(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

A doctor with expertise in documenting torture reviewed photos of three of the men provided by their family lawyers to Human Rights Watch, which showed widespread bruising and cuts. He said the injuries were “consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture” and that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with five former detainees, who said that army personnel beat and ill-treated them and other detainees. A military officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was investigating the deaths and would publish its findings.

“While the Lebanese army’s promise to investigate these shocking deaths is a positive step, the promise will be meaningless without transparent and independent accountability for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who supports the Lebanese army should support efforts to tackle such serious allegations of military abuse.”

Photos of the bodies of three Syrians who died in Lebanese military custody, provided to Human Rights Watch by their families' lawyers. © 2017 Private

On June 30, the Lebanese army announced it had raided two unofficial refugee camps in Arsal that day, and was met with suicide bombers, a bomb, and a grenade, resulting in the injury of seven soldiers. On July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.

The Lebanese army regularly conducts raids on unofficial refugee camps in Lebanon, but has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about the purpose of these raids. The raids came amid calls from Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria and reports of an impending military operation against armed groups on the Syrian border near Arsal.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that Syrians died during the raids themselves, but a source in Arsal said the municipality received nine bodies, not including the five men who were reported to have died in custody.

The army’s July 4 statement said that four detainees who “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition” died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a family member and a close acquaintance of two of the deceased, who said that they had no known serious health conditions. Both said that the army gave no reason for the arrests and did not notify the families of the deaths.

On July 14, Human Rights Watch received reports that a fifth Syrian detainee, Toufic al Ghawi, 23, died in detention after the army transferred him to the Elias Hrawi government hospital. A witness in Arsal who saw the body before burial said, “Toufic didn’t look human anymore. His flesh was torn apart.” Human Rights Watch has not received photographs of the body.

Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs, and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused, and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the military on July 10 to verify the number of those arrested, injured, or killed during the army raids; those still in custody; and the conditions of their detention, but has not received a response. Human Rights Watch also requested permission to enter Arsal to interview witnesses, but has not received permission. An army officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was not allowing “media organizations” to enter Arsal. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the military and military prosecutor.

Under international law, Lebanon has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch and local human rights organizations have long documented reports of torture and ill-treatment by security services including the army. Impunity for violence is a recurring problem in Lebanon. Even when officials have initiated investigations into deaths, torture, or ill-treatment, they have often not been concluded or made public. Human Rights Watch is not aware of cases where military personnel have been held to account.

“The Lebanese public and the Syrian families of those who died in detention deserve a clear accounting of what happened to them and punishment for those found responsible,” Whitson said. “Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities have a history of opening investigations in response to public pressure, but failing to conclude them or publish the results.”

Photographic Evidence of Torture
Human Rights Watch received 28 photographs of three of the deceased men, taken at the Elias Hrawi government hospital in Zahle, from the law firm representing the families of the deceased. The lawyers said they were not able to locate Othman el-Mleis’s body. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, who has expertise in documenting torture, reviewed the photographs and shared his report:

The photos reveal widespread physical trauma of the upper and lower extremities. The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture. Several of the photos are consistent with lacerations caused from being suspended by the wrists. It would be reasonable to conclude that the deaths of these men is the result of in-custody violence, although the precise cause of death cannot be predicted based on the information and photographs submitted. Any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.

Corroborating Evidence of Torture and Mistreatment of Arsal Detainees
Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees from Arsal who said they were detained without charge for four to five days. They said soldiers handcuffed them, hooded them with their shirts, put them on the ground in the sun, and stomped or hit anyone raising their head. “I moved my head up slightly, and immediately a soldier hit me with his boot,” one man said.

The men said soldiers then loaded them onto trucks “one over the other, as if they’re shipping potato bags,” and took them to multiple detention sites including Rayak Air Base in the Bekaa Valley and the military intelligence and military police bases in Ablah. At Rayak Air Base, they said, army personnel held more than 100 of them in one room overnight, denied them food and water, and did not allow them to use the bathroom. “They would beat whoever asked to go to the bathroom,” said a former detainee in his 60s.

They said that army personnel at Rayak beat, insulted, and threatened them and others. “They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” one said. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face…until blood came out.”

The men interviewed said they were finally transferred to General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency, who did not mistreat them and released them. The former detainees said that the army never told them why they had been detained.

One former detainee, interviewed on July 11, said: “I had to leave my son behind [in detention]. To this day, I don’t know what has happened to him.” Lebanese law limits pre-charge detention to 96 hours.

Medical Reports
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical reports for three of the deceased, dated July 1 and 2, and prepared by a forensic doctor at the request of the general prosecutor, concluding that they had suffered heart attacks and a stroke, and that the bodies did not show marks of violence.

A lawyer representing the families said she had received permission from a Judge of Urgent Affairs for a forensic doctor to examine the bodies, conduct an autopsy, and take medical samples to ascertain the cause of death. After she took the medical samples to the Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut for analysis, the lawyer said, Military Intelligence personnel there demanded she turn them over, by order of the Military Information Directorate. She handed them over after the general prosecutor, Samir Hammoud, instructed her to do so. Following the military’s intervention, she said that the X-ray, CT scan, and autopsy results have not been released to her or made public.

The investigation into the men’s deaths is now before the military court, the family’s lawyer said. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of the Military Tribunal, where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(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

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

Refugees and asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island have suffered repeated violent attacks and robberies by locals, with inadequate hospital care on the island and no action by police.

Since October 31, hundreds of men have barricaded themselves in an abandoned complex on a naval base where security forces have previously shot at and attacked them. Exhausted, with no power and no running water in the tropical heat, they stockpiled food, dug water wells, and collected rainwater in trash cans to drink. Now, they are dehydrated, starving, and scared.

These men are not in a war zone, though many of them have fled war in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. They are refugees and asylum seekers trapped on remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. They are there because of Australia’s harsh refugee policies.

The UN has described the situation as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency.” On October 31, the Australian and PNG governments closed the regional processing center where these men have lived for the last four years. Other less-secure facilities are available in a town a 30-minute drive from their current location. But these men, refugees and asylum seekers, refused to leave, terrified by escalating violence against them by some local residents in the town and frustrated by the lack of a long-term solution to their predicament.

