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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



© 2017 Sami Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

© 2011 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bulgaria bears a “big responsibility” for protecting the European Union’s external borders and should do so “in full respect” of migrants’ human rights, says Europe’s senior minister for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgarian border police stand near a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border on July 17, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

Speaking in the country’s capital, Sofia, Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said Bulgaria had the EU’s support as well as his “personal commitment” as it seeks to police Europe’s outer frontiers.

But can Avramopoulos really be confident that Bulgaria will respect migrants' rights in the way he hopes? Its track record suggests not.

Take the case of 16-year-old ‘Abdullah’ from Afghanistan, who experienced Bulgaria’s “respect” first hand.

“When Bulgarian police saw us, we tried to run away,” he said. “They chased us with dogs and shot at us. There were five police. When they caught us, they started beating us. They kicked me and the others wherever they could reach. They did this for about an hour and threatened us with the dogs. They took my money and mobile.”

Abdullah (not his real name) is one of several migrants and asylum seekers who told Human Rights Watch about summary returns from Bulgaria, and violence both at its borders and inside detention centers in late 2015. These are not new problems; we also documented similar abuses in April and September 2014.

Yet Abdullah’s and hundreds of others’ similar testimonies have fallen on deaf ears at EU headquarters in Brussels. While Bulgaria has the right to protect its borders, it doesn’t have the right to summarily return people to Turkey or physically abuse them. By focusing on border protection, Avramopoulos missed the chance to press Bulgaria on violence against migrants and asylum seekers.

The commission should forcefully remind Bulgaria of EU laws and standards, and urge Bulgarian authorities to investigate these credible reports of abuses and bring them to a halt. Because ignoring Abdullah’s story won’t make the allegations go away, and resorting to violence is no way to manage the refugee crisis.

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Nairobi) – Kenya should protect and assist Somali refugees and asylum seekers facing ongoing conflict and a humanitarian crisis in Somalia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. In line with a recent High Court decision, the authorities should abandon their decision to close the Dadaab refugee camp and publicly declare that the more than 249,000 Somali refugees living there can remain in Kenya until conditions exist for them to return in safety and with dignity.

On March 24-25, 2017, Kenya will host an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit that will bring together Eastern African heads of state to discuss the situation of Somali refugees in the region, as the threat of pervasive drought and food insecurity in Somalia looms. Kenya’s role as host is marred by its continued insistence on closing Dadaab refugee camp, host to over 249,000 Somali refugees, by May.

Somali refugees waiting to board buses that will take them back to Somalia after the Kenya government annouced the closure of the Dadaab refugee camps in 2016. 

© 2016 Laetitia Bader/Human Rights Watch

“Kenya should demonstrate leadership by declaring that Dadaab will remain open and that it will resume prima facie recognition of Somali refugees,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenya and neighboring Eastern African countries, supported by international partners, should urgently assist and protect refugees facing continuing conflict and drought in Somalia.”

In May 2016, the Kenyan government removed prima facie refugee status – meaning recognizing refugee status based simply on nationality – for Somalis and disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, charged with processing asylum claims. It also announced plans to speed up the repatriation of Somali refugees, and to close Dadaab camp in north-eastern Kenya by November, subsequently extended to May.

On February 9, Kenya’s High Court ruled that the government’s May 2016 directives were unconstitutional and discriminated against Somalis. The High Court also ordered the Kenyan government to restore the administration of refugee affairs to the status quo prior to the government’s decision. The Kenyan government has not taken steps to carry out the ruling. On March 8, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya repeated that Kenya’s decision to close Dadaab camp was final.

In 2016, Kenyan authorities, with officials from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, stepped up a 2013 “voluntary” repatriation program. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International research in Dadaab and interviews with more than 100 Somali refugees found that Kenya had not given them a real choice between continuing to receive asylum in Kenya and returning to Somalia, and that the program violated the international principle of non-refoulement – forced return of people to places where they would face persecution, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, or other threats to their lives or freedom – which is binding on Kenya as party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention.

Registration of refugees in Dadaab has been sporadic since 2011 and has been entirely suspended, with some exceptions, since August 2015. In 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International spoke to many unregistered people in Dadaab, including new arrivals and people who had already returned under the repatriation program but then fled back to Dadaab. The people interviewed said they feel particularly vulnerable both due to their lack of legal status and because of their lack of access to food rations. Most recently, in mid-March, over 100 Somali refugees and asylum seekers were arrested in a security operation in Dadaab. According to a refugee agency, those with refugee documentation were released, while 28 Somali asylum seekers were charged with unlawful presence.

Under Kenya’s Refugee Act, the Commissioner of Refugee Affairs must recognize people as refugees if they meet the definition of the 1969 African Union Refugee Convention. The African Union definition includes people fleeing events seriously disturbing public order.

The lack of sufficient international support for Kenya, including through consistently underfunded UN humanitarian appeals and very limited refugee resettlement, has contributed to the appalling situation in Dadaab, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. The World Food Program has repeatedly cut food rations to people in Dadaab due to funding shortfalls. The most recent cut, in December, reduced rations by 50 percent. Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in 2016 who had signed up to return to Somalia often cited the ration cuts as a factor influencing their decision to return, and to accept a one-time UNHCR repatriation package – despite fears for their security and survival in Somalia.

An aerial picture shows a section of the Hagadera camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, May 8, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

UNHCR’s own assessments indicate that conditions in south-central Somalia are not conducive to mass refugee returns due to ongoing conflict, insecurity, and humanitarian conditions. In May 2016 UNHCR’s guidelines on returns to Somalia found that: “Civilians continue to be severely affected by the conflict, with reports of civilians being killed and injured in conflict-related violence, widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and children, forced recruitment of children, and large-scale displacement.”

The humanitarian situation remains dire. According to the UN, half of Somalia’s population – 6.2 million out of 12.3 million people – are currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Many of the communities affected by the 2011 famine are once again at risk.

More than 260,000 people have been displaced by the drought within Somalia since November, adding to the country’s 1.1 million internally displaced people, who live in deplorable and unsafe informal displacement camps in the country’s main towns. Most of those recently displaced in south-central Somalia have fled into Baidoa and Mogadishu, among the areas to which UNHCR is facilitating returns from Dadaab. The UN has also recorded an increase in displacement into neighboring Ethiopia, which currently hosts 245,500 registered Somali refugees. So far, contrary to the period leading up to the 2011 famine, very little movement into Kenya has been recorded.

According to UN data on returns, over half of those returning from Dadaab to Somalia said they would not return to their areas of origin. Returning refugees, especially those unable to return to their home areas or those who have been gone for many years, risk ending up internally displaced in Somalia, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, have continued to document serious abuses against internally displaced communities in Somalia at the hands of government and non-state actors, including sexual violence and violent forced evictions from their temporary shelters. According to a UN monitoring network, forced evictions increased in late 2016, with more than 60,000 new evictions since November alone.

