessing abuses by army personnel. On August 17, 2018, he left Venezuela by a boat, heading to Curaçao, fearing reprisals for deserting and having witnessed the abuses. That night, Curaçaoan authorities arrested him in territorial waters, allegedly for illegal entry. Hernández told authorities that he wanted to apply for asylum, but they refused to listen and detained him. In immigration detention, he tried to request asylum again, but guards told him to call the Venezuelan consulate instead. He surreptitiously managed to get his hands on a cellphone and called a lawyer, who filed an asylum application on his behalf on August 21, according to documentation reviewed by Human Rights Watch. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Hernández was questioned for two days, and on August 27 immigration authorities asked him to sign documents in Dutch, which he did not understand. Hernández remains in immigration detention in Curaçao at time of writing.[60]

  • Aruba: Venezuelans are entitled to seek asylum and asylum seekers registered with the government can get a work permit and work legally. The children of asylum seekers can enroll in school, although there are some concerns about discrimination and their enrollment is conditioned on having health insurance, which is expensive. Venezuelans in Aruba–also a constituent country of The Netherlands–could qualify for international protection as refugees under the 1967 Protocol of the 1951 Convention (to which Aruba has acceded) and are protected from refoulement under Article 3 of the ECHR.
     
  • Guyana: An estimated 15,000 Venezuelans are living in the country with a greater number going back and forth to Venezuela. Venezuelans in Guyana have access to public health care, which is one of the main reasons people go in and out of the country, and children for the most part can attend school, although some face barriers because they do not speak English. The Guyanese government has granted Venezuelans ad-hoc permits to stay for three-month periods and said it would ratify international refugee instruments, but there is no existing refugee policy or law, nor any other legal framework that provides clarity about legal options for Venezuelans to seek asylum or to live in the country.
     
  • Dominican Republic: Although the country has a law to regulate the asylum process, several Venezuelans from a group that provides support to Venezuelan immigrants and asylum seekers in the country told Human Rights Watch that, in practice, it is difficult for them to apply. The obstacles include the short 15-day period after arriving in the country to submit the petition, the requirement to submit it in the capital, and a requirement for documentation that they do not have, they said.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports by several sources who requested anonymity of arrests of people who “look Venezuelan” and of deportations that lack due process and proper evaluation of protection needs. Venezuelan detainees do not have access to legal counsel, have no right to legally challenge their detentions, and are indefinitely detained until the Dominican Republic government deports them or the detainee pays for their ticket, credible sources told Human Rights Watch. Neither UNHCR nor nongovernmental groups are allowed in the detention center where they are being held, which limits their ability to monitor their situation and provide support.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports that Venezuelans are taking dangerous journeys to travel to south Caribbean islands, which are just a short boat ride away from continental Venezuela, leading to shipwrecks and deaths at sea.[61] In January 2018, there were the first confirmed cases of Venezuelans dying at sea when attempting to reach Curaçao, with body parts washing up on shore. The willingness to risk dangerous trips often arises in refugee situations when legal pathways are blocked; Venezuelans have encountered obstacles to orderly and legal entry and stay in these islands.

United States and Spain

In the United States, Venezuelans have become the leading nationality requesting asylum. There are more than 72,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers in the United States as of June 2018.[62] Between 2011 and 2016, Venezuelans were denied asylum at a rate of 46.4 percent, which is 3.4 percent lower than the denial rate for asylum applicants of all nationalities (49.8 percent) during that same time period.[63] Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain more recent statistics on the denial rates for asylum applications filed by Venezuelans.

A total of over 26,000 Venezuelans are asylum seekers in Spain.[64] Venezuelans are the leading nationality in asylum requests in Spain. Yet only 1 percent of Venezuelans seeking asylum there obtained protection, according to the Spanish Commission to Help Refugees.[65]

These low rates of granting refugee status raise questions as to whether authorities, including immigration judges, are considering all the causes that may justify Venezuelans’ fear to return home as legitimate reasons to grant asylum.

Recommendations

To effectively protect the rights of Venezuelans fleeing their country, states should ensure careful, individualized consideration of all asylum claims. In doing so, they should consider recent recommendations issued by UNHCR and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In line with recommendations by both bodies, states should also consider adopting other legal mechanisms to afford protection and legal status to Venezuelans who may not qualify for refugee status under domestic law but would face severe hardship if returned to Venezuela and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in the countries to which they have migrated.

Specifically, given the scale and complexity of Venezuelan migration within the region, governments should come together to adopt a collective and concerted response to it. In particular, governments should consider adopting:

  • A region-wide temporary protection regime that would grant all Venezuelans legal status for a fixed period of time, at least pending adjudication of their individual claims for protection; and
  • A regional mechanism to distribute both financial costs, and the actual hosting of Venezuelans fleeing their country, on an equitable basis.

Governments that have adopted new measures requiring Venezuelans to present valid passports in order to seek certain kinds of lawful immigration status should immediately take care to ensure that this in no way prevents Venezuelans who lack those documents from seeking refugee status. In general, and in light of the difficulties many Venezuelans face in obtaining passports, governments should consider whether there are more flexible means of verifying the identities and nationalities of Venezuelans seeking entry.

Governments should also look for alternatives to detention for asylum seekers, prevent arbitrary or prolonged detention in cases where detention is utilized, which should be a measure of last resort, and allow international organizations and nongovernmental groups access to immigration detention centers to monitor detention conditions and ensure access to protection.

Finally, the Kingdom of The Netherlands should ensure that treatment of Venezuelans in Curaçao and Aruba complies with its international obligations, including the nonrefoulement provision in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition, it is critical to continue pursuing multilateral strategies to address the root causes that lead so many Venezuelans to flee their country. These should include adopting and enforcing targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and cancelling visas against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights abuses, and pushing for accountability for human rights violations. Such sanctions do not have a generalized impact on the population and do not exacerbate the humanitarian situation of Venezuelans.

At the UN Human Rights Council’s 38th session in June 2018, Peru delivered a statement on behalf of a cross-regional group of 53 countries, expressing concern about the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and calling for continued reporting by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the Council’s upcoming 39th session in September, members of the Lima Group should present, and the Council should adopt, a resolution mandating reporting by the High Commissioner’s Office on the human rights situation in Venezuela, and presentation and discussion of these reports at the Council.

 

A Noteworthy Parallel: Zimbabwe

While every situation is distinct, there are some noteworthy parallels between this Venezuelan exodus and a similar flight of Zimbabweans in the 2000s.

As detailed in Human Rights Watch’s 2008 report “Neighbors in Need: Zimbabweans Seeking Refuge in South Africa,” an economic collapse caused by harmful government policies of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, together with an oppressive response to political opposition, led hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans to escape to neighboring countries.[66] 

These combined economic and political factors compelled many Zimbabweans to leave the country, predominately to South Africa but also to Botswana, Mozambique, and Zambia. Between 1 and 1.5 million Zimbabweans were in South Africa by the beginning of 2008. Almost all entered and remained without documentation. The reasons Zimbabweans fled were mixed. Some Zimbabweans feared persecution due to their real or imputed political opposition to ZANU-PF rule, while others were forced to leave due to poor economic conditions that left them destitute. Those interviewed at the time of the 2008 Human Rights Watch report stated that, much like Venezuelans today, they had no intention to return to Zimbabwe while it was in crisis.

