(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

A family from Afghanistan pushes their older mother in a wheelchair near Roszke, Hungary after crossing the border with Serbia. September 13, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(Athens) – Unnecessary delays and arbitrary barriers are keeping older refugees and asylum seekers stranded in Greece, unable to reunite with family members who have legal status in the European Union, Human Rights Watch said today.

Family reunification often focuses on minors and their parents. But hundreds of older refugees and asylum seekers currently in Greece who have fled war zones and persecution are waiting to learn if they will be allowed to reunite with adult family members who have been granted residency in another EU country. Although EU law provides for family reunification for older people, lack of clarity or explicit provisions governing the process means that they can remain in limbo, far from their family for prolonged periods of time.

“These older people, already victims of conflict and persecution, hoped to find protection in the EU after treacherous journeys to Greece, and to be reunited with their family,” said Bethany Brown, researcher on older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “Now they don’t know if they will ever see their relatives again.”

Under international human rights law, everyone has a right to family life. For refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, the possibility of family reunification is an aspect of that right, but barriers, including lack of information and clarity around eligibility for reunification, is causing anguish amongst older people, Human Rights Watch found.

A refugee squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living in fear of being forcibly returned to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

In December 2016, Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 older refugees and asylum seekers in four camps and one refugee squat around Athens. Nearly all said they were seeking to be reunited with family in other parts of Europe. Human Rights Watch found, however, that these people often face seemingly insurmountable legal and practical barriers to reuniting with their families. Almost all had been waiting in Greece for more than eight months. The barriers included: a narrow interpretation of family under national laws, misinformation, and confusion about the process.

While several barriers are common to all asylum seekers, they can have a more significant impact on older people. Older people have been shown, in some contexts, to have significantly higher rates of psychological distress than the general refugee population, and often suffer from health issues, injuries and violence during displacement, and frailty that can be exacerbated by time and uncertainty. One asylum seeker interviewed in December 2016 passed away before officials reached a decision on whether she could reunite with her children in Germany.

Barriers include lack of information about family reunification procedures for older people. Many of those interviewed said they had no idea about the status of their application or how to obtain information about it. In some cases, Greek Asylum Service officials who met with them had told them not to apply for reunification.

An older woman sits outside caravans in a camp for asylum seekers, near Athens, Greece.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

“Giselle,” a 63-year-old woman from Syria, told Human Rights Watch in December 2016: “I feel pain everywhere: in my head, in my stomach.... I wish to be established, to have the daughters of my sons around me.” She had been with her husband in a camp outside Athens since March 2016. “My granddaughter [in Germany] says ‘I want to break the phone to get through to you.’”

Greek authorities and other actors providing information to asylum seekers, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organization on Migration, should inform anyone requesting asylum of their rights under the Dublin III regulation, the primary EU legal instrument establishing criteria and mechanisms for determining the member state responsible for examining an application for international protection. The information to be provided should explicitly include information about family reunification. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance, particularly on the Greek Aegean islands, the main entry point to Greece for migrants and asylum seekers.

Human Rights Watch found an alarming lack of available data on older refugees. Despite repeated requests to the Greek Asylum Service, it has not provided data it says it has on the number of older refugees in Greece; the number of reunification requests; or the average length of time such procedures are taking.

In the short term, recognition and support for a relatively small caseload of older people stranded in Greece seeking to reunite with adult children and grandchildren would relieve suffering, Human Rights Watch said. In the longer term, better systems to address family reunification are urgently needed.

The Greek Asylum Service should identify and provide accurate and timely information to older refugees and asylum seekers on how they can reunite with family members. EU member states should ensure that procedures for family reunification are accessible and efficient for all eligible family members, as outlined by international law.

World Report 2017: European Union

World Report 2017: European Union

Faced with significant strategic challenges, EU governments and institutions responded in 2016 in ways that often undercut or set aside core values and rights protections rather than working consistently together to defend them. 

A number of organizations working for refugees in Greece, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have called for the protection of the right to family and speedy reunification by EU member states. They have criticized EU and national laws for defining “family” to mean only spouses and minor children (under 18 years old).

In an Action Plan published in December 2016, the European Commission recommended tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns of those stranded on the Greek Islands to Turkey, under a deeply flawed EU deal signed with Turkey in March 2016. One of these measures ended exemptions for vulnerable groups – which include older people – and people eligible for family reunification. The exemptions were aimed at protecting them from return to Turkey under this agreement. The measures in this Action Plan could have a serious impact on older people’s rights and well-being, Human Rights Watch said.

“Older refugees and asylum seekers should be able to enjoy family life,” Brown said. “The delays and barriers for older asylum seekers undermine the well-being and integration of communities across Europe.”

Accounts by Older Asylum Seekers

Older refugees and asylum seekers in Greece have been forced to leave their homes, their family lives shattered by war. Many spoke of the desperation they felt to reestablish their family relationships after losing everything else.

“Nesrin” is an older Syrian-Kurdish woman who was living in an outdoor camp with her daughter outside Athens when Human Rights Watch interviewed her in December 2016. She and her daughter are unclear about where Nesrin’s application to be reunited with her sons in Germany stands. Nesrin said she did not know her age but has tattoos on her face that she said her mother gave her when she was a baby “to make me beautiful.” This tradition was common until 50 years ago, according to historians. She told us she has slipped discs in her back, and walked with difficulty.

As she talked about her adult children, scattered around Germany, a Greek island, and Iraq, she started to cry and could not continue to speak. Her daughter said: “She is sick, and has been left here. They [officials] said that she can see her sons [in Germany], and then ‘No.’”

Nesrin added: “All of my bones are in pain. I want to die, I really want to die. [But before I do,] I just want to see my sons.”

“Adnan,” 59, an asylum seeker from Syria, has an adult son, daughter-in-law, and two granddaughters in Germany. He has an adult son and daughter-in-law with him in Greece, where he arrived in March 2016. Adnan has applied to join them in Germany, but is unsure about what process they used. He expressed his anxiety about being separated from his family, highlighting the way his family lived together in Syria and what he stood to lose.

At the time of our interview, in December 2016, he lived in a camp just outside Athens. He said:

We came all this way as a family; we fled Syria as a family. [When my son and I were separated into different households with different files during registration here in Greece,] we said, ‘This is not human....’ I begged. ‘You cannot separate us into two families.’ I went to another interview and told them the same. That guy [Greek official] said that my son should give my case number, and maybe we can be together.... We are one family. Why would they want to separate us? Every one of us must serve the other. We have learned to live together. In Europe, everyone is on his own.

“Gisele,” 63, whose young granddaughters live in Germany, said that when it came time for her interview with the Greek authorities, “I told them my children are in Germany, and that I raised my granddaughters who are now there, and I wish to go to them.” She was living in a camp outside Athens when Human Rights Watch interviewed her in December 2016. She said that the officials told her that they could not promise that she will be reunited with them. She told us that when her granddaughter [in Germany] talks with her on the phone, her granddaughter says: ‘I want to break the phone to get through to you!’ Gisele had not seen her sons, her daughters-in law, or her granddaughters for over a year.

“Mussa,” 60, was born in Afghanistan. At the time of our interview in December 2016, he lived in a tent camp outside Athens. He told Human Rights Watch he has three adult children in Germany. He lives with his wife, a son, 18, and a daughter, 19, who has a disability. Mussa told Human Rights Watch that he fled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and went to Iran, only to be later threatened by a government official. He spoke quietly and intensely about his family’s journey and his anxiety over separation from his 18-year-old son:

We left [Iran] because I have a daughter who was engaged to marry.… [H]er fiancé became important in his government ministry. He was coming every day with a cool car from the ministry, asking her for a walk. He stopped her from going to school. She was unhappy. So, I called the father of that man, and sought to cancel the engagement. I paid everything. He broke the legs of my two sons. In the end, he was a politician and I had a normal life, [so we had no choice but to] sell the house and car, and flee.

Here in Greece, I have not told anyone this story. We were on a [Greek] island for six months, and we have been here [in the camp] for three or four months. Our first interview [with the Asylum Service] will be in one month. We applied for family reunification, but we are worried about our son because he is 18. They [officials] told our daughter that she could stay [with us] because of her special needs, but they didn’t say that about our son. We can’t leave behind our 18-year-old boy. [I know of] another family with such a case.

Right to Family Life

The right to family in international law is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 16 (3)), and key human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 10 (1)), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 23 (1)), the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, (Article 33 (1)), and the European Convention on Human Rights (article 8). Under international law the definition of “family” is not restricted only to spouses and minor children. The European Court of Human Rights refers to social, emotional, and biological factors when assessing whether a relationship should be considered part of “family life.”

Older people have the right to have their applications reviewed within a reasonable timeframe that considers their specific needs. They are recognized as a vulnerable group under EU law, and are entitled to appropriate support commensurate with that status, including information about how to apply for family reunification. Greece has incorporated EU minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers into its domestic law, which include requirements to support vulnerable people, including those who are older.

The EU law that determines asylum processing, known as the Dublin regulation, says that in accordance with EU human rights law, “respect for family life should be a primary consideration for Member States when applying this Regulation.” It also states that “in order to ensure full respect for the principle of family unity and for the best interests of the child, the existence of a relationship of dependency between an applicant and his or her child, sibling or parent on account of the applicant’s pregnancy or maternity, state of health or old age, should become a binding responsibility criterion.”

However, the definition of “family member” in the Dublin regulation is limited to spouses, or partners and minor children, while the definition of “relative” refers explicitly only to aunts, uncles, and grandparents of adults. Parents of adults are not listed in this definition. This omission leaves an important gap in the protection of older people’s rights.

The Dublin regulation explicitly states that older asylum seekers in Europe who depend on the support of a family member in another part of Europe should be kept or brought together.

Dependency is not defined in the regulation, but developed by each member state’s case law, and it provides the main basis on which older parents in Greece seeking refugee status who may have adult children in other parts of Europe can seek reunification. Dependency on an adult child can entitle them to be kept or brought together. The European Commission encourages member states to use this option “in the most humanitarian way.”