Since July 2013, male asylum seekers traveling by boat to Australia have been sent to Manus Island, while men, women and children have been sent to the isolated Pacific island nation of Nauru. As Paul Tyson wrote for openDemocracy, “in real terms, it is the boat people themselves the Australian government has criminalized, dehumanized and demonized, and it is against them that Australian politicians on both sides of party power have uncompromisingly ‘stood firm’ in refusing to open their hearts with human compassion to the plight of the desperate.”

Australia says the refugees on Manus can settle in PNG, move to Nauru, wait on Manus for possible resettlement offers from the US or return home. So far only 25 refugees from Manus have moved to the United States under a resettlement arrangement, and it’s unclear how many more, if any, will follow. Failed asylum seekers are to return to their home countries.

In September, I visited Manus Island and PNG’s capital, Port Moresby, and spoke to 40 refugees and asylum seekers. I heard repeated accounts of violent assaults and robberies. Groups of young local men, often intoxicated, approach refugees both day and night, threatening them with knives, machetes, and sticks, beating them if they don’t hand over cash and possessions.

In August, one man was beaten so badly with a metal rod his skull was fractured and he had to be brought to Australia for treatment. In July, a local man slashed an asylum seeker’s forearm with a knife and authorities had to evacuate him to Port Moresby. Police have not investigated these attacks.

Now, following a PNG 2016 Supreme Court ruling to close the main center, Australia has handed over operation of new facilities on Manus to the PNG government. Australia will pay A$250 million [USD$192 million] for the next 12 months of operations for about 770 refugees and asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, the PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas has insisted that Australia remains responsible for the 200 or so men who are failed asylum seekers and all refugees who do not wish to remain in PNG, that is, everyone except 35 who signed settlement papers. “PNG has no legal obligation under the current arrangement to deal with these two cohorts and they remain the responsibility of Australia to find third country options and liaise with their respective governments of the non-refugees for their voluntary or involuntary return,” he wrote in a statement.

His message to Australia: paying off other countries to relieve you of your international obligations is no solution. 

Some European politicians have looked approvingly at Australia’s “harsh but effective” policies that Australia says have reduced boat arrivals and claims have saved lives at sea. If, in fact, it is saving lives at sea, it is only to let them suffer ashore. Two refugees on Manus recently committed suicide. A significant number are self-harming. The policy’s apparent success in deterrence relies upon sacrificing hundreds of lives by warehousing them in miserable conditions and exposing them to violence and neglect.   

With every passing day, the refugees and asylum seekers struggle to survive at the main center. PNG officials have repeatedly ordered men to leave the main center, threatened to “apprehend” the “ringleaders” of the protest, and in a particularly low act, destroyed water storage tanks and removed sun shelters from the main center. It is unclear if PNG defense force personnel will remove them by force or if the refugees will run out of food and water. 

“Please help us, we don’t want to die here,” a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee implores me over Whatsapp. It’s difficult to read their messages and not be overwhelmed with despair. 

But Australia can end this human rights tragedy. Wherever they end up eventually, the Australian government needs to immediately bring these men to safety. As a partner of Australia in resettlement, the US should be urging Australia to do so. For Australia to abandon them on Manus Island is to invite disaster.

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

What was your plan when you arrived on the ground in Burma?

We’ve been documenting this crisis since the very beginning. We knew there had been sexual violence in some of the massacres we’d looked into, but we didn’t know how widespread it was. So my job was to find out. And what we found was that the rape has been widespread, and that rape was one of the ways that the Burmese military conducted their ethnic cleansing operations. This is very much a part of this military’s way of terrifying the Rohingya and making them feel worthless. One woman said: “They see us as nothing but leaves they can throw out,” and made a sweeping movement with her hand, like the way you would toss away dead leaves.

Burmese security forces have committed widespread rape against women and girls as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Rakhine State.

What do you mean by rape being part of ethnic cleansing?

Rape is obviously incredibly traumatizing. It’s a violation of someone’s most private sacred space and your basic sense of selfhood. But it also affects women’s memories, and their sense of being safe at home. If this has been destroyed, it’s much harder for them ever to be able to return home. So it’s an effective method of ethnic cleansing, to remove – by violent and terror-inspiring means – a certain ethnic or religious group from an area.

Was there any warning these mass rapes were about to happen?

Rape is not a new tactic for the Burmese army: we documented it during another brutal campaign against the Rohingya last year that forced tens of thousands to flee. This time, the rapes often followed many weeks and months of sexual harassment, sometimes by military forces stationed in or near Rohingya villages, sometimes by Rakhine Buddhist villagers who had been harassing Rohingya. But when the mass rapes by soldiers happened, it was sudden and it was terrifying.

A woman makes her way to the shore as hundreds of Rohingya refugees arrive under the cover of darkness by wooden boats from Myanmar to Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. 

© 2017 Reuters/Damir Sagolj

How did the attacks unfold?

It was horrific. As described to me, in many of the villages it was total chaos and complete terror. People said their villages were surrounded, and then the shooting started, with soldiers launching what we think were some kind of rocket-propelled grenades and setting roofs on fire. Soldiers shot villagers as they fled. They pushed others into burning houses. In other villages, people were gathered together and then women were raped, and men were shot or beaten. Almost all the rapes I documented were gang rapes.  

Were any stories particularly hard to hear?

One woman who was gang raped told me that her house was burning down and she was able to grab one child, but not the other. She was in a complete panic, and now she doesn’t know where her child is. She feels so guilty even though there is nothing she could have done.

One girl, no more than 14 or 15, had this really bad scar on her shin and knee, which she said was from the rape. She said that soldiers dragged her out of the house, tied her to a tree and around 10 of them raped her from behind. She was really clear and well-spoken, and had such a presence about her, and it was awful to think this happened to such a young person.

Did soldiers do other cruel things?

Many women and girls told me the rapes were very violent: there was beating, slapping, kicking, and punching. Two women’s breasts were bitten during the rapes. Some of the women’s children had to watch the rapes, or were themselves beaten by soldiers. One woman begged for her kids to be allowed to leave while she was raped, but the soldiers did not allow it.

What do we know about who carried out the rapes?

All the women we spoke to were raped by men in uniform of the Burmese security forces, almost all soldiers. There were also some border police, who have a slightly different uniform. All of the rapes involved many soldiers, there was no attempt to hide it.

Mohammed Taher, 50, a Rohingya refugee holds his son Mohammed Shoaib, 7, outside a medical center at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on November 5, 2017. His son was shot in the chest before crossing the border from Burma in August. 

