(Erbil) – Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Sunni tribal groups (known as the Hashad al-Asha'ri), within the Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi), which are under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Iraqi soldiers forced the families out of their homes following the passage of a decree issued by local authorities. The families, all from Salah al-Din governorate, are being held against their will in a camp functioning as an open-air prison near Tikrit. The PMF also destroyed some of the families’ homes.

“While politicians in Baghdad are discussing reconciliation efforts in Iraq, the state’s own forces are undermining those efforts by destroying homes and forcing families into a detention camp,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These families, accused of wrongdoing by association, are in many cases themselves victims of ISIS abuses and should be protected by government forces, not targeted for retribution.”

Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). 

In August 2016, the Salah al-Din governorate council passed a decree stating that anyone proven to have been complicit or affiliated with ISIS has no right to return to the governorate. The decree also orders the expulsion of immediate relatives of ISIS-members from Salah al-Din for 10 years to life, and says that they are only allowed to return if they are deemed “safe.” The decree establishes a committee to seize ISIS-affiliates’ property and suspend their, and their families,’ provision cards. Families that kill their ISIS-affiliated relatives, or hand them over to the Iraqi authorities, are exempted.

One woman from al-Shakrah village, three kilometers south of al-Shirqat, said that PMF fighters forced her and her relatives from their home on January 7, 2017, because her husband’s brother had joined ISIS. She said that the fighters “forced our whole family of 14 people out and onto the truck. They didn’t let us grab even a change of clothing.”

Two women from the village of al-Aithah said that local PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes with explosives after they retook the area on September 21, targeting not only some of the families they thought to be affiliated with ISIS, but also some families that had fled because of the fighting. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that between September 23 and October 23, 220 homes in the village were destroyed by explosives and fire.

Before and after satellite imagesBefore and after satellite images
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Satellite imagery shows the village of al-Aithah, outside Tikrit, Iraq, before and after the destruction caused by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). 

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict may only attack military objectives. The intentional or wanton destruction of civilian property is unlawful unless the property is being used for a military purpose. Destroying property merely to punish the population is always prohibited.

Iraqi federal authorities should investigate any intentional destruction or looting of civilian property, punish those responsible – including those in command control at the time of such acts who failed to prevent the crimes – if abuses are found, and compensate victims, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch visited the Shahama camp for displaced people, 13 kilometres north of Tikrit, on February 3, to interview families affected by the decree. Hussein Ahmed Khalaf, the camp manager, said that 362 families were there, of whom 237 had fled Hawija, a city 50 kilometers west of Kirkuk that is still under ISIS control. Those families had arrived when the camp opened at the beginning of January.

He said that over the next month, 125 families from the al-Shirqat area were brought to the camp. Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people forcibly displaced with their families to the camp. They all said that PMF fighters, in the presence of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with army vehicles, had forced them out of their homes. They said that they were prohibited from leaving the camp and from having mobile phones.

In a Salah al-Din news broadcast in January, Brigadier General Juma Enad Sadoon, the Salah al-Din operational commander for the ISF, said that he ordered the forced displacements of immediate relatives of ISIS members following the passage of the decree by the Salah al-Din governorate council. He said “ISIS families” were identified by other residents and through intelligence gathered by the security forces. He said he gave the order because of concerns about family members communicating with their ISIS relatives fighting in Mosul and other fronts and because of complaints from the relatives of victims of ISIS abuses. He said he would not stop displacing these families.

But most families who spoke to Human Rights Watch either denied they had a relative in ISIS or said that if they did, this family member was as distant as a cousin or brother-in-law.

Residents of Shahama camp speak with relatives through the camp fence. 



© 2017 Sami Hilali

On January 26, two videos were posted on a Facebook page covering news from Salah al-Din showing local PMF forces in al-Shirqat displacing families of ISIS suspects using army vehicles.

Both videos feature a female commander known as Um Hanadi of the local PMF of al-Shirqat known as the Group of Um Hanadi for Special Tasks (Tashkeel Um Hanadi La Mohmat al-Khasah). In one video, she and a group of armed forces are loading families they refer to as “ISIS families” onto at least two Iraqi army trucks with military license plates. The video shows at least two Iraqi military commanders, recognizable because of their red berets. One fighter and the cameraman identify themselves as members of the Iraqi military’s Division 17, Brigade 60. In the other video, Um Hanadi says to the camera, “It is an honor for me to clean and cleanse al-Shirqat with these elite forces.”

A New York Times article from January 29 about the camp quotes Salah al-Din’s deputy governor, Amar Hekmat, as saying that the aim behind the forcible displacement is, “to defy the terrorists and send a stern message to the families.” Salah al-Din’s First Deputy Governor Khazhal Hamad is quoted in the same article saying that displacing the families was a way of protecting them from retaliatory attacks by neighbors who lost family members to ISIS. “There are hostile feelings towards these people, and these feelings can affect the civil peace we are trying to achieve,” he said.

A February 28 response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ human rights office to Human Rights Watch’s findings stated that the displacement was carried out by the Salah al-Din operational command in order to protect the families from revenge attacks; for security reasons linked to continued suicide attacks; and because some of these families may be sharing information about ISF positions with ISIS. It stated that the operational command was mandated with holding and protecting the families in the camp. Representatives of the PMF did not respond to questions sent by Human Rights Watch.

The article goes on to say that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent a letter in late January to the local governor criticizing the displacement and ordered governorate and federal government officials to resolve the issue. There was no indication he had called for the punishment of armed forces under his command that participated in it. Iraqi federal authorities including al-Abadi should continue to condemn the forcible displacement of these families and censure any state forces that participate in the practice, Human Rights Watch said.

Two of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that Salah al-Din’s Governor Ahmad Abdullah al-Jabouri came to the camp in late January and told them that he was working on a solution to secure their release, but that nothing had happened since.

It is a basic international standard that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or entire communities is strictly forbidden and can itself be a crime, especially if it results in forced displacement.

Under the laws of war, forced displacement of civilians is strictly prohibited except in the limited cases when displacement is necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military necessity, and then only for as long as it is needed. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order such unlawful displacements of civilians during a conflict. Widespread or systematic unlawful forced displacement imposed as a policy of the state or organized group can amount to a crime against humanity.

Local governorate councils should reverse any decrees targeting the families of alleged ISIS affiliates in violation of international standards. Iraq’s parliament should issue a decree calling on the local governorate councils to rescind the decrees and on armed forces to cease the forced displacements, reiterating the unlawfulness of these displacements and stipulating that any armed forces who participate in the displacements should be censured.

“There is growing concern among parliamentarians and ministers about the forcible displacement of so-called ISIS families and what this will mean for reconciliation efforts in areas recently taken back from ISIS,” Fakih said. “That concern needs to translate into action before these destructive policies are mimicked across the country.”

Local Justifications for Displacement
Local leaders from Salah al-Din told Human Rights Watch that the forcible displacement of families of alleged ISIS affiliates was in line with jalwa, an Arabic term for eviction and a principle that entails the forced relocation of a clan to avoid friction if one of its members murders someone from another clan living in the same area.

Other local officials are taking similar measures to expel so-called “ISIS families.” In July, the Babylon governorate council passed a decree calling on authorities to demolish the homes of anyone proven to have participated in terrorist activities, deport their families from the governorate, and to authorize legal procedures against the families proven to have “concealed” their ISIS-affiliated relatives. Families from Anbar face similar difficulties. In July, local leaders issued a covenant saying that people who “promoted” ISIS are not allowed to return until their charges are reviewed. Individuals who did not renounce relatives who supported ISIS are only allowed to return home “when this situation stabilizes,” they said.

Identified with ISIS
Four of the 14 people Human Rights Watch interviewed were from al-Shakrah village and were brought to the Shahama camp on January 7 and January 26. Three were from al-Aithah village, 11 kilometers north of al-Shirqat, and were brought to the camp in early January. The rest were from three neighborhoods of the town of al-Shirqat and were brought to the camp on January 26, 28, and 29. Some were brought alone, while others said they were loaded into approximately 30 vehicles, some with up to 11 other families. Several said they had only the most tangential connections, or no connections at all, to people who had joined ISIS.

One couple said that their cousin, a member of Um Hanadi’s PMF group with whom they had a running land dispute for years, was the one that brought forces to their home and made them leave. They said they had no links to ISIS. Another woman said she was a nurse, and had continued her work at the local hospital under ISIS because she was the only female nurse and felt it was her duty to provide health care for women. Fighters brought her and her family to the camp, saying it was because she had been affiliated with ISIS, she said.

One widowed woman said that ISIS fighters forced her to marry off her 14-year-old daughter to one of their fighters after they took her village in 2014. According to the mother, the daughter married the fighter, who was subsequently killed, and gave birth weeks before she and the rest of her family were forcibly displaced. The woman said PMF and Iraqi soldiers displaced her and her family, including her daughter and grandchild, to the camp because of the forced marriage.