Practical Barriers

EU asylum processes are failing to properly respect or protect the right to family life of older refugees in Greece. Many older refugees and asylum seekers find their lives are on hold as they wait to learn if they will be reunified with family, with little information and great uncertainty. This issue has long been ignored. The refugee crisis in Greece is just the latest place around the world where this reality is unfolding.

As reports about the deteriorating mental health of refugees and asylum seekers still waiting in limbo in Greece are becoming common, many organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have been advocating quicker family reunification.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that family reunification procedures should provide guarantees of flexibility and promptness to ensure the right to family life is respected. Multiple EU states, however, use a narrow definition of family in assessing family reunification requests.

The organization Action Aid, in its recent advocacy on family reunification, criticized such narrow definitions for effectively breaking up “key support networks that are not only important to the asylum seekers themselves, but to the societies in which they will eventually be integrated.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees too, has been vocal about European countries’ narrow interpretation of family to include only nuclear members. It has advocated that: “[T]he concept of family should be interpreted flexibly by States, which could reflect strong and continuous social, emotional or economic dependency between family members, though which does not require complete dependence (for example, as in the case of spouses or elderly parents).” For older people, the last surviving family relationships may not be nuclear family members.

But the Greek Asylum Service has said to Human Rights Watch via Twitter that: “Member States reject such requests when not obliged to accept fam[ily] members.” And that it “sends relocation request[s] to MS [Member States] where the family is if [reunification] not applicable under Dublin. Both too slow.” This pace may become even slower. On May 19, 2017, it was reported by the media that the German Interior Ministry is planning to accept only 70 asylum-seeker family members per month.

The Greek Asylum Service’s chief of the Dublin Unit, Isa Papiliou, also acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that asylum seekers have experienced misinformation, legal and administrative blockages, problems obtaining and verifying documentation, and difficulty communicating across borders. She also noted that refugees and asylum seekers “may believe that the procedure via the [EU] embassies may [take less time] … the embassies have a legal basis [to provide] family reunification directive separately from [the] Dublin [regulation].”


  • The EU, its member states, and, in particular, Greece should ensure that the right to family life for older beneficiaries of protection already in the EU is respected, including through family reunification, without onerous conditions or waiting periods;
  • Greece should resist EU pressure to weaken protections for vulnerable asylum seekers – including older people eligible for family reunification – under the EU-Turkey agreement of March 2016;
  • The European Commission should request the Greek government and its partner agencies to provide clear information from grantees about how the programs it funds in Greece benefit older people and other at-risk groups;
  • Greece should reform the intake system for asylum seekers in Greece, by providing information on family reunification and access to legal aid for at-risk groups, including older people;
  • The EU and member states, including Greece, should provide for speedier reunification for older people; and
  • EU member states should increase the use of dependency determinations for older refugees in Europe seeking family reunification.


The research is based on interviews Human Rights Watch conducted between December 16 and December 23, 2016, with 13 older refugees and asylum seekers in four camps and one refugee squat around Athens. This relatively small number reflects the difficulty in accessing formal data about numbers and locations of older refugees and asylum seekers, and their decreased visibility within each setting. Human Rights Watch identified most of those interviewed by word-of-mouth. Despite small numbers, there was similarity in their stories around the anxiety and uncertainty of family reunification, creating reason to believe that other older people have had similar experiences.

Each interviewee consented voluntarily to be interviewed. None received remuneration, a personal service, or benefit in return for the interview. Names of the interviewees have been withheld to protect their privacy and security.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and representatives of nine aid organizations and the Greek Asylum Service’s Dublin Unit between November 2016 and April 2017.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Osanas and Falak’s family visit the Acropolis on their last day together in Athens.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
This is the first of a two-part commentary on family reunification by Bethany Brown of Human Rights Watch and photojournalist Anna Pantelia that documents a Syrian family’s final days in Greece before heading to Germany to reunite with their father after nearly two years apart. Originally published at News Deeply.
It’s 4:30 a.m in the international airport on the outskirts of Athens, Greece – a cool early morning in February. Children are laughing as they run around the airport seating, waiting to check in.
A group of about 30 refugees, mainly women with children, are arranging their documents with the help of the Greek asylum service staff. They will soon be leaving for Germany, where many have husbands waiting just as anxiously to be reunited with their families.

Dominique Osana waits in Athens airport with Falak and her children before the departure of Falak’s family to Dusseldorf, where they will be united with Falak’s husband and the children’s father through a family reunification programme.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

For the families, this moment is a milestone marking the end of a year-long journey. Family separation – with all its risks, inherent or magnified by the circumstances that surround it – is finally close to being over.

Separation under the best circumstances means being cut off from the emotional support and protection of your family. For families who have fled war and are in an unfamiliar place with limited access to safety and meager economic resources, it can mean fighting for survival.

On Boxing Day in the Osanas’ house in Greece, Dominique called Falak’s husband, Mohammed, on Skype and introduced his family.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

Falak, a 38-year-old Syrian mother of five children under 13, did not sleep last night.

This is the day she has been waiting for. She and her children are finally flying to Dusseldorf, where she will reunite with her husband, Mohammed, who is already living in Germany. He obtained refugee status there in 2015. After nearly two years apart, only three-and-a-half more hours separate the family.

Alexandros plays with Evin, Rudi and Mohammed in Falak’s temporary accommodation in Aigaleo, Greece.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

They had fled persecution and war in their home city of Aleppo, a name that has become synonymous with “battleground” in the Syrian conflict.

“Syria was a great country to live in before the war,” Mohammed said. Before the war, he was a textile worker with a steady monthly salary. They did not take the decision to leave lightly. “Obviously, this was the most difficult period of our lives.”

Initially, the family relocated to another town inside Syria, where they hoped they would be safe. Then Mohammed struck out to find a possible place for his family in Europe.

Falak and the children remained in the new town for the first year of Mohammed’s journey, hoping to obtain passports and make a carefully planned journey. But their new home was becoming “less secure by the day,” Mohammed said.

They gave up hope that the fighting would pass or that they could get their passports, and the family fled in February 2016.

Lava and her siblings carry food donated by the local Catholic parish in Aigaleo, Greece.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

Falak, her three daughters and two sons made a perilous passage to Europe, traveling from Syria to Greece. “I never thought I could do something like this,” she sad. “I wasn’t a strong person before – I was very cowardly.”

As thousands of others made the journey at that time, Falak said, “I was alone, I didn’t have anyone to help me.

“When we got into the boat we were very scared and cold. We stayed three-and-a-half hours in the middle of the sea inside a dinghy [which had started to fill] with water and with a broken engine,” she said. “The Greek coast guard saw us and escorted us to the shore.”

A typical Sunday in the temporary accommodation offered to Falak and her children by the local Catholic parish in Aigaleo, Greece, with the contribution of each member of the church.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

Falak and the children arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in early March 2016. They were transferred to Athens, where they rented a house with a few women who were traveling together.

“We were 30 people in a one-bedroom house. The person who provided us the house charged every mother 200 euros for nine days,” Falak said. “This was my last money and my last hope … [but] after nine days the person who was responsible for the house told me I had to leave.”

Sunday in the kitchen of the temporary accommodation provided for Falak and her children in Aigaleo.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

With just eight euros left in her pocket, she went to the Caritas charity, which found accommodation for her and her children in a neighborhood Catholic church in the western suburbs of Athens. Father Martin, the parish priest, took them in.

She remembered the first night at the apartment Father Martin found for them: “I was so scared that I closed all the doors and I was constantly holding my children together. I was afraid that someone would come and take them away. Throughout the journey no one helped us so I couldn’t trust anyone.”

Falak’s family say goodbye to the Osanas as they leave the church accommodation in Aigaleo, Greece.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

In addition to providing housing, the church community also started to support them in other ways.

Sperantza and Dominique Osana, the mother and father of an Iraqi-Greek family who belong to the local Catholic community, started visiting Falak’s family regularly.

Dominique, who came to Greece 25 years ago as a refugee himself, was touched by the family’s situation. “They became a part of our family. Every Sunday we would meet, go for a walk or for food together,” he said. “It’s been 11 months that we have had them near us. The whole community loved them and they contributed to their support.”

Alexandros plays with Lava, Rudi and Mohammed, while Sperantza helps Elin and Evin to try the new shoes she has given to them.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

Once they were settled with help from Caritas, Dominique and Father Martin, Falak submitted an application for family reunification to the German embassy in Athens. German officials contacted Mohammed and confirmed that he would accept them.

The last day in Athens was emotional. The two families took a stroll around Athens city center. That evening, Falak packed their belongings from the apartment with the help of her eldest daughter, Lava. Later, the Osana family came for one last visit before taking them to the airport.

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

Mohammed finally spends time with his children and wife in their new home in Germany. 

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
This is the second of a two-part commentary on family reunification by Bethany Brown of Human Rights Watch and photojournalist Anna Pantelia that documents a Syrian family’s final days in Greece before heading to Germany to reunite with their father after nearly two years apart. Originally published at News Deeply.
“My heart is about to break,” said Falak, as she walked to the exit of the plane with her children in tow on an morning in early February.
The 38-year-old Syrian mother and her five children had flown from Athens to Dusseldorf, after spending nearly two years separated from her husband and their father Mohammed. He had since been granted refugee status in Germany and the family had been accepted for family reunification.
“Baba! Baba!” the oldest boy, also named Mohammed, shouted when he saw his father in the airport. He began to run and the rest of the family quickly followed.
Everyone’s eyes welled with tears. As they held each other tightly in long-awaited embraces, Falak wondered aloud, “Is it a dream or is it actually happening?”
Falak and Mohammed’s story has the dream-come-true ending that anyone would hope for after surviving persecution, war, open seas, vulnerability and waiting. Everything went right.

Mohammed meets his children and his wife in Dusseldorf airport, Germany, almost two years after he decided to come to Europe as a refugee.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

Many other asylum-seekers hoping to reunite with their families have not been so fortunate. Nearly 5,000 people, including 700 lone children, made family reunification requests in Greece in 2016, but only 1,107 of them have joined their families, according to the U.N.children’s fund.