© 2017 Reuters/Adnan Abidi

You’ve documented mass rape in other places like South Sudan and Burundi. How does what you found in Burma compare?

Well, I’ve never investigated ethnic cleansing before. In South Sudan the rape was part of the conflict, and in Burundi the rape was part of wider political attacks. In Burma it’s not just the rape, it’s that people have lost everything. It’s just mind-boggling that you would destroy hundreds of villages and force over half a million people to flee. And the devastation was so fast; it’s equivalent to the impact of a really long, terrible war in just two weeks. All of a sudden the world was watching thousands and thousands of people pour across a border every day having lost everything. It’s unbelievably tragic.

There are so many efforts to stop rape in conflict, yet we see it happening again and again. We saw it with the Chibok girls in Nigeria, then the Yazidis in Iraq, now the Rohingya. Do we just have to accept wartime rape?

Absolutely not. In armies that have better command and control, there is less rape. In armies where there is punishment for soldiers who rape, there is less rape. It’s not like suddenly soldiers in the fog of war can’t help but rape. It’s all about the context – seeing some people as less human, and exercising power over people you see as the enemy. I don’t think it’s something inherent about conflict.

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf River at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 1, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Does hearing these awful stories all day make you feel depressed?

No. Actually, that’s how I feel when I leave the UN Security Council! Yes, the stories are devastating, no question – my translator, me, we’re all affected. In the field, you see the horrific side, but you also see how people protect each other and fight to survive, and how people would do anything for their kids. It’s when you do the advocacy with governments and people say “OK, maybe we will do something, maybe we won’t.” That’s when you think ‘maybe I’m going crazy.’

When you’re in the field does it feel like just like an ordinary job?

No, it’s an incredible privilege to hear these important stories. These are not just stories of victimhood, these are people who have survived unbelievable cruelty and often you’re the first person to hear their story. After the interview, you feel that you’ve discussed something incredibly important about the darkness of humans, but also how amazing people are. For example, this one woman who walked for days with horrific injuries from being gang raped, but made sure she got her four children all safely to Bangladesh. It was so humbling.

Then there’s what drives you. Like the ridiculous statement from a Burmese military commander who said: “Look at these ugly Rohingya women, who would want to rape them?” That makes you determined to do justice to these stories, because the denial and rejection of their experience is another attack on them, it’s just so offensive.

Rohingya refugees wait for a boat to cross a canal after crossing the border through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 7, 2017. 

© 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

What’s life like now for survivors?

It’s really hard for women and girls. The sun is burning and it’s incredibly hot, the camp is sprawling and a scene of desperation, there’s this pungent smell of excrement and rubbish, it is really far from the main roads, and some of the health services are really chaotic – they’re just in tents or someone under an umbrella. But I would say that everyone that I met was really struggling, not just those who had been raped. It is 600,000 women, men, and children who have been unearthed and thrown into another country, and they don’t even know if they’re welcome to stay or not. I still don’t understand how this could have happened.

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

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith join hands during a family photo before the 20th ASEAN-Japan Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The summit of Southeast Asian leaders this week in the Philippines failed to make mention of the Burmese military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing that caused the flight of more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Their draft closing statement didn’t even have the decency to call this oppressed Muslim minority by its name: Rohingya, opting instead for a mealy-mouthed reference to the importance of providing humanitarian relief for “affected communities” in Rakhine State.

Is it too much to ask that leaders at least refrain from euphemisms that suggest that these are not people fleeing persecution and are deserving of their rights as refugees, or to deny their ethnic identity and nationality ties to Burma?

To assist governments and humanitarian agencies as they address the Rohingya refugee crisis, Human Rights Watch has issued “Ten Principles for Protecting Refugees and Internally Displaced People Arising from Burma’s Rohingya Crisis.”

The first is that the Rohingya who have fled Burma should be presumed to be refugees. There’s plenty of supporting evidence for this: the recent campaign of killing, rape, arson, and other abuses (which Human Rights Watch has determined amount to crimes against humanity); the Burmese government’s persistent pattern of gross rights violations against the Rohingya. Underlying all these abuses, including the latest round of atrocities, is the effective denial of citizenship for Rohingya, many whose families have lived in Burma for generations. This has fed official restrictions on movement; limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; and arbitrary arrests and detention.

Honest acknowledgement by all concerned parties that these are “Rohingya refugees” is the first step in a principled response that includes affirming their right to return.

Many Rohingya refugees have told Human Rights Watch that they want to return home, but none interviewed believe it was safe in present circumstances or that it will be for the foreseeable future. Voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity will be feasible only if Burma is willing and able to ensure full respect for returnees’ human rights, equal access to nationality, justice and accountability for the victims, and security among communities in Rakhine State.

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

Mohammed Taher, 50, a Rohingya refugee holds his son Mohammed Shoaib, 7, outside a medical center at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on November 5, 2017. His son was shot in the chest before crossing the border from Burma in August. 

© 2017 Reuters/Adnan Abidi

(New York) – The Burmese military’s latest claim that its forces did not commit abuses during recent operations against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State is contrary to a large and growing body of evidence, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 13, 2017, a Burmese army “investigation team” issued a report finding that there were “no deaths of innocent people,” while at least 376 “terrorists” were killed during fighting.

The Burmese authorities’ failure to credibly and impartially investigate grave violations amounting to crimes against humanity demonstrates the need for the government to allow the United Nations-appointed fact-finding mission into the country to conduct independent investigations.

The military’s grave crimes committed with impunity are exactly what the International Criminal Court was created for.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

“The Burmese military’s absurd effort to absolve itself of mass atrocities underscores why an independent international investigation is needed to establish the facts and identify those responsible,” said Brad Adams. “The Burmese authorities have once again shown that they can’t and won’t credibly investigate themselves.”

Extensive witness accounts, satellite data, and other sources have shown that Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses during a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim population. The campaign began following August 25 attacks on government outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Government forces have responded with mass killings, rape, arbitrary detention, and arson since. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch found that more than 288 primarily Rohingya villages were either substantially or completely destroyed since late August.

The Burmese army investigation team, led by the defense services inspector general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, said that it interviewed 3,217 villagers from October 13 to November 7, collecting 804 witness accounts. Those interviewed reportedly included “Bengalis,” a derogatory term used to describe the Rohingya, whom the Burmese government considers to be foreigners from Bangladesh. There is no indication that the investigators conducted interviews in Bangladesh, where more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled following the beginning of security force operations.