At the time, Human Rights Watch argued that most of these Zimbabweans fulfilled either the 1951 Refugee Convention definition or the wider definition in the Africa Refugee Convention, which, like the Cartagena Declaration in Latin America, recognizes as refugees people who flee events seriously disturbing public order, among other reasons, but for practical reasons recommended that the most realistic and effective remedy would be for South Africa to adopt a “temporary immigration exemption status for Zimbabweans.” Such a status, Human Rights Watch argued, would temporarily regularize the status of all Zimbabweans present in South Africa for a reviewable period of time, provide for an end to deportations of Zimbabweans, and provide all Zimbabweans in South Africa with the right to work during that period. 

Although it took several months, in 2009 the South African government responded to the high numbers of Zimbabweans that had entered the country by issuing a “special dispensation permit” to Zimbabweans in the country, a visa process that has continued in various iterations until today.  

 

Acknowledgments

This report was researched and written by Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas senior researcher, in consultation with Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director, and Chris Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch, who also reviewed and edited the report. In addition, it was reviewed and edited by José Miguel Vivanco, Americas executive director; Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director; Juan Pappier, Americas researcher; Aisling Reidy, senior legal advisor, and Joseph Saunders, deputy program director. Americas researcher Mirte Postema and Americas interns Santiago Menna, Julian Piacente, and Christine Vlasic provided valuable research support. Delphine Starr and Megan Monteleone, Americas associates, provided logistical support. The report was prepared for publication by Rebecca Rom-Frank, publications coordinator; Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager; and José Martínez, senior administration coordinator. It was translated into Spanish by Gabriela Haymes.

Human Rights Watch would like to thank each of the lawyers and activists we interviewed for providing insights and valuable information for this report, with special thanks to specialists who monitor the situation of Venezuelan immigration closely and asked not to be cited to preserve the possibility to continue doing their work.

Most importantly, Human Rights Watch is deeply grateful to all the Venezuelans who generously shared their experiences with us, with the hope that it would contribute to ensuring greater protection of their rights and the rights of others in a similar situation.

 

 

[1] UNHCR, “Venezuela Update,” August 14, 2018, https://www.unmultimedia.org/avlibrary/asset/2217/2217274/ (accessed August 14, 2018); UNHCR, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the needs of people displaced from Venezuela, Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018,” March 2018, http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/unhcr%20venezuela%20situation%202018%20supplementary%20appeal.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018); Human Rights Watch interview with Juan Carlos Murillo, Deputy Director of Bureau for the Americas, UNHCR, Geneva, June 4, 2018.

[2] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal,” n.d., https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/vensit (accessed August 14, 2018).

[3] Colombian Government, “Migration Report of Venezuelans in Colombia,” June 12, 2018; Information provided by Felipe Muñoz, head of the Colombian government’s efforts at the border at the time, to Human Rights Watch, June 12, 2018.

[4] “Interview: Deputy Foreign Minister affirms Peru is ordering Venezuelans’ arrival” (Entrevista: vicecanciller afirma que Perú está ordenando ingreso de venezolanos), CNN, August 20, 2018, http://plataforma.ipnoticias.com/Landing?i=8rjVc38Q1fmQN9n3eazhjw%3d%3d&cac=nNwT2IUZoTkg73wbUJvFnA%3d%3d&c=UuoaFD7cHTQNcbQ66wequ2l%2bPppWS2EPLbQn8iBFRCM%3d&utm_source=alerta&utm_medium=correo&utm_content=video&utm_campaign=videomail (accessed August 21, 2018).

[5] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal;” UNHCR, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the needs of people displaced from Venezuela, Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018,” March 2018, http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/unhcr%20venezuela%20situation%202018%20supplementary%20appeal.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018).

[6] “Ecuador explains requirement of passports for Venezuelans” (Ecuador explica exigencia de pasaportes a venezolanos), El Telégrafo, August 17, 2018, https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/politica/3/ecuador-pasaporte-ingreso (accessed August 21, 2018).

[7] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal;” UNHCR, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the needs of people displaced from Venezuela, Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018.”

[8] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNHCR, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the needs of people displaced from Venezuela, Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018.”

[15] Dominican Republic Ministry of Economy, Planning, and Development, National Statistics Office, European Union, and UN Population Fund, “ENI 2017: Second National Survey of Immigrants,” June 2018 (copy on file at Human Rights Watch).

[16] European Asylum Support Office, “Venezuelans seeking asylum in EU up by almost 800% in two years,” April 4, 2018, https://www.easo.europa.eu/news-events/venezuelans-seeking-asylum-eu-almost-800-two-years (accessed August 13, 2018).

[17] European Asylum Support Office, “Latest Asylum Trends,” May 2018, https://www.easo.europa.eu/latest-asylum-trends (accessed August 13, 2018).

[18] According to official statistics, there are a total of 94,474 Venezuelans living in Spain today, and there were 54,401 on January 1, 2016. Spanish Institute of Statistics, “Foreign population by nationality and age” (Población extranjera por nacionalidad y sexo), n.d., http://www.ine.es/jaxi/Tabla.htm?path=/t20/e245/p04/provi/l0/&file=0ccaa002.px (accessed August 28, 2018); Spanish Institute of Statistics, “Preview of Statistics as of January 1, 2017” (Avance de Estadística del Padrón Continuo a 1 de enero de 2017), April 26, 2017, http://www.ine.es/prensa/pad_2017_p.pdf (accessed August 28, 2018).

[19] Spanish Commission to Help Refugees, “15 Revealing Facts about Refugees” (15 reveladores datos sobre las personas refugiadas), June 18, 2018, https://www.cear.es/15-datos-sobre-las-personas-refugiadas/ (accessed August 13, 2018); Spanish Commission to Help Refugees, Annual Report 2017, n.d., https://www.cear.es/informe-cear-2017/ (accessed August 13, 2018), p. 74-75.

[20] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal.”

[21] Refugee Convention, http://www.unhcr.org/1951-refugee-convention.html (accessed August 13, 2018), art. 1.

[22] American Convention on Human Rights, https://www.cidh.oas.org/basicos/english/basic3.american%20convention.htm (accessed August 13, 2018), art. 22 (8); Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx (accessed August 13, 2018), art. 3; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, CCPR General Comment No. 20: Article 7 (Prohibition of Torture, or other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment), March 10, 1992, http://www.refworld.org/docid/453883fb0.html (accessed August 13, 2018), para. 9; Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6 (2005),
http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/GC6.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018), paras. 26-28; Council of Europe, Resolution (67) 14, June 1967, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b38168.html (accessed August 13, 2018), para. 2; UNHCR, “The Principle of Non-Refoulement as a Norm of Customary International Law. Response to the Questions Posed to UNHCR by the Federal Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany in Cases 2 BvR 1938/93, 2 BvR 1953/93, 2 BvR 1954/93, January 31, 1994, http://www.refworld.org/docid/437b6db64.html (accessed August 13, 2018).

[24] UNHCR, “Guidelines on International Protection No. 12,” December 6, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/publications/legal/58359afe7/unhcr-guidelines-international-protection-12-claims-refugee-status-related.html (accessed August 17, 2018), para. 56.

[25] UNHCR, “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans,” March 2018, http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/5a9ff3cc4.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018).

[26] Brazilian Supreme Court, Ruling Originated in Roraima 3.121 (Tutela Provisoria na Acao Civel Originaria 3.121 Roraima), August 6, 2018, https://www.conjur.com.br/dl/rosa-weber-nega-fechamento-fronteira.pdf (accessed August 15, 2018).

[27] UNHCR, “Venezuela Situation: Responding to the needs of people displaced from Venezuela, Supplementary Appeal January-December 2018.”

[28] UNHCR, “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans.”

[29] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Resolution 2/18: Forced Migration of Venezuelans.”

[30] UNHCR, “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans.”

[32] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Resolution 2/18: Forced Migration of Venezuelans,” March 2, 2018, http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/decisions/pdf/Resolution-2-18-en.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018); Human Rights Watch received testimony from several Venezuelans living in different countries and information from other experts monitoring the situation with similar findings.