Iza Papailiou, head of the Greek asylum service’s “Dublin Unit”, which implements the E.U.’s Dublin regulation on processing asylum seekers, describes numerous difficulties for family reunification.

She told Human Rights Watch that other asylum seekers have been misinformed, encountered legal and administrative blockages and had problems obtaining and verifying documentation or communicating across borders.

Falak from Syria – with her family Elin (2), Evin (4), Rudi (10), Mohamed (11) and Lava (13) – and Sperantza from Greece with her son Alexandros pose for a family photo in the temporary accommodation provided by the local Catholic parish in Aigaleo, Athens.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia

“It isn’t just about our administration or that of our counterparts – sometimes it’s difficult for applicants to submit documentation or we need documents from a relative in another state,” Papailiou said. “There are many legal issues. Sometimes they lose track of the relative. The authorities can’t find that person so we have to contact the applicants here in Greece, advising them to try to find them and go to the Asylum Service.

“And poor documentation of identity – a surname somehow written differently by the interpreter – can cause problems,” she added.

Rudi, Lava, Elin and Evin play in the backyard of the apartment in which they were staying in Aigaleo.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
Every condition – timing, applications and charitable assistance – had to align perfectly for Falak and her children to get to this point.
Their family’s story would have been very different if it were not for two things.
First, Mohammed arrived in Germany in 2015, before a change in policy that has increased the assignment of subsidiary protectionrather than refugee protection to Syrians. Fewer than 1 percent of Syrians were given subsidiary protection in 2015, compared with 42 percent the following year.
Because Mohammed received full refugee status, the family was relatively easily reunified and they were all granted refugee status and permission to remain in Germany for three years after Mohammed arrived in 2015. After that, their residency permit can be reviewed.
Subsidiary protection is based on the European Commission’s Qualification Directive of 2011, which says that a person is entitled to subsidiary protection if they cannot return to a home country because they “would face a real risk of suffering serious harm” and are “unable or, owing to such risk, unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.”
Subsidiary protection gives provisional protection but does not give beneficiaries full rights as refugees. It comes with a residence permit of one year instead of the three years given to people with refugee status and, from March 2016, those with subsidiary protection have no right to family reunification for two years.

Falak and her five children arrive in Dusseldorf airport, where she is going to meet her husband after two years.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
The second way that time was on the family’s side was that Falak and the children arrived in Greece just days before the onset of the E.U.-Turkey deal, an arrangement intended to stem the migration flow to Europe. Under the agreement, Greece should return all new arrivals on the Greek islands after March 20, 2016, to Turkey, including Syrians, on the questionable presumption that Turkey is what is known as a “safe” third country.
Although few of those who arrived since March 20, 2016 have actually been returned to Turkey, the fact that Falak and her children arrived just before the deal went into effect made it possible for them to leave Lesbos for the Greek mainland. It also gave a green light to the Greek Asylum Service and others to process their asylum claim and facilitate their departure to Germany.

Mohammed and Falak prepare the beds for their children in their new house in Bonn, Germany. 

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
Those who have arrived on the Greek islands since the deal went into effect are subject to different rules. More than a year later, thousands are still held on the islands, in harsh conditions, living in fear of being forcibly sent to Turkey. Most have been denied meaningful access to asylum procedures and to the rights that would follow from being recognized as refugees.
At least 1,187 people have been forcibly returned from the Greek islands to Turkey since the deal went into effect. Some did not apply for asylum. Others withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision at their first hearing. And others were rejected after an examination of their cases on their merits – in procedures that many independent observers, including the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, have found to have irregularities.
So far, however, no one has been forcibly returned to Turkey on the grounds that their asylum application was inadmissible because they could obtain effective protection in Turkey – the cornerstone of the deal.

Mohammed, two of his daughters Evin and Lava and his son Mohammed chat on Skype with the Osana family in Greece.

© 2017 Anna Pantelia
In Falak and Mohammed’s case, it also helped that their children were all young. If they had had adult children, they would not have been able to reunite in this way.
National laws and the E.U.’s Dublin regulation use a narrow definition of family for the purposes of reunification: a husband, wife and children under 18 years old. Human Rights Watch, Action Aid and other organizations working for the rights of refugees strongly support broadening the definitions of family for the family reunification process beyond the nuclear family with minor children.
Falak and Mohammed still worry about the family they left behind. Mohammed has not heard any word of his older brother, who was trapped in Syria behind the sealed border to Turkey.
Falak has a sister, a brother, an uncle and grandparents in Germany. Her parents and another brother fled to Turkey about a year ago. They applied for resettlement in Germany. Her brother, who has a disability, lived with his parents before the war. They are still waiting to hear about their case.
The relationship between older parents and adult children is not normally recognized by national laws on family reunification. Member states of the European Union are failing to protect older mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who want to live out their days with their family. Under such a narrow definition of family, Falak’s parents have no right to be reunited with her or her adult siblings.

Falak unpacks her family’s luggage in their new house in Germany.

Family reunification is a reasonable aim for all refugees – one they ought to be able to aspire to and realize. On a basic human level, it relieves suffering, and all basic civil and political human rights standards – whether European or universal – have recognized a need to protect the family. It is time for the E.U. and its member states to address the gaps in protection for refugee families torn apart by their desperate struggle to reach safety.

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

(Beirut) – The Iraqi army and other local security forces have forced over 300 displaced families to return to west Mosul neighborhoods still under risk of attack by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. The families, who had fled to the Hammam al-Alil and Hajj Ali camps for displaced people, are severely short of water, food, electricity, and medical assistance.

Wadi Hajjar neighborhood in west Mosul. Many families who had fled were forced to return there.

© 2017 Bran Symondson

Displaced residents, camp staff in Hammam al-Alil, and three federal police officers said that families were returned to certain west Mosul neighborhoods to make room for newly displaced people from more recently retaken neighborhoods of west Mosul. But aid workers involved in camp management and United Nations assessments of camp capacity indicated that the camps still have space for new arrivals.

“People from western Mosul fled some of the worst fighting there and finally found safety, only to be forced back to areas still under ISIS fire,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These families should not be forcibly returned to unsafe areas and areas that lack adequate water, food, electricity, or health facilities.”

The UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement state that all internally displaced people should be able to choose where they live and have the right to be protected against forcible return to any place where their life, safety, liberty, or health would be at risk.

Human Rights Watch visited the Mansour and Wadi Hajjar neighborhoods of west Mosul on May 15, 2017, and spoke with some of the families. Three people from Wadi Hajjar said they had fled the fighting there for camps in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of west Mosul, between one and two months ago. They said that at around 1 p.m. on May 9, camp staff came to their tents and said they had to leave because the camp was full, and new arrivals were on the way from other west Mosul neighborhoods that had more recently been retaken. Some families were given up to two hours to leave, while others were ordered to leave immediately, without being able to gather their belongings.

A camp resident talks to a member of the Iraqi forces after his arrival at Hammam al-Alil camp south of west Mosul, Iraq May 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

The west Mosul residents who were forcibly returned and spoke to Human Rights Watch said they had not wanted to return because of the lack of adequate food, water, and health facilities.

A staff member at the same camp in Hammam al-Alil said that an army commander called the camp manager on May 9, and said the camp had two hours to round up all the families from Wadi Hajjar, Tal Rumman, and Mansour neighborhoods. The staff started going tent by tent in Section A to deliver the instructions.

“The families were not ready, and most did not want to go,” the staff member said. “In the end, it was totally indiscriminate who got to stay because we had not made it to their tent in time, and who was forced to leave. We only got through a small number of the tents when at least 30 army trucks came and took at least 300 families.”

One man said Iraqi army officers loaded him into a truck with three families and drove them to Baghdad Circle, the southern entry point to the city, just over two kilometers from the front line, without giving them any choice in where they were taken.

The families walked back to their neighborhoods or shared taxis. One woman from Wadi Hajjar who could not afford a taxi said she walked back with her four young children, the youngest 3 months old. Her home was destroyed during the fighting and her husband was executed by ISIS, she said. “I have no water and cannot find milk here for my baby,” she said. She was living in an abandoned apartment in the area and was afraid her baby would die because she couldn’t get milk.

On May 10, the camp staff member said, staff rounded up more families, but stopped when they got word that the mayor of the town of Hammam al-Alil had ordered the returns halted.

An international staff member said that the mayor issued an order on May 9, after hearing about the forcible returns, and that some of the families who had been forced out heard about it from friends or relatives in the camp and returned to the camp. But the staff member was concerned that their ration cards might not have been returned to them. The mayor told Human Rights Watch all the returns had been voluntary, and that only 67 families had ultimately remained in west Mosul.

However, two people from Wadi Hajjar, who said they had lived in the same camp, said that at about 7 a.m. on May 14, camp management came to their tent and told them they had two hours to get ready to leave. They both protested but were told they had no choice. They said the army loaded up about 30 families from Wadi Hajjar, Mansour, and Wadi al-Ayn onto several trucks and drove them to Baghdad Circle. One said he returned to his home in Wadi Hajjar to find that an ISIS mortar had blasted through his roof. Neighbors told him it had happened 10 days earlier.

Another man from Wadi Hajjar who had spent a month and a half in a camp in Hajj Ali, a village about 70 kilometers south of Mosul, said that on May 10, a local sheikh arrived at the camp with several guards in two vehicles. When residents gathered around, the sheikh said: “Those of you from liberated neighborhoods have to go back home.” The man said he was concerned about having to go back, but left three days later, sharing a taxi with 10 other people back to Wadi Hajjar.

Dozens of the returned families from Wadi Hajjar and Mansour said that they had limited electricity and water. Many said they could not afford to buy enough food for their families from the local markets, where prices remain elevated.

Abu Omar, the mayor of Wadi Hajjar, said that one hospital in the area has recently reopened, but has yet to offer more than the most basic medical services. An aid worker traveling into west Mosul told Human Rights Watch they only knew of one other clinic in the five neighborhoods that was operational.