The report says that the military acted in accordance with “orders and directives of superior bodies, especially the rules of engagement [ROE] in connection with the rights of self-defence and in discharging duties during the armed conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.” It denies allegations that security forces indiscriminately shot Rohingya villagers fleeing their homes, rape and other sexual and gender-based violence, looting, destruction of homes and mosques, and threats to drive Rohingya from their homes. It also denies that security forces deployed “heavy weapons” in its operations, such as grenades and “launchers.”

The military’s denials and conclusions stand in stark contrast to the findings of the UN, Human Rights Watch, other human rights organizations, and the international media. In September, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” A subsequent investigation found evidence of arson, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and attacks on places of worship.

In late 2016, Burmese security forces committed widespread abuses against the Rohingya following an ARSA attack on three police outposts on October 9, 2016. A report issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on February 3, concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to the commission of crimes against humanity. In response, in March the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. Since then, the Burmese government has not granted access to the country to the members of the commission.

The Burmese government has since established a number of separate commissions to investigate the violence that erupted in Rakhine State since October 9, none of which have been credible or impartial. A previous army-led investigation into allegations of abuses late last year by its forces led by the same general, Lt.-Gen. Aye Win, found only that two minor incidents of abuse occurred during security operations.

The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Burma to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council and concerned governments individually should impose targeted economic sanctions and travel restrictions on military leaders implicated in the violence. UN member countries should also pursue processes at the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly for gathering criminal evidence to advance prosecutions in the ICC and other courts.

“The military’s grave crimes committed with impunity are exactly what the International Criminal Court was created for,” Adams said. “The UN Security Council should refer Burma to the ICC, but until that happens UN member states should ensure investigations take place and evidence is preserved for future criminal proceedings. If the Burmese military continues to operate with impunity, we are likely to see future rounds of violence against the Rohingya.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants look at south Italy's coast as they approach on the Vos Hestia ship after being rescued by " Save the Children" crew on the Mediterranean sea off the Libya coast, June 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

No one pretends there is an easy way for the European Union to manage the flow of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving by boat from Libya. Yet there are certain basic principles of human rights—and decency—that should guide the EU response.

The Mediterranean crossing from Libya toward Italy has become the world’s most dangerous. Some 103,000 people have survived the journey this year through late September, but 2,471 have drowned or gone missing.

What would lead anyone to risk such a perilous journey? Some flee persecution or violence at home. Others, fleeing crushing poverty, hope for a better life in Europe. But all have traversed Libya, one of the world’s most inhospitable places for migrants.

Divided today among three competing authorities, Libya has become a smuggler’s paradise and a migrant’s nightmare. Non-Libyan migrants seeking transit to Europe are typically corralled and kept in squalid, overcrowded detention centers where malnutrition and illness are widespread, and forced labor, beatings, sexual abuse and torture are rife. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more migrants are killed crossing Libya these days than die at sea.

International refugee law prohibits forcibly returning anyone to such conditions, which is why boats rescuing migrants—whether operated by the EU, Italy, or nongovernmental groups—don’t return them. So far, most have been taken to Italy.

Some, such as Italy’s 5 Star Movement and the far-right Northern League, criticize these rescue efforts as a “pull factor,” but there is no evidence that ending them would deter the migrants from embarking. It would, however, increase the drownings.

Many of the other ideas offered for managing the flow have been similarly flawed. French President Emmanuel Macron briefly suggested that the EU screen asylum seekers inside Libya to avert the need for them to take to the sea, but he quickly withdrew the idea once it was pointed out that Libya is safe neither for the screeners nor anyone seeking to be screened.

The EU is supporting Libyan coastal forces, arguing that they will curtail smugglers and save lives, but under current circumstances these forces are doing indirectly what the EU is prohibited from doing directly—sending people back to the horrible, lawless conditions of detention. Separate deals with militias who would otherwise be involved in smuggling may be behind the significant drop in boat departures during the summer – normally a peak crossing period – but no one can predict how long that will hold. In the meantime, those who might have escaped remain trapped in a hellish environment.

The EU and its member states have also supported other countries where migrants originate, hoping to shut off the flow at the source. But supporting, for example, border forces like Sudan’s, which have integrated former militias implicated in atrocities such as slaughtering civilians, to stop people from fleeing the brutal dictatorship in Eritrea is wrong on both fronts.

Yet there are steps that the EU should prioritize.

Economic development assistance to countries that are the source of large-scale economic migration to Europe may help, at least in the long term.

Educating would-be migrants about the dangers of traveling through Libya or taking to the sea with smugglers may also help to curtail the flow.

Increasing safe and legal channels into Europe—through more generous refugee resettlement from countries other than Libya, family reunification, and humanitarian, work and study visas—would provide some people with options safer than risking their lives crossing Libya and the Mediterranean. And it would enhance Europe’s response to the global refugee crisis, currently handled mainly by poorer countries.

Still, given the desperation of people fleeing toward Europe, many inevitably will continue to undertake the dangerous journey. Those who make it have a right to a hearing on their claim to stay in EU states, whether by virtue of a need for asylum, family reunification, or humanitarian relief.  

Because of the EU’s Dublin Regulations, which require these claims to be examined where an asylum seeker first arrives, the burden has fallen mainly on Italy and Greece, both overwhelmed by large numbers of migrants and severe economic problems. A binding EU decision to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers to other member states has been carried out by only a few countries, with the result that, as it ended in September, only 9,078 had been relocated from Italy, fewer than the average number of new arrivals there in a single month. 

Revising these outdated rules, while sharing responsibility more evenly among EU governments, would ensure prompter hearings and thus the quicker return to their home countries of migrants who, after fair consideration of their claims, are found ineligible to stay. Those would be key steps for discouraging migrants from attempting the journey without a plausible legal claim to stay in the EU. One starting point would be for other EU countries operating in the Mediterranean to accept Italy’s request to take some rescued migrants to their own ports for processing, not only to Italy.

The EU’s current out-of-sight-out-of-mind policy—trying to barricade even legitimate asylum seekers inside Italy or Greece—is guaranteed to aggravate the human hardship. The undeniable strain on these two countries, and the political and social tension that it fuels, could be minimized if responsibility were shared across more countries.