[33] Ibid.

[34] “Residents set objects on fire and expel Venezuelans from abandoned location during a demonstration in Roraima” (Moradores ateiam fogo em objetos e expulsam venezuelanos de prédio abandonado durante protesto em RR), Globo.com, March 19, 2018, https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/moradores-ateiam-fogo-em-objetos-e-expulsam-venezuelanos-de-predio-em-cidade-no-interior-de-rr.ghtml (accessed August 13, 2018).

[35] “Prosecutors ask Roraima police to investigate racist and xenophobic statements against Venezuelans in social media” (MP pede que policia de RR apure comentários racistas e xenofóbicos contra venezuelanos em redes sociais), Globo.com, March 23, 2018, https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/mp-pede-que-policia-de-rr-apure-comentarios-racistas-e-xenofobicos-contra-venezuelanos-em-redes-sociais.ghtml?utm_source=whatsapp&utm_medium=share-bar-smart&utm_campaign=share-bar (accessed August 13, 2018).

[36] Human Rights Watch interviews with six Venezuelans who witnessed and were victims of the attack, Boa Vista, August 26, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with armed forces personnel deployed in Pacaraima at the time, Pacaraima, August 25, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with Lincoln Zaniolo, local prosecutor, Pacaraima, August 25, 2018. See also “Venezuelans and Brazilians clash in the streets of a city in Roraima” (Venezuelanos e brasileiros se confrontam nas ruas de cidade de Roraima), Folha, August 18, 2018, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mundo/2018/08/refugiados-venezuelanos-sao-agredidos-e-expulsos-de-tendas-em-roraima.shtml (accessed August 20, 2018); “In Pacaraima, residents demonstrate against inmigrants” (Em Pacaraima, moradores fazem manifestacao contra imigrantes), Folha, August 18, 2018, http://www.folhabv.com.br/noticia/Em-Pacaraima-moradores-fazem-manifestacao-contra-imigrantes/43021 (accessed August 20, 2018); “I prefer to die of hunger in Venezuela than to be attacked here, says an immigrant attacked by Brazilians in the Roraima border” (Prefiro morrer de fome na Venezuela do que agredido aqui, diz imigrante atacado por brasileiros na fronteira em RR), Globo, August 18, 2018, https://g1.globo.com/rr/roraima/noticia/2018/08/18/prefiro-morrer-de-fome-na-venezuela-do-que-agredido-aqui-diz-imigrante-atacado-por-brasileiros-na-fronteira-em-rr.ghtml (accessed August 20, 2018); Public Defender’s Office, “Violence against Venezuelan immigrants in Pacaraima, Roraima” (Violencia contra imigrantes venezuelanos em Pacariama RR), August 19, 2018, http://dpu.def.br/noticias-institucional/233-slideshow/45198-nota-violencia-contra-imigrantes-venezuelanos-em-pacaraima-rr (accessed August 20, 2018); “More than 1,000 Venezuelans leave Brazil after violent incidents, while Ecuador and Peru limits their entrance” (Más de mil venezolanos abandonan Brasil tras incidents violentos mientras Ecuador y Perú les limita la entrada), El Mundo, August 20, 2018, http://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2018/08/19/5b799fa1e2704ed2088b45ed.html (accessed August 20, 2018).

[37] Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Special Residency Permit” (Permiso Especial de Permanencia), n.d., http://www.migracioncolombia.gov.co/viajeros-venezuela/ (accessed August 13, 2018); National Immigration Superintendence of Peru, “Temporary Residency Permit” (Permiso Temporal de Permanencia), n.d., https://www.migraciones.gob.pe/index.php/ptp-venezolanos-3/ (accessed August 13, 2018); Chilean Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Information on Visa of Democratic Responsibility” (Información sobre visa de responsabilidad democrática), n.d., https://chile.gob.cl/chile/blog/venezuela/informacion-sobre-visa-de-responsabilidad-democratica (accessed August 13, 2018); Diario Oficial da União No. 43, Resolucão Normativa No. 126, March 3, 2017, http://www.acnur.org/fileadmin/Documentos/BDL/2017/11016.pdf?file=fileadmin/Documentos/BDL/2017/11016 (accessed August 13, 2018).

[38] Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Mercosur Citizens Visa” (Visa Ciudadanos MERCOSUR), http://evene.cancilleria.gov.ar/es/content/visa-ciudadanos-mercosur-0, n.d., (accessed August 13, 2018); Uruguayan Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Law 19.254 – Permanent Residency for Nationals of State Parties and Associated States of Mercosur and foreign family members of Uruguayan nationals” (Ley 19.254 Tramitación de residencia permanente para nacionales de los Estados Partes y Asociados del MERCOSUR y familiares de uruguayos de origen extranjero), http://www.mrree.gub.uy/frontend/page?1,dgacv,DGACVAmpliacionVinculacion,O,es,0,PAG;CONC;2013;31;D;ley-19-254-tramitacion-de-residencia-permanente-para-nacionales-de-los-estados-parte-y-asociados-del-mercosur-y-familiares-de-uruguayos-de-origen-extranjero;1;PAG (accessed August 13, 2018); “Venezuela suspended from Mercosur,” Al Jazeera, December 3, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/venezuela-suspended-mercosur-violations-161203035501462.html (accessed August 13, 2018).

[39] Ecuadorean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility, “Issuing Temporary Unasur Visa” (Emisión de Visa Temporal Unasur), n.d., https://www.cancilleria.gob.ec/emision-de-visa-temporal-unasur/ (accessed August 13, 2018).

[40] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Resolution 2/18: Forced Migration of Venezuelans;” Human Rights Watch received information from other experts monitoring the situation with similar findings.

[41] Chilean Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Information on Visa of Democratic Responsibility.”

[42] “Ecuador declares emergency in three provinces to deal with Venezuelan immigration” (Ecuador declara emergencia en 3 provincias para atender migración venezolana), El Telégrafo, August 8, 2018, https://www.eltelegrafo.com.ec/noticias/ecuador/1/ecuador-emergencia-migracion-venezolanos (accessed August 20, 2018); “Ecuador will restrict the entrance of Venezuelans due to the arrival of 4,000 per day” (Ecuador restringirá la entrada de venezolanos por la llegada de 4,000 al día), El País, August 18, 2018, https://elpais.com/internacional/2018/08/17/actualidad/1534500798_245140... (accessed August 20, 2018); “Ombudsman office rejects requirement imposed on Venezuelans” (Defensoría rechaza requisito impuesto a venezolanos), Vistazo, August 17, 2018, http://www.vistazo.com/seccion/pais/politica-nacional/defensoria-rechaza-requisito-impuesto-venezolanos (accessed August 18, 2018).

[43] Ecuadorean Communications Ministry, “Official Press Release” (Comunicado oficial), August 24, 2018, https://twitter.com/ComunicacionEc/status/1033135080926011394 (accessed August 28, 2018).

[44] “Foreign minister explains how Venezuelans without a passport will be able to enter the country” (Canciller explica cómo podrán ingresar al país los venezolanos sin pasaporte), La República, August 25, 2018, https://larepublica.pe/politica/1305015-canciller-explica-podran-ingresar-pais-venezolanos-pasaporte (accessed August 28, 2018).

[45] “Peru to tighten entry requirements for Venezuelans as migration surges: sources,” Reuters, August 16, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-peru-venezuela/peru-to-tighten-entry-requirements-for-venezuelans-as-migration-surges-sources-idUSKBN1L205A (accessed August 18, 2018); Image of Presidential Decree 7-2018 adopted on August 18, 2018, available in tweet by Mitra Taj, August 19, 2018, https://twitter.com/mitrataj/status/1031196276292034562 (accessed August 20, 2019); “Interview: Deputy Foreign Minister affirms Peru is ordering Venezuelans’ arrival” (Entrevista: vicecanciller afirma que Perú está ordenando ingreso de venezolanos).