People who had returned to Wadi Hajjar said that ISIS mortar attacks had hit the neighborhood as recently as May 5, and that they feared ISIS grenade attacks delivered by drone. Security reports from the International NGO Safety Organisation said that the Mansour neighborhood was hit with an ISIS mortar attack as recently as May 12. The front line is currently between one and three kilometers from the neighborhoods where people returned.

As of May 16, UN data showed that there were at least 7,000 plots in various camps available for new arrivals and two international aid workers told Human Rights Watch that organizations have identified multiple sites for potential new camps. They said that one new camp opened at about the same time as the first forcible returns and that another is to open in late May. They said that at least one camp was ready to receive displaced people but was sitting empty at the order of local authorities.

In addition, at least 38 percent of displaced people were seeking refuge in host communities, not camps, with that number rapidly rising in recent weeks to up to 80 percent of the new arrivals. However, aid workers said, Iraqi authorities have been hesitant to look beyond the camps in their planning to try to meet the needs of people seeking refuge elsewhere.

“The armed forces have an obligation to protect civilians, but they are instead putting civilians in danger by sending them back into unsafe areas,” Fakih said. “All returns should be safe, dignified, voluntary, and informed.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report on migration and education. Human Rights Watch has conducted research on children’s rights, including the right to education of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, and migrants, for over two decades.

 SEPTEMBER 2014. Syrian Kurdish refugees look out from the back of a truck as they enter Turkey from the town of Kobane 
(Ayn al-Arab), Syria, and surrounding villages. 

© 2014 Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum

This submission includes an overview of the international legal framework protecting the right to education, factors contributing to children’s involuntary migration, and systemic barriers affecting education in host countries, as well as our recommendations. Examples included in this submission are based on Human Rights Watch’s interviews with children who find themselves in various countries, including Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nauru, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden, and Turkey.

Children are often forced to move either internally or across international borders because of armed conflict, natural hazards, persecution, and violence. Our research has found that denial of education, often in violent settings, and systemic barriers to education can lead children to leave their home country. Moving involuntarily to a new country can have a devastating impact on the right to education for refugee, asylum-seeking, and migrant children (hereinafter collectively described as “involuntary migrant” children as per GEM terminology), particularly when host governments fail to take adequate measures to guarantee these children a right to access education on an equal basis with citizens of the host country.

Once in a new community or country, involuntary migrant and displaced children do not automatically have access to education. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 50 percent of primary school-age refugee children and 75 percent of secondary school-age refugees are out of school. The refugee agency also estimates that girls and women make up 70 percent of the world’s internally displaced population and are most likely to be out of school.

In many cases, governments adhere to policies and regulations that directly or indirectly prevent involuntary migrant and displaced children from going to school. Problematic policies include those that mandate school fees only for non-nationals, or require refugees to obtain government-issued documentation or legal status but in effect prevent many from doing so, as well as those that bar non-nationals from working. The effect of these policies leaves many children unable to register in school and many impoverished refugees unable to work lawfully. In many cases documented by Human Rights Watch, children often turn to exploitative and harmful forms of child labor to support their families. Many girls are married off before they reach age 18 after facing barriers to go to school.

Other factors also undermine the right to education of millions of involuntary migrant and displaced children around the world. These include: the lack or limited availability of education services in official and unofficial refugee camps; the limited availability of free secondary education and vocational training in host countries; and the lack of inclusive education and accessible services for children with disabilities. Within schools, involuntary migrant children, who often must adjust to school in a different language, and confront stigma and discrimination, will also feel the impact of existing barriers and harmful practices in host schools, including: oversized classes; a lack of adequate classrooms and trained teachers; widespread corporal punishment; and bullying and harassment on the way to school and in the classroom.

Some countries automatically detain children for immigration purposes, denying them their right to education, as well as other fundamental rights. In Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia, voluntary and involuntary migrant children, both accompanied and unaccompanied, are often arbitrarily detained in unhygienic detention facilities without access to any formal education and are generally not allowed to leave the facilities to attend school. Even for children who avoid detention, the threat of immigration detention or deportations may lead families to avoid registering their children in the official school system. 

The overall result of governments’ policies and practices, discrimination, and other systemic barriers is that millions of involuntary migrant children are being deprived of their right to education, which is essential for their future and for the development of their host countries and countries of origin. Removing obstacles to education is critical for children to recover from conflict, persecution, and other factors forcing their movement; and to realize their rights to and through education.

Legal framework

All children have the right to education, free from discrimination of any kind.[1] At the primary level, education should be compulsory and available free to all.[2] Secondary education and vocational training should be made generally available and accessible to every child.[3]

The UN Refugee Convention provides that governments hosting refugees must accord them the same treatment accorded to nationals with respect to primary education.[4] The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that governments adopt appropriate efforts to cater to the special needs of asylum-seeking and refugee children.[5] The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to ensure equal access to basic services such as education including in emergency situations, such as armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies, and the occurrence of natural disasters,[6] and failure to do so is a form of discrimination.[7] Refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls should be assured the right to education without discrimination.[8]

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has “confirm[ed] that the principle of non-discrimination extends to all persons of school age residing in the territory of a State party, including non-nationals, and irrespective of their legal status.”[9] The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also recommends that states “[r]emove obstacles that prevent the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by non-citizens, notably in the area of education” and “[e]nsure that public educational institutions are open to non-citizens and children of undocumented immigrants residing in the territory of a state party.”[10] According to the Committee of the Rights of the Child, separated and unaccompanied children should have access to education during all phases of the displacement,[11] including any time they spend in detention.[12]

Deprivation of the right to education or other economic, social, and cultural rights may also give rise to an asylum claim.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that, “Children’s socio-economic needs are often more compelling than those of adults, particularly due to their dependency on adults and unique developmental needs. Deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights, thus, may be as relevant to the assessment of a child’s claim as that of civil and political rights.”[13]

Displaced children, as citizens of their countries, have a right to education and training in their new communities. The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement recommend that “authorities concerned shall ensure that such persons, in particular displaced children, receive education which shall be free and compulsory at the primary level. Education should respect their cultural identity, language and religion.”[14] Moreover, special efforts should be made to ensure the full and equal participation of women and girls in educational programs.[15]

The Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families guarantees the basic right of access to education for children of migrant workers on an equal basis with nationals of the states concerned. Migrant workers should also have equal access to educational institutions and services, and vocational guidance and training.[16]

Widespread Violence and Conflict as Push Factors

Human Rights Watch interviews with asylum seekers and migrants in many contexts found that children are fleeing abuses, including recruitment as soldiers, child marriage, and attacks on schools or other effects of armed conflict.

Refugee and migrant children and parents from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who fled to Mexico told Human Rights Watch that children are at risk of recruitment and other abuses by gangs as they walked to and from school. “To get to school, we had to pass by the place where the gang members were,” said Carlos G., who left San Salvador in 2011, when he was 17.[17] As a result, some children stopped attending classes in order to avoid the gangs as they went to and from school, and some left their countries to live and pursue their education elsewhere. Many of the children Human Rights Watch interviewed in 2015 said that they were pressured to join gangs, often under threat of harm or death to themselves or to family members. Girls face particular risk of sexual violence and assault by gang members. Other children gave accounts of being held for ransom or targeted for extortion.[18]

In Greece, Afghan children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2015 had fled Iran, where they first sought asylum, because of police abuse and lack of access to education, and many had been barred from school or were unable to afford fees and had become trapped in exploitative labor situations.[19]

Attacks on schools or other conflict-related barriers to education also cause children and their families to flee. Tarek, a 16-year-old Afghan who fled the fighting in Helmand Province in 2014, and who was seeking asylum in Greece, told Human Rights Watch in 2015:

There are schools, but not so many students because people are afraid to send their children because of the Taliban. One school is only open one day a week. Children do not go. The Taliban doesn’t allow children to go to school. If families let children go, the Taliban will kill them because in the future they may work for foreigners.[20]

Attacks on students and teachers, fear of recruitment, and violence have caused some refugee families to flee again after they tried to go home.[21] In August 2016, Human Rights Watch spoke to Ruun, a 36-year-old Somali mother of nine children, after she had returned to Dadaab camp, Kenya. She said she returned because she was worried her 14-year-old son would be recruited as a fighter if she remained in Somalia, and she couldn’t afford to take her children to school. “I came back here to be safe and secure and for my children to go to school,” she said.[22]

Systemic Barriers: School Fees, Indirect Costs, and Enrollment Restrictions

In most host countries, primary education is tuition-free and compulsory, and secondary education is usually free and available.[23] However, school fees, other school-related costs, administrative barriers, and the lack of enforcement of compulsory education for non-nationals, prevent children from accessing education.