“They [the PMF] told me: ‘You gave your daughter to ISIS,’” she said. “But they do not understand our situation with ISIS and the pressure they put on us. We couldn’t say anything to them…I had no choice. I couldn’t say anything…ISIS became the government ruling over everyone. They’ve gone to war with every country. What could I do as a woman to oppose them?”

“As they drove us from al-Shirqat they were celebrating, it was like a victory for them,” said a man from the Jamia neighborhood. He said PMF and ISF jointly rounded up 28 people from his area and brought them to the camp on a convoy of dozens of cars, blaring celebratory music from their loudspeakers:

We saw all these cars and trucks suddenly pull up in our village, and I saw several Hashad fighters [PMF] knock on the door of my neighbors. Their son had been with ISIS. They forced them out immediately and into one of the trucks. Then came the knock at our door, and my mother-in-law opened and told the fighters that her son’s family, my husband’s brother, who had joined ISIS, lived down the road. They said to her, “But you are also related to him.”

Shahama Camp Conditions
Human Rights Watch observed that the families from Hawija and al-Shirqat in the Shahama camp are housed in tents in separate areas of the camp. The camp manager said that this was because of concerns over possible tensions between people who left Hawija voluntarily and those forcibly displaced from al-Shirqat over suspected family ties to ISIS suspects.

Shahama camp residents are not allowed to leave or to have mobile phones, and visitors are restricted. Residents at the camp from the initial wave of families from Hawija told Human Rights Watch that until the al-Shirqat families arrived they had been allowed to have phones, and leave the camp at will.

The camp receives assistance and support from four international aid organizations, but two aid workers said that most aid groups would not support a camp that is functioning as a holding site for forcibly displaced people, rather than a camp to which displaced people have gone voluntarily. Having visited about a dozen camps in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Human Rights Watch researchers observed significantly worse conditions in the Shahama camp than in the other camps it had visited. According to a senior aid worker and the camp manager, the camp has no clinic, no school, and lacks adequate sanitation services and food, water, and heating oil.

Destruction and Looting
A local sheikh from the village of al-Aithah interviewed in the Shahama camp said the PMF arrived three days after the Iraqi military retook the village from ISIS on September 19. Two women from the village said that the PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes. One said her home was included and the other that she witnessed the destruction:

I saw them destroying the houses. They would destroy around 15 homes a day. For about 15 days the destruction didn’t stop in the village. My house was not destroyed when the army came, but…lots of neighbors’ homes were destroyed by the PMF. It was the local PMF destroying the homes. I saw them and know them personally as being from the local PMF.

She said the PMF targeted the homes not only of some families thought to have links to ISIS, but also some of those who had simply fled the area out of fear.

Local residents said that as far as they were aware, there were no airstrikes on the village after it was retaken, so the destruction could not have been a result of aerial attacks, and there was seemingly no military necessity for the destruction, meaning it most likely constituted a war crime. “We want the Iraqi government to show mercy on these women and children,” one of the women said. “Don’t act like ISIS, by destroying homes and displacing families.”

Several members of the displaced families also said PMF members looted their property. One woman from Tal al-Jumaila neighborhood in al-Shirqat said that the morning before she was displaced, PMF confiscated her cow without giving any reason. A man from Tal al-Jumaila neighborhood and another from al-Shakrah village both said fighters took their cars. The rest of the interviewees said that because they did not have access to their phones, they did not know what had happened to their property since they left.

Seven people interviewed said that ISF had arrested one or more of their family members, in one case a 15-year-old boy, on suspicion of ISIS affiliation either at their homes or at a checkpoint in the area, some as early as August. Six had not heard from their relatives since and all of them said that because of the ban on phones, they were unable to make any calls to see if they were still in detention or had access to a lawyer.

One man from al-Shakrah said he had been detained by ISF at a checkpoint near Tikrit because his brother had been an ISIS member, and was beaten for a day with electric cables while guards asked him how he could have shared a home with an ISIS fighter. That night, he said, they transferred him to the Salah al-Din operations room, and then to a prison in Tikrit. A few weeks later he was taken before a judge and ordered released, after which he returned to al-Shakrah, he said. On January 7, he and his family were forced to relocate to the camp.

Another al-Shakrah villager said that on September 24, 2016, more than 15 Iraqi soldiers and PMF members who were in the village told all the men and boys ages 15 and over to gather at the local school to be screened:

I gathered there with my 15-year-old son, as we were told. A soldier called out three names of men from the village and detained them. Then about 20 fighters wearing PMF patches brought 10 more men with masked faces to us, and started pointing at people at random, while the ISF stood by and watched. The PMF took away the 14 men and one boy, my own son, whom they pointed at, loading them onto military trucks. One PMF fighter was filming the group of detainees on his phone as they waited to load the trucks, and ordered them to bark like dogs.

They brought his son back after 28 days. The family confirmed with Iraqi army officers that his son was not on a wanted list, but five days later, PMF came to the home with a masked man who said the boy was affiliated with ISIS and detained him again, the father said. The father said he has heard nothing from him since and that on January 7, local PMF members in the village came to their home and said they were an “ISIS family” and had to get onto the PMF trucks and go to the camp.

Iraqi federal authorities should make efforts to inform family members about the location of all detainees. Iraqi federal authorities should make public the number of fighters and civilians detained, including at checkpoints, screening sites, and camps during the conflict with ISIS, and the legal basis for their detention, including the charges against them. They should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families, Human Rights Watch said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

After 25 years of vicious conflict that has cost countless lives and displaced millions of people, peace has finally broken out in south-central Somalia — at least that's what Kenya says. And the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has joined Kenya to tell the world it should now focus on helping as many refugees as possible to return home.

But I recently spoke with some of the estimated 320,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp. And it's clear that peace is the last thing some of those signing up for UNHCR's $400 repatriation cash handout are discovering.

A newly arrived Somali refugee is forced out of the queue outside a reception centre in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, July 28, 2011

© 2011 Reuters

A number of refugees told me they had returned destitute to destroyed Somali villages without health care provision and schools, or faced danger as armed groups continue to clash in and around their villages, including towns. After doing their best to survive, they fled back to Kenya, once again as refugees.

One of them is "Amina," a 38-year-old single mother. After a decade in Dadaab, she decided to try her luck and returned in January 2015 with her five children to her village, Bula Gudud, in the Lower Juba region, hoping to rebuild her life.

She told me: "After two days back home, fighting broke out between government troops and al-Shabab [armed Islamist group]. I could hear the bullets. My children were so scared. They just ran around, trying to get out of the house." The following day, Amina fled to the closest city, Kismayo. She had no relatives there but hoped she'd find safety and work to feed her children. She found neither.

She and her family barely survived for nine months with other displaced civilians in Kismayo's appalling internally displaced persons' camps. After a man in a government uniform raped her, a common occurrence in the unprotected and aid-starved camps across the country, Amina gave up and 10 months ago begged her way back to Dadaab.

But her ordeal didn't end there. The Kenyan authorities have refused to re-register her and her children as refugees, and UNHCR has not reactivated her ration card or given her any food.

"If we send 1,000 people home under the voluntary repatriation agreement but we then register 1,000 new arrivals, we would not get the job done," a Kenyan government official in Dadaab told me

Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR had signed an agreement in November 2013 on the "voluntary repatriation" of Somali refugees. It says that both countries and the UN would make sure that Somalis return voluntarily and safely and would get help to resettle back home. A few months later UNHCR said that "the security situation in many parts of ... Somalia [is] volatile [and] protracted ... conflict has had devastating consequences, including massive displacement, weakened community structures, gross human rights violations and the breakdown of law and order".

But Kenya has repeatedly referred to this agreement as evidence that it is time for all Somalis to go home, stressing that the UN agency should help Kenya "expedite" refugee repatriation.

Somali refugees have a collective memory of previous repeated attempts by Kenyan security forces to coerce "voluntary" returns. In late 2012, Kenyan police in Nairobi unleashed appalling abuses in an effort to enforce an illegal directive to drive tens of thousands of urban Somali refugees into the Dadaab camps and from there back to Somalia. In April 2014, Kenyan security forces, primarily police, carried out a second round of abuses against Somalis in Nairobi and then deported 359 a month later without allowing them to challenge their removal.

In May 2016, Kenya announced that "hosting refugees has to come to an end", that Somali asylum seekers would no longer automatically get refugee status and that the Department of Refugee Affairs, responsible for registering and screening individual asylum applications, would be disbanded.

So far, thankfully, the Kenyan police in Dadaab appear to have been acting properly and the refugees told us they had not been harassed or directly coerced. But they are all aware that the government intends to close the camp by the end of November. Everyone we spoke to expressed the fear that those who do not take the voluntary repatriation assistance package now will be forced back later this year with nothing.

Since mid-2015, Amina and at least another 4,000 Somali refugees have either returned to Kenya after facing conflict and hunger back home or fled to Dadaab for the first time.