[46] Panama Embassy in Caracas, “Requirements for Stamped Visa” (Requisitos para visa estampada), n.d., http://www.embajadadepanama.com.ve/index.php/consulado/visas/requisitos-para-visa-estampada (accessed August 13, 2018); “Panama will require visas for Venezuelans,” Panama Today, August 22, 2017, http://www.panamatoday.com/panama/panama-will-require-visas-venezuelans-5011 (accessed August 14, 2018).

[47] Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Foreign Affairs Ministry and Immigration Colombia announce resolution to regularize Venezuelans in Colombia” (Cancillería y Migración Colombia anuncian resolución para regularizar venezolanos en Colombia), July 28, 2018, http://www.migracioncolombia.gov.co/index.php/es/prensa/comunicados/comunicados-2017/julio-2017/5091-cancilleria-y-migracion-colombia-anuncian-resolucion-para-regularizar-venezolanos-en-colombia (accessed August 13, 2018).

[48] Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Starting today, Venezuelans with special residency permit must update their information with Immigration Colombia” (A partir de hoy, venezolanos portadores del PEP deberán actualizar sus datos ante Migración Colombia), July 3, 2018, http://www.migracioncolombia.gov.co/index.php/es/prensa/comunicados/comunicados-2018/julio-2018/7714-a-partir-de-hoy-venezolanos-portadores-del-pep-deberan-actualizar-sus-datos-ante-migracion-colombia (accessed August 13, 2018).

[49] Colombian Presidency, “442.462 Venezuelans identified in the RAMV registry will receive temporary residency” (442.462 venezolanos identificados en registro RAMV recibirán regularización temporal), June 13, 2018, http://es.presidencia.gov.co/noticia/180613-442462-venezolanos-identificados-en-registro-RAMV-recibiran-regularizacion-temporal (accessed August 13, 2018); Colombian Presidency, Decree 1288, July 25, 2018, https://veecolombia.wordpress.com/category/decretos-presidenciales/ (accessed August 13, 2018); Immigration Colombia, Resolution 2033, August 2, 2018; Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, Resolution 6370, August 1, 2018 (copies on file at Human Rights Watch).

[50] Colombian Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Nearly 1,000 control procedures carried out by the Special Migration Group every month” (Cerca de mil procedimientos de control y verificación adelanta el Grupo Especial Migratorio (GEM) cada mes), May 10, 2018, http://www.migracioncolombia.gov.co/index.php/es/prensa/comunicados/comunicados-2018/mayo-2018/7269-cerca-de-mil-procedimientos-de-control-y-verificacion-adelanta-el-grupo-especial-migratorio-gem-cada-mes (accessed August 13, 2018).

[51] Human Rights Watch interviews, names withheld, Bogotá, June 6 and 7, 2018. Similar allegations have been reported by the press. See “As Venezuela exodus swells, more migrants face removal,” Associated Press, May 12, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/6ef899cb6ba54d7ea71de07f0bde23f4 (accessed August 13, 2018).

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Armed Forces personnel deployed in Pacaraima, Pacaraima, August 25, 2018; Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR staff, Boa Vista, August 24, 2018.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa Márquez (pseudonym), North of Santander, July 29, 2018.

[54] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Report on the humanitarian situation of Venezuelan migrants walking through the North of Santander” (Informe de la situación humanitarian de los migrantes venezolanos en tránsito peatonal en Norte de Santander), n.d. (copy on file at Human Rights Watch).

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Colombian Red Cross volunteer, North of Santander, July 29, 2018.

[56] Unless noted otherwise, the information in this section is based on Human Rights Watch interviews in June, July and August 2018 with experts with knowledge of conditions in the respective countries; all of the experts asked to remain anonymous.

[57] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal.”

[58] UNHCR, “UNHCR regret at deportations of Venezuelans from Trinidad and Tobago,” April 23, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/4/5addb65d4/unhcr-regret-deportations-venezuelans-trinidad-tobago.html (accessed August 13, 2018).

[59] Human Rights Watch interviews via messaging service with a witness to the detention who also attended the judicial hearing and a family member, July – August 2018; copy of González Herrera’s asylum-certificate on file at Human Rights Watch.

[60] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Santiago Hernández’s lawyer, August 25, 2018 and online messaging system, August 27, 2018; copy of Hernández’s asylum claim on file at Human Rights Watch.

[61] See also “They be pirates. An old scourge is reappearing in the Caribbean,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/world/pirates-return-to-the-caribbean/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.be52877c7069 (accessed August 14, 2018).

[62] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal;” See also US Department of Homeland Security, “Refugees and Asylees,” n.d., https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/refugees-asylees (accessed August 14, 2018); USCIS, “Leading Nationalities for Asylum Applications Filed with USCIS, March 2018,” https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Outreach/Notes%20from%20Previous%20Engagements/PED_AsylumOfficeWorkloadMarch2018.pdf (accessed August 13, 2018).

[63] Transactional Records Clearinghouse, “Continued Rise in Asylum Denial Rates:

Impact of Representation and Nationality,” Table 4, http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/448/ (accessed August 8, 2018).

[64] UNHCR, “Venezuela situation portal.”

[65] Spanish Commission to Help Refugees, “15 Revealing Facts about Refugees” (15 reveladores datos sobre las personas refugiadas), June 18, 2018, https://www.cear.es/15-datos-sobre-las-personas-refugiadas/ (accessed August 13, 2018).

[66] Human Rights Watch, Neighbors in Need: Zimbabweans Seeking Refuge in South Africa, June 2008, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/southafrica0608/ (accessed August 13, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People in Budapest protest a draft law targeting Central European University, Hungary, April 4, 2017.

© Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

An education program aimed at giving asylum seekers and refugees in Hungary a new start is the first casualty of the government’s most recent anti-immigrant measures.

This week, the Central European University (CEU) suspended its award-winning Open Learning Initiative (OLIve) program for asylum seekers and refugees, just days after a 25 percent tax on any activity supporting immigration kicked in.

The program offered a free, academic, non-degree course of study for asylum seekers and refugees, supporting them in connecting their previous professional and academic experience to their new lives in Europe, including the possibility of subsequent higher education studies.

This is the first impact of the special tax, which comes on the heels of recent legislation that criminalizes aid and support to migrants and asylum seekers. A 2017 law imposed onerous requirements on some independent universities in Hungary, including CEU. Together, these moves threaten academic freedom and the work of nongovernmental organizations that receive funds for assistance programs for asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees in Hungary.

CEU said it had suspended the OLIve program pending clarification from authorities on its liability under the special tax provision, which may have been intentionally drafted in vague terms to have a chilling effect on academic institutions, donors, and local organizations. Exactly what activities are subject to the tax is so unclear that just about any statement, seminars, flyer – or even this piece of writing – could potentially be covered. Once again, the government has been able to rely on broad and vaguely-worded legislation to curtail legitimate activities that run contrary to its xenophobic anti-migration policies, without having to actively enforce the law.

Unless EU institutions make it clear to the Hungarian government that taxing and criminalizing work with asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees is unacceptable and an affront to EU laws and values, we may see more valuable programs and projects fold.  

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

Unaccompanied minors are seen at the Bristow facility, in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in Bristow, Virgina, U.S., June 21, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Held down, injected, drugged – this is how immigrant children in need of mental health support, but detained in government facilities, are being treated, according to a lawsuit filed in a California court in April.