Human Rights Watch has documented barriers to education facing Syrian refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.[24] An inability to pay for transportation and education materials often prevents Syrian refugee children from attending school. Syrian families’ poverty has also contributed to an increase in child marriage among Syrian girls, who then often drop out of school.[25]

In Lebanon, we found that irregularities in the implementation of policies prevented the enrollment of many Syrian children. In many cases, school directors continued to require Syrian families to provide proof of legal residency, UN registration papers, health documents, and local attestation of residency to enroll, in contravention of Lebanon’s enrollment policy.[26] Lebanese authorities has allowed Syrian children to enroll in public schools and waived school enrollment fees. They also announced plans to open up afternoon “second shift” classes in 330 public schools.[27]

In Jordan, school officials have required Syrian children to produce official Syrian school certificates, which many families left behind when they fled, in order to enroll in secondary school, or at the grade level of their age group in primary school.[28] Jordanian authorities have not permitted most Syrians who left the country’s refugee camps after July 2014 to register their non-camp residence with UNHCR, receive humanitarian support, or obtain government-issued identification cards.[29] These cards had been required to enroll in public school, but Jordan’s education minister instructed public schools to allow Syrian children to enroll in the 2016-2017 school year. Jordan also doubled the number of schools operating “double shifts” to create spaces for up to 50,000 more Syrian students, and established a “catch-up” program to reach another 25,000 children ages 8 to 12, who have been out of school for three or more years.[30] Despite these positive steps, Jordan did not meet its enrollment targets: the education ministry implemented an improved enrollment monitoring system, which found that previous estimates had overstated enrollment.[31]

Similarly, Turkey issued a temporary protection regulation in October 2014 that ensured Syrians could remain lawfully in Turkey without official residency permits. Under its temporary protection regime, it has allowed Syrian children to attend public schools free of charge and accredited independent schools that teach a modified Syrian curriculum in Arabic—called “temporary education centers.” In addition, the government has provided avenues for qualified Syrian teachers to be compensated for their work in those centers, developed programs to offer language assistance, teacher training, and better oversight to ensure that schools across the country comply with their directives.[32]

Despite measures to expand enrollment, all three host countries enforce tough labor and immigration restrictions. Economic hardship particularly affects Syrian refugee children’s access to education in the host countries. Families in which the parents cannot work or do not earn a living wage are more likely to depend on child labor to survive, which means children miss school to work, often in hazardous conditions. Children turning 15 in Lebanon face particular challenges in maintaining legal residency because many do not possess the required passport or individual identification card, and are therefore at heightened risk of arrest while travelling to school. Syrians in Jordan who are caught working without work permits, which very few have, have been liable to arrest and transfer to a refugee camp. Thus, a large percentage of Syrian families in host communities depend on their children to work, as children are seen as at less risk of arrest. The government has established and extended grace periods in 2016 during which authorities refrained from arresting Syrians in order to allow them to apply for work permits; nearly 40,000 have been issued. However, Syrian children are still dissuaded from pursuing an education, since schooling will not help them in the only available job market for low-paid, unskilled labor.[33]

In January 2016, Turkey published a regulation that will allow Syrians with temporary protection status to apply for work permits six months after they receive temporary protection status.[34] Enabling Syrians to support themselves should have significant benefits for refugee children’s access to education, since child labor is a major cause of drop-outs and non-enrollment. However, by the end of 2016, only 13,298 permits had been issued to Syrian refugees in Turkey, which hosts 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees.[35]

In Pakistan, limited access to education for refugee children is one factor causing Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Pakistan to return to Afghanistan, according to research conducted by Human Rights Watch in October and November 2016. Many Afghan refugee and asylum seekers in Pakistan cited the closure of Afghan refugee schools and exclusion of Afghan refugee children from Pakistani government schools as one of the key reasons they felt compelled to leave Pakistan. About half of the Afghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that from May 2016, their children had been excluded from Pakistani state schools or the authorities had shut down Afghan refugee schools.[36] Upon return, many Afghan children face significant administrative barriers to accessing education. Schools often request identification and transfer documentation, and many school officials apply arbitrary ages of enrollment in primary school. These barriers can be particularly harmful for girls, as discriminatory gender roles may mean that girls are more likely to lack identification, and to seek to enroll late and thus be affected by age restrictions and restrictions when enrolling mid-year. When families face difficulty obtaining the documentation necessary for a child to register or transfer, they may be less likely to go to great efforts to secure these documents for girls.[37]

In Iran, Human Rights Watch also found that a sizeable portion of unregistered Afghans are deprived of education as a result of Iranian policies. Afghan refugees in Iran have to pay school fees and show residency documents to be admitted to school, even though Iranian nationals are not subjected to the same conditions.[38] In 2004, for example, the Iranian government promulgated regulations that introduced mandatory education fees for all Afghan children.[39] Authorities consider these fees nominal but some Afghans say they are onerous.[40] According to Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2012 tuition fees for primary, junior high, and high school were raised as a consequence of the removal of subsidies, affecting both Iranian nationals and refugees.[41] Afghans without legal status or valid refugee documents face many difficulties in obtaining education for their children, with many children going uneducated or attending underground schools as a result.[42] In 2015, Iran reportedly allowed all Afghan children, including undocumented ones, to register for schools after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a ruling reaffirming the need for universal education.[43] However, some reports indicate that only 10 percent of Afghan children who were left out of school were able to enroll in schools.[44]

Ahmad, a 16-year-old Afghan who was raised in Iran, said:

I went to school, but my parents had to pay for me and my brother and sister because we were not Iranian. Iranian children do not have to pay. Two or three times I did well enough in exams to qualify for a special education program, but could not go, because I was Afghan. Refugees are also not allowed to study in university in Iran, so I decided for my future to go somewhere else. I didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan. Every day we heard about suicide bombings and someone or some group of people losing their life, even in Kabul. Every day there is a bomb blast. If I went back there, I imagine a dark future. I just want to have a chance to continue my education, nothing more.[45]

In Sweden, more than 35,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in 2015. Unaccompanied children are not detained in Sweden and are entitled by law to equal access to education.[46] However, the arrival of tens of thousands of children in 2015 has put a strain on this system, which has affected their right to education. Human Rights Watch found that delays in appointing guardians impacted children’s access to education, information, and support. No national agency has the responsibility to track guardianship appointments, living arrangements, school enrollment, health screenings, or assessments by social workers.[47] Four children reported that they were prevented from enrolling in school because they did not have a guardian.[48] Local officials told Human Rights Watch that, as the rate of arrivals increased and the delay in appointment of guardians began to significantly affect enrollment, informal arrangements were made with local school authorities so that staff from group homes could enroll children.[49]

Lack of Quality and Inclusive Education

Human Rights Watch found that language barriers, a lack of educational materials, such as textbooks, and inattentive or inadequately trained teachers have caused Syrian refugee children to drop out of school in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Lack of access to private, clean sanitation facilities at schools has also affected girls’ ability to manage their hygiene during menstruation and affect school attendance.[50] 

Lebanon’s public school system struggled before the ongoing refugee crisis, when only 30 percent of Lebanese students attended public schools, which suffer high rates of grade repetition and dropouts.[51] This problem is exacerbated for Syrian children enrolled in newly opened second shift classes, which are run in the afternoon to accommodate additional students. Under the ministry’s operating procedures, second shift teachers are drawn from the first shift, and new teachers are only hired if there are an insufficient number of teachers or qualified staff available from the first shift.[52] This leaves many teachers tired and overworked, reducing the quality of both shifts. Underqualified teachers and double shifts also affected quality of education in Jordan.[53]

Human Rights Watch documented that children with disabilities in Jordan and Lebanon have been largely excluded from efforts to provide Syrian children access to education.  Lebanese public schools are not inclusive, and many children with disabilities in Lebanon are unable to access quality education, despite a law that guarantees access to education for children with disabilities.[54] Syrians are not eligible for government funding that allows Lebanese children with disabilities to access institutions. Human Rights Watch found that public schools were turning away Syrian children on the basis of their disabilities. In Lebanon, a dozen humanitarian and disabilities organizations told Human Rights Watch that little or nothing had been done to ensure that children with disabilities could enroll in schools. Where Syrian children with disabilities in Jordan and Lebanon were able to enroll in schools, schools did not adequately accommodate the needs of children with disabilities to ensure they receive quality education on an equal basis with other children. This meant some Syrian refugee children with disabilities remain at home.[55] 

In Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Human Rights Watch found that widespread corporal punishment of children by teachers, school administrators, and bus drivers; violence, bullying, discrimination, and harassment on the way to school and in the classroom have caused Syrian refugee children to drop out of school in these three countries.[56] Girls are also particularly affected. Parents are more likely to keep older girls home due to safety concerns and fears of harassment.[57] Discrimination in school can also affect children’s ability to learn or motivation to attend. Halima, 30, who now lives in Beirut, told Human Rights Watch:

My kids hate school, they don’t want to go. The monitor stands on their feet and pulls their hair. There is no respect for the student or the parent. [Teachers] insult the kids in class, calling them cow or donkey. The way that Syrian children are treated differently makes them close their minds.[58]


In Nauru, where some 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers have been sent for “regional processing” by Australia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that, in part due to bullying and harassment, many asylum seeker and refugee children have stopped attending school.[59] Save the Children Australia estimates that 85 percent of refugee and asylum seeker children on Nauru are not enrolled in school.[60] A school in the regional processing center closed in mid-2015 and refugee and asylum-seeking children attend local schools.[61] Harassment and violence against refugee and asylum-seeking children in local schools appeared to be prevalent. Parents and children reported that they are regularly called names, shoved, hit, have things thrown at them, and subjected to other forms of bullying and sexualized forms of harassment while at school.[62] Children reported being ignored when they complain of bullying and harassment to their teachers. Similarly, a July 2016 evaluation by Save the Children Australia found that refugee and asylum-seeking children, particularly girls, were subjected to physical violence by Nauruan students.[63]

Limited Access to Education in Refugee and Displacement Camps

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the situation of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children in northern France, living in the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais. The only form of education available in the camp was provided by nongovernmental organizations or volunteers in the camp. When the camp in Calais was closed by the French government in late October 2016, children were taken to temporary reception centers across France. Between December 5 and 16, Human Rights Watch interviewed 41 unaccompanied migrant children from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan and staff in six reception centers. Human Rights Watch found that children had access to limited informal educational and recreational activities in the reception centers.[64]

Like with all children, displacement and migration causes great disruption for children and young people with disabilities including their ability to attend school and receive an education. Unfortunately, while many efforts to support displaced and migrant children include providing them with access to education, Human Rights Watch research suggests that humanitarian needs analysis are most often not inclusive and do not factor in the specific needs of children and young people with disabilities, thereby affecting humanitarian aid allocations for inclusive education programs in camp and non-camp settings, impacting on children’s right to inclusive education.[65] In 2015, Human Rights Watch found that very few children with disabilities were enrolled in schools in camps like the M’Poko camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bangui, Central African Republic.[66] Of the nearly 3,800 children enrolled at the school in M’Poko, only 14 had disabilities. While the school itself was wheelchair-accessible, the route to the school was not. Children with physical disabilities needed a family member to drop them to school and pick them up, and they needed an assistive device. Without an assistive device, such as a wheelchair, children with physical disabilities can find it hard to sit all day on the floor.[67] School staff told Human Rights Watch that some parents were hesitant to send children with physical disabilities to school as they fear that their children will not be able to flee in case of an attack. Children with sensory or intellectual disabilities are unable to attend because the school does not have teachers trained in inclusive methods. The school staff has not actively sought to enroll children with disabilities.[68] The M’Poko camp has since been closed but Human Rights Watch research has not found evidence of children with disabilities getting access to inclusive education in camps for internally displaced people in other parts of the country.