But with refugee registrations now closed, Amina and the others won't get food aid. Their survival will depend on the kindness of neighbours or relatives whose own rations were slashed last year by a third because of a funding shortfall. Amina and other returnees and new arrivals will also be the first to face arrest and deportation for "illegal presence" if Kenya shuts down Dadaab in three months.

International and Kenyan law require the authorities to make sure that anyone seeking asylum in Kenya is fairly heard and, if found to need protection, gets it. As long as Kenya continues to shred its commitments, Amina and thousands of others like her will languish hungry and destitute in legal limbo and wake up every morning wondering whether they are about to be deported back to the dangers that many have repeatedly fled and still fear.

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

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution.

Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict.

The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators.

Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival
The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education.

The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent.

Increase Numbers Resettled in Other Countries
Resettlement from countries of first arrival is a key way to help refugees rebuild their lives and to relieve host countries, but international solidarity is glaringly absent. In 2015, the UN refugee agency facilitated resettlement of 81,000 of a projected 960,000 refugees globally in need of resettlement. The agency estimated that over 1.1 million refugees would need resettlement in 2016, but projected that countries would only offer 170,000 places. Representatives of 92 countries pledged only a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting in March.

In the European Union, the arrival by boat in 2015 of more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants – and more than 3,700 deaths at sea – laid bare the need for safe and legal channels for refugees to move, such as resettlement.  However, many EU countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary, are focused primarily on preventing spontaneous arrivals, outsourcing responsibility, and rolling back refugee rights.

A July 2015 European plan to resettle 22,500 refugees from other regions over two years has resettled only 8,268 refugees, according to figures from July 2016. Most EU countries underperformed, and 10 failed to resettle a single person under the plan.

End Abusive Systems, Flawed Deals
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March to allow the return to Turkey of almost all asylum seekers on the deeply flawed grounds that Turkey is a safe country for asylum; it is on the verge of falling apart. Australia forcibly transfers all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers, where they face abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.

The EU and Australia should renounce these abusive policies. EU countries should swiftly adopt a proposed permanent resettlement framework with more ambitious goals and a clear commitment to meet them, Human Rights Watch said. They should share fairly the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving spontaneously, and help alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy.

Governments also undermine asylum with closed camps, as in Kenya and Thailand, and by detaining asylum seekers, as do Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

While by many measures the US leads in refugee resettlement and response to UN humanitarian aid appeals, it has been particularly slow and ungenerous in admitting Syrian refugees. And it has had notable blind spots, as with its border policies for Central American children and others fleeing gang violence and its use of Mexico as a buffer to keep them from reaching the US border.

The Obama Administration met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year in the face of opposition from more than half of US governors and a lack of resettlement funds from Congress, but the US has the capacity to resettle many times that number. It should commit to meeting the Leaders’ Summit goals, which would mean doubling this year’s 85,000 total refugee admissions to 170,000.

Several other countries with capacity to admit far more refugees, including Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, have fallen woefully short. Japan admitted 19 refugees in 2015, South Korea only 42 aside from North Koreans, and Brazil only 6.

Russia resettles no refugees. The Gulf States do not respond to UN resettlement appeals, though Saudi Arabia says it has suspended deportations of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who overstay visitor visas. Most Gulf states, except Kuwait, have also fallen short in their response to Syrian-refugee-related UN appeals to fund refugee needs, according to an Oxfam analysis.

“Every country has a moral responsibility to ensure the rights and dignity of people forced to flee their homes,” Roth said. “When more than 20 million people are counting on a real international effort to address their plight, lofty pronouncements are not enough.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee program, monitors, investigates, and documents human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons, and advocates for the rights and humanitarian needs of all categories of forcibly displaced persons around the world.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Frelick directed Amnesty International USA's refugee program and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), which he served for 18 years. He was the editor of USCR's annual World Refugee Survey and monthly Refugee Reports. Frelick has traveled to refugee sites throughout the world and is widely published. He taught in the Middle East from 1979-1983 and was co-coordinator of the Asian Center of Clergy and Laity Concerned from 1976-1979. Frelick has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from Columbia University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

President Xi Jinping
General Secretary Office
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China
Zhongnanhai Ximen, Fuyou Street
Xicheng District, Beijing 100017
People’s Republic of China

Fax: +86 10 6307 0900; +11 10 6238 1025

Re: Detention of Five North Korean refugees 

Dear President Xi, 

Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses in over 90 countries, including China, North Korea, South Korea and the United States among others. We work on a wide range of human rights issues worldwide, including protection of refugees and stopping refoulement, ending the use of torture, and combatting restrictions on basic rights, like the freedom of movement to leave one’s home country.

We write to request you urgently stop the forced return of a group of five North Korean refugees back to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) who were apprehended by police last week in Shengyang city of Lioaning province. They are currently believed to be detained near Yanji city in Jilin province. Human Rights Watch calls on you to permit these five persons who were last seen in your government’s custody to travel safely to a third country.

If these five persons are returned to North Korea, they will likely face harsh abuses, including possible torture, imprisonment in prison camps, forced labor, and based on past incidents, sexual violence and potentially execution. This information is based on Human Rights Watch’s research as well as and the conclusions of a UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea that produced a comprehensive report in 2014. 

This matter is quite urgent because the most recent information we have received is that these persons are to be imminently sent to Helong city, 70 kilometers southwest of Yanji, near the Chinese-North Korean border. Once they are in Helong, a forced return could happen at any time.  Please find additional information in this press release.  

Your government has labeled North Koreans in China as illegal “economic migrants” and routinely repatriates them to North Korea based on arrangements established by a 1986 border protocol. But Human Rights Watch’s research has found that North Koreans who leave the country without permission face certain and harsh punishment upon repatriation. Because of this, international law requires that they should be considered as refugees sur place – people who become refugees as a result of fleeing their country or due to circumstances arising after their flight. In 2010, North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security adopted a decree making defection a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death. North Koreans who have fled the country since 2013, or who are residing outside the country but can surreptitiously talk with contacts inside North Korea, have told Human Rights Watch that North Koreans who are repatriated from China face incarceration, torture, inhumane treatment, enslavement, and sexual violence upon their forced return.

As party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, China should uphold its commitments and not send North Koreans - who have a well-founded fear of persecution - back to North Korea, where their life or freedom will be threatened because they left the country without permission.

We noted that in November 2015, the United Nations Committee Against Torture raised serious concerns about China’s actions to forcibly return fleeing North Koreans caught in China to North Korea. We strongly urge the Chinese government to reveal the current whereabouts of the group of five North Koreans, and abide by China’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention to protect refugees and under no circumstances force them back to a place where they could face persecution. 


Phil Robertson 
Deputy Asia Director

Sophie Richardson
China Director

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Seoul) – China should immediately release five North Korean refugees held in Chinese detention and agree not to return them to North Korea, where they would face grave danger, Human Rights Watch said today. China should protect the five refugees and let them travel to safety in a third country, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated after fleeing their country face a real risk of torture, sexual violence and abuse, incarceration in forced labor camps, and public executions, making them refugees in need of urgent protection under international law. 

“China should not force these five refugees back to North Korea, where the government is known to severely violate the rights of those sent back using methods such as torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and long-term incarceration in North Korea’s brutal prison camp system,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing should fulfill its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention by releasing these five refugees and permitting them to go to a third country where they can be safely protected.” 

Late last week, Chinese government officials detained the group traveling to the city of Shenyang, Liaoning province, in northeastern China. Three of the five refugees are relatives of “Lim,” a North Korean now living in South Korea and using a pseudonym. On June 16, Lim received a call from her brother, who was using a smuggled Chinese phone in North Korea. He told Lim that he had crossed the Yalu river, on the border between North Korea and China, with their mother and a cousin. He had been carrying their mother, who was too weak to walk, and needed help because the group had gotten lost on the mountain. Lim’s relatives had no food and her brother eventually lost consciousness from exhaustion and hunger. 

Lim was eventually able to contact someone who could help guide the group and provide them with food and basic assistance. Lim told Human Rights Watch that she spoke to her family a few days later, when the person trying to help them reached the group before departing by car. She has not been able to contact them since then. 

On June 21, Lim learned from her local contacts that the group, including her three relatives, was detained by the Chinese military near Yanji city, Jilin Province. On June 22, she heard that authorities were about to move her family to Helong, 70 kilometers southwest of Yanji. 

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal "economic migrants" and forcibly repatriates them to North Korea based on a 1986 bilateral border protocol. However, regardless of why North Koreans decide to flee the country, they are virtually guaranteed to face extremely abusive treatment if forced to return. For this reason, international law considers them all to be refugees sur place, or refugees because of circumstances after their departure.

China, as a state party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1984 Convention against Torture, is specifically obligated not to return refugees when that may put them at risk of persecution or torture. The same obligations bind China as a matter of customary international law. Forcing North Koreans back to North Korea amounts to refoulement, or the sending of persons back to territory where they face serious human rights violations. Such a practice forbidden by international treaties to which China is a party.