Children at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas, were allegedly prescribed as many as 10 different shots and pills at a time and told they would never leave the center if they refused to take the medication. One plaintiff declared that staff members at Shiloh provoked the children to make then angry and justify giving them injections.

Another complaint, filed on behalf of five immigrant children in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in June, alleges that the policies of the Office of Refugee Resettlement are causing grave harm to children. It accuses the agency of detaining children in excessively restrictive conditions, forcibly medicating children and failing to reunite children with their families.

Lucas, a 12-year-old from Guatemala, is one of the plaintiffs. He is detained at the Shiloh center. According to his older sister, who lives in Los Angeles, when he was in Guatemala, Lucas was a happy and talkative child. However, his detention and the fear of not being reunited with his family have made him depressed. He was placed on psychotropic medication and transferred to Shiloh. The staff told him he won’t be released until they assess him as “psychologically sound.”

This is just one more scandal tarnishing the image of Donald Trump’s great America. But this one struck me the hardest.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant kid, to travel alone to an unfamiliar country or be separated from my family at the border. But I know what it’s like to experience forced psychiatric treatment as a child.

I spent much of my teenage years in psychiatric wards. It starts with the hands of strangers all over you, holding you down. You are stripped and given an injection. You feel like you’re losing control, being locked up in your own body.

Overmedication of children with mental health conditions or other disabilities is common in institutions. Human Rights Watch has documented such practices in Russia, Serbia and Brazil, where our researchers have frequently found children lying like zombies in the middle of noisy facilities. In most cases, the purpose of overmedication seems to be discipline and convenience for the staff, rather than treatment.

This is not to say that children in Shiloh and other facilities don’t have mental health needs. Of course they will be traumatized and require treatment. How else would you feel if you had to flee violence in your home country and ended up detained alone in a foreign land?

But forced psychiatric treatment is not help. These children need to be freed and reunited with their families, rather than being forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs. I know the damage it causes. No child should ever have to endure that.

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

SOS MEDITERRANEE crew rescue people off an over-crowded rubber boat in the Mediterranean, June 9, 2018. 

© 2018 Kenny Karpov/SOS MEDITERRANEE

(Milan) – The European Union’s obstruction of nongovernmental rescues and handover of responsibility to Libyan coast guard forces is a recipe for even greater loss of life in the Mediterranean and a continuing cycle of abuse for people trapped in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The EU’s efforts to block rescues and dithering on where rescued people can land, propelled by Italy’s hard-line and heartless approach, is leading to more deaths at sea and greater suffering in Libya,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of discouraging rescues by nongovernmental organizations, commercial vessels, and even military ships, EU member states and institutions should ensure that rescued people can be taken to safe ports where their protection needs can be met.”

In a visit to Libya in early July, Human Rights Watch interviewed Libyan coast guard forces, dozens of detained refugees and migrants in four official detention centers in Tripoli, Zuwara, and Misrata, and officials from international organizations. The detained asylum seekers and migrants interviewed made serious allegations of abuse by guards and smugglers, and some reported aggressive behavior by coast guard forces during rescue operations at sea. Human Rights Watch confirmed that Libyan coast guard forces lack the capacity to ensure safe and effective search-and-rescue operations.

Since his government came to power in early June, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has campaigned against nongovernmental rescue organizations operating in the Mediterranean and refused or delayed ships from disembarking hundreds of vulnerable people rescued at sea in Italy, including military and commercial vessels. On July 23, the Italian government announced it would allow military ships participating in EUNAVFOR MED, the EU’s anti-smuggling operation, to disembark in Italy for five weeks while they renegotiate the mission’s operational plan.

In recent weeks, only the Spanish group Proactiva has patrolled international waters off the Libyan coast. All other rescue organizations are either blocked in Italian and Maltese ports by legal action or are planning new operating procedures given the uncertainty around rescue coordination and disembarkation. The risk that their vessels could be impounded, or that they could face criminal prosecution or financial loss from delayed disembarkation, risks deterring commercial ships from rescuing people at sea, even as the demand increases.

Two inflatable rubber boats used by Libyan coast guard forces for interceptions and rescues in Sebratha, 65km west of the capital Tripoli, July 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The death toll in the central Mediterranean – between Libya/Tunisia and Italy/Malta – has skyrocketed even as departures from Libya have fallen significantly. In June alone, an estimated 600 people died or have been reported missing, bringing the death toll since January 1 to over 1,100. According to UNCHR, the United Nations refugee agency, the death rate in June was 1 in 7 people who attempted the journey, compared with 1 in 19 in the previous months of 2018, and 1 in 38 in the first six months of 2017.

Josefa, a woman from Cameroon, shortly after her rescue by the Spanish group Proactiva from a destroyed rubber boat in the Mediterranean, July 17, 2018. The organization also recovered the corpses of a woman and a young child. 

© 2018 Proactiva
On July 21, Proactiva docked in Palma de Mallorca, Spain with two corpses – a woman and a young child – and one survivor they found on a destroyed rubber boat 80 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. The organization has accused Libyan coast guard forces of leaving them to die after boarding the other passengers and returning them to Libya. Libyan authorities deny the accusation.

The failure by EU member states to ensure adequate search-and-rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean is contrary to the spirit of international maritime law and may in certain circumstances give rise to liability for preventable loss of life and for direct breaches of the prohibition of refoulement return to risk of persecution, torture, or ill treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Enabling Libyan coast guard units to intercept people in international waters, when it is known the coast guard will return people to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention in Libya – conditions that have been well-documented – may constitute aiding or assisting serious human rights violations. Likewise facilitating the interception and forced return to Libya of migrants seeking protection breaches international refugee law because Libya is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a refugee law or procedure. This means that returned migrants have no effective remedy for their protection needs.

In a regrettable step, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency, officially acknowledged in June Libya’s declaration of a vast search-and-rescue (SAR) region. Despite limited capacity of Libyan coast guard forces and the known fate of those returned to Libya, Italy has secured explicit support from EU heads of state for its practice, tested since at least May 2017, of transferring responsibility to those forces even in international waters.

The number of people detained in Libya has surged due to increased interceptions by Libyan coast guard forces. Brigadier General Mohamed Bishr, the head of the Libyan illegal migration directorate, told Human Rights Watch on July 12 that 8,672 people were in official detention centers, up from 5,200 in May. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 9,300 people in official detention centers in Libya. There are no available figures for people held in informal detention facilities run by armed groups or people smugglers and traffickers.

A woman lies on a mattress on the floor in Tajoura detention center, Tripoli, July 8, 2018. 

EU leaders and institutions should unequivocally reject Salvini’s call to “change the rules” to designate Libya a safe place to take refugees and migrants, Human Rights Watch said. Given Libya’s current treatment of migrants, such a designation would amount to a denial of reality. UNHCR should update its 2015 call on all countries to “allow civilians (Libyan nationals, habitual residents of Libya, and third-country nationals) fleeing Libya access to their territories.”

EU member states should act urgently to protect life at sea and take rapid steps to ensure predictable disembarkation in places of safety, Human Rights Watch said. They should support rather than obstruct nongovernmental groups’ rescue operations and ensure an adequate presence of vessels equipped for and ready to respond to boats in distress.

Until Libyan authorities end arbitrary detention, demonstrate sustained and significant improvements in conditions and treatment in detention centers, and have sufficient autonomous capacity to fulfil their search-and-rescue responsibilities, EU member states should resume these duties in international waters off the Libyan coast, including in the area Libya has declared its search-and-rescue region.