None of these steps would be a panacea. Complex problems do not admit simple solutions. Yet a response guided by human rights principles—as well as greater cooperation and compassion—would ensure that the EU stays true to its founding principles as it grapples with the latest challenge to its borders.

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

A group of Rohingya refugees cross a canal after travelling over the Bangladesh-Burma border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 1, 2017.

© 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters
(New York) – The protection and assistance needs of Rohingya who fled ethnic cleansing in Burma should be high on the agenda of world leaders at upcoming summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said today as it released its “Ten Principles for Protecting Refugees and Internally Displaced People Arising from Burma’s Rohingya Crisis.”

Since late August 2017, more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people remain in Burma’s Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees have the right to return to their homes in Burma, but all returns must be voluntary and safe with full respect for returnees’ human rights. World leaders need to press Burma to end its abusive operations, prevent future atrocities, and create the conditions necessary for Rohingya to choose to return home in safety and dignity, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Rohingya crisis is of gargantuan proportions and needs to be treated with utmost urgency,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Leaders at the upcoming APEC and ASEAN summits should be putting the rights of the Rohingya at the top of their agenda.”

The “Ten Principles” are intended to guide governments and humanitarian agencies as they address the Rohingya refugee crisis. They include an urgent call on donor governments to provide generous support to meet the humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and internally displaced people of all ethnicities remaining in Burma.

The Bangladeshi government should keep its border open to asylum seekers and not coerce returns, respecting the principle of nonrefoulment, which prohibits the return of refugees to places where they would be persecuted or face a real risk of torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Many refugees have told Human Rights Watch that they want to return home, but none interviewed believe it’s safe now or will be for the foreseeable future.

Refugee camps in Bangladesh are not a sustainable solution, Human Rights Watch said. The Bangladeshi government and its humanitarian partners should regard refugee camps as a temporary fix during this crisis and should transition as soon as practically possible to accommodations that are conducive to free movement and that promote dignified self-sufficiency.

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf River at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 1, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Bangladesh is constructing a large refugee camp in the Cox’s Bazar district of the country, which officials have said they plan to surround with barbed wire. Bangladeshi authorities have previously suggested that Rohingya refugees could be relocated from the Cox’s Bazar area to Thengar Char island, an uninhabited, undeveloped coastal island that is highly susceptible to flooding. Either situation would deprive refugees of their rights to freedom of movement, livelihood, food, and education, in violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law.

“The Bangladeshi government has responded generously to the current crisis, keeping its borders open to Rohingya fleeing Burma,” Frelick said. “But close monitoring is needed to ensure that Bangladesh keeps its borders open to asylum seekers while respecting the rights of refugees to education, health, and work.”

The Burmese government has indicated that Rohingya who wish to return to the country should live in camps for internally displaced people. Camps for displaced people and “safe zones” in Burma are not an acceptable solution for returnees, Human Rights Watch said. Refugees and internally displaced people who were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived of their former homes, lands, properties, or places of habitual residence have the right to return to their place of residence or choice, and the to the return of their property. Burma should respect the right of those who are unable or unwilling to return to their homes to choose compensation for the loss of their homes and properties.

As with the internment of Rohingya internally displaced people after the 2012 anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State, any such camps would invariably limit basic rights, segregate returning Rohingya refugees and internally displaced people from other Burmese, and exacerbate ethnic and religious discrimination. Such camps could become permanent, and act as a barrier for returning refugees and internally displaced people to reconstruct their homes, work their land, regain livelihoods, and reintegrate into Burmese society.

The Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh consists not only of those who have fled the recent ethnic cleansing campaign, which Human Rights Watch has determined amounts to crimes against humanity, but also hundreds of thousands who have fled previous Burmese government repression and violence. In all, as many as one million Rohingya refugees may be in Bangladesh.

Exacerbating the Rohingya’s dire situation in Burma is the Burmese government’s effective denial of citizenship for Rohingya under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. This has facilitated enduring rights violations, including restrictions on movement; limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; and arbitrary arrests and detention.

“At every high-level meeting where this crisis is being discussed, leaders should call Rohingya refugees what they are: ‘Rohingya refugees,’” Frelick said. “Governments should not use euphemisms or otherwise mince words to suggest that these are not refugees deserving of all their rights as refugees or to deny their ethnic identity and nationality ties to Burma.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rohingya refugees walk after crossing the Naf River at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Palong Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 1, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

1.       Members of the Rohingya ethnic group who have fled from Burma to Bangladesh are refugees and should be recognized as such. They are entitled to all rights that attach to refugee status.

More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Burma to Bangladesh since August 25, 2017. Counting previous flights of Rohingya refugees, including after the 2012 and 2016 violence in Rakhine State, the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh could reach one million.  

Not only those who fled the recent Burmese military campaign of ethnic cleansing, but Rohingya who have fled previous government crackdowns, were either directly forced to leave their homes amid killings and other assaults and destruction of their property or felt compelled to leave their homes and country to avoid persecution, including threats to their lives, physical abuse, destruction of their homes, and other severe human rights abuses. The existence of economic or personal motives does not forfeit a refugee’s claim to protection based on well-founded fears of being persecuted.

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The effective denial of citizenship for the Rohingya — who are not recognized on the official list of 135 ethnic groups eligible for full citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law — has facilitated enduring rights abuses, including restrictions on movement; limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; and arbitrary arrests and detention. The Burmese government should take immediate steps to amend this law to conform with international standards and help end decades of discrimination and statelessness.

Based on the objective circumstances in Burma that have given rise to this and previous exoduses, the Rohingya who have fled Burma should be regarded presumptively as refugees unless evidence proves an individual was wrongly recognized or is excluded from refugee status under the provisions of international refugee law.   

2.      Donor governments and intergovernmental organizations should urgently provide generous support to meet the humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and internally displaced people (IDPs) of all ethnicities remaining in Burma. Humanitarian assistance should be provided based on principles of impartiality and nondiscrimination, and in consultation with the affected populations.

During the latest Rohingya crisis, Bangladesh has been generous in providing sanctuary for Rohingya facing persecution in Burma. Ordinary Bangladeshis, despite widespread poverty and the huge challenge of monsoon floods, have responded with enormous kindness. For example, despite substantial recent inflation in the cost of rice, large numbers of Bangladeshis have contributed rice for Rohingya relief.