According to interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with North Koreans who have previously been apprehended in China and returned to North Korea, the North Korean government harshly punishes all those who leave the country without permission.

In 2010, North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security adopted a decree making defection a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death. North Koreans who have fled the country since 2013, or who maintain contacts inside the country, have told Human Rights Watch that people repatriated by China face severe penalties. Those caught while trying to go to South Korea can face 7 to 15 years of forced labor in ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso – re-education correctional facilities), incarceration in political prison camps (kwanliso), or even execution. 

North Koreans may be sentenced to more than two years of forced labor in ordinary prison camps for living illegally in China. A former senior official in the North Korean state security service (bowibu) who worked on the border and received North Koreans sent back from China, told Human Rights Watch that officials torture every returnee to find out where they went in China, who they contacted, and what they had done.

Lim remains especially concerned about her family’s treatment because police detained and forcibly disappeared her father in 2010. When detainees vanish without information on whereabouts, trial dates or result, the community assumes the person has been sent to political prison camps (kwanliso). Lim fears that because of their father’s status, her family will be lost in the kwanliso system. 

Political prison camps in North Korea are characterized by systematic abuses and often deadly conditions, including meager rations that lead to near starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment that includes sexual assault and torture by guards, and summary executions. Death rates in these camps are reported by former North Korean prisoners and guards to be extremely high. Detainees in ordinary prison camps also face forced labor, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found that those fleeing the country are targeted as part of a “systematic and widespread attack against populations considered to pose a threat to the political system and leadership of the DPRK… to isolate the population from contact with the outside world.” It also found that crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, enslavement, and sexual violence, are committed against prisoners and people forcibly returned to North Korea from China. 

Human Rights Watch calls on China to stop repatriating North Koreans, and to allow the UN refugee agency to exercise its mandate and protect people. China should provide asylum to North Korean refugees, let them seek resettlement in a third country, or allow them to pass through Chinese territory without fear of arrest or forced returns.

In December 2016, the UN Security Council again discussed for a third year in a row the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security. In March, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that strengthens the UN’s work to assess and develop strategies to prosecute pervasive human rights crimes by the North Korean government.

“There is no way to sugarcoat this: if these people are forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” said Robertson. “The world is watching to see whether Beijing fulfills its duty to protect these five refugees or again becomes complicit with North Korea’s abuses.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Update: Following the publication of Human Rights Watch’s report “Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Thousands Fleeing Kept Waiting Near Front Line” on June 21, 2017, Human Rights Watch received the following statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government.  

(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga forces are stopping thousands of civilians fleeing territory held by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) for up to three months at checkpoints, including on the front lines, apparently based on general security concerns, and in many cases preventing their access to humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said today. The KRG is obliged to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need and to allow those fleeing to reach safety.

Peshmerga forces stand guard at a checkpoint in northern Iraq. 

© 2016 Reuters

The civilians, including entire families, have been fleeing Hawija, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, and Tal Afar, 55 kilometers west of Mosul, which have been under the control of ISIS since June 2014. There are still 80,000 civilians in Hawija and another 20,000 in Tal Afar, United Nations staff told Human Rights Watch.

“All armed forces in Iraq should be doing their utmost to help civilians reach safety, and to get food, water and medicine,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The situation will become even more urgent when anti-ISIS forces begin operations to retake Hawija and Tal Afar.”

Four individuals with their families, who had been stopped at checkpoints, and two people with direct knowledge of the movement of people fleeing these areas told Human Rights Watch that at each of the four checkpoints where families tried to enter KRG-held territory, Peshmerga forces stopped civilians for days, weeks, and even in one case up to three months, in many cases leaving them vulnerable to ISIS mortar and suicide attacks and without food and badly needed assistance.

One man who was held at a checkpoint with his family for three days in Maktab Khalid, a destroyed village on the frontline and within ISIS shelling range, said: “I spent those three days scared that ISIS would kill all of us, and, at the same time, that my children would freeze to death. Those three days were the most horrible days of my life.”

Another described how his 6-month-old baby died of lack of milk as his family waited to be allowed to cross.

One of those with direct knowledge of the movement of people fleeing via the Maktab Khalid crossing told Human Rights Watch that on several occasions in April and May 2017, Peshmerga forces prevented dozens of civilians from crossing for up to 14 days and prevented humanitarian organizations from delivering humanitarian assistance to them. Another person with direct knowledge of the movement of people fleeing via the Peshmerga’s Daquq checkpoint, 17 kilometers from the frontline, also said that Peshmerga forces prevented civilians from crossing there for up to 16 days and limited their access to aid.

An Iraqi government official said that he interviewed dozens of families who had passed through Maktab Khalid over the past year who said that when they arrived Peshmerga forces took their names and then told them that they would only allow them to cross once the size of the crowd had reached at least 300 families. He said that he raised concerns about not allowing the civilians to cross in a timely way with the Kirkuk governor and Peshmerga commanders, and was told these measures were needed to screen civilians for ISIS affiliation before allowing them through.

This stated security rationale, however, contradicts statements from families who told the official and Human Rights Watch that they were only allowed to cross when large numbers amassed at the checkpoint. Other families said that when they arrived, a large number of families were already at the checkpoint, they were only kept for a few hours before being allowed to cross.

Since April 18, more than 5,000 people fleeing Tal Afar attempted to enter KRG-held territory via a Peshmerga checkpoint in Shindukhan, a village on the front lines, and were held by Peshmerga forces there for one to three days with no food, water, or shelter before they were taken to Sahlej, a nearby village 10 kilometers from the frontline and within ISIS shelling range, said one of the people with direct knowledge of the movement of people fleeing in the area.

According to the UN, Peshmerga forces held an estimated 200 civilians fleeing Tal Afar for more than two months at a checkpoint in al-Fadhilya, 15 kilometers north of Mosul and 22 kilometers from the frontline. Aid agencies and partners were not allowed direct access to provide aid. A source following developments said that in early June, after three months, the families were allowed through and on to camps for displaced people.

In June 2017, Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the KRG’s High Committee to Evaluate International Organizations’ Reports and asked for comment but at the time of publication had not received a response.

Security forces may have genuine security concerns and are entitled to screen those fleeing ISIS-controlled areas. But authorities should make medical care, including first aid, promptly available to everyone at screening sites. Authorities running the screening centers should locate them as far from hostilities as possible. Authorities should also promptly identify vulnerable people and give them priority in the screening process, including those needing immediate medical assistance, and provide them with any assistance needed including shelter, food, milk for infants, and water.

Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict should take all feasible steps to evacuate the civilian population from the vicinity of fighting or military objects, and take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm. All parties are also obliged to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need. KRG authorities should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees to have access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families. Anyone held for an extended period without being able to leave should be considered as being detained.

“These families have lived for years under the horrific abuses of ISIS, months with limited food, water, and medicine, and have just risked their lives trying to get to safety,” Fakih said. “Delaying people fleeing ISIS from reaching safety and getting the help they need is inhumane.”

Families Describe Being Held at Checkpoints

Many families fleeing Hawija and Tel Afar have tried to enter KRG-held territory via several main checkpoints, including at Maktab Khalid, 15 kilometers west of Kirkuk; Daquq, 30 kilometers south of Kirkuk; Shindukhan, 40 kilometers northwest of Mosul; and al-Fadhilya, 15 kilometers north of Mosul.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four men who said they and their families were kept at Maktab Khalid for between one and three days.

One man from Hawija said he arrived at Maktab Khalid in November 2016, with six members of his family and enough food for one meal for the whole family. He said that Peshmerga officers prevented him and his family and hundreds of others from crossing for three days, saying they would only let families cross once the number waiting was big enough. The family sought shelter in a destroyed, abandoned building with no blankets. During that time, on a few occasions, officers gave him a bit of dry bread, which he gave to his children, he said.

Despite raising concerns with a Peshmerga officer at the checkpoint about ISIS attacks and his family’s security, he said the officer dismissed these saying, “Your safety is not our responsibility. We are not responsible if ISIS attacks you because you are not yet in our territory.” He added:

By the third morning, my 9-year-old daughter was no longer moving or speaking, because of the severe cold and the lack of food. When they finally let us through, I had to carry her the whole way. Finally, an officer gave her some water.

Another man, 25, from Hawija, who arrived at Maktab Khalid on December 24 with his family and about 300 other people said Peshmerga officers informed him that they would only allow the families to cross once there were more than 500 people there. He said he was able to call relatives in Kirkuk who delivered them food via Peshmerga officers there but that in the three days they were there many other families went without. “We were lucky, but many families spent those days without any food,” he said. “I saw old men and women too weak to walk by the last day.”