EU countries should urgently establish a regional disembarkation arrangement, including guarantees against automatic detention of rescued people, to ensure that people are taken to safe ports and swiftly relocated to another EU country that assumes responsibility for legal processing. Such an agreement is critical to preserving life-saving efforts at sea, including by nongovernmental and commercial ships, and to avoiding recurring disputes over disembarkation. EU countries and the European Commission should press Italy and Malta, closest to the critical search-and-rescue area, to allow prompt disembarkations.

Beyond emergency situations, taking rescued people to a non-EU country should be considered only if certain key conditions are met, Human Rights Watch said. These include, at a minimum, procedural guarantees against arbitrary detention and refoulement, access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure, and fair deportation procedures for those with no valid claim to remain. No countries outside the EU have indicated a willingness to enter into any formal disembarkation agreements.

Libyan authorities should adopt clear and consistent standard operating procedures for the coordination of rescue operations by commercial, nongovernmental, and any other vessels in its territorial waters or, within what it considers its search and rescue region in international waters, Human Rights Watch said. Libyan coast guard forces can and should play a vital role in ensuring a swift response to boats in distress, and in arranging for safe disembarkation outside Libya.

“Italy’s interior minister is right to point to the underlying hypocrisy in training and supplying Libyan coast guard forces while saying Libya is not a safe port,” Sunderland said. “But no amount of wishful thinking will make Libya a safe place to take rescued refugees and migrants anytime soon.”

Italy/EU Support for Libyan Coast Guard Forces

Migrants on a Libyan Coast Guard boat in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, January 15, 2018. 

© 2018 Hani Amara/Reuters

Italy has taken the lead in EU efforts to build the capacity of Libyan authorities to secure Libya’s borders and patrol the Mediterranean. In February 2017, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of National Accord on migration control. Italy has since delivered four patrol boats under a 2008 agreement and promised to provide two more large boats as well as 30 Zodiacs (rubber speed-boats) by October. Italy is carrying out an EU-funded project to assist Libya in setting up a maritime rescue coordination center (MRCC), which is expected to be operational in 2020.

In the meantime, a Libyan operations room has been set up aboard an Italian navy ship docked in Tripoli. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch, Colonel Abu Ajeila Ammar, head of Libyan coast guard search-and-rescue operations, said, “We coordinate with MRCCs Rome and Malta, and the operations room is there to enhance the cooperation.”

In June, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) officially acknowledged Libya’s declaration of a vast search-and-rescue (SAR) region. EU heads of state adopted a joint statement in late June that all vessels in the Mediterranean  “must…not obstruct operations of the Libyan Coastguard.” It is regrettable that the IMO, a UN agency, recognized the authority of Libyan forces to take charge of operations despite concerns about capacity and the fate of those returned to Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) has routinized a practice, tested since at least May 2017, of transferring responsibility to Libyan coast guard forces in international waters even when there are other, better-equipped vessels, including its own patrol boats or Italian navy vessels, closer to the scene.

The EU’s anti-smuggling operation EUNAVFOR MED – also known as Operation Sophia – includes a training program, begun in October 2016, for Libyan navy and coast guard officers, petty officers, and seamen under the Libyan Government of National Accord’s Defense Ministry. As of June, 213 Libyan coast guard and navy personnel had participated in training courses, according to an EUNAVORFOR MED presentation Human Rights Watch attended. EUNAVFOR MED should intensify its monitoring of Libyan coast guard operations, including by units not trained by the EU, and regularly publish its findings.

According to news reports, EUNAVFOR MED has paused operations given the uncertainty around being able to take rescued people to Italy, as provided under the mission’s operational plan. Since it began in 2015, ships participating in the operation are credited with rescuing over 49,000 people.

The Libyan coast guard under the Government of National Accord does not yet have a fully functioning maritime coordination center, and the existing operations room does not guarantee continuous coverage or rapid response in every case of distress. In a report leaked in February, EUNAVFOR MED cited a “critical infrastructural situation” in the operations room, limited language and software skills among personnel, and fuel and equipment shortfalls. The report concluded that the “lack of effective and reliable communication systems hampers Libyan capacity for the minimum level of execution of command and control, including that necessary to coordinate SAR/SOLAS events.”

Libyan coast guard forces rely heavily on Italian (and Maltese) surveillance capacity and assistance. Libyan units have inadequate and insufficient boats, chronic maintenance problems, and fuel shortages that limit their ability to patrol even Libyan territorial waters and quickly reach boats in distress, according to information obtained through interviews with Libyan coast guard forces in Tripoli and Sebratha, in July.

Colonel Ammar told Human Rights Watch that the force is able to coordinate and rescue large numbers of people despite “limited means.” He said, though, that “the boats that we currently have at our disposal are not suitable for SAR operations…. what we need are proper SAR boats, these are bigger, have more capacity and provide protection in the “hot zone [the area between Misrata and Zuwara].”

While Colonel Ammar said that the coast guard conducts daily patrols in the “hot zone,” Captain Ayman Al-Dabbashi, commander of the Libyan coast guard in Sebratha, told Human Rights Watch that his unit can patrol to only about five miles from shore due to fuel shortages. “There is no coordination between any of the Coast Guard points [on the western coast],” he said. “Everyone is independent.”

Despite these limitations, the Italian maritime rescue center now consistently appears to instruct boats in distress and potential rescue vessels to call the Libyan coast guard and defer to its instructions. This has led to delays in rescues, with Libyan authorities requiring nongovernmental rescue groups and commercial ships to wait on the scene until a Libyan patrol boat can arrive. It has also led to dangerous situations in which people panic and jump in the water to attempt to swim to a European vessel.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Brigadier General Abdullah Toumiyeh, commander of the Libyan coast guard, rightly stressed that “the priority…is saving lives. If an NGO boat is closer to the incident, then it should carry out the rescue, however they [NGOs] need to coordinate with…the Libyan Coast Guard.”

Accounts From Asylum Seekers, Migrants

Accounts of intercepted asylum seekers and migrants suggest that Libyan coast guard units are intervening even when other vessels are nearby.

“Ododo,” 31, from Nigeria, said she and over 100 others spent eight hours on a rubber boat on June 24: “We saw a very white rescue ship, and there was a plane overhead with a Spanish flag. But then the Libyan boat came very fast. They threw a rope but we said we didn’t want to go back. They insisted. We had to obey to save our lives.”

Another Nigerian woman, “Ifedayo,” interviewed separately, had a similar account: “We left one week and one day ago,” she said, or on July 2. “We saw the big white rescue ship, then the Libyan ship came fast and blocked us, [we said] we are so close, let us go. But they said no.”

“Emmanuel,” a 16-year-old from Sierra Leone, said he left on an overcrowded rubber boat from Garabulli on May 10. The passengers spent 16 hours at sea before they saw what he described as a “big, white-and-black” ship he believed was European. “But the Libyans came and hit our boat with theirs. It started to sink. They threw a rope for us to use to climb onto their patrol boat. There were pregnant women, they had to use the rope too. Everyone was jostling to get the rope. On board they didn’t give us anything, no water or food or life jackets.”

Some, like “Nala,” 23, from Somalia, expressed a mix of dismay and gratitude regarding her rescue by the Libyan coast guard. “We spent about five hours on the boat. It had started to sink and some boys called for help. The Libyans came. We lost hope when we saw the Libyans because we know we can stay in a place like this [detention center] for years, but we were happy they saved us.”

“Joanna,” a 34-year-old mother of three from Cameroon, said that once the boat she was on with 170 people crossed the “international line” after 10 hours at sea in early June, they saw a small white plane circling above them, but they did not call the Italian coast guard because they were afraid the Italians would send Libyan coast guard to take them back to Libya.