“Given the ongoing drought and security crisis in Somalia, it’s high time Kenya’s international partners help to ensure that Somalis can find safety and humanitarian assistance in neighboring countries,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International. “International community and donor countries should guarantee adequate technical and financial support to the Kenyan government and civil society to come up with sustainable, long term durable solutions for refugee integration into the country.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Fatima, 62 years old, fled persecution and the destruction of her city of Aleppo, Syria, with the dream of reuniting with her daughter and grandchildren in Germany. She survived the treacherous journey to Greece, but border restrictions in the Western Balkans stranded her there. She died last week in Athens, still waiting to reunite with her family.


© 2017 A Day in the Life at City Plaza

As with many of the older asylum seekers we interviewed in Greece, Fatima, a slight woman wearing a flowered silk scarf and delicate gold-framed glasses, deeply desired to have her family around her again.

“I miss gathering in the evening after jobs and school. It will be the best day of my life to gather all my children and all eat together again,” she told me in a wavering voice, through some tears, in December 2016.

She invested much of her life’s work in her children.

International human rights and European Union law supports family reunification in cases like Fatima’s. An EU regulation that sets out which state is responsible for examining an asylum claim, called the Dublin III Regulation, states that when an older person depends on the assistance of a child or sibling who legally resides in an EU country, the “Member States shall normally keep or bring together the applicant with that child.”

Yet when Fatima, who had multiple chronic illnesses, told Greek officials that she wanted to be reunited with her daughter – who had given her much-needed care in Syria – she was told that she could not apply for family reunification but only for relocation. They did not explain why. She did as she was told, but under the EU relocation plan, she could have ended up in any EU country rather than with her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Greece told us that they encountered the same problem.

Separated from her daughter, unable to return to Syria and her hope of family reunification hampered by a flawed process, Fatima was stuck in Greece. Last week, she died, far away from both her home and her daughter. Other older asylum seekers in Europe have also died before reaching their final destination since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis.

European countries should live up to their commitments on family reunification, and the European Commission should remind them that this should be a priority for older refugees. Otherwise, many more older refugees will pass away without realizing their dream of being united with loved ones. 

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

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York.

© 2016 Reuters

President Trump’s 2018 budget request not only proposes drastic reductions to the State Department and USAID, including funding to the United Nations and its affiliated agencies. It also proposes to entirely eliminate the State Department’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) account, which would deny his government a critical tool for averting disasters around the world.

The majority of the world’s 65 million refugees and internally displaced persons are living in protracted situations with sadly predictable humanitarian needs that are covered through the regular annual appropriations process. But the emergency account – part of the budget since 1962 — is uniquely important. It specifically sets aside a smaller and more flexible pot of money to enable the president to respond quickly to emergencies that were not anticipated when budgets were drawn up many months before.

Having a contingency fund gives the president the ability to intervene with agile and focused aid that can be the difference between life and death for thousands of people in an emergency that can’t wait for the slow budgetary process for new funding.

A few examples illustrate the effectiveness of ERMA funding, budgeted last year at $50 million, in urgent, unpredictable situations:

  • When famine struck the Horn of Africa in 2011, the president drew $10 million from ERMA to help get aid quickly to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Somalis and to the sudden new influx of about 300,000 Somali refugees into Kenya and Ethiopia, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to more than 950,000. The State Department’s refugee bureau was able to add another $96 million from its regular appropriation to fund an emergency airlift of 100 metric tons of life-saving emergency protein, plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, and jerry cans inside Somalia where it was most needed.
  • Even though the refugee emergency in Syria started in 2011, no one predicted that the number of refugees would increase by over 340 percent from 2012 to 2013. In 2013, the president drew $15 million from ERMA to help deal with the unanticipated mushrooming of the emergency, a small but important part of the much larger US contribution to the humanitarian effort in and around Syria that year.
  • The civil war that started in South Sudan in December 2013 forced almost 2 million people to flee their homes just in the first year. Refugees urgently needed not only emergency food and other humanitarian aid but many of the 1.5 million internally displaced people also needed to be relocated to safer areas as fighting threatened to engulf settlements where they were staying. The president drew $50 million from ERMA that year to avert an even worse humanitarian disaster.

Retaining this budget line and having this money available enhances the president’s ability to try to keep new emergencies from becoming more catastrophic and destabilizing. The White House does not appear to appreciate that in cutting ERMA it would be tying its own hands when there is a need for early interventions to new emergencies that might help to avert far more costly disasters from developing.

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

An internally displaced Syrian girl who fled from Aleppo carries a red jacket in the village of Batabo, Syria on February 14, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Just as the Berlin Wall was the iconic symbol of the Cold War era, so the emblematic symbol of President Donald Trump’s administration, if he has his way, could well be the Mexican wall. It represents a simplistic, concrete solution to a complex human problem, but also, like the Berlin Wall, a fitting symbol for the larger Trump doctrine.

Trump’s wall concept goes beyond the US-Mexico border. He speaks favorably of Israel’s separation wall and Hungary’s border fence.

Although he has yet to comment on the wall Turkey is constructing on its border with Syria, Trump has said, “I think Europe has made a tremendous mistake by allowing in these millions of people.”

Providing humanitarian support to sustain Syrian refugees in their countries of first arrival like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon is not part of his solution to the Syrian refugee crisis. He would contain them in their own country, denying them the chance to seek asylum abroad. And what of the people trapped there? He says he will create “a big beautiful safe zone” for them:

So we're going to keep our country safe… And what I want to do is build safe zones in Syria and other places so they can stay there and live safely until their cities and their country… We're going to have the Gulf States pay for those safe zones.  They have nothing but money.  And we're going to do it that way, instead of taking massive numbers - tens of thousands of people - into our country, and we don’t know anything about those people.

Trump posits a choice of either “taking massive numbers…into our country” or having them “stay there and live safely.” This ignores the institution of asylum, the international refugee regime that supports millions of refugees in countries of first arrival like Lebanon, Kenya, and Pakistan where 86 percent of the world’s refugees live.

The global asylum system succeeds only to the extent that the more distant and wealthier countries like Canada, Norway, and Australia are willing to contribute financially and through refugee resettlement to convince overwhelmed front-line countries not to push refugees back into the conflagrations they’ve fled. Trump seems willing to dispense with that entire system by preventing the displaced from leaving their countries in the first place.

Safe areas have been tried in the past, and the track record is not good. I’ve seen this close up. I was just outside Srebrenica when that United Nations-established and protected safe area fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 and more than 7,000 men and boys were massacred. The survivors I met were not only traumatized from witnessing family and friends being killed, but by the betrayal of the international community.

A father of three whom I interviewed at that time told me, “I thought we were safe with UNPROFOR,” [the UN peacekeepers]. I thought when I gave them my gun, I would never need it again. We were betrayed. In the last 10 days, the Chetniks [a derogatory term for Serb fighters] were burning our villages, and UNPROFOR did nothing. Even they were frightened.”