Another man from Hawija said he reached Maktab Khalid in January, with his family and about 200 other people, only to have Peshmerga forces stop them there for days without any food. He said:

My 6-month-old son, Khalid, started crying on the first day, it was so cold and we had no milk to give him, because my wife had not eaten for three days. I went to the Peshmerga officers and asked if they had any food or milk, but they said they didn’t. I begged them to let us cross but they refused, saying the number of people had to be bigger before they would let us all cross. I knew Khalid would die, and he did the next day. It was a sad day for me. I escaped ISIS in order to give my children a chance to survive and have a better life, but I lost him. I had to bury him right there in the desert.

The man said that his daughter, Khalid’s twin sister, survived but suffered severe dehydration. She was still receiving medical treatment when Human Rights Watch interviewed him on May 23.

The person who had knowledge of people who were stopped at Maktab Khalid said that 140 civilians were stopped on April 3 for 14 days and that assistance was only provided on Day 10; that 81 civilians were stopped on April 18 for six days; 31 on May 5 for 12 days, with assistance after nine days; 61 including eight with critical health conditions, on May 27, with two critically ill civilians allowed to cross around May 30, and the rest held for nine days.

One of the people with knowledge of the Daquq checkpoint said that eight families were stopped on April 3 for 16 days, with a local aid group only able to provide them 10 assistance kits containing food and water.

Then, on May 15, the source said the Peshmerga stopped a family with a sick elderly family member. The ailing woman was taken to a hospital on May 20, but returned later the same day. Her situation continued to deteriorate and on May 24 the family requested that the Peshmerga forces take her back to the hospital, but they refused. The person said that the Peshmerga refused permission for aid to be delivered at the end of May and as of June 6, the family was still stuck there, and had been joined by two more families.

An Iraqi government official confirmed the presence of the three families, saying the relatives had contacted him with the same concerns. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

World Refugee Day gives everyone the opportunity to strengthen our efforts to help refugees, show solidarity for their suffering, and push governments to protect and resettle them.

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

A Thai navy vessel tows a boat with migrants away from Thailand, in waters near Koh Lipe island in southern Thailand May 16, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

Once again, World Refugee Day has arrived with no improvement in Thailand’s abysmal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Despite having decades of experience hosting millions of refugees, Thailand still has no refugee law or credible national procedures for granting asylum. The result is refugees and asylum seekers are in a precarious state, vulnerable to abuse.

For example, Thai government officials treat all asylum seekers living outside of designated refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border – including those whose refugee claims are recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – as illegal migrants subject to arrest and deportation. This makes it easier for Thailand to return people sought by foreign governments.

In violation of international law and over protests from the UN and a number of other countries, successive Thai governments have forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to face persecution or torture. The situation has worsened since Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha took power after a military coup in May 2014.

In the most high-profile cases, Thailand has deported an alleged supporter of the Gülen movement to Turkey in May 2017, two Chinese activists to China in November 2015, and 109 ethnic Uighurs to China in July 2015.

Thai authorities still prevent boats carrying ethnic Rohingya fleeing Burma from landing, instead providing rudimentary assistance before returning them to dangerous seas. Thailand refuses to work with UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination screenings for Rohingya, and many end up in indefinite immigration detention.

Thailand’s immigration detention facilities are severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation, and lack access to medical service and other necessities. Not surprisingly, the result has been several deaths among detainees. Many children are unlawfully detained because of their immigration status for months or years.

Thailand should ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and pass refugee legislation consistent with the convention. In cooperation with UNHCR, the government should also establish fair and transparent asylum procedures to ensure that refugee status is open to all nationalities under the same criteria. Finally, Thailand should immediately release UNHCR-recognized refugees and scrap its policy of holding asylum seekers in indefinite detention.

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

A once-inhabitated apartment block, ridden with bullet holes, stands abandoned in Tawergha on February 21, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(Geneva) – The Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) has ratified an agreement that allows for the return of the displaced population of the city of Tawergha and should implement it swiftly, Human Rights Watch said today. Some Tawerghan families intend to commence the effort to return home starting on June 22, according to activists involved in the efforts.

In 2011, militias mostly from the coastal city of Misrata ransacked Tawergha, demolishing and burning many buildings in that city, which is situated 50 kilometers south of Misrata. They have since prevented the return of the city’s population, which fled en masse before their arrival. The displacement came in apparent retaliation for the support Tawerghans gave to then-leader Muammar Gaddafi during the 2011 conflict, and for crimes they allegedly committed in Misrata.

“Tawerghans have been scattered for six years, far from home and often living in abject conditions,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Now that Libya’s Government of National Accord has finally confirmed an agreement between the factions, it should waste no time to make concrete arrangements for the people of Tawergha to return home and resume their lives safely.”

On June 19, the Presidential Council of the GNA announced that it had ratified a United Nations-brokered agreement between representatives of the towns of Misrata and Tawergha on settling their conflict and allowing for the return of Tawerghans to their homes. Mohamed Ishtewa, the mayor of Misrata said that “further discussions would be held in coming days with our brothers in Tawergha during which the final arrangements will be made before their return to their city.”

In 2016, UNSMIL helped launch a reconciliation process between the people of Tawergha and Misrata with the aim of ending the displacement and compensating victims. The two sides signed an agreement on August 31, which stipulated as a main condition for the return home of Tawerghans the establishment of a fund by the UN-backed GNA to compensate victims of the 2011 uprising.

In April 2017, representatives of Misrata requested modifications to substantially increase the payments to seemingly benefit mostly Misratan victims. A second demand, to prevent compensation for any pro-Gaddafi fighters or sympathizers, would mostly affect Tawerghans.

The agreement includes a sole provision on justice: “The Libyan State shall take all necessary legal action to prosecute those accused” of crimes.

Libyan courts have yet to establish a measure of accountability. They have prosecuted only crimes attributed to Tawerghans, convicting them mostly for killings and unlawful possession of weapons, handing out prison and even death sentences. No Libyan court has yet prosecuted anyone for the forced displacement of Tawerghans, or for acts committed by militias, mostly from Misrata, against Tawerghans, including long-term arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance.

About 40,000 people from Tawergha live displaced around Libya, many in makeshift housing, camps or schools, prevented by civil and military authorities in Misrata from accessing their homes and lands.

Factions in Misrata, including the civilian administration and armed groups allied with it, control the area between Misrata and Tawergha, and have been physically preventing Tawerghans from returning to their hometown, insisting that the GNA and local Misrata authorities first approve a comprehensive compensation package for those killed, detained, harmed, or missing during the 2011 uprising.

In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising militias, mostly from Misrata, who had displaced Tawerghans then arbitrarily detained, tortured, disappeared, and harassed them with impunity. Although about 350 detainees have been freed since 2016, about 160 remain detained, some without charge, and 300 others are missing, according to Mohamed Radwan, the head of the Tawerghan association for families of missing and detained.

Miftah Almabrouk, who represents families of detainees from Tawergha held in prisons in Misrata and communicates with the prison authorities on behalf of the families, met with Human Rights Watch in Tripoli. He said that only some of the remaining 160 detainees from Tawergha have been convicted by civil and military courts in Misrata, while many remained in precharge detention. Human Rights Watch documented serious due-process violations of detainees held in Misrata, including men from Tawergha.

Although there had been fewer attacks on Tawerghans living in camps for displaced people in Tripoli in recent years, their situation is precarious. Militias guarding the Janzour camp for displaced Tawerghans in Tripoli fired shots on May 31 after disagreements with residents, although there were no injuries reported. On May 26, clashes between militias injured one resident of al-Fallah II camp in Tripoli, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

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

In June 2013, residents attempted to return to Tawergha without an agreement with Misrata groups. Local and international actors, including UNSMIL, cautioned against it after armed groups in Misrata issued threats against Tawerghans planning to return. Authorities in the eastern city of Ajdabiya turned back a convoy of Tawerghans trying to make the journey from Benghazi.

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

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. The prosecutor of the ICC has not started an investigation nor announced the intent to investigate crimes against Tawerghans.

“While the priority is to end the six-year-old collective punishment of people from Tawergha, the victims from both sides should also see justice for the crimes they have suffered.” Goldstein said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Aerial photograph of overcrowded migrant boat, taken at 05:01 UTC on May 10, 2017, and provided by Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre Rome to Sea-Watch 2 for identification purposes. 

Courtesy of Sea-Watch.

(Milan) – Libyan forces have engaged in reckless conduct during recent rescue operations that endangered people being rescued in international waters in the Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said today. These incidents indicate that Libyan forces lack capacity to safely perform search-and-rescue obligations.

Italy and other European Union countries should not cede control over rescue operations in international waters to Libyan forces. During the European Council meeting in Brussels on June 22-23, 2017, EU member states should affirm a commitment to carry out search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean.

“Recent incidents show how wrong it is for EU countries to entrust the lives of those in need of rescue to Libyan coast guard forces when there are safer alternatives,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should ensure that its vessels carry out robust search-and-rescue operations in international waters close to Libya, where most shipwrecks occur, and, where possible, Italy should direct vessels from the EU and nongovernmental groups to take the lead on rescues, instead of Libyan vessels.”