Without prejudice to the compelling needs in many other refugee and IDP situations worldwide, donors should urgently provide generous support to meet the humanitarian needs of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and IDPs inside Burma. Humanitarian assistance should be provided based on principles of impartiality and nondiscrimination, as articulated in the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response (Sphere standards). All affected populations, including members of the local host communities, should be consulted to ensure assistance best meets their needs, particularly vulnerable and socially excluded people, and should be engaged to help provide such assistance.

Donors should also provide necessary bilateral support for Bangladesh, not only to allow refugees in Bangladesh to live in safety and dignity but also to ensure the Bangladeshi government keeps its borders open to asylum seekers and to respect the rights of refugees to freedom of movement and to education, health, work, and other social and economic rights.

Humanitarian assistance should incorporate protection measures, targeted services, and staff training to meet the particular needs of refugees and IDPs with special needs, such as unaccompanied children, families traveling with young children, victims of human trafficking, people who have suffered or are at risk of gender-based violence (forced marriage, domestic abuse, etc.), women traveling on their own and female heads of household, pregnant and lactating mothers, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, and persons with disabilities.

The Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya since late August involved widespread sexual violence. The Bangladeshi government, with the help of international partners, should create outreach programs to the Rohingya community to reduce stigma around sexual violence and inform the refugee population about available, free, and confidential medical and mental health services, including for post-rape care, and to create more accessible women-friendly spaces to help women and girls access medical services. Given the long-term impact of rape and sexual violence on health, the government and partners should prepare to provide long-term post-rape healthcare and psychosocial services. The Bangladeshi government should also support efforts to ensure accountability for sexual violence crimes by, for example, introducing protocols for clinics and other medical facilities to certify their treatment of rape survivors. 

3.      Bangladesh should keep its border open to asylum seekers.

This principle stems from article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which articulates the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries, and from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Conclusion No. 22 (1981) on the Protection of Asylum-Seekers in Situations of Large-Scale Influx.  In such situations, the UNHCR conclusion states that asylum seekers “should be admitted to the State in which they first seek refuge and if that State is unable to admit them on a durable basis, it should always admit them at least on a temporary basis.”

4.      Bangladesh should fully respect the principle of nonrefoulement for refugees on its territory and at its border.

Bangladesh is a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Convention against Torture”). Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, that convention’s protections for refugees are regarded as customary international law and binding on all states. Bangladesh is thus bound by both its treaty obligations and customary international law’s prohibition on refoulement not to forcibly return anyone to a place where they would face a threat to life or a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment. The principle of nonrefoulement prohibits a government forcing a person back to face these dangers in “any manner whatsoever.” This includes situations in which governments put so much direct or indirect pressure on individuals that they have little or no option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of harm. UNHCR Executive Conclusion No. 22 provides that “[i]n all cases the fundamental principle of non-refoulement including non-rejection at the frontier must be scrupulously observed.”

Article 3(1) of the Convention against Torture establishes a legal obligation on Bangladesh not to “expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Field research by the UN, nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and the media has established the use of torture and other ill-treatment by Burma’s security forces against the Rohingya. Article 3(2) adds that “For the purposes of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.” Such a pattern is present in Burma. 

Although in the past Bangladeshi authorities have often pushed asylum seekers traveling by boat back out to sea, during the current crisis they have generally respected the principle of nonrefoulement and non-rejection at the border.

5.      Burma should fully respect refugees’ right to return.

The Burmese government is obligated to respect the Rohingya’s right to return. Respecting this right means ensuring that claims to return are resolved fairly and that individuals are permitted freely and, in an informed manner, to choose whether to exercise it. All returns must also proceed in a fair, safe, and orderly manner. Governments and intergovernmental organizations should press the Burmese government to ensure that the right to return is fully respected.

Although Burma is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states in article 12(4) that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country, the principle is regarded as a customary norm of international law.

The right to return is not by itself a sufficient condition for the promotion of voluntary repatriation as a durable solution for Rohingya refugees. Voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity will be feasible only if Burma is willing and able to ensure full respect for returnees' human rights, equal access to nationality, and security among communities in Rakhine State.

Many refugees have told Human Rights Watch that they want to return home, but none interviewed believe it was safe in present circumstances or that it will be for the foreseeable future.  

6.      Refugee return must be voluntary, based on a free, informed, individual choice, in safety and dignity.

Refugees and displaced persons should be provided with complete, objective, up-to-date and accurate information about conditions in prospective areas of return, including security conditions, and availability of assistance and protection to reintegrate in Burma. There needs to be a genuine choice between staying or returning.

If in the future the Bangladeshi government does not provide a real choice or uses coercive measures, such as reducing essential services to refugees, not providing them a legal status, or subjecting them to other restrictions of their basic rights, or if humanitarian assistance is insufficient to meet basic needs, the choice to leave may not be considered an act of free will.

7.       Refugees and IDPs have the right to return to their homes or places of habitual residence, and for redress for their losses, including their lands and properties.

Refugees and IDPs who were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived of their former homes, lands, properties or places of habitual residence have the right to return to their place of residence or of choice and the return of their property. Those unable or unwilling to return to their homes have the right to choose compensation from the government for the loss of all their homes and properties. These rights are articulated in the UN Pinheiro Principles regarding “Housing and property restitution in the context of the return of refugees and internally displaced persons.” These principles state that, “All refugees and displaced persons have the right to have restored to them any housing, land and/or property of which they were arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived, or to be compensated for any housing, land and/or property that is factually impossible to restore as determined by an independent, impartial tribunal.” Refugees and IDPs who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully deprived of their liberty, livelihoods, citizenship, family life, and identity also have the right of restitution.

8.      Bangladesh should continue and complete refugee registration.

Completing individual, biometric registration of refugees as quickly as possible after they cross the national border is vital for establishing identity and protecting rights, including preventing arbitrary arrests and refoulement, avoiding family separation, identifying extremely vulnerable individuals, enabling the fair distribution of food and humanitarian assistance, and providing for durable solutions. In accordance with UNHCR ExCom Conclusion No. 91 (2001), registration should be confidential and individual and fully respect the dignity of refugees. The confidentiality of their personal information should be strictly protected.

To date, the Bangladesh government has completed biometric registration of over 300,000 refugees. International aid agencies have been registering refugees by households to enable the targeted delivery of humanitarian assistance and to ensure protection issues are identified.  