One wonders whether Trump has any idea what a “big beautiful safe zone” inside Syria would entail. He presents the idea as one that essentially involves a real estate transaction—buying up “a big swatch of land, which believe me, you can get for the right price,” and which, he says, the Gulf States will pay for in any case. He never addresses how he would protect the people confined to that zone.

It’s unlikely that the various parties to the conflict in Syria would agree to a safe zone. So would the US seek UN Security Council authorization to establish a safe area in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government? Would Trump be willing to deploy US boots on the ground with or without other international forces to protect civilians inside Syria for what likely would be a protracted period? Would the US provide police to maintain law and order within the safe area? Would the US commit to a humanitarian operation to sustain the large civilian populations? How many deaths of US soldiers would he tolerate for the purpose of protecting Syrian civilians?

Trump has thus far shown little interest in humanitarian problems. He has already dismissed an agreement to take refugees stranded by Australia as a “dumb deal” because it would not advance US interests.  So, how would safe areas be a “smart deal” in Trump’s transactional calculations? The object would have to be containment, not protection. But without a true and robust commitment to save lives, Trump’s idea for a safe area in Syria looks more like a death trap.

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

An internally displaced Syrian woman walks in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border, northern Aleppo province, Syria, December 26, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

Recent statements by leaders and governments in the United States, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan indicate an interest in creating so-called safe zones in Syria. While no detailed plans for creating and managing such zones have been put forward, officials have suggested that establishing areas in Syria along its border with Turkey, and possibly with Lebanon and Jordan, would allow civilians fleeing conflict to be safe from attacks and receive humanitarian assistance while limiting the need for cross-border displacements and facilitating refugee returns.

But the calls for safe zones raise concerns about placing displaced people in Syria in unsafe conditions and limiting their ability to flee to other countries. Discussed below are factors that governments should consider before establishing any safe zone or safe area, whether by the parties to the conflict or the United Nations Security Council.

  1. What are “safe zones” and “safe areas”? 
  2. Have “safe zones” been safe?
  3. Why aren’t “safe zones” safe?
  4. Have there been effective “safe zones”?
  5. Can countries deny people refugee protection by returning them to “safe zones”?
  6. If parties agree to a safe zone, how can it be made safe?

1.      What are “safe zones” and “safe areas”?

“Safe zones” or “safe areas” are areas designated by agreement of parties to an armed conflict in which military forces will not deploy or carry out attacks. Such areas have also been created by UN Security Council resolutions. They can include “no-fly” zones, in which some or all parties to the conflict are barred from conducting air operations. Such areas are intended to protect civilians fleeing from the hostilities and make it easier for them to access humanitarian aid. They may be defended by UN peacekeepers or other forces. 

While the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols do not specifically mention safe areas or safe zones, they recognize similar arrangements, notably “protected zones” and “demilitarized areas.” The latter are buildings or small areas where the parties to the conflict agree that civilians can get protections in addition to those already provided under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. The Geneva Conventions also permit parties to a conflict to conclude “special agreements” to improve civilian protection.

The creation of safe zones has no bearing on the prohibition under international humanitarian law of attacks targeting civilians, whether those civilians are inside or outside the designated safe zone. That is, civilians outside safe zones remain protected from deliberate attacks.

2.     Have “safe zones” been safe?

International experience has shown that “safe zones” and “safe areas” rarely remain safe. Such areas often pose significant dangers to the civilian population within them: If adequate safeguards are not in place, the promise of safety can be an illusion, and “safe areas” can come under deliberate attack. There may also be pressures on humanitarian agencies to cooperate with military forces that control access to safe zones in ways that compromise their humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

Parties establishing safe zones may intend to use them to prevent fleeing civilians from crossing borders, rather than to genuinely provide protection. Such zones have been used as a pretext for preventing asylum seekers from escaping to neighboring countries and as a rationale for returning refugees to the country they fled.

Additionally, the presence of military personnel – sometimes commingled with civilian populations and sometimes using the safe area to launch attacks – can make the location a military target, as opposed to a genuinely safe zone. Forces might also use the safe area to recruit fighters, including children.

Safe zones and areas also suffer from the same problems faced by camps for internally displaced persons. Residents may not be able to access work or their farms, for example, and so will be dependent on assistance for food, water, and other services, including health care. Women may face greater sexual violence due to overcrowding and tense social dynamics, and to having to venture outside for work, water, firewood, or other reasons. UN peacekeepers or others in control might not have the capabilities to enforce law and order. 

In short, the historical record on safe zones protecting civilians is poor – from Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to Kibeho in Rwanda, to Mullaitivu in Sri Lanka.


The failure of UN peacekeepers to protect the town of Srebrenica led to the single biggest atrocity of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fall of Srebrenica and its environs to Bosnian Serb forces in early July 1995 showed the weakness of the international community’s professed commitment to safeguard regions it declared in 1993 to be “safe areas” under UN protection.

UN peacekeeping officials did not heed requests for support from their own forces stationed within the enclave in eastern Bosnia. This allowed Bosnian Serb forces to easily overrun it and – without interference from UN soldiers — carry out the premeditated mass execution of more than 7,000 men and boys. During the occupation of the “safe area,” Bosnian Serb forces carried out rape, sexual violence, and other abuses against women, children, and the elderly. The example of Srebrenica highlights the dangers of creating a “safe area” without making adequate provision for the safety of displaced persons and without adequate military capabilities to deter attacks.

Sri Lanka

During the final months of the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka in early 2009, government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas. As the area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) shrank, the government unilaterally declared “no-fire zones” or “safe zones” on three occasions, calling upon civilians to seek shelter there. The Sri Lankan air force dropped leaflets appealing to civilians to move into these areas as soon as possible, but government forces continued attacking these areas. And the LTTE prevented the civilians from fleeing to government-controlled areas, effectively using them as human shields.

Over several weeks, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians died in the LTTE enclave, many in the safe zones, primarily from Sri Lankan army shelling. The army repeatedly rejected reports of civilian casualties and insisted that any civilian losses resulted from LTTE forces deploying within the safe zone. 

Civilians in the safe zone also suffered from lack of food, water, shelter, and medicines. The government’s decision in September 2008 to order humanitarian agencies out of the LTTE-controlled area greatly exacerbated their plight. Ongoing fighting, lack of oversight, and the manipulation of aid delivery by government and LTTE forces contributed to the high civilian casualties.  

3.      Why aren’t “safe zones” safe?

Whatever the intentions behind creating them, “safe zones” frequently and perhaps inevitably create security problems that may be difficult or impossible to overcome. Safe zones lead large numbers of civilians, often of a particular ethnicity or religion, to congregate in a single place, making them a clear and exposed target for warring parties that may want to attack them. And any area that is off limits for attack will attract fighters, especially members of non-state armed groups, making them less safe. Safe zones by their nature are also rich sources for armed groups to grab aid and new recruits – putting civilians, including children, at additional risk. And the creation of safe zones may suggest that civilians not in safe zones somehow have fewer protections than those inside. This increases the risk of attack or denial of assistance to those outside the zone.