The central Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route in the world. From the beginning of 2014 through June 1, 2017, over 12,000 people have died or been reported missing. Since January 1, over 60,000 people have been rescued and brought to Italian shores.

On May 10 and May 23, Libyan coast guard forces’ patrol boats in international waters intervened in rescues already in progress by nongovernmental organizations, used threatening behavior likely to induce panic, and failed to provide life jackets to people seeking rescue from unseaworthy vessels. On May 23, nongovernmental groups witnessed – and videotaped – Libyan coast guard officers firing shots into the air, and collected corroborating testimony from survivors that the officers had also fired shots into the water after panicked people had leapt into the sea.

Italy’s decision to cede control of the May 10 event to Libyan coast guard forces was consistent with an overall EU strategy to deputize Libyan authorities to prevent boat migration to Europe despite deep concerns about outsourcing responsibility to one party in a country riven by conflict and where migrants face horrific abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

There are credible reports from monitors on the scene that on May 26, a Libyan coast guard forces boat fired shots at an Italian coast guard vessel in international waters, as it was taking rescued migrants to disembark on Lampedusa. The incident was reported in the Italian media, although the Italian coast guard has denied knowledge of the incident. Human Rights Watch spoke with a person who was on a vessel in the Mediterranean that day who overheard radio communication on an open channel between a nearby Italian Navy ship and the Libyan coast guard forces vessel. The radio communication made it clear that the Libyan coast guard forces boat had fired the shots because they mistook the Italian coast guard vessel for a migrant boat.

As a general rule, Libyan forces disembark people they rescue or intercept at sea in Libya, where they face arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions and a well-documented risk of serious abuse, including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence. Due to what the United Nations has called a “human rights crisis” for migrants in Libya, EU-flagged vessels are prohibited from returning anyone there, regardless of where a rescue takes place. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has called on all countries to “allow civilians fleeing Libya (Libyan nationals, habitual residents of Libya, and third country nationals) access to their territories.”

On May 10, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome received the first distress call about a boat in trouble and ordered the German group Sea-Watch to provide assistance but then allowed Libyan coast guard forces to assume coordination and a Libyan patrol boat to take over the operation. Although MRCC Rome learned of the boat when it was still in Libyan territorial waters, the incident occurred roughly 20 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, in international waters, and Sea-Watch had already begun its rescue operation.

Libyan authorities lack the capacity, equipment, and training to perform safe rescues, which should be required before they can assume coordination, Human Rights Watch said. If Italy is directing a rescue operation, it should ensure safe rescue and disembarkation, and not hand over command to Libyan coast guard forces, except in situations of imminent loss of life and the absence of alternate rescue vessels.

The commander of the coast guard force aligned with the EU-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord, operating under the Defense Ministry, in Zawiyah, a coastal town 50 kilometers west of Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch during its visit in April that the use of force against migrants, and specifically beatings with plastic pipes, during rescue operations was “necessary to control the situation as you cannot communicate with them. Some can swim but others not.”

Libya has never officially delineated its search-and-rescue zone or provided the International Maritime Organization with information on these services even under Muammar Gaddafi. Since at least October 2013, when it began its massive humanitarian naval operation, Mare Nostrum, Italy has assumed de facto search-and-rescue responsibilities outside Libyan territorial waters.

Italy and EU countries with these responsibilities in the Mediterranean, notably Malta, have an obligation under international maritime law to maintain an effective search-and-rescue service that ensures both safe rescue operations and disembarkation in a place of safety. In doing so, they should consider whether any of their actions may place rescued people at risk of persecution, torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment upon disembarkation.

To fulfill these obligations, EU states should at a minimum decide during the summit to design and maintain a system under which they assume and retain command over all rescue operations in international waters. They should also renew efforts to obtain permission to operate in Libyan waters so that EU-flagged vessels can be in a better position to perform rescues.

EU institutions should ensure monitoring of training for Libyan coast guard officers as well as Libyans’ use of equipment provided by EU countries, and be prepared to suspend equipment transfers in the event a link is established between such equipment and abuse. Until there are demonstrable improvements in the treatment of detainees in Libya’s migrant detention centers and in Libyan coast guard custody, EU countries should take every measure to avoid complicity in abuse both at sea and on land by Libyan authorities. All efforts to improve conditions in official detention centers in Libya should be accompanied by monitoring, transparent public reporting, and measures to ensure accountability. Training modules should prioritize hands-on practical training in best practices for safe search-and-rescue operations.

EU member states should also take account of an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council against Libyan factions, which stipulates how delivering nonlethal materials and training should be handled. On June 10, the Libya Sanctions Committee tasked with overseeing implementation of the arms embargo issued a report in which it raised concerns about whether the beneficiaries of EU training fall within permissible exemptions to the embargo, taking into consideration among other factors questions around effective control of the coast guard forces and vetting of training participants.

“No amount of wishful thinking can justify ignoring the limitations of Libyan authorities to respond to situations of distress at sea or to intervene in a safe and humane way,” Sunderland said. “If EU governments care about saving lives and preventing abuse of migrants in Libya, they should provide more support for vital EU rescue operations in the Mediterranean rather than putting their faith in unreliable Libyan partners.”

EU Migration Cooperation with Libya
Armed conflicts since 2014 in Libya have resulted in a humanitarian and governance crisis, with a quarter million Libyans displaced and a breakdown in the economic, political, and judicial systems. The country has three rival authorities competing for legitimacy, international recognition, and territorial control: a UN-backed and EU-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli; the Government of National Salvation, also based in Tripoli; and the Interim Government, based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk. The GNA has limited control over key institutions and only nominal control over forces aligned with them.

The evidence of brutality against migrants in Libya is overwhelming. A damning December 2016 report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya documented widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, and other abuses in immigration detention centers in Libya. A German Foreign Ministry memo leaked to the media in January 2017 stated that migrants in Libya are executed, tortured, raped, extorted, and banished to the desert “on a daily basis.” Human Rights Watch has documented abuses against migrants in Libya for years, including by guards in detention centers under the Directorate for Illegal Migration (DCIM), Libyan coast guard forces, and smugglers.

The GNA Interior Ministry operates about 24 “official” detention facilities for migrants in western Libya that are at least nominally under ministry control. Militias and criminal gangs detain migrants in parallel, unofficial centers.

The EU’s anti-smuggling operation EUNAVFOR MED – also known as Operation Sophia – began training Libyan Navy coast guard officers, petty officers, and seamen under the GNA’s Defense Ministry in October 2016. Ninety-three officers participated in training aboard EU navy ships in the Mediterranean, while 42 have been trained in Malta and Greece in training programs on land that will continue in Spain and Italy through the end of 2017. The planned third phase, which has not begun, would involve training on board Libyan patrol boats in Libyan territorial waters. In the February 2017 Malta Declaration, EU countries pledged to prioritize “training, equipment and support” to the Libyan coast guard forces, as well as “enhanced operational action” to shut down the central Mediterranean route. Also in February, Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA, which was suspended by a court in Tripoli in March, and began in May to deliver the first 4 of 10 patrol boats to Libyan coast guard forces.

Since at least October 2013, Italy has coordinated virtually all rescue operations by the Italian coast guard and Navy; the EU border agency, commonly known as Frontex; Operation Sophia; and vessels from nongovernmental groups, as well as commercial ships when necessary. Nine groups – Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), SOS MEDITERRANEE, Sea-Watch, Jugend Rettet, Sea Eye, Life Boat Minden, Proactiva Open Arms, and Save The Children – have dedicated rescue patrols in the central Mediterranean. According to Italian government figures, nongovernmental groups rescued one-quarter of all those rescued in 2016, and one-third of those rescued in the first three months of 2017.

Just as the Libyan government is fragmented, so too are Libyan coast guard forces. The EU support is directed to Navy coast guard forces in western Libya, which operate at least nominally under the GNA Defense Ministry. The commander of the coast guard forces in Zawiyah told Human Rights Watch during the April visit that the GNA coast guard chief had only nominal control over forces in different points in western Libya – including in the towns and cities of Misrata, Tripoli, Zawiyah, Sebratha, and Zuwara.

The GNA Interior Ministry also has its own Coastal Security forces. Col. Tariq Shanbour, head of the Interior Ministry’s Coastal Security forces and based in Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch during its visit that although his forces had no rescue boats, their mandate extended from operations on land and through the Libyan territorial waters, up to 12 nautical miles. Colonel Shanbour said his forces combat crime, including irregular migration, fuel smuggling, illegal fishing, and drug trafficking.

In April, the European Commission announced a €90 million aid program for migrants in Libya, about half of which would go to improving conditions in official detention centers, assistance at disembarkation points, and voluntary returns, among other measures.

The May 23 Incident
Human Rights Watch’s understanding of what happened on May 23 is based on a detailed incident report provided by MSF; phone interviews with an MSF crew member and a crew member from the German group Jugend Rettet, who witnessed the incident; and public statements by other groups on the scene. All times for both incidents are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is two hours behind Central European Time (CET).