“The large Libyan boat came one hour after we saw the plane,” she said. “They threw us a rope and at first we refused to tie it to ours. The Libyans shot into the air and threatened us: ‘If you don’t tie it onto the boat then we will shoot at you.’ So we tied it to our boat and they started to move people to their boat.”

“Ahmed,” 26, a Palestinian from Gaza, said that he made a second attempt to reach Europe in May. “After 11 hours at sea, we spotted a large, orange-colored boat. We called the Italians with a Thuraya [satellite phone], but the boat had already started to lower its speed boats to come and rescue us. But before they could approach, the Libyans came from behind us and so the foreign boat stopped and did not approach us when they saw the Libyans. Some people jumped off our boat and started to swim toward the foreign boat. Those who remained refused to board the Libyan ship.

“At this point two of the three Libyans on board the large rescue ship, one of whom was from the coast guard and two who were in military uniform, shot into the water next to where we were. They also came very close to our boat and started to make waves to scare us. People got scared and finally started to board their ship. They took us to Khoms,” Ahmed said.

This may have been an incident reported by SOS MEDITERRANEE, whose rescue ship the Aquarius is white and orange, on May 7, in which the crew observed people jumping in the water. The rescue group said that the Libyan coast guard declined their repeated offers of assistance and ordered the ship to leave the area.

Obstruction, Criminalization of Nongovernmental Rescue Groups

Since 2014, nongovernmental organizations have been performing vital search-and-rescue operations in international waters off the coast of Libya, where many unseaworthy, overcrowded boats enter into distress. According to official Italian statistics, nongovernmental groups performed roughly 40 percent of all rescues in the central Mediterranean in 2017 and the first five months of 2018 – a total of 51,569 people.

A concerted campaign by Italian politicians and officials in 2017 and the volatile security situation in the Mediterranean led several groups, including Save the Children and Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), to suspend operations. The Italian parliament conducted two separate inquiries in 2017, finding no evidence of misconduct by nongovernmental rescue organizations. Representatives of the Italian coast guard and navy said at the time that these groups were cooperative.

Nonetheless, every nongovernmental rescue organization with current capacity to perform rescues is facing legal battles or restrictions by Italian or Maltese authorities. Twenty people linked to the German group Jugend Rettet, Save the Children, and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) are caught up in an investigation by a Sicilian prosecutor against Jugend Rettet for alleged collusion with smugglers. Its vessel was impounded in 2017.

Two crew members from Proactiva are under criminal investigation in Sicily after the group’s ship Open Arms refused to hand over rescued people to a Libyan patrol boat in international waters in March 2017. The boat was impounded but later released.

In June, judicial authorities in Malta impounded the vessel of the German group Mission Lifeline, and placed its captain under investigation, after the group was permitted to dock with 234 people following a five-day standoff. In July, Malta blocked two other German rescue organizations, Sea-Watch and Seefuchs, from leaving port, and grounded Moonbird, a civil reconnaissance aircraft that has assisted in spotting and subsequent rescue of migrant boats.

Rescued men disembark in Valencia, Spain, after spending over a week on the SOS MEDITERRANEE/MSF ship Aquarius. Italy and Malta refused to allow the ship to dock. July 17, 2018. 

© 2018 Kenny Karpov/SOS MEDITERRANEE

The Aquarius, operated jointly by SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF, was forced to divert to Valencia, Spain, in early June with over 600 people after Italy and Malta refused to allow them to dock. Malta subsequently denied the Aquarius entry for a port call, and the ship has been docked in Marseilles since mid-June.

The groundwork for these efforts to obstruct rescues by nongovernmental groups was laid in 2017, when Italy imposed a “code of conduct” on them. In June 2018, all EU heads of state endorsed a statement effectively warning these groups to “not obstruct…the Libyan Coast Guard.” In July, the president of the European Commission took another swipe at nongovernmental groups, saying that “no one should contribute to keep alive the model of activities used by human smugglers and traffickers to exploit human misery.”

Statistical studies have debunked the claim that rescues by these groups encourage people to attempt the sea crossing, demonstrating stable or even higher numbers of departures at times when rescue ships were spread thin or absent entirely.

Burden on Commercial Shipping

Current dynamics in the Central Mediterranean may lead to an increased burden on commercial ships to respond to boats in distress at a time of significant uncertainty around disembarkation.

In at least two recent cases, the Italian maritime rescue center told commercial ships to contact Libyan coast guard forces for instructions. On June 30, the center diverted the commercial ship Sedef to respond to a boat in distress inside Libyan territorial waters, and subsequently said the ship should call the Libyan coast guard to arrange transfer or disembarkation. A representative of Kasif Denizcilik, the Turkish company that owns the Sedef, told Human Rights Watch by phone that the transfer of 115 rescued people to a Libyan patrol boat at sea took place without incident on July 1.

After the crew of the Vos Thalassa, an oil rig supply ship, reported to the Italian maritime rescue center that they had rescued 67 people in international waters on July 8, the Italian authorities instructed them to meet up with a Libyan patrol boat, providing them the position for a transfer. The plan was aborted when the crew reported that they faced protests and even threats once people realized they were heading toward the Libyan coast. All were eventually taken to Italy, where two of the rescued men face charges for violence, threats, and conspiracy to facilitate irregular immigration.

Forty people rescued by the crew of the Sarost 5, a Tunisian-flagged vessel, on July 15 remain on board, with Tunisia, Italy, and Malta refusing to allow the ship to disembark.

“We need to ensure that shipping can continue to fulfill their rescue obligations without undue difficulties or risk to the crew,” John Stawpert of the International Chamber of Shipping told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview.

The shipping industry, including flag states – countries where ships are registered – and maritime trade unions should consider using its influence to press EU member states and Libya to allow European coordination of rescue operations involving commercial ships in international waters, Human Rights Watch said.

Laws of the Sea

Support from Italy, Malta, or any other EU country in coordinating interceptions or rescues resulting in the return of refugees and migrants to Libya raises complex questions of law. All ships are obligated to come to the aid of a vessel in distress and take those recued to what is considered a place of safety under maritime law. Effective coordination among coastal states and all ships at sea is at the heart of the global search-and-rescue regime and is vital to preserving life at sea.

At the same time, the current conditions in Libya mean that it cannot be considered a place of safety. Furthermore, when facilitating Libyan interception of refugees and migrants at sea is instrumental in their return to abusive detention in Libya, this could constitute aiding or assisting in serious human rights violations. The EU and its member states are aware of the foreseeable violations that face migrants upon their return and that such violations breach both EU and Libya’s international legal obligations.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), concluded that “a State party [to the ICCPR] may be responsible for extraterritorial violations of the Covenant if it is a link in the causal chain that would make possible violations in another jurisdiction.” All EU member states and Libya are parties to the covenant. In light of this jurisprudence, any EU state assisting Libya to return people to Libya could be in breach of the covenant because the harm disembarked migrants face in Libya is a “foreseeable consequence” based on “knowledge the State party had at the time.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protesters attend a rally against Hungarian government's clampdown on a top foreign university and non-government organisations in Budapest, Hungary, May 21, 2017.

© 2018 REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

With independent media largely silenced or taken over, the courts increasingly curbed, and a parliament firmly under the control of the newly re-elected Fidesz ruling party, Hungary’s nongovernmental groups are the most effective remaining voices to hold the government to account. It should come as no surprise then that they are increasingly under fire.

Laws passed against these groups in 2017 and since Hungary’s legislative elections are bad enough. But the authorities recently introduced draft bills that would impose a special 25 percent tax on funds for “supporters of immigration” and change the law governing public assembly to give the police more discretion to ban or disband demonstrations they don’t like.