4.      Have there been effective “safe zones”?

No safe zone has been deemed an unequivocal success, but the safe zone for displaced Kurds in Northern Iraq has garnered mixed reviews over the years.

Northern Iraq

Following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991, Kurds in northern Iraq staged an uprising that the central government brutally crushed. Approximately 450,000 Kurds attempted to flee to Turkey. Those who managed to reach Turkey were held in the mountainous border area or were pushed back into Iraq by Turkish soldiers, in violation of international refugee law.

In April 1991, stretching authorization under UN Security Council Resolution 688 that called for access for “international humanitarian organizations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq,” the US, United Kingdom, France, and other allies established “Operation Provide Comfort” in the predominantly Kurdish area of northern Iraq to provide food, shelter, and clothing to displaced Kurds. The US, UK, and France enforced a no-fly zone through military operations. While humanitarian conditions improved, the Iraqi government was hostile to the establishment of a “safe area,” contending that it was an infringement upon Iraq’s sovereignty, and deployed 200 armed police into the safe area in April 1991. In July, 500 UN observers arrived to monitor Iraqi compliance with Resolution 688. In October, Iraqi forces withdrew from the northern provinces.

In 1992, the Turkish government, claiming that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels were hiding out in northern Iraq, sent in its army to attack them. In 1995, it sent an additional 35,000 troops into the “safe areas.” Despite its status as a no-fly zone, the Turkish air force was able to bomb PKK targets in the area. Repeated Turkish incursions and the internal fighting in the region threatened security and reduced relief work and village reconstruction.

By 1996, no significant international military presence remained in the northern areas, but the no-fly zone remained in place. Iraqi government forces entered the city of Erbil on August 31, 1996, arresting hundreds of people and summarily executing scores of others. Iraqi agents searched the offices of humanitarian organizations, looking for personnel files, confiscating computers, and interrogating and threatening staff. The situation became perilous for many Kurds, largely employees of US aid agencies and their families, so the US government evacuated 6,500 people.

Despite these significant failings, including Turkey’s violation of the right to seek asylum, observers variously cited “Operation Provide Comfort” as the “most effective” or “the least bad of several bad” alternatives considered by the international community to protect displaced Iraqis prevented from entering Turkey.  

5.      Can countries deny people refugee protection by returning them to “safe zones”?

People fleeing armed conflict and persecution should never be prevented or dissuaded from seeking international refugee protection. Governments, in turn, cannot justify keeping their borders closed to refugees on the grounds that internal “safe areas” have been set up across the border. Countries have obligations under international refugee law to keep their borders open to people coming directly from places where their lives or freedom are threatened and to “always admit [asylum seekers] at least on a temporary basis and provide them with protection. . . without any discrimination,” while other governments are obliged to “take all necessary measures” to assist such host countries. Any government that forcibly returns refugees who have entered its territory or rejects asylum seekers at its borders to a situation that puts their lives or freedom at risk violates its obligations under international refugee law.

It is critical for neighboring countries to open their borders to refugees. Other governments should meet the funding appeals of international agencies to ensure that neighboring countries have the resources to cope with any refugee influx and should maintain safe and legal pathways to resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees. If the international community directly or indirectly supports the closure of borders and the establishment of “safe areas” or other in-country camps as an alternative to open borders, it will send a dangerous message to countries elsewhere in the world facing large-scale refugee arrivals. 

6.     If parties agree to a safe zone, how can it be made safe?

The history of safe zones suggests that they are never genuinely safe. Even when they provide civilians a greater measure of safety, it comes at a cost. It can become easier to block aid deliveries, people feeling compelled to seek asylum are less likely to be able to cross an international border, and civilians not in safe zones may find themselves at greater risk. However, if a safe zone is agreed to, the following issues should be considered and addressed to reduce the risks:

  1. The “safe zone” must be sufficiently protected. Simply creating a “demilitarized” zone is not enough. Barring all peacekeeping or military forces is inadequate and dangerous in situations of open hostilities. No-fly zones by themselves – without forces on the ground – are also inadequate to protect a safe area. Any agreement to establish a safe zone would need to make sure there are adequate numbers of effective peacekeepers with robust rules of engagement for aggressively protecting civilians in the safe zone. They will also need to be able to help protect civilians trying to reach the safe area, and to enter or leave it. Peacekeepers deployed need to be professional forces appropriately armed and equipped to deter potential attacks. The countries providing forces must be willing to commit their forces over a substantial period and be willing to accept the possibility of casualties. These forces must strictly abide by international humanitarian law and human rights law.
  2. Ensure that warring parties are on notice that the creation of a safe zone does not leave civilians outside of the zone subject to attack. Civilians outside established safe zones remain civilians, and attacks targeting them are prohibited.
  3. Optimize the size and composition of the safe zone. Will the commingling of different ethnic or religious groups, including from opposing sides in the conflict, make the zone less likely to be attacked or will it create dangerous internal security problems? Would several smaller safe zones be easier to protect than a single larger one? Should peacekeepers be deployed primarily outside the perimeter or inside the zone?
  4. Ensure that the safe zone does not violate the right to freedom of movement. A safe zone cannot be used to violate people’s rights to seek asylum from persecution outside their country or to prevent civilians fleeing conflict zones. How is entry to and exit from the zone regulated? What are the contingency plans if freedom of movement either into or out of the safe zone is hindered or if residents of the safe zone face forced relocation?
  5. Ensure that there is effective and impartial law and order in the safe area. Make sure the various actors work closely with intergovernmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations, as well as representatives of the affected population, including women. Adopt established measures used in any area for displaced persons to provide for the internal safety and security of the population. For instance, create community networks to protect women and girls from sexual violence.  
  6. Institute clear arrangements to ensure there is full and unhindered humanitarian access for intergovernmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations to provide assistance to people in the safe zone. The warring parties should be prepared to give advance consent for this access. Aid deliveries need to be monitored to prohibit unwarranted delays and a mechanism established to quickly resolve them. Where a safe zone is created by the UN Security Council without government consent, authorization under Chapter VII of the UN Charter should be given to ensure unimpeded humanitarian aid delivery.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Human Rights Watch today released a question-and-answer document on “safe zones” and the armed conflict in Syria. A number of leaders and governments have suggested that creating safe zones in Syria near the Turkish or other borders could protect civilians while stemming the flow of refugees from the conflict.

“Safe zones are billed as a way to spare civilians the horrors of war, but all too often they become magnets for the fighting,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “Warring parties contemplating a safe zone in Syria should fully understand the dangers involved and not create them as a quick and easy way to keep refugees out of their countries.”