9.      Refugee camps are not sustainable and the protracted housing of refugees in camps should be avoided.

While refugee camps may be necessary for providing assistance during a refugee emergency, they do not constitute a sustainable model for protracted refugee situations. The Bangladeshi government and its humanitarian partners should regard refugee camps as a temporary expedient during the Rohingya crisis and should transition as soon as practically possible to accommodations that are conducive to free movement and that promote dignified self-sufficiency.

Construction of a large refugee camp has been underway in the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh and Bangladeshi officials have said they plan to surround camps with barbed wire. Bangladeshi authorities have previously suggested that Rohingya refugees could be relocated from the Cox’s Bazar area to Thengar Char island, an uninhabited, undeveloped coastal island that is highly susceptible to flooding. This would deprive refugees of their rights to freedom of movement, livelihood, food, and education, in violation of Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law.

10.   IDP camps and “safe zones” in Burma are not an acceptable solution for returnees.

The Burmese government has indicated that Rohingya who wish to return to the country should live in IDP camps. As with the internment of Rohingya IDPs after the 2012 anti-Rohingya violence in Rakhine State, any such camps would invariably limit basic rights, segregate returning Rohingya refugees and IDPs from other Burmese, and exacerbate ethnic and religious discrimination. Moving returning refugees to camps or designated zones would restrict their movements, reduce returnees’ ability to reconstruct their homes, work their land, regain livelihoods, and reintegrate into Burmese society. Such camps also run the risk of overcrowding, poor sanitation, increased illness, and creating dependency on aid.

Establishing “safe zones” on the Burmese side of the border, as proposed by the Bangladeshi government, would likely be used as a pretext for the forced return of refugees and would infringe on the right to seek asylum by effectively preventing further flight from northern Rakhine State.

Many of the principles and concerns Human Rights Watch has voiced with respect to “safe zones” in Syria and other countries apply to Burma.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

First responders aid a woman following the truck attack in Manhattan in New York City, October 31, 2017.

© 2017 REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The Halloween attack in New York City understandably provoked fear and predictably exacerbated prejudices. In the aftermath, President Trump tweeted, “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack is seen in this undated handout photo.

© 2017 Reuters
Screening refugees and immigrants on security grounds is perfectly legitimate. But let’s be realistic. There is no indication that the accused truck attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, intended any harm to the United States when he entered the country. All winners of the diversity visa program undergo the same background checks as other lawful permanent residency visa categories. Whatever one’s view of the value of diversity visas, it is hard to imagine what screening seven years ago could possibly have identified as a threat the young man who by all accounts entered without malice at that time.

This is all the more true for people admitted as refugees, who have been undergoing extreme vetting for many years already. The Manhattan attack comes less than a week after the Trump administration announced new refugee security screening protocols and said that it would suspend for another 90 days refugee resettlement from 11 countries that constituted 44 percent of the refugees admitted last year.

The memo to the president on the new protocols from the heads of State, Homeland Security and National Intelligence says only that another 90 days are needed “to determine what additional safeguards, if any, are necessary,” leaving open the question whether further security measures are needed at all.

And for refugees from other countries where resettlement now resumes, the new protocols expand screening to include the separated minor children and spouses who are following refugees who have already been resettled in the United States. The protocols also double the time, from five years to 10, required for them to provide their previous addresses, phone numbers and emails.

It remains to be seen whether the government is prepared to commit the additional resources needed to digest and analyze this potential doubling of information, and whether this will more effectively identify people who present a real security risk. 

In fact, existing refugee screening procedures have been effective. According to an extensive Cato Institute study, not one of the nearly 3 million refugees resettled to the United States since the 1980 Refugee Act has committed a single fatal terrorist act against an American citizen. 

Refugees are already the most thoroughly scrutinized group of immigrants or visitors to the United States. The process involves multiple inter-agency levels of review, including FBI and National Counterterrorism Center checks. Applicants for resettlement for whom any gray area is identified are not admitted. The process usually takes 18 to 24 months, which often follows a decade or more of sitting in a refugee camp. A would-be terrorist could find far easier ways to enter the United States.

Demonstrators march outside the Trump Building at 40 Wall St. as part of a protest against the US government's refugee ban in New York on March 28, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
A Heritage Foundation study found that 61 people who were admitted as refugees to the US between 2002 and 2016 — out of the 869,000 refugees admitted during that time — “later engaged in Islamist terrorist activities.” Whereas the Cato study looked specifically at foreign-born people involved in fatal terror attacks, the Heritage Foundation study included those engaged in activities such as planning to join al-Shabaab in Somalia. Its study found that most of these 61 were “radicalized” many years after arriving in the United States and concluded that “security vetting on the front-end of the refugee process does not eliminate the risks from homegrown radicalization of refugees in later generations.” 

Why the new protocols and another 90-day suspension for certain nationalities? Trump’s scapegoating of refugees and his lowering of the ceiling for annual refugee admissions to the lowest level since 1980 make it hard to consider this anything other than a pretext to obstruct and exclude them. 

With the first month of this fiscal year just completed, U.S. refugee admissions are not even on a pace to reach the halfway mark of the new 45,000 ceiling. The already slow and deliberative U.S. refugee resettlement process now appears headed toward a long, immovable backlog that will prolong refugees’ misery and their exposure to harm.

Given the tough procedures already in place, the problem is not gaps in screening new arrivals. A more realistic and useful approach would be to identify and resolve failures in properly integrating those arrivals into American society. And that will not be achieved by closing refugees off and treating them as objects of fear, but rather by welcoming them, engaging with them, educating and employing them and making them feel part of a tolerant, multi-cultural society. 

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

Since August 25, 2017, when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group, attacked about 30 police outposts and a military camp in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have carried out mass arson, killings, rape, and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing more than 600,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Thousands more Rohingya as well as ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and other non-Muslims have also been displaced in Rakhine State as a result of the violence.

There have also been numerous reports of abuses committed by ARSA militants. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify those accounts, in part because of the lack of access to northern Rakhine State.

Human Rights Watch has called on the United Nations Security Council and concerned countries to adopt an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against Burmese military commanders implicated in abuses.

The following questions and answers address issues related to justice and accountability for these abuses.

What international crimes have been committed in Burma?

The UN, various governments, and nongovernmental human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have reported on serious abuses in northern Rakhine State against ethnic Rohingya. Human Rights Watch research, based on interviews with dozens of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and other accounts, and analysis of satellite imagery, have found that the abuses by Burmese security forces amount to crimes against humanity against the Rohingya.