They follow a law that came into force on July 1 that makes it a crime to help refugees, asylum seekers, or other migrants. The law is designed to intimidate people who work or volunteer for aid groups. They could be jailed for up to a year for their work under the new law.

This newest law criminalizes a wide range of legitimate activities that are essential to expose and hopefully moderate the suffering caused by the government’s policies and practices on refugees and migrants, from violence at borders to lengthy detention in container camps. Legal professionals and aid workers will now take personal risks if they attempt to carry on their work advising asylum seekers and migrants about their rights in Hungary or simply sharing information or building volunteer groups.

The law passed in 2017 in the Fidesz-majority parliament requires organizations to register as “foreign-funded organizations” if they receive over a certain threshold of financial support from abroad and to use this pejorative label at every public appearance. The law – largely inspired by Russia’s ‘Foreign Agent’ Law – is intended to discredit and demonize civic action. It drew international condemnation from the human rights community and international experts.

A coalition of independent groups formed an alliance in response, to disobey the law and challenge it in the Hungarian constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights. But while the clock is ticking for Hungarian groups, these challenges are still pending.

The government has also run a series of taxpayer-funded campaigns against independent groups and those who support them, from ordinary citizens to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. State-sponsored billboards were similarly used to fuel hatred against asylum seekers and migrants. While the number of arrivals in Hungary is small, it suits Prime Minister Viktor Orban to talk about an invasion, since it legitimizes punitive action against people trying to stand up for the rights of everyone in the country.

These new and proposed laws and smear campaigns send a clear message to those who act in solidarity with the most marginalized groups like migrants, Roma, and the recently criminalized homeless: be quiet or face the consequences.

While European leaders get frustrated and tired with Orban’s stance on migration in Brussels, these last proposals for a biased tax and new curbs on peaceful gatherings should not be taken lightly. The complete rewrite of the Law on Assembly is set to strengthen protection for powerful interests against having to face protesters. For example, it could lead to banning protests outside the homes of public figures or embassies. Critics of autocratic regimes visiting the Hungarian parliament could be silenced or prosecuted for protesting.

These are serious risks affecting everyone’s rights to free assembly and expression. The changes benefit a political elite irritated by the voices demanding the government to heed European values of democracy, transparency and rule of law. No parliamentary vote, regardless of its size, should be a mandate for rights abuse.

Many of the organizations still standing up for the rights to free expression and association, are the same groups working to advance the rights of migrants and refugees in Hungary, as well as the rights of prisoners, Roma, people with disabilities, children, and women who face domestic violence. In short, anyone who needs protection.

Unless Europe holds the government accountable for disregarding European rules and values, there is no doubt that those who dissent and criticize unjust policies will come under increased pressure to give up or give in. European leaders have a duty to protect these values and those in Hungary who defend them and have no time to waste.

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

The Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that 55 Brazilian children are among the thousands of immigrant detainees being held in US shelters and detention centers. US immigration agents separated the children from their parents as the families tried to enter the United States.

At first, as they wrested children from their parents’ arms, some agents neglected to write down the children’s names, their country of origin, or the name of the place to which they were sending each child. In doing so, they compounded cruelty with carelessness.

By now, the authorities know where the children are. What they don’t know necessarily, because they haven’t kept track properly, is which children are related to which adults. Some of the children are very young, and apparently some of the parents have been deported and the US government doesn’t know where they are.

President Michel Temer addressed this tragedy with US Vice President Michael Pence when the two met in Brasília on June 27. President Temer offered to collaborate on arranging transportation to Brazil for detained children whose families want them returned home. For his part, Vice President Pence simply stood by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. About the separated children, he had little to say.  

While the US has stopped separating newly arriving children from their parents, it is now planning to detain entire families together, even though international law makes clear that detention is never in the best interest of a child. 

Brazil’s diplomats should ask for access to all shelters and detention centers holding children and try to map the location of every Brazilian child. They should require from the US information about where their parents are detained. They should reach out to parents and relatives to advise them on legal options for family reunification. For those families who want to be reunited in Brazil, President Temer could follow through on his offer to provide an official airplane to bring the children home.

Brazilian authorities should not only act quickly to protect the rights and interests of Brazilian children. They should also insist that the US put an end to a policy that inflicts incalculable psychological damage on innocent children, no matter their nationality.

President Trump has shown no concern about how the cruel treatment of immigrant children is viewed abroad.  Still, if there is one country that might be able to press his administration to reunite these children with their families, it might well be Brazil, the largest economy of the Latin American countries from which these families are migrating. 

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

A worker tends to chickens at a farm in Thailand. 

© 2007 Sukree Sukplang / Reuters
In an important verdict for the protection of labor rights and freedom of expression in Thailand, a magistrates court in Bangkok on Wednesday acquitted 14 Burmese migrant workers of criminal defamation charges for filing a complaint against their employer with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT).

The court found the workers had filed their complaint in good faith in order to protect their rights, as guaranteed by the Thai constitution and international conventions.

In their complaint to the NHRCT in July 2016, the workers alleged that the Thammakaset chicken farm in Lopburi province had subjected them to grueling work conditions, including forced labor. Three months later Thammakaset responded with a criminal defamation complaint against the workers as well as a labor rights activist from the Migrant Worker Rights Network, contending that the complaints had damaged the company’s reputation.

Disappointingly, the NHRCT took no action to support the right of the workers to bring grievances against the company.

Human Rights Watch, along with a growing number of states and international bodies, seeks the abolition of criminal defamation laws because individuals should not face imprisonment for the purpose of protecting reputations.

In May, six United Nations human rights experts called on Thailand – where defamation laws have frequently been used to retaliate against whistleblowers who report labor abuses – to revise its laws and prosecution processes to prevent the “misuse of defamation legislation by companies.” But the Thai government has yet to do so.  

This verdict should serve as a wake-up call for the Thai government to take concrete measures to ensure fair treatment of workers in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It should also serve notice to the NHRCT to end their weak performance and step up to protect the integrity of its complaint process by speaking out against abusive criminal defamation cases.

Thailand should be investigating and ending labor rights abuses, instead of ignoring retaliation against victims, whistleblowers, and human rights defenders.

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

France’s highest court has just ruled that helping others in need, including undocumented migrants, is protected by the country’s constitution.

Migrants rest after having crossed part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France, near the town of Nevache in southeastern France, December 21, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Siegfried Modola

The decision comes at a time when people and groups trying to help undocumented migrants – in European countries like Hungary, Italy,  and Malta as well as France – face criminal prosecution, official obstruction of their work, or confiscation of rescue boats.

This landmark decision, handed down last week by the French Constitutional Council, is not only a victory for individuals who act in solidarity to help others, but by recognizing ‘fraternity’ has constitutional force, it is also historic. Until now, fraternity has been the poor relation of the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), the first two of which are already enshrined in the constitution.

The case arose from people convicted for the so-called “offence of solidarity” after they helped irregular migrants on French soil. However, invoking “the common ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity,” the Constitutional Council ruled that “any act of aid provided for humanitarian purposes” could not be punished, irrespective of the legal status of the person being helped. The court also held that facilitating the movement of irregular migrants should not be criminalized “when these acts are carried out for humanitarian purposes.”

With a problematic new asylum and immigration bill currently being discussed in parliament, this ruling is particularly timely.

But above all, the message it sends is powerful: fraternity is not just a motto to put on school buildings which we can reject when confronted with real people who need our help. It is a pillar of the French Republic, now enshrined as a constitutional principle, which the French authorities and legislators must abide by.

Much of Europe, including France, is being poisoned by toxic rhetoric against migrants and asylum seekers, and a corresponding wave of legislation that wants to make helping such people a crime. France’s highest court gives us an urgent reminder that our shared values are more important now than ever.

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