The question-and-answer document answers questions regarding the international law applicable to safe zones; highlights dangers of past safe zones, such as in Bosnia; discusses the problems safe zones cause for refugees and asylum seekers; and examines what warring parties would need to do to make safe zones safer.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Athens) – The EU-Turkey deal has trapped thousands of people in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands for the past year, while denying most access to asylum procedures and refugee protection, Human Rights Watch said today. This assessment of conditions is released ahead of the first anniversary of the agreement, signed on March 18, 2016.

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

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

To carry out the deal, the Greek government has adopted a containment policy, keeping asylum seekers confined to the islands, including in the so-called refugee hotspots and other reception facilities, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey. But continued arrivals, the mismanagement of aid funding, and the slow pace of decision-making, as well as the positive decisions of Greek appeals committees rejecting summary returns to Turkey as unsafe, have led to overcrowded and abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. These factors, combined with the Greek authorities’ failure to properly identify vulnerable asylum seekers for transfer to the mainland, have resulted in deteriorating security conditions, unnecessary suffering, and despair.

“The EU-Turkey deal has been an unmitigated disaster for the very people it is supposed to protect – the asylum seekers trapped in appalling conditions on Greek islands,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities should ensure that people landing on Greece’s shores have meaningful access to asylum and put an end to the containment policy for asylum seekers.”

Asylum seekers from Algeria at a refugee squat on Lesbos. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants,” such as Algerians, are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained on that basis. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has made repeated visits to official and informal reception facilities on the Greek islands since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, most recently to Lesbos in late February 2017. Dozens of interviews with asylum seekers and migrants trapped on the islands show the detrimental impact of the deal on their human rights. Human Rights Watch has also found abysmal conditions in official reception facilities on the Greek mainland, but with more prospects for improving reception conditions and asylum processing procedures there compared to the islands.

According to figures from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, the maximum official reception capacity at official and informal reception facilities on the five main islands receiving asylum seekers and migrants is 8,759, compared with the 12,963 asylum seekers on the islands as of March 14. Facilities with almost twice as many people as they are meant to serve are not able to cope with the continuing arrivals of small numbers of people fleeing conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Conditions in some facilities on the mainland are also poor, and require improvement to bring them up to humanitarian standards, in line with Greece’s obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

While Greece has received significant assistance from European Union institutions and member states, the European Commission has also pressured Greece to weaken procedural safeguards and protections for vulnerable groups and to speed up operations under the deal to facilitate transfers to Turkey.

The deal’s flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers would allow Greece to transfer them back to Turkey without considering the merits of their asylum claims. But in the months after the deal was completed, Greek asylum appeals committees have rightly ruled in many instances that Turkey does not provide effective protection for refugees and that asylum applications should be admitted for regular examination on their merits in Greece.

Following EU pressure, however, Athens changed the composition of the appeals committees in June, and the restructured committees have ruled in at least 20 cases that Turkey was a safe country, even though it excludes non-Europeans from its refugee protection. That finding was challenged by two Syrian asylum seekers at Greece’s highest court, the Council of State, which heard their case on March 10.

No one has yet been forcibly returned to Turkey on the grounds that their asylum application was inadmissible because they could obtain effective protection in Turkey. But if the Council of State turns down the appeal, it could pave the way for mass returns of asylum seekers to Turkey.


A makeshift shelter at a squat in an abandoned building, on Lesbos, where Syrian asylum seekers live. Since the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, in March 2016, thousands of people have been trapped in abysmal conditions on the Greek islands. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

In an Action Plan published in December 2016, the European Commission recommended tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns to Turkey, including ending exemptions for vulnerable groups and people eligible for family reunification from the requirement to remain on the islands and go through the fast-track admissibility process that could result in a return to Turkey. The commission also recommended expanding detention on the islands and curbing appeal rights. The Greek parliament was to consider legal changes to carry out those recommendations during the week of March 13, 2017.

Greece should resist EU pressure to weaken protections for vulnerable asylum seekers, to expand detention on the islands, to weaken appeal rights, and to send asylum seekers back to Turkey without first determining their protection needs, Human Rights Watch said.

While the EU-Turkey statement does not explicitly require keeping asylum seekers on the islands, EU and Greek officials cite implementation of the deal as a justification for the containment policy. Even if transferring asylum seekers to the mainland would complicate possible returns to Turkey, this is an unacceptable excuse for condemning people to conditions that threaten their health and cause huge anxiety, Human Rights Watch said.

“If the EU is serious about preserving the right to seek asylum, it needs to take a hard look at how the failings of the EU-Turkey deal apply in practice,” Cossé said. “A better-managed and rights-oriented approach by the EU would have put less of a burden on Greece and resulted in better protection and less suffering for thousands of people fleeing war and persecution.”

For more information on flaws in Greece’s current asylum system under the EU-Turkey deal and accounts from asylum seekers and migrants trapped in abusive conditions on the Greek islands, please see below.

Greece’s Flawed Asylum System
Despite significant financial and technical assistance to Greece, there are serious shortcomings in access to asylum for those on the islands. An April 2016 law to facilitate the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal creates a fast-track procedure to examine eligibility and admissibility for international protection claims on the islands within 15 days, including appeal. The law does not guarantee free legal assistance for the initial procedure and limits the possibility for an oral hearing during an appeal, undermining the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights.

In practice, the decisions are taking far longer, leaving people in limbo. Human Rights Watch has also documented discrepancies between the periods that people of different nationalities have had to wait to register their asylum claims or to have them examined. People of certain nationalities presumptively considered “economic migrants” are treated as having manifestly unfounded claims, and are often detained at police stations and detention facilities inside the hotspots on that basis, raising concerns about the use of arbitrary detention on the basis of nationality. This differential treatment and frustration at delayed procedures has led in some cases to unrest in detention centers. Other problems include poor or no interpretation during interviews in some cases, and serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance.

Asylum seekers who arrived on the islands after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect are considered ineligible for relocation to other EU countries under a September 2015 EU relocation plan designed to alleviate pressure on Greece and Italy, even if asylum seekers meet other criteria.

Human Rights Watch has also documented failure to carry out the first reception process, which under Greek law provides for transferring “vulnerable groups” into the regular asylum system on the mainland with easier access to services. Instead, many members of  “vulnerable” groups – including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture, and people with disabilities – have remained trapped on the islands, especially people with less apparent “vulnerabilities,” such as people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities or torture victims.

According to the European Commission, since the deal entered into effect, 916 third-country nationals have been returned to Turkey, either on a voluntary or involuntary basis. The commission said that some did not apply for asylum, others withdrew their asylum application after a negative decision on their first hearing, and others were rejected for asylum after an examination on the merits. Human Rights Watch, other nongovernmental organizations, and UNHCR have documented many irregularities in the forcible returns to Turkey of those the Greek authorities portray as not having applied for asylum.

The EU-Turkey agreement has set a dangerous precedent by putting at risk the very principle of the right to seek asylum in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection, including its geographical limitation to the 1951 Refugee Convention that excludes non-Europeans from consideration for refugee status. In Turkey, Syrian refugees face obstacles to registration, access to education, employment, and health care, despite having access to temporary protection status. Others, including Iraqis and Afghans, do not have temporary protection status. Finally, Turkey’s border with Syria remains effectively closed.