On May 23, a Libyan coast guard patrol boat intervened in a rescue operation already in progress in international waters by the Aquarius, a rescue ship jointly operated by MSF and SOS Mediterranée, and the Iuventa, a vessel operated by Jugend Rettet.

After an EUNAVFOR MED plane spotted 8 to 10 migrant boats at 06:50, the Italian MRCC in Rome appointed the Vos Hestia, a rescue vessel operated by Save The Children, as on-scene commander.

By 08:30 the Aquarius had reached the area, 15 nautical miles from the Libyan coast in international waters, and began its rescue operation. By noon, its crew had distributed life jackets to people on board a white rubber boat and evacuated 34 people before having to order its speedboats to attend to another boat in a more serious distress situation. At 10:30, a Libyan coast guard patrol boat with the number 267 entered the rescue area and approached several of the migrant boats, creating destabilizing waves.

A Jugend Rettet crew member, who was on a RHIB – a rigid-hulled inflatable boat – distributing life jackets at the time, said the patrol boat approached them at one point: “We have standing orders to be cooperative, and we thought they might want to help. We waved, they waved back, even gave us the thumbs up. We thought everything was ok.”

The Libyan patrol boat retreated to a distance. Crew aboard the Aquarius heard at least six shots fired into the air from machine guns mounted on the Libyan patrol boat. The Libyan patrol boat then steered back toward the migrant boats, and at around 13:00, two men on the Libyan patrol boat, one of whom was in uniform and armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, boarded one of the migrant boats, a white rubber boat, and began steering it toward Libyan territorial waters.

A photograph posted by Jugend Rettet shows one of the Libyan coast guard members pointing the assault rifle at the people on board, and footage from an Italian television crew aboard the Aquarius shows the same man firing two or three shots into the air. The footage also shows dozens of panicked people jumping into the water.

Testimony gathered by MSF from survivors would later allege that the Libyan officers had taken their phones and money, even a man’s ring. As the Libyan officers steered the white rubber boat back toward Libya, more people jumped into the water. The Aquarius crew eventually pulled 67 people from the water. At 13:40, the Libyan officers changed course and steered the rubber boat toward the Aquarius, and at 14:00, they said they wanted to hand over the people on board. By 14:17, all 38 people who had remained on the white rubber boat had been transferred to the Aquarius RHIB.

While two of its crew had boarded the rubber boat, the Libyan patrol boat had remained alongside a wooden boat crowded with migrants, which it would eventually steer back to Libya, and transferred dozens from a second wooden boat to the patrol boat. Nongovernmental groups estimate that between 200 and 400 people were taken back to Libya. Their vessels rescued 11 migrant boats.

MSF collected testimony from two men, one who said he was Libyan and another who said he was Syrian, who were pulled out of the water after they jumped off the wooden boat. The men alleged that coast guard officers also took money and phones from passengers on the wooden boat.

Corroborating testimony collected by MSF among survivors on their rescue ship suggests that the Libyan coast guard forces fired more shots than logged by the nongovernmental vessels in the area. Most worrisome, six people who had jumped into the water from the rubber boat and two men who jumped from the wooden boat alleged that Libyan officers had fired shots into the water after people jumped. No corpses were found, nor did anyone rescued have fresh gunshot wounds.

A Libyan Navy spokesman, Admiral Ayyoub Amr Qassem, denied some aspects of the nongovernmental groups’ version of events, arguing it was “illogical” for the Libyan coast guard to shoot at migrants.

The May 10 Incident
The Human Rights Watch understanding of the event is based on the Sea-Watch ship’s log, a phone interview with a Sea-Watch crew member who witnessed the incident, email communications between the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) provided by Sea-Watch, and statements by the Italian MRCC and the Libyan Navy coast guard.

On May 10, the Italian MRCC in Rome allowed a Libyan coast guard vessel to assume coordination over a rescue operation in international waters. Sea-Watch, which had already begun its rescue operation on previous instructions from MRCC Rome, filmed the Libyan patrol boat conducting a dangerous maneuver, creating a risk of collision, and has called for an independent investigation.

At 05:38 UTC, MRCC Rome called the German Sea-Watch 2 ship to inform it of a migrant boat at position 33° 00’N, 012° 27’E, which is within Libyan territorial waters. The coordination center followed up with an email stamped 05:42 instructing Sea-Watch to “please divert your course…and provide assistance” to the migrant boat.

At 06:25, when the Sea-Watch ship sighted the migrant boat – a severely crowded wooden boat carrying almost 500 people – they were at position 33° 08.9’N, 012° 28.9’E. This is approximately 20 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, in international waters.

MRCC Rome called the Sea-Watch ship at 06:47 asking it to “confirm target boat,” and sent an email 11 minutes later, at 06:58, with a photo of the boat time-stamped 05:01. Sea-Watch initiated its rescue operation, lowering a speedboat loaded with life jackets to approach the migrant boat. But at 06:56, MRCC Rome called Sea-Watch to tell them that Libya was taking over coordination of the rescue operation, and sent an email indicating that, “Following our previous phone call, we confirm that at ‘06:13Z’ [the Z indicates UTC time zone], the Libyan Coast Guard informed us that it is coordinating the SAR case in subject and that a Libyan patrol vessel, as reported by Libyan Coast Guard, is operating.”

The Sea-Watch log indicates that its speedboat was in the water at 06:59. The boat approached the migrant boat, and the ship’s log indicates that it made contact at 07:04. During this time lapse, Sea-Watch attempted repeatedly to reach the Libyan patrol boat, which the crew could see approaching at a fast clip, by radio on numerous frequencies; they received no response. Sea-Watch told Human Rights Watch that, “Of course we would proceed with [the speedboat operation], as we thought also with a coordination through the Libyans, the speedboats would be needed in the water at least on standby to guarantee a safe disembarkation.”

The Sea-Watch ship’s log reports at 07:04, as the speedboat was engaging in shouted conversation with migrants aboard the wooden boat, the Libyan patrol boat 206 crossed their bow, in what Sea-Watch said was a dangerous maneuver. Sea-Watch reports that the Libyan patrol boat did not respond to radio calls from the German ship. The Sea-Watch speedboat returned to the group’s larger vessel, and the Libyan coast guard boat proceeded to transfer several hundred people from the wooden boat to their own boat. At least two officers boarded the wooden boat, with numerous people still on board, to steer it back to land. No one was provided life jackets, putting them at risk.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, 484 people disembarked in Tripoli, including 14 women and 19 children. The rest were adult men. Four women were hospitalized – it is unclear why – while the rest were detained at the Mitiga airbase in Tripoli.

The Libyan Navy spokesman, Admiral Qassem, alleged that Sea-Watch “tried to hinder the work of our coast guard to take the migrants.” The GNA’s Libyan coast guard did not respond to email queries and phone calls. In an email to Human Rights Watch, the Italian coast guard said that “MRCC Rome, as the first Maritime Rescue Coordination center that received the information, according to SAR international procedures, informed the Coastal state’s SAR authorities in whose territorial waters was the boat in distress and contacted the nearest known ship, M/V SEA WATCH 2… later, MRCC Rome informed M/V SEA WATCH 2 that the Libyan Coast Guard had assumed the coordination of the SAR case.”

Captain Sergio Liardi, head of MRCC Rome, told Human Rights Watch that alerting Libyan authorities in this case was appropriate, as he had to do everything possible to prevent loss of life. Human Rights Watch does not dispute that saving lives should be the guiding priority, but questions why it was necessary for the Italian coast guard to allow Libyan coast guard forces to assume control over a rescue operation in international waters that Sea-Watch had already commenced and was better equipped to perform safely.

Law and Practice on Rescue at Sea
Coastal states have different sovereign, jurisdictional, and search-and-rescue rights and obligations depending on the maritime zone. Territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coast, are considered national territory where governments exercise full sovereign rights. In other words, a boat in Libyan territorial waters has not legally left Libyan territory; in legal terms, the return of passengers on a boat in territorial waters to land is simply a transfer from one part of the national territory to another. The contiguous zone is the area adjacent to territorial waters, for a maximum of 24 nautical miles from the coast, where a coastal state enjoys certain jurisdictional rights to prevent and punish infringements of its laws, including immigration laws. Finally, all coastal states should have designated search-and-rescue (SAR) zones, where under international law they are required to coordinate and perform rescue operations.

Libyan authorities are legally entitled to enforce their immigration laws in Libyan territorial waters, and to punish infringements of its immigration laws in the contiguous zone. This means Libyan authorities have jurisdiction to interdict migrant boats in the contiguous zone even in the absence of a distress situation. Libya is also a party to UN protocols against smuggling and trafficking of human beings.

The UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air stipulates that interdictions at sea based on suspicion of people smuggling must ensure the safety and humane treatment of the persons on board, and must “preserve and protect the rights of [smuggled] persons…in particular the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The protocol further requires Libya to take measures to protect smuggled migrants from violence, and to take special account of the needs of women and children. The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children requires Libya to put in place measures to assist and protect trafficking victims.