In Greece, Human Rights Watch research conducted in 2017 found that children with disabilities who are refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are not properly identified and do not enjoy equal access to services, including access to education, in Greek reception centers. One of the people working in Souda camp in Chios, which held 1,150 people when Human Rights Watch visited, said that the lack of access to education affects the mental well-being of migrants and asylum seekers.[69]

Across northern Nigeria, where many have become displaced because of Boko Haram attacks on schools and other targets, Human Rights Watch found that many children have limited schooling in displacement camps or in private homes and communities where they are hosted by friends, families, and others. For about 10 percent of displaced children, who are living in camps, there is some access to primary and secondary education, though it is far from adequate. In such camps, schools consist of children grouped according to their age in large rooms or underneath trees for three to four hours of lessons per day, in most cases three times a week. School materials such as paper and pencils are provided in UNICEF-supplied bags, but there are no textbooks for the children, or other teaching aids for teachers.  The education programs in camps utilize public school teachers from the same areas as the children they teach.[70]

For parents, the poor quality of teaching at the camp learning spaces evokes nostalgia for what they left behind in their violence-ravished communities. A father of nine children said:

There is no school here. What we have is rubbish. The children go for some hours and come back. They are not learning anything. No books. Only writing paper. It is not worth keeping my children here [in Maiduguri]. When I have chance we will go back to our village.[71]

Denial of Education Through Immigration Detention

International standards provide that the detention of any asylum seeker, whether a child or an adult, should normally be avoided. In countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and Thailand, migrant children are detained in immigration centers, where they often have limited to no access to education.[72]

Human Rights Watch found that Thailand’s immigration laws permit the indefinite detention of all refugees, including Rohingya and members of other ethnic groups from Burma, ethnic Uighurs from China, Pakistanis, and Somalis. Migrant children are held in squalid cells without adequate food or opportunity to exercise or receive an education.[73] 

In 2015, Human Rights Watch research into the situation of refugee and migrant children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Mexico found that children in detention appeared to be deprived of their right to education. Human Rights Watch heard of no instance in which children had access to regular, appropriate grade-level education in immigration detention centers and National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) shelters, regardless of the length of time they are held. At most, children may take part in activities, run on an ad hoc basis, that have a limited educational component, such as craft sessions and religious discussions.[74]

In mid-2016, Human Rights Watch investigated the situation of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children in detention in Greece, where children are often detained in so-called protective custody. Human Rights Watch found that unaccompanied children were routinely and arbitrarily detained in small, overcrowded, and unhygienic cells for prolonged periods, with little access to basic care and services. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the unaccompanied children had access to educational opportunities or recreational activities.[75] Some children only had access to educational activities in safe spaces set up by UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations in refugee camps, where on-site staff and volunteers provided support specifically to unaccompanied children.[76]


Governments should:

  • Ensure, under law and in policy and practice, every child’s right to free and compulsory primary education, and ensure secondary education and vocational training is made generally accessible and available to all.
  • Revoke any laws or policies that discriminate against children of foreign nationality and deny them the right to education.
  • Delink immigration-related requirements from enrollment criteria, including residence permits or school fees that are not regularly applicable to nationals of their countries, particularly where such requirements effectively serve to isolate or discriminate against refugee and asylum-seeking children.
  • Ensure that enrollment and education policies are properly implemented at all levels to ensure that all children can access quality education on an equal and inclusive basis, and monitor compliance at the local level.
  • Ensure non-nationals have access to quality language support programs in primary and secondary schools, and vocational centers.
  • Ensure the provision of education in crises and displacement, and adopt special measures to ensure children can continue to go to school in highly insecure areas, including by reducing the distance to school, offering distance learning programs, and setting up protective spaces for girls and teachers.
  • With humanitarian and development agencies:
    • Ensure that internally displaced, asylum-seeking and refugee children and youth are included in national education plans, and collect better data to monitor their situation.
    • Ensure children with disabilities are included in all education efforts. When implementing education programs in the context of migration, organizations and governments should ensure there is no inadvertent discrimination against children with disabilities. An inclusive education program should provide all students with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences, including accessible classrooms, education materials, and teachers trained to adapt to different learning abilities and styles.  
  • Curtail detention of children for immigration purposes. In the exceptional cases where children are detained they should receive services and care appropriate to their age, including access to compulsory education. Governments should provide access to educational activities designed to provide a measure of continuity and give children the opportunity to reenter the formal education system at a later date. For those children who are in detention settings for longer periods—including applicants for refugee recognition, who may spend months in detention—governments should ensure that they receive access to educational programs that cover at least the curriculum of compulsory education at the primary level, and preferably also at the secondary level.


Humanitarian and bilateral donors, and agencies providing international support should:

  • Provide resources and technical cooperation to assist in the continuity of education in planning for emergencies and early recovery.
  • Target support to governments struggling to meet the education needs of internally displaced and refugee children, particularly in remote areas. All programs should be inclusive of children with disabilities.

[1]  Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), arts. 2, 28. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), arts. 2, 13; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), arts. 1-4.

[2] CRC, art. 28(1)(a); ICESCR, art. 13(2)(a).

[3] CRC, art. 2, 28(1), (b), (d); ICESCR, art. 13(2)(b).

[4] Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, entered into force April 22, 1954, art. 22.

[5] CRC, art 22(1).

[6] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted December 13, 2006, G.A. Res 61/106, U.N. Doc A/RES/61/106, entered into force May 3, 2008, art. 11.

[7] CRPD, arts. 3(b), 4.

[8] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation No. 32 on the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women, CEDAW/C/GC/32, 2014, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/TBSearch.aspx?SymbolNo=CEDAW/C/GC/32 (accessed May 9, 2017).

[9] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 13: The right to education (article 13) (1999), E/C.12/1999/10, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2f1999%2f10&Lang=en (accessed May 17, 2017), para. 34.

[10] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, General Recommendation No. 30: Discrimination against Non-Citizens,

, CERD/C/Misc.11/rev.3 (2004), paras. 29-30. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issues authoritative guidance on the binding content of the obligations set forth in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted December 21, 1965, 660 U.N.T.S. 195 (entered into force January 4, 1969).

[11] “Every unaccompanied and separated child, irrespective of status, shall have full access to education in the country that they have entered in line with articles 28, 29(1)(c), 30 and 32 of the Convention and the general principles developed by the Committee.” Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6, “Treatment of unaccompanied and separated children

outside their country of origin,” CRC/GC/2005/6 (2005), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fGC%2f2005%2f6&Lang=en 9accessed May 9, 2017), para. 41.

[12] See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Detention Guidelines, para. 56 (“During detention, children have a right to education which should optimally take place outside the detention premises in order to facilitate the continuation of their education upon release.”); Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 6, para. 63.

[13] UNHCR, Guidelines on Child Asylum Claims, para. 14. See also Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 11: Plans of Action for Primary Education, UN Doc. E/1992/23 (May 10, 1999), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2f1999%2f4&Lang=en (accessed May 17, 2017) para. 4 (“The lack of educational opportunities for children often reinforces their subjection to various other human rights violations.”).

[14] UN Economic and Social Council, UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 11 February 1998, E/Cn.4/1998/53/Add.2, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G98/104/93/PDF/G9810493.pd... (accessed May 23, 2016), principle 23 (1) and (2).

[15] Ibid., principle 23 (3).

[16] Convention on the protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families, adopted December 18, 1990, G.A. Res 45/158, U.N. Doc A/RES/45/158, entered into force July 1, 2003, arts. 30, 43, and 45.

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with Carlos G., México, DF, April 30, 2015.

[18] Human Rights Watch, Closed Doors, Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children, March 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/03/31/closed-doors/mexicos-failure-prote....

[19] “EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 22, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/22/eu-abuses-against-children-fuel-migr....

[20] Ibid.

[21] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon, July 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/19/growing-without-education/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children-lebanon; They Set the Classrooms on Fire” Attacks on Education in Northeast Nigeria, April 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/04/11/they-set-classrooms-fire/attacks-e... Studying Under Fire, Attacks on Schools, Military Use of Schools During the Armed Conflict in Eastern Ukraine, February 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/02/11/studying-under-fire/attacks-school....

[22] “Kenya: Involuntary Refugee Returns to Somalia, Camp Closure Threat Triggers Thousands Returning to Danger,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 14, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/09/14/kenya-involuntary-refugee-returns-somalia. For context on attacks against education in Somalia, see Human Rights Watch, No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia, February 2012, https://www.hrw.org/report/2012/02/20/no-place-children/child-recruitmen....

[23] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey, November 2015, https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/11/08/when-i-picture-my-future-i-see-nothing/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children; Seeking Refuge, Unaccompanied Children in Sweden, June 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/06/09/seeking-refuge/unaccompanied-children-sweden#0b7979; “Growing Up Without An Education” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon, July 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/19/growing-without-education/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children-lebanon; “We’re Afraid for Their Future” Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Jordan, August 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/08/16/were-afraid-their-future/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children-jordan; Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees, February 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/02/13/pakistan-coercion-un-complicity/ma....

[24] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children,” undated, https://www.hrw.org/tag/education-syrian-refugee-children.

[25] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[26] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education.”

[27] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do,” September 2016, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/education_for_syrian_refugee_children_what_donors_and_host_countries_should_do.pdf; UNHCR, “Lebanon: Inter-Agency Update, August-September 2016,” October 19, 2016, http://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/lebanon-inter-agency-update-august-september-2016 (accessed May 11, 2017).

[28] Human Rights Watch, “We’re Afraid For Their Future.”

[29] In November 2015, Jordan relaxed requirements for Syrians in host communities to comply with requirements to verify their residences, and reduced costs for them to obtain required health tests.

[30] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do.”

[31] “Remove Barriers to Syrian Refugee Education,” Human Rights Watch press release, April 5, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/04/05/remove-barriers-syrian-refugee-educa....