The European Union and its member states are currently exploring the idea of similar arrangements to the EU-Turkey deal with North African countries, as part of a wider effort to move legal and administrative responsibility for asylum seekers outside EU borders.


Trapped in Dire Conditions: Recent Accounts
Reza, 23, from Afghanistan, arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, right after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force. He said, in February 2017, that the conditions on the island and uncertainty about the future cause mental anguish:

I arrived on March 21 [2016] so I’m almost a year here. I don’t have a legal paper to leave the island and I don’t have money to pay a smuggler. I feel I am nothing and that I don’t have control over my life anymore. I can’t leave from the island and after such a long time here, I feel that nothing has a purpose anymore. You feel like ‘crazy,’ wandering around without knowing why.

Heavy snow, rain, and strong winds in January exacerbated the already dire conditions on the islands that are housing refugees. Mazar Ali, a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan on Lesbos, said in February:

Our tent was outside in the snow and it got destroyed [because of the snow]. We went to Eurorelief [an aid organization in charge of accommodations] to get a new tent but it took them three days to give us a new one so we slept outside. We’re not allowed to leave from the island. You feel like being in a big prison here on the island. Many times, I feel I can’t breathe freely.

43-year-old Dilshad, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, said in February:

They told me to go to Eurorelief, take a tent, find somewhere to put it and live there.... Since then I am living inside a [summer] tent. As you can see living conditions are not good. Food is not edible.

Three men died on Lesbos in the six days between January 24 and 30. Although there is no official statement on the cause of these deaths, they have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents. In late 2016, a blast most likely caused by a cooking gas container killed an elderly Kurdish woman and her young grandchild at Moria.

Dilshad described the harsh conditions after the heavy snowfall in Lesbos, in January 2017:

My tent was coming down because of the snow. It was very hard and really, really cold. Once, a woman and a child died [inside the camp].... I want to be somewhere where I’m not in danger anymore. I am scared here.

A refugee tent at a squat in an abandoned factory on Lesbos, Greece, where dozens of asylum seekers are living. Due to the dire and dangerous conditions in official facilities, many chose to live in abandoned buildings around Mytilene. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Lack of Identification of Vulnerable Groups
The Reception and Identification Service – supported by EU agencies such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), medical aid organizations, and the UNHCR – is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival. This should include torture victims, and people with disabilities, including mental health conditions. But this screening is not always effective.

Nearly all asylum seekers and migrants interviewed reported feeling that their current lives were meaningless. They said they were frightened, depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Living on the islands perpetuates the trauma of displacement and despair and increases other threats to their safety, including physical violence and mental health concerns. Even people who do not have specific vulnerabilities should not be living under conditions that could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arash,” 30, from Iran, described how conditions in the Moria hotspot, the EU-sponsored screening center on Lesbos where he’s been living since September 2016, have affected his mental state:

I’m suffering a lot here because I’ve lost my dignity. I’ve attempted three times to kill myself…. The conditions here remind me of the prison in Iran, the nightmares, the threats and the torture. The situation brings me to a very desperate condition. The medical certificates say this is not a place fit for me, but for the authorities this means nothing. Five days ago, they transferred me and my brother from the tent to a container. For six months, I was living in a small summer tent.

Arash said that during the first medical screening with Doctors of the World, he was assessed as not belonging to one of the vulnerable groups exempted from the EU-Turkey deal and allowed to move to the mainland, even though victims of torture are a protected category:

I told them I was a political prisoner, that I’ve been tortured, and suffered mock executions three times.... They asked me why I wasn’t executed and I explained this is a form of torture. I described all the physical and psychological problems I have but they wrote ‘No’ on my paper. 

Human Rights Watch contacted a Doctors of the World representative in Greece about Arash’s case. The representative said that during his initial medical screening, Arash had no visible injuries on his body and declined when asked if he wanted to speak to a psychologist or social worker. Arash later did request psychological support from Doctors of the World, who then asked Greek authorities to give him “vulnerable” status as a possible victim of torture. The request was refused, the Doctors of the World representative said.

Arash said his mental health deteriorated while on Lesbos. He told us that three days before attempting to commit suicide, he tried to visit the camp’s psychologist and told them he was tortured in prison and still has nightmares. The camp reminded him of the prison. The psychologist’s response was that “there are 90 people ahead of you in the line and you have to wait.”

Earlier in 2017, Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify people with disabilities. Human Rights Watch also found a lack of access to mental health care and psychosocial support that is much-needed by asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece.

Ahmed and Fatima, an Iraqi couple in their late twenties, both have physical disabilities that make it very difficult for them to stand or walk. They told Human Rights Watch in October 2016 that they were not allowed to register their disabilities because they did not have a medical certificate for proof. “When we went to register [on Samos Island] they asked us for proof that we have disabilities even though they can see we do,” said Fatima, who now uses a wheelchair.

Seeking Asylum Under the Deal
“Ahmad,” a 36-year-old Syrian asylum seeker from Homs, arrived at Lesbos in July 2016. In February 2017, he described his interview under the EU-Turkey deal, in which the interviewer did not explain the purpose of the interview, would not consider his claim for asylum based on his persecution in Syria, and focused only on his time in Turkey, but did not adequately consider the lack of protection he experienced there:

When I got here they told me “either you apply for asylum or you go back to Turkey.” I applied for asylum, I got rejected, and now I am waiting for the appeal. They said “the court considered Turkey is a safe country for you so you are rejected.” I felt disappointment. They said I have to appeal or I’ll go to prison or be deported.

Ahmad said he had spent two months in Turkey, where he tried unsuccessfully to register for temporary protection. He said without registration he was denied access to health care for serious back pain because he lacked the necessary residence documents. In his interview in Lesbos, he said:

They didn’t explain the purpose of the interview but said I am not allowed to have a lawyer. They said, “if your application is rejected, then you are allowed to have a lawyer.” The most important thing during the interview was that the questions were all about Turkey. But I am not a Turkish man escaping Turkey. They should ask me about Syria instead. I always try to forget this interview. During the interview, they tried to avoid listening to what I had to say about Syria. It’s like a deal: “We need something on Turkey to reject you.”

“Willias,” a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Nigeria who arrived in Greece in June 2016, in February 2017 described his interview four months earlier:

During the interview, I was alone, I didn't have a lawyer and there was no translator. I spoke in English and I’m not good in English. I asked for a translator and the man who was in charge of the interview said the translator was not around. Then I got the negative answer. They gave me a lawyer and we asked for appeal. I don’t know what will happen, they don’t give details. I can’t go back to Turkey. I would rather die. I was in jail and I don’t like that. And the same goes for my country.