Libyan law criminalizes undocumented entry, exit, and stay in Libya, punishable by imprisonment, and in some cases with forced labor or a fine. Libyan immigration law does not distinguish between migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, or other particularly vulnerable groups. Libya has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Support Mission in Libya, among others, have documented abuses by the Libyan coast guard forces during interdictions and arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, and other gross human rights abuses upon return to Libya.

The laws of the sea have developed to try to ensure effective and timely assistance to any vessel in distress. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) require that all coastal states “promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search-and-rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements co-operate with neighbouring States for this purpose.” SOLAS stipulates that the country in whose search-and-rescue zone a distress situation occurs has the “primary responsibility” for coordination and cooperation so that assisted people disembark in a place of safety. The International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention does not resolve the issue of responsibility when a coastal state party to the convention, like Libya, cannot or does not fulfil its obligations, but it also stresses regional cooperation.

International maritime law imposes a clear duty on all vessels at sea to rescue people in distress, whether in territorial or international waters. This means that ships may enter Libyan territorial waters without authorization to respond to a situation posing a threat of imminent loss of life. In the event of a sighting of a vessel in territorial waters showing signs of distress, but in the absence of imminent danger, any vessel in the area will normally monitor the situation until forces under the command of the sovereign nation arrive to provide assistance.

For years, Libya has largely failed to live up to its search-and-rescue obligations. It has never officially delineated its search-and-rescue zone or deposited information about its search-and-rescue services with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Libya does not have a fully functioning MRCC. The Italian government assumed de facto control over search-and-rescue off the Libyan coast when it began its massive year-long humanitarian operation Mare Nostrum in October 2013. It has continued since then to coordinate virtually all rescue operations by Frontex, Operation Sophia, and nongovernmental groups vessels, as well as commercial ships when necessary.

This is in keeping with IMO Maritime Safety Committee guidelines on the treatment of people rescued at sea, which clarify that every MRCC should have “effective plans” to respond to all types of search-and-rescue situations, including incidents outside its own search-and-rescue region “until the RCC [rescue coordination center] responsible for the region in which assistance is rendered…or another RCC better situated to handle the case accept responsibility.” These guidelines stipulate that a “place of safety” for disembarkation involves, at a minimum, a place where the survivors’ “safety of life is no longer threatened and where their basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met.” They also set out a variety of additional factors to be considered when designating a “place of safety,” including, in the case of asylum seekers and refugees recovered at sea, “the need to avoid disembarkation in territories where the lives and freedoms of those alleging a well-founded fear of persecution would be threatened.”

While the guidelines provide the most authoritative source on the concept of a “place of safety” in maritime law, Human Rights Watch believes the concept can only be interpreted in light of other international obligations, including the absolute prohibition of the return of any person to the risk of torture, and protections against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and arbitrary detention. Given the mixed profiles of people trying to reach Europe by sea, there should be a presumption that among those rescued there may be people who are unable to exercise their right to seek asylum while in Libya and need international protection.

UNHCR has also provided guidance that interception measures at sea should not de facto deny access to international protection or lead to anyone “being returned, directly or indirectly, to…territories where their life or freedom would be threatened.” In a 2012 landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for pushbacks to Libya in 2009, a policy that included cases in which Italy forcibly transferred rescued people to Libyan vessels at sea.

Italian and EU authorities have repeatedly emphasized that these operations are governed by international law and EU jurisprudence that prohibit returning anyone to a place where their lives or safety would be at risk – the nonrefoulement principle. In practice, this means that no one rescued by an EU-flagged ship or under the custody or control of an EU member state can be sent back to Libya, regardless of the waters in which that person was rescued or interdicted.

Given the lack of capacity to carry out safe rescues, the Italian MRCC and EU authorities should not allow the Libyan coast guard forces to assume operational command of rescue operations in international waters. In addition, the real risk of prohibited ill-treatment in Libya for any migrant returned there means anyone rescued by an international vessel should not be disembarked in Libya.

Until Libyan authorities end arbitrary detention and demonstrate sustained and significant improvements in conditions and treatment in detention centers to remove a real risk of survivors facing treatment that violates the European Convention on Human Rights, EU authorities should not cede its search-and-rescue responsibilities to Libyan coast guard forces. 

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

“Ahmad,” a 34-year-old Chechen man, boarded a Polish-bound train in Brest, Belarus, last week, hoping to seek asylum there. He had fled from Chechnya, a Russian republic, where he says the authorities tortured and unlawfully detained him.

Asylum seekers in the arrivals hall at Brest train station, returned on the 13.46 pm train from Terespol, where their requests to seek asylum Poland were rejected. Brest, Belarus, December 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch
Having taken the 15-minute trip from Brest to the Polish border unsuccessfully 27 times before, Ahmad hoped this time was going to be different. Polish and Belarusian lawyers and activists had asked for, and received, an emergency order from the European Court of Human Rights instructing that he not be summarily returned to Belarus. He knew Polish authorities would have a legal obligation to comply with the order while the European Court considers the claim.

But Ahmad’s hopes were crushed when Polish border guards ignored the court’s order and put him on a train back to Belarus that same day. Ahmad tried again the next day with the court order in his hand. To no avail. So Ahmad remains in Belarus, a country that does not have a functioning asylum system and where he is not safe from his persecutors back home in Chechnya due to the open border between Russia and Belarus.

And he’s not the only one. Polish border guards routinely return asylum seekers from North Caucasus and Central Asia at the Terespol border station, after concluding they are economic migrants based on no more than rudimentary, two- to three-minute pre-screening interviews conducted in front of other asylum seekers. But instead of border guards, it’s Poland’s asylum authority, the Office of Foreigners, which should be examining their asylum claims. Polish border guards are certainly not hearing what I heard from asylum seekers, who told detailed stories of political persecution, blood feuds, torture, and enforced disappearances.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims border guards did not ignore the order concerning Ahmad, arguing that the area where pre-screening interviews are conducted is not in Polish territory. But claims of “rights-free zones” for asylum processing in other European countries have been rejected by the European Court in the past.

Polish authorities have an obligation to allow anyone at their ports of entry to claim asylum. And as Poland is a party to the European Convention of Human Rights, Polish authorities are obliged to respect the court’s emergency orders, rather than creating bogus excuses to violate the human rights of Ahmad and many others like him. 

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

Ijaz Paras Masih sits in a hospital bed in Thailand (date unknown). 

© 2017 British Pakistani Christian Association

(New York) – The government of Thailand should immediately investigate the death of a Pakistani man in immigration detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The case points to the need for Thailand to urgently end the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers.

On May 27, 2017, Ijaz Masih, a 36-year-old Christian Pakistani, had a heart attack at the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, where he had been detained for more than a year on an illegal entry charge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had rejected his refugee claim the day before. He died shortly after he was transferred to the Police General Hospital.

“Thai authorities are putting people who seek refugee protection at grave risk by keeping them in awful conditions in immigration detention centers,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Ijaz Masih’s death should be a wake-up call to end this abusive policy of incarcerating asylum seekers awaiting application results and refugees.”

Thai authorities are putting people who seek refugee protection at grave risk by keeping them in awful conditions in immigration detention centers.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Ijaz Masih was one of hundreds of Pakistani Christian asylum seekers who claim to have been persecuted in Pakistan and ended up in squalid immigration detention centers in Thailand, where authorities treat them as illegal immigrants without rights – including asylum seekers, as well as those recognized as refugees by the UNHCR. In Pakistan, members of religious minorities face discrimination, criminal charges of blasphemy, and other forms of persecution – including violent attacks.

Under Thai law, all migrants with irregular immigration status – including children, asylum seekers, and recognized refugees – can be arrested and detained for illegal entry. Many immigration detention centers in Thailand are severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation, and lack access to medical service and other basic necessities. Detainees are restricted to small cells resembling cages, where they barely have room to sit, much less sleep. Children are frequently incarcerated with adults.

Thailand’s immigration detention facilities have long been reported to fall far short of international standards, but the Thai government has not acted to address the serious problems. Human Rights Watch documented these shortcomings in a comprehensive report on immigration detention of children in 2014, and a report on the treatment of refugees – including the detention of urban refugees – in 2012.    

Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has never enacted a law to recognize refugee status and set out procedures to assess asylum claims. Given its own lack of asylum procedures, the Thai government should respect UNHCR-issued persons-of-concern documents and refrain from detaining people who have pending claims for international protection. Besides ending the detention of asylum seekers, Thailand should also adopt alternatives to detention that are being used effectively in other countries – such as open reception centers and conditional release programs.

“The Thai government should recognize that its punitive detention policy towards asylum seekers is both inhumane and counterproductive,” Adams said. “Punishing people who are fleeing ghastly conditions at home will not keep them away but just add to their misery.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am