Crimes against humanity are defined under international law as specified criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya have been both widespread and systematic. Statements by Burmese military and government officials have indicated an intent to attack this population. The crimes against humanity reported include: 1) forced population transfers and deportation, including by burning Rohingya villages, 2) murder, 3) rape and other sexual violence, and 4) persecution as defined by various international tribunals.

Was Burma’s government previously accused of international crimes against the Rohingya?

The UN and others found that in 2012 local authorities and ethnic Rakhine with the backing of security forces committed numerous serious abuses against the Rohingya population. Human Rights Watch found that these abuses amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

In October 2016, Burma’s security forces carried out large-scale attacks against the Rohingya in Rakhine State as part of “clearance operations” in response to ARSA attacks on three police border posts. Human Rights Watch documented extrajudicial killings, the rape of women and girls, and the burning of at least 1,500 structures.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented many abuses in a “flash report” released on February 3, 2017, finding that these operations involved extrajudicial killing; enforced disappearance; torture and other ill-treatment, notably rape and other crimes of sexual violence; arbitrary arrests and detention; forced displacement; and destruction and looting of homes, food, and other property. The report concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State “very likely” amounted to crimes against humanity.

Can those responsible for abuses be brought to justice in Burma?

The Burmese security forces for decades have committed abuses with impunity, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and a range of war crimes in ethnic minority areas. The Burmese government has an obligation under international law to investigate and appropriately prosecute serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. However, under Burma’s constitution, the civilian government does not have authority over the military. Historically, courts in Burma have tried soldiers for human rights violations only infrequently and have never held soldiers to account for war crimes. Civilian courts have rarely had jurisdiction over soldiers implicated in criminal offenses. Further, the civilian government’s support both for the operations against the Rohingya and its discounting of alleged abuses make it extremely unlikely that civilian authorities will press for the credible investigation and prosecution of security personnel implicated in serious abuses.

Even before the most recent abuses, domestic investigations into alleged crimes committed by security forces in Rakhine State have lacked credibility, independence and rigor. Human Rights Watch and others have identified serious weaknesses with national inquiries led by Burma’s vice-president and the military, including poor investigation methodology, compromised leadership and bias by commissioners, a history of security force aversion to accountability, and a pattern of blanket denial of rights abuses.

The Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine, which published its report in August 2017, had been asked by the Burmese government to look at root causes of conflict in Rakhine State. However, it did not have a mandate to investigate human rights abuses or address questions of justice and accountability.

In sum, any credible path to justice for those responsible for serious crimes will likely need to take place outside of Burma.

What steps has the UN taken to address abuses in Burma?

In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution creating a Fact-Finding Mission for Burma because of credible and serious allegations of human rights abuses in late 2016. The Fact-Finding Mission has the mandate to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces, and abuses, in Myanmar […] with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims, and requests the fact-finding mission to present to the Council.” While the Fact-Finding Mission will document violence and shed light on patterns of abuse, it does not have the mandate to investigate violations to a criminal standard, though its findings may help guide efforts to build case files that could later be used in prosecutions. 

Can the International Criminal Court address these crimes?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created as a court of last resort to address grave crimes in violation of international law, such as crimes against humanity in Burma, where there is no possibility of national justice.

The ICC should have jurisdiction over the worst crimes committed in Burma. However, there are obstacles. The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed by states parties to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, but Burma is not a member. Burma could submit itself to the ICC's jurisdiction, but the government's current posture makes such an event extremely unlikely.

UN member states may call on the Security Council to refer a situation to the ICC. But political dynamics in the Security Council – notably China’s and Russia’s likely objection to referring the situation in Burma to the court – make achieving an ICC referral challenging. In 2014, council members tried to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, but Russia and China vetoed the initiative. China, in particular, has had close political and economic relations with successive Burmese governments. Similarly, a number of states have called for the council to consider an ICC referral for North Korea following the recommendation of a UN-mandated commission of inquiry, which found that the North Korean authorities were responsible for crimes against humanity over decades. However, so far there has been no resolution put forward, at least in part reflecting the council’s political dynamics.

Still, China and Russia have in the past been moved to support ICC referral efforts. The Security Council has referred two situations to the ICC: Darfur, Sudan, in 2005, and Libya in 2011. On Darfur, Russia and China abstained. On the Libya referral, both voted in favor. On a Burma referral, the Security Council will need to provide political and financial support to the ICC.


Are there parallel paths to justice?

Potentially, yes. Growing frustration among UN member states with the Security Council’s paralysis on justice has encouraged governments to become more creative in making justice a reality for victims of grave international crimes. This has led to two notable developments, which may be relevant for Burma.

In late 2016, the UN General Assembly created the “Syria Mechanism” “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence” of grave human rights violations in Syria since March 2011 and prepare case files for eventual prosecution in national, regional, or international courts or tribunals that have jurisdiction to try these crimes.

On a similar track, in March 2017 the UN Human Rights Council strengthened the capacity of the Seoul field office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – created by the Human Rights Council in 2014 to continue documentation of abuses in North Korea – to include “experts in legal accountability” to assess “all information and testimonies with a view to developing possible strategies to be used in any future accountability process.” These processes can help bring victims closer to justice in seemingly intractable situations and could offer a blueprint for other situations in which the path to justice through the Security Council remains blocked.

Unlike the commissions of inquiry for Syria and North Korea, these bodies can investigate violations to a criminal standard and prepare case files for eventual prosecution. The evidence gathered could be used to support eventual justice efforts, including before the ICC and in universal jurisdiction cases in other countries. More broadly, the information they analyze can contribute to developing a common understanding of both the criminal network and the key individuals involved in its operation. This makes it less likely that they will escape justice, including by contributing to a domestic political environment that is more favorable to seeing those responsible held to account.

Are prosecutions and trials possible in other countries?

Crimes against humanity are crimes of universal jurisdiction, meaning they may be prosecuted before national courts in countries outside of Burma, even though neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrator is a national of that country.

For instance, with respect to crimes committed in Syria, there has been a recent increase in universal jurisdiction cases in Europe. Sweden and Germany have been leading efforts to prosecute people suspected of committing war crimes in Syria. They have completed six such cases. Both countries have had an influx of refugees, which has made it easier for investigators to access witnesses, victims, and material evidence. In September, Sweden was the first country to prosecute and convict someone affiliated with the Syrian army.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am