43-year-old Dilshad, the Kurdish asylum seeker from Iraq who reached Lesbos in September, gave a similar account in February:

I’ve done two interviews. Very simple questions. I don't know who they were. The interpreter was speaking Farsi. They told me there was no available interpreter for Kurdish. They didn’t explain to me what the interview was. They just told me to wait in my tent and that they will call me…. During the second interview they asked me: “If you go back to Turkey and have the possibility to get papers is it OK for you?” and I said no because I was imprisoned there.

Hussein Sherif, a 37-year-old man from Iraq who arrived in Greece at the end of August, said in February that he had not yet been interviewed: “They told me the closest date for an interview is March 23. But other people who came after me have received a closer date for an interview. I feel they treat people depending on their mood. They treat animals better than us humans.”

Hussein said he had been attacked and repeatedly stabbed on the belly by three Iraqi men, in Mytilene, Lesbos. He was hospitalized for 10 days and underwent surgery: “I went to the police to file a complaint and they told me I have to pay 100 euros and that it will take time. I left it and hid for two months in an apartment in Mytilene because I was afraid.”

An abandoned factory on the island of Mytilene, that has been turned into a squat and shelter for asylum seekers stranded there. 

© 2017 Arash Hampay for Human Rights Watch

Reza, the 23-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who arrived in Greece one day after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force, said that in the first two months on Lesbos, he had no information about the asylum process and what would happen to him: “Then, an NGO came and told us that borders have closed and that we have to apply for asylum. But I didn’t know how to do it.”

Reza said that six months after he expressed his wish to apply for asylum, he received an asylum seeker’s card, but he said he is one of the few Afghans who have been through an asylum interview:

In the beginning, only Syrians were going through an interview. I am one of the few who was interviewed, three months ago. But I don’t have an answer yet. There are people who’ve been here for 10 months and haven’t been through an interview and others who are 20 days here and have left for Athens.

Reza said that the purpose of the interview was not explained to him:

The man who was interviewing me was a foreigner, probably from the European Union, and there was also an interpreter. They said from the beginning that they don’t want to know if I had problems in my country and that they only care if I had problems on my way here. For many times, they asked me why I didn’t stay in Turkey, and explained to me that Turkey is a safe country. I explained to them that Turkey is not safe. It’s a harsh country and you don’t feel safe there. They’ve sent many people back in Afghanistan and when I was there authorities threatened me that they will deport me back.

Samir, 21, from Algeria, said in February that when he arrived on Lesbos, he was detained in a closed facility inside the Moria hotspot, though people of other nationalities were allowed to go in and out of the camp:

At sea [in the Aegean], Swedish coast guard caught us. After that, we were directly brought to Moria and put to prison. This is the problem. When they hear Algeria, they put us immediately into detention, even if we’ve done nothing. When I arrived, they told me that I will stay for 25 days in detention and after that, if I don’t get asylum I will be sent back to Turkey…. I stayed for eight days in prison and then I decided to escape, while going to the interview with EASO [European Asylum Support Office].

“Fezi,” a 23-year-old Pakistani man, said he fled the area he was living, in Peshawar, because of the high incidence of suicide bombings and drone attacks. He described in February what happened to him after he arrived in Lesbos:

I stayed in Moria for eight to nine months. During that period, they took me for two months to jail [immigration detention inside Moria]. I don’t know why. The police came, put me in handcuffs, and took me to jail inside Moria. They didn’t explain why. They took my papers and everything I had. After two months, they gave me my papers back and said, “You can go.” I was afraid because all Pakistanis go to the EASO interviews and they fail. Every single Pakistani is rejected except those who are Christian.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A new residency policy announced last month waiving hefty residency fees for some Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a step forward for many people desperate for a secure legal status here. But it leaves many others out in the cold.

A General Security officer stands by as a Syrian bus driver carries the passports and departure cards of Syrians arriving in Lebanon. 

© 2015 Reuters

Lebanon tightened its residency policy two years ago, requiring Syrians to pay a hefty $200 annual fee to maintain legal status in the country. Since then, more than 60 percent of refugees are estimated to have lost their legal status, restricting their ability to move freely for fear of arrest. This has made it much harder for them to work, get health care and education, and register births and marriages. The lack of legal status contributes to widespread poverty, a risk of statelessness for the refugees’ newborn children, early marriage, and barriers that keep 250,000 Syrian children out of school.

For many Syrians here, the new fee waiver will be life changing. But it excludes a large part of the refugee population, raising troubling questions as to Lebanon’s continued efforts to delegitimize Syrians’ claims to refugee status. The order excludes an estimated 500,000 Syrians not registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, even though the government directed UNHCR to stop registering Syrians as refugees in May 2015. It also excludes anyone who has used a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal residency, even though General Security officers have required many Syrians to secure sponsors—in contravention of Lebanese policies.

Lebanese General Security offices also have a history of applying new directives inconsistently. Human Rights Watch called several General Security offices and received contradictory information about how the directive would be carried out. One office still requires refugees to sign a pledge not to work, though that requirement was dropped last summer. Meanwhile, Lebanese security services have continued mass raids on refugee communities, arresting people those without legal residency.

Lebanese authorities have long pursued a policy of undermining Syrians’ claims to refugee status and limiting the number of refugees registered with UNHCR. Lebanon refers to people who fled here from Syria after March 2011 as “temporarily displaced individuals” as opposed to “refugees.” In January 2015 General Security began enforcing new border entry regulations that effectively sealed the border to many Syrians fleeing armed conflict and persecution.

The residency renewal announcement comes amid troubling public statements about the possible return of refugees, including reports of negotiations between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces to return refugees from Lebanon to Syria. Lebanon’s president recently called for the return of refugees to “safe” zones inside Syria. And in February Lebanon’s foreign minister called for adopting “a policy to encourage the Syrians to return to their country.”

The situation inside Syria simply does not permit the creation of truly safe zones. As the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said last month, "Let's not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back." Areas that appear safe today could come under attack tomorrow. And refugees I have spoken with in recent months certainly don’t feel that conditions are safe enough for them to return.

International law on this is clear: any forced or coerced return of refugees from Lebanon would be unlawful, whether or not they are registered with UNHCR or have legal status in Lebanon. Yet this new policy risks cementing a second class of refugees living without residency, who could be among the first to go should coerced returns ever take place.

Although Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, and under human rights law, not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads refugees to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face these risks. Under international refugee practice, repatriation is only considered voluntary if refugees have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and are fully informed about conditions in their home country.

Lebanese authorities should expand the new fee waiver to cover all Syrian refugees in Lebanon and ensure that they are able to live in safety until conditions permit their safe and voluntary return to Syria. Lebanese officials should also reaffirm their commitment not to forcibly return anyone to Syria.

Lebanon has put richer and more powerful countries to shame by taking in as many as 1.5 million refugees—25 percent of its population—at a time when others have closed their doors. It deserves far greater international respect and support for that. But Syrians excluded from the new policy are still stuck in legal limbo, with disastrous consequences. Lebanon should extend legal status to all Syrian refugees in the country, and not exclude those who are among the most vulnerable.