[32] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do.”

[33] Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Without An Education”; “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[34] “Karar Sayısı: 2016/8375,” http://www.resmigazete.gov.tr/eskiler/2016/01/20160115-23.pdf (accessed January 27, 2016).

[35] “Turkey issues work permits to over 73,500 foreigners,” Andalou Agency, January 18, 2017, http://aa.com.tr/en/economy/turkey-issues-work-permits-to-over-73-500-fo....

[36] Human Rights Watch, Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity.

[37] Based on Human Rights Watch’s research on barriers to girls’ education in Afghanistan, conducted in 2016.

[38] Human Rights Watch, Unwelcome Guests: Iran’s Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights, November 2013, https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/11/20/unwelcome-guests/irans-violation-a....

[39] Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, “Second-generation Afghans in Iran: Integration, Identity and Return,”April 2008, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/pdfid/4846b2062.pdf (accessed September 4, 2012).

[40] Frances Harrison, “Iran’s Afghan refugees feel pressure to leave,” BBC, November 1, 2004,

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3971711.stm (accessed December 9, 2015).

[41] UNHCR, “Update on the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees,” September 2012,

http://www.refworld.org/docid/511e470e2.html (accessed December 9, 2015).

[42] Human Rights Watch, Unwelcome Guests.

[43] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2016 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2016), Iran, https://www.hrw.org/worldreport/2016/country-chapters/iran.

[44] “Few Afghan Kids Enroll in Iran Schools,” Financial Tribunal, December 1, 2015, http://financialtribune.com/articles/people/31406/few-afghan-kids-enroll... (accessed April 4, 2016).

[45] “EU: Abuses Against Children Fuel Migration,” Human Rights Watch news release, June 22, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/22/eu-abuses-against-children-fuel-migr....

[46] Swedish Education Act, 2010:800, sec. 8; Discrimination Act, 2008:567, sec 1.

[47] Human Rights Watch, Seeking Refuge, Unaccompanied Children in Sweden.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Isah G., Gothenburg, February 2, 2016.

[49] Human Rights Watch interviews with Kristin Lindberg, Nordmaling, HVB Operations, January 31, 2016, and Mats Omgren and Victoria Sundling, January 29, 2016.

[50] Human Rights Watch, When I Picture My Future, I See Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[51] Ministry of Education and Higher Education, “Reaching all Children with Education in Lebanon,” June 2014, http://www.mehe.gov.lb/uploads/file/2015/Feb2015/Projects/RACEfinalEngli... (accessed March 28, 2016), p. 7

[52] Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Decree no. 719/M/2015 Public Schools Afternoon Shift Schedule – Executive procedures for teaching non-Lebanese children 2015/2016, art. 9.

[53] Human Rights Watch, Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[54] Bassam Khawaja (Human Rights Watch), “War is No Excuse for Depriving Children with Disabilities of an Education”, May 16, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/16/war-no-excuse-depriving-children-dis....

[55] Human Rights Watch, Growing Up Without An Education”; “We Are Afraid For Our Future;” Based on research to be published in an upcoming report.

[56] Human Rights Watch, “Education for Syrian Refugee Children,” undated, https://www.hrw.org/tag/education-syrian-refugee-children.

[57] Human Rights Watch, “When I Picture My Future, I see Nothing;” “Growing Up Without An Education;” “We Are Afraid For Our Future.”

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Halima, Beirut, November 25, 2015.

[59] Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, “Australia: Appalling Abuse, Neglect of Refugees on Nauru,” August 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/02/australia-appalling-abuse-neglect-re....

[60] See Nicole Hasham, “‘You Are Terrorists, You Make Bombs’: Racist Taunts Help Keep Nauru Refugee Kids Out of School,” Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/you-are-terrorists-you-make-bombs-racist-taunts-help-keep-nauru-refugee-kids-out-of-school-20160729-gqglcp.html (accessed November 2, 2016)

[61] Ben Doherty, “School in Nauru detention centre to be closed,” The Guardian, March 30, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/31/asylum-seeker-children-start-campaign-to-save-their-nauru-school-from-closure (accessed May 3, 2017).

[63] See Hasham, “‘You Are Terrorists, You Make Bombs.’”

[64] “France/UK: Lone Children From Calais Left in Limbo, Ensure Fair, Transparent Process for UK Entry,” Human Rights Watch news release, December 21, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/21/france/uk-lone-children-calais-left-....

[65] Human Rights Watch, The Education Deficit: Failures to Protect and Fulfill the Right to Education in Global Development Agendas, June 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/06/10/education-deficit/failures-protect....

[66] “Central African Republic: People With Disabilities Left Behind, Aid Agencies Should Include Them in Planning; Meet Basic Needs,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 28, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/04/28/central-african-republic-people-disa....

[67] Human Rights Watch, “Leave No One Behind,” pp. 19-20.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Greece: Refugees with Disabilities Overlooked, Underserved, Identify People with Disabilities; Ensure Access to Services, Human Rights Watch news release, January 18, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/01/18/greece-refugees-disabilities-overloo....

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with National Emergency Management Agency staff [name withheld], Maiduguri, September 10, 2015.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with a parent [name withheld], Maiduguri, Nigeria, September 10, 2015.

[72] See Alice Farmer (Human Rights Watch), “The Impact of Immigration Detention on Children,” Forced Migration Review, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/29/impact-immigration-detention-children; Michael Garcia Bochenek, “Children Behind Bars, The Global Overuse of Detention of Children,” Human Rights Watch World Report (January 2017), https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/children-behind-bars.

[73] Michael Garcia Bochenek, “Children Behind Bars, The Global Overuse of Detention of Children.”

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with DIF staff, Tapachula, Chiapas, October 23, 2015.

[75] Human Rights Watch, “Why Are You Keeping Me Here?” Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece, September 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/08/why-are-you-keeping-me-here/unacco....

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Kaiman T., safe space for unaccompanied children, Diavata refugee camp, Thessaloniki, June 28, 2016.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Two of the many children detained in the VIAL detention facility on Chios island, Greece.

© 2016 Human Rights Watch
Last October I visited camps for asylum seekers and migrants on the Greek islands, the landing spot in recent years for hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned everything in search of safety.

As I was waiting to get into the VIAL camp on Chios Island, a boy in ragged jeans called to me from the doorway of a bus. “Give up!” he said. “Do not waste your time. Nothing is going to change.” The door closed and the rickety bus bumped slowly away from the asylum processing center and into the heart of the camp.

It wasn’t what I expected to hear. VIAL is a place where asylum seekers are interviewed as part of a process that should, in the best of worlds, allow them a fair shot at finding refuge in a European country. But given the border closures along the Balkan route and deeply flawed EU deal signed with Turkey, it had become a dead-end.

The boy on the bus who was urging me to give up had told me at the processing center that he’d fled Afghanistan to avoid pressures to join the Taliban or the military. He was 15, and he’d spent two years on his own, working his way across Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, in the dicey world of the undocumented, like many other unaccompanied children in search of safety and a better future. He didn’t know whether his family back home was dead or alive.

During the following days, I met many children--from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia—who, like the boy on the bus, felt stuck. They huddled together listlessly, without any chance to get proper schooling or work, ticking off the hours, days, weeks, and months until their refugee status might be recognized and their destinies defined.

Others have been luckier. At the beginning of May, I met members of the Majid family, including children ranging in age from 6 to 11. They fled Aleppo, Syria in 2015 and traveled for two months, crossing nine European countries, dealing with hostile border guards, barbed wire fences, hunger, rain, and sleep deprivation, until they finally reached Sweden, which gave them a new home. They were in Sao Paulo to honor the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo exhibition of their journey by the Brazilian New York Times photographer Mauricio Lima.

In Sweden, the children have been rediscovering normal life: playing, going to school, competing in soccer. They have become fluent in Swedish. For them at least, memories of the Syrian war—in which more than 400,000 have died, 12 million have fled their homes, and the government has systematically used chemical weapons—may be fading. In such tragic times, more countries need to embrace families like the Majids. Worldwide, nearly 65 million people have been displaced by war or persecution – a number unmatched since World War II.

Brazil´s response to the refugee crisis, so far, has been disappointing. The current largest refugee group worldwide is the Syrians, and Brazil has taken in only 3,000 of them. It´s true that accepting refugees and ensuring that they can integrate into a new society requires investing resources, especially when the refugees come from a distant culture and don’t speak Portuguese. But Brazil could seek funding and assistance from the private sector, United Nations agencies, and donor countries to enhance its capacity—and our well-established Syrian and other ethnic communities could facilitate integration.

Brazil has opened its door to refugees before. We took in tens of thousands of Europeans after the two World Wars. Many of them showed us that foreigners in search of a life free from fear can make invaluable contributions to their host countries.

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


“15 NGOs Decry New Policy Limiting Asylum Seekers in Exercising their Right to Appeal”

Athens, Greece, 9 May 2017 – 15 NGOs urge the Greek Government to immediately reverse the recent policy excluding asylum-seekers on the Greek islands who appeal negative asylum decisions from the possibility of participating later on in the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme and forcing those who wish to participate to forego their right to appeal. The decision follows the direction set by the recommendations in the European Commission's and Greek Government’s Joint Action Plan on the European Union (EU) – Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016, which aims to limit the steps in the appeals process and remove so called “administrative obstacles to swift voluntary return”.

IOM’s AVRR programme provides migrants who cannot or no longer wish to remain in a host country with the support to return and reintegrate into their country of origin. According to IOM, “voluntariness remains a precondition for all its AVRR activities.”[i]

In direct contradiction to this precondition however, the recently announced policy restricts access to AVRR on the Greek islands as of early April, by dictating that, upon receipt of a negative first instance decision (i.e., inadmissible or rejection on merit), asylum seekers are provided with a choice: appeal this decision as per their right under Greek, EU, and International Human Rights law,[ii] or forego their right to appeal and benefit from the AVRR package (which includes €1,000). If they ultimately choose to exercise their right to appeal, they lose the opportunity for future AVRR, and if their appeal is negative, they face deportation to Turkey. This policy is not applicable for those on the Greek mainland who remain eligible for AVRR after having appealed their negative asylum decision. Under the new policy, individuals are meant to be given five days to decide. However, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have already received reports of people being pressured, without allowing time to consult with a lawyer, to make the decision on the spot.