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

A protest at the San Francisco International Airport against Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order on immigration, January 28, 2017.

© 2017 Creative Commons/Daniel Arauz
Donald Trump says he inherited “a mess” when he became president, but many of those messes are of his own making, as shown by his latest effort as president to make good on wild promises he made on the campaign trail.
Trump first called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” back in December 2015. The incendiary call was a major turning point in his campaign, galvanizing his base and putting him at the center of media attention.
It was patently clear, however, that a complete ban on one religion would be unconstitutional. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said Trump came to him about “the Muslim ban” and asked for help to “show me the right way to do it legally.” Shortly after securing the Republican nomination in July 2016, Trump said, “People were so upset when I used the word Muslim. Oh, you can’t use the word Muslim. Remember this. And I’m okay with that, because I’m talking territory instead of Muslim.”

He pivoted to name several countries where Muslims live rather than Muslims per se, and to ban the entry of people from those countries in his first executive order. He temporarily banned entry from nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries, and suspended the refugee resettlement program, while setting up a new system of extreme vetting for these, and potentially other, groups.

But, as pointed out in an amicus brief challenging the order from 10 top national security figures, including former secretaries of State and Homeland Security, and former CIA and NSA directors, “since 2001, not a single terrorist attack in the United States has been perpetrated by aliens from the countries named in the Order.”

One of the courts staying the first order noted that the government had “not offered any evidence to identify the national security concerns that allegedly prompted this EO, or even described the process by which the president concluded that the action was necessary.”

The revised order does try to cook up evidence to support a national security need—boilerplate descriptions of the six Muslim majority countries (Iraq is dropped from the list) whose nationals would be barred from entry for 90 days, as well as examples of two Iraqi refugees who were convicted for plotting terrorist activities and a Somali refugee who came as a child, became a naturalized citizen, and was convicted of another terrorist plot. The order vaguely alludes to 300 people who entered as refugees who are currently the subjects of FBI counterterrorism investigations.

While 300 people under investigation does, indeed, sound ominous, it is 0.01 percent of the 3 million refugees admitted since 1980, and there is no indication yet that any of them have actually been involved in any terrorist activities. There is also no indication of how long they have lived in the United States. If they came as children, like the Somali mentioned in the order, no amount of vetting would have predicted their potential as terror threats many years later.

Let’s not lose sight of the politics at work here. As Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, said in a case involving the display of the 10 Commandments in the McCreary County courthouse in Kentucky, “The world is not made brand new every morning.” The Supreme Court was not willing to confine its purview to the display per se, but rather looked at prior statements and actions of local officials who had made clear their intent to favor Judeo-Christian precepts over other religions.

The same principle applies to the revised executive order. Though cleansed of overt references to Muslims—while continuing to use code words like “honor killings”—the order is still contaminated by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises. As Justice Souter reminds us, that cannot be forgotten or ignored. On March 9, Washington State’s Attorney General, who successfully filed suit against the first order, said that “the core constitutional problems remain the same.”

To gain the presidency, Trump employed classic scapegoating tactics to whip up fear of refugees “pouring into our country” through the “Trojan horse” of the US refugee resettlement program and of Muslims, whom he broadly conflated with terrorism. His continuing ham-fisted efforts to tar all members of entire nationalities and to vilify refugees have less to do with protecting the country against actual threats than proving that he meant what he said during the campaign.

While great latitude remains for the president to take reasonable steps to screen would be immigrants and to choose which and how many refugees to admit, he has cast doubt on his own authority to do so by introducing noxious prejudice into the equation.

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

Update: On March 7, 2017, the Hungarian parliament approved the law, 138 to 6 with 22 abstentions. The law will come into force 8 days after it is signed by the Hungarian president.

(Budapest) – A draft bill proposed by the Hungarian government would allow the authorities to automatically detain asylum seekers in transit zones and to summarily return asylum seekers to the Serbian border from anywhere in Hungary, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said in a February 24 letter to the European Commission calling for it to intervene.

These provisions would apply during under the current immigration “state of crisis,” in effect since September 2015 and in force until September 2017, and any such declared emergency in future.

“The European Commission should not stand by while Hungary makes a mockery of the right to seek asylum,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Using transit zones as detention centers and forcing asylum seekers who are already inside Hungary back to the Serbian side of the razor-wire fence is abusive, pointless, and cruel.”

A refugee washes clothes on the Hungary-Serbia border, on the Serbian side of a transit zone set up by Hungarian authorities to filter refugees at Roszke, Hungary, September 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

If approved, the law would allow authorities to detain all adult asylum seekers on its territory, including families with children and unaccompanied children ages 14 to 18, in transit zones, without any way for them to challenge the detention. It would also permit the authorities to summarily return all asylum seekers and other migrants in the country without permission to the Serbian border from any part of Hungary. This extends countrywide the July 2016 law that authorizes police to return to the border irregular migrants apprehended within eight kilometers of the border.

Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have independently documented Hungarian law enforcement officials’ use of systematic violence and abuse against asylum seekers and migrants during such summary returns to the Serbian side of the border fence.

The proposed legal changes, in combination with amendments already made to laws pertaining to asylum and migration since August 2015, seriously impede access to asylum in Hungary, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said.

If the bill is approved, the only way those without legal status in Hungary will be able to request protection through the asylum system is to gain admission to a transit zone established on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Currently, authorities admit only 25 people per week into each of the two transit zones, leaving over 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants stranded in Serbia, many in inhumane conditions.

In the transit zones, under fast-track border procedures in place, applications are being declared inadmissible if the person entered the country from Serbia on the basis of a July 2015 safe third country list which includes Serbia. Proposed legal amendments will also shorten the period for appealing inadmissibility decisions and asylum rejections from seven days to three, severely limiting asylum seekers’ ability to challenge negative decisions. The draft law states that court clerks, who are not qualified judges, will have authority to issue judicial review decisions in asylum proceedings. The proposed amendments also include a provision to require asylum seekers to cover their cost of detention unless they are granted protection status.

The European Commission opened infringement proceedings against Hungary in December 2015, based on its problematic asylum legislation, but no further information about the proceedings has been made public. The European Commission has also failed to speak out publicly on the need for Hungarian authorities to investigate violent pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants at Hungary’s border with Serbia. Finland, Italy and the Czech Republic have suspended all returns to Hungary under the European Union’s Dublin rule, which allows a country to return an asylum seeker to the first EU country they entered, due to systemic deficiencies in the Hungarian asylum system that do not meet EU standards.

The European Commission should act before Hungary further undermines its asylum obligations under EU and international law, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said.

“These changes will make national courts in other EU countries even more unlikely to approve transfers to Hungary under the EU’s Dublin rule,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “These reprehensible measures undermine much needed solidarity among EU member states when it comes to addressing the refugee crisis in Europe and put people at risk of abuse.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am