World Report 2017: European Union

World Report 2017: European Union

Faced with significant strategic challenges, EU governments and institutions responded in 2016 in ways that often undercut or set aside core values and rights protections rather than working consistently together to defend them. 

We are concerned that the new policy has both a coercive effect on an asylum seeker’s decision to appeal a negative decision, thereby jeopardizing the right to a fair asylum process as provided by EU law, and also on their decision to return to their country of origin. In addition, this policy presents a high risk of refoulement, given that it can result in asylum seekers with strong asylum claims, who may nevertheless have received a negative first instance decision, to drop their right to appeal.

This new policy is the latest in a series of steps being taken to make access to asylum in Europe more difficult, as outlined in numerous NGO reports[iii]. Europe has a long history of commitment to protecting and upholding human rights, and has the means to fulfill its responsibility to provide international protection for people seeking it through procedures that are not prejudiced, do not discriminate, and do not apply duress to influence the outcome. Instead, these measures would limit the number of people who appeal, pressuring people in need of international protection to give up their claim. Seeking to manage migration at the cost of undermining or compromising asylum norms, sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world to follow.  

Everyone applying for asylum should be able to exercise their right to an appeal without foregoing the opportunity to seek AVRR at any point during and after the asylum process. Any person deciding to return home with the assistance of IOM should be able to do so free of duress and in full respect of their basic human rights. Any policy suggesting otherwise threatens to not only jeopardize the integrity of the AVRR programme, but also the asylum procedure in Greece and in turn, the right to asylum in Europe.


Any decision to exercise the right to appeal or to benefit from AVRR must be voluntary and non-coerced. IOM's AVRR programme should be available to all migrants at any time to enable safe, dignified, and sustainable return, whether or not they have applied for asylum.  As such:

  • The Greek Government should reverse the recent policy limiting a person’s eligibility for AVRR.
  • The Commission should urgently assess compatibility of this practice with EU asylum law and the right to an effective remedy.
  • IOM and UNHCR should work together and more vigorously with the Commission and Greek Government to assess the impact of the new policy on asylum seekers' decision-making, to ensure that the AVRR programme and its implementation under this new policy does not jeopardize the right to claim asylum and protection.
  • The Commission and Greek Government should put in place monitoring and accountability mechanisms to monitor the asylum procedures on the Greek islands, including those that allow for migrant feedback directly to the Greek Ombudsman.
  • The Commission and Greek Government should meet regularly with UN agencies and NGOs to allow for feedback on how policies may impact people and their rights. Consultations should take place regularly before policies are enacted so as to ensure they will not be harmful.


  1. ActionAid
  2. Advocates Abroad
  3. Amnesty International
  4. CARE
  5. Diotima
  6. Greek Council for Refugees
  7. Greek Forum of Migrants
  8. Human Rights Watch
  9. International Rescue Committee
  10. Jesuit Refugee Services
  11. Legal Centre Lesbos
  12. Norwegian Refugee Council
  13. Oxfam
  14. Save the Children
  15. Solidarity Now

[ii] Greek Law 61 of 4375/2016; Article 46 of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive which follows the wording of Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The directive requires EU Member States to allow applicants to remain in their territory until the time limit to lodge an appeal has expired as well as pending the outcome of an appeal. The right to appeal within the ICCPR Article 2 Para 3.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

People stand near a border post on the Algerian side of the Morocco-Algeria border in the north east of Morocco July 31, 2011. 

© 2011 Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

(Tunis) – Algerian and Moroccan border authorities appear to be blocking two groups of Syrian asylum seekers from leaving the border area near the Moroccan city of Figuig, Human Rights Watch said today. The Syrians, including women and children, have been trapped there since April 18, 2017, in abysmal conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Morocco, the two groups total 55 people, including 20 women, 2 of them in advanced states of pregnancy, and 22 children. One woman gave birth in the border area on the evening of April 23. It is unclear whether she had medical assistance. Authorities in both countries should step up to share responsibility, consider claims for protection based on the preference of the Syrian asylum seekers, and ensure that all the asylum seekers have access to necessary services, especially pregnant and breast-feeding women.

“While Algerian and Moroccan authorities squabble over which country should take the Syrians, men, women, and children are trapped in a desert-like area near the border between them, sleeping in the open and unable to apply for asylum,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa executive director at Human Rights Watch.

Moroccan authorities have indicated that they will grant entry visas to nine of the Syrians who have relatives living legally in Morocco, a spokesperson for UNHCR told Human Rights Watch on May 3.

The two groups arrived at the border area after leaving Syria and traveling through Libya and Algeria. Moroccan authorities publicly accused Algeria of deporting the asylum seekers to Morocco. The Algerian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations, saying they were aimed at “harming Algeria,” yet did not offer another version of events.
One of the Syrian asylum seekers, who spoke with Human Rights Watch on April 24, said that her group had left Algeria with guidance from local people around April 17. However, on April 18, Moroccan security forces intercepted them and pushed them back toward Algeria, she said:


We were a group of 14 people, mostly women and children and only one man. We traveled to Algeria from Syria, transiting through Libya and Sudan. We crossed the Moroccan border with the help of local people, but Moroccan border guards stopped us and made us spend the night. The next day, they pushed us back toward Algeria. But Algerian border guards intercepted us and didn’t allow us to enter Algerian territory. Now we are stuck between the Algerian and Moroccan borders and no one is providing us with any food or any kind of assistance. I have family living in Morocco, which is why I wanted to go there.

It is a violation of Morocco’s international obligations to remove asylum seekers from its territory or from under the control of Moroccan authorities, without a fair hearing to determine refugee status. It is also a violation to send them to a country where they face the risk of persecution or inhuman and degrading treatment or that might deport them to a third country where they would face that risk. Such removals also may violate article 29 of Morocco’s Law 02-03 on the Entry and Presence of Foreigners in the Kingdom. That article also prohibits the removal of pregnant women.

While international law does not prohibit the deportation of pregnant or breast-feeding women, both countries should ensure that all the trapped asylum seekers, in particular pregnant or breast-feeding women, have access to appropriate services while their claims for protection are being considered. If countries issue lawful deportation orders, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has said, they should “to treat each case individually, with due consideration to the gender-related circumstances.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants aboard a boat following their rescue from their drifting dinghies in the Mediterranean Seas by Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms, April 2, 2017. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) searching for and rescuing migrants from rickety or even sinking boats in the Mediterranean are saving lives. Thousands of lives.

Enough said? Apparently not.

In Italy, NGOs have come under a barrage of attacks from politicians, particularly from the 5 Star Movement and the far right Northern League, accusing them of providing a “taxi service” from Libya to the European Union. A media-savvy prosecutor in Sicily has made almost daily statements about his inquiry into NGO search-and-rescue operations, insinuating – without evidence – that they are colluding with and profiting from smuggling operations. NGOs and others have been called to explain themselves before a Senate committee.

The truth of the matter is this: The drivers of migration are many, and Libya is a hell-hole for many who risk brutal abuse and forced labor. People are prepared to risk their lives to reach safety or improve their lives, and the risk of dying at sea doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.

The debate raging in Italy over the role, objectives, and financing of NGOs is a damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole.

Humanitarian NGOs out at sea are protecting the most fundamental right there is: the right to life. They do so under the control and instructions of the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center. It is a measure of how toxic the debate over migration has become that organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Proactiva Open Arms, and Save the Children must defend their life-saving operations. At the same time, their critics side-step the logical conclusion of their arguments – that we should let people drown to deter others from coming to Europe.

If any NGOs are making mistakes, let’s work to improve protocols, training, and coordination. If governments are concerned by the role NGOs are taking on, let’s ensure that governments intensify their own efforts to protect lives at sea. Above all, if so many women, men, and children are risking their lives at sea, let’s rethink EU policies and create more safe and legal migration channels.  

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

Migrants on a wooden boat await rescue by the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station in the central Mediterranean in international waters off the coast of Sabratha, Libya on April 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Dear Minister Kurz,

The statement you made during your one-day visit to Tripoli on May 1, that “migrants who are saved in the Mediterranean should not be guaranteed a ticket to Central Europe,” feeds misinformed and xenophobic narratives in Europe.

I have visited many migrant detention centers in Libya, most recently two facilities in western Libya in April, where authorities are holding detainees in abysmal, overcrowded conditions. These experiences have led me to conclude that those fleeing conflict, or wishing to seek a better life and opportunities elsewhere, will continue to try despite the risks, such as traveling through Libya or the many other places where doors are shut in their faces.

You have praised Australia’s policy of outsourcing responsibility for asylum seekers and proposed the European Union adopt the same model. But the human cost of Australia’s “offshore processing” has been enormous. Asylum seekers have been forcibly transferred and held indefinitely in countries where they’d never intended to seek asylum and that are incapable of integrating them. Australia’s processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea have caused severe harm to refugees and asylum seekers, including to their mental health, and the United Nations considers that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression “have reached epidemic proportions” in Nauru.

Now you propose Europe ignore its human rights values and obligations and do the same, by interdicting boat migrants who approach European territorial waters and transferring them to countries like Egypt and Tunisia, for processing. You said, “No one will be ready to pay a smuggler in order to end up in Egypt.” This risk would not deter desperate people from paying smugglers to try to reach Europe and possibly be exposed to abuses in other countries.

A policy solely focused on shutting people out fails because it offers no viable alternative.

Mr. Foreign Minister, rather than dreaming of establishing a Nauru in the Mediterranean, please come up with a viable solution for migration and asylum procedures in Europe, one that will reduce the number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, which has reached already 938 in 2017. More opportunities for safe and legal migration to EU countries, including Austria, is a good place to start.

I would appreciate the possibility of discussing these matters with you in person.

Hanan Salah

Senior Libya Researcher
Middle East and North Africa
Human Rights Watch

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