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

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

© 2016 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before and after satellite imagesBefore and after satellite images

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

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



© 2017 Sami Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

© 2011 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

© 2014 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

When Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly this week, she focused on the humanitarian challenges of hosting 400,000 Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine State in Burma. They have arrived destitute, victims of a state-led campaign of ethnic cleansing that began after Rohingya militants attacked some 30 police outposts on August 25.

Rohingya refugees carry their child as they walk through water after crossing the border by boat through the Naf River in Teknaf, Bangladesh, September 7, 2017.

© 2017 Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

The situation of the Rohingya refugees is dire: they live in squalid conditions, crammed into a staggering sprawl of rudimentary shelters of sticks and tarps. Many lack food, medical services, and toilets. The rainy season makes everything worse.

The Bangladesh government is seeking answers on dealing with the influx. In her speech, Sheikh Hasina offered to create “safe zones” inside Burma where Rohingya refugees could return. Few details of this proposal have emerged, other than that the UN would supervise these areas.

It’s not clear whether those governments intending to assist the refugees would support this, but first a word of caution. “Safe zones” rarely if ever live up to their name, even with UN peacekeepers on patrol. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the safe area of Srebrenica, protected by UN peacekeepers, was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who promptly executed some 7,000 men and boys, and raped women and girls. In Sri Lanka, government-declared safe zones became kill zones: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam refused to let civilians leave and the military shelled the areas, killing countless civilians.

And even if such zones aren’t attacked, without effective humanitarian aid supplies and freedom of movement for those inside, conditions within “safe zones” could be as bad, if not worse, than in refugee camps across the border.

Human Rights Watch has previously laid out its numerous concerns for governments and organizations when considering creating “safe zones.” Given the Burmese military’s brutal and unrelenting campaign against the Rohingya, no one should be under any illusion that it will allow a “safe zone” to actually be safe.





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

A Rohingya woman travels to a hospital near Kutupalong, Bangladesh, after a landmine blew off her right leg while she was crossing the border from Burma, September 4, 2017.

© 2017 Bernat Armangue/AP Photo

(New York) – Burmese security forces have laid landmines during attacks on villages and along the Bangladesh border, posing a grave risk to Rohingya Muslims fleeing atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government should immediately stop using antipersonnel landmines and join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

“The dangers faced by thousands of Rohingya fleeing atrocities in Burma are deadly enough without adding landmines to the mix,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The Burmese military needs to stop using these banned weapons, which kill and maim without distinction.”

According to witness accounts, independent reporting, and photo and video recordings, Burmese soldiers have in recent weeks laid antipersonnel landmines at key crossing points on Burma’s border with Bangladesh. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Burmese military personnel also planted mines on roads inside northern Rakhine State prior to their attacks on predominantly Rohingya villages. The Burmese government has accused the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) of using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against infrastructure and security forces.

Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

Two Rohingya refugees from inner areas of Rakhine State, one from Buthidaung and another from Rathedaung township, told Human Rights Watch they saw the Burmese military laying antipersonnel mines on roads as the military entered and attacked villagers. “Mohammad,” 39, said he saw a neighbor’s son step on one of the mines laid by the military. The mine blew his right leg off.

On September 4, 2017, a landmine detonated on a path used by many refugees near the hamlets of Taung Pyo Let Yar, about 200 meters from the Bangladesh border. Human Rights Watch witnessed smoke arising from the hamlets, suggesting burning by the military that caused villagers to flee. The next day, three Rohingya men were wounded in three separate landmine explosions near the same border point.

Two Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that men in apparent Burmese military uniforms were seen in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar performing some activity on the ground prior to the September 4 explosions. One described watching a Burmese military patrol on the road near the border on the morning of September 4. From a vantage point in so-called no-man’s land, he observed several soldiers from the patrol stop at least twice, kneel down on the ground, dig into the ground with a knife, and place a dark item into the earth.

Since late August, Burmese security forces, following a coordinated attack by ARSA militants, have carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing involving mass arson, killing, and other abuses against the Rohingya population, causing the flight of more than 420,000 people to neighboring Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch has called on members of the United Nations Security Council to hold a public meeting and adopt a resolution that condemns the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing campaign and threatens to impose further measures, including targeted sanctions on military leaders and an arms embargo.

In April 2017, news media reported that the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments agreed to remove landmines and IEDs from the border area. On September 6, the Bangladesh government protested the recent use of landmines on the border by Burmese security forces. In her September 21 address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused Burma of laying landmines along the border to prevent Rohingya from fleeing the violence. According to Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officials, at least five people have been killed and 12 injured from landmine blasts.

The Landmine Monitor reported that Burmese security forces have consistently used antipersonnel mines in numerous locations along the Bangladesh-Burma border since 1999, but this use had been abating in recent years. In September 2016, Deputy Minister of Defense Maj. Gen. Myint Nwe informed parliament that the army continues to use landmines in fighting with ethnic minority armed groups.

The use of antipersonnel landmines is banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Bangladesh is a party to the treaty and destroyed its landmine stocks in accordance with its treaty obligations. Although Burma is not a party to the treaty, these weapons are unlawful because they cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, and will kill and maim civilians long after they are placed. The Burmese government has not substantively responded to the allegations, but Zaw Htay, spokesman for de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, suggested that Rohingya militants might be responsible. Rakhine State Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Phone Tint denied allegations that government forces were laying landmines, and blamed ARSA: “There’s no landmine planted by the military in the area. The terrorists planted the landmines. The military will never do that.”

In a February 2011 statement on the landmine ban, Aung San Suu Kyi told the International Campaign to Ban Landmines:

I believe everyone is aware that landmines should not be used in Myanmar, considering the serious effects that they have not only on troops in combat, but also on non-combatant civilians who are tending to their daily survival and livelihood – mothers, fathers, and their children. In order to prevent this the Tat Ma Daw [Burmese armed forces], as well as soldiers in combat – meaning all parties engaged in armed conflict – must make their decision to cease the way of mines.

“Placing landmines in the path of fleeing refugees and on roads where families are likely to travel is heartless beyond words,” Ganguly said. “The Burmese government should immediately end its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population, including by immediately clearing landmines in northern Rakhine State.”

Human Rights Watch is a co-founder and chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya Crisis

Human Rights Watch reporting from the ground on the Burmese military’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Recent Cases of Landmine Use in Rakhine State

Sabikam Nahor, approximately 45, lost both of her legs below the knees after stepping on an antipersonnel landmine laid inside Burma near the Bangladesh border. She told Human Rights Watch that the incident occurred on the afternoon of September 4, 2017, after the Burmese military attacked her village, in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar. Nahor said that she was in an outdoor latrine when she heard the shooting and ran toward the Bangladesh border nearby. She said that she had used the same path on many occasions before when she would go to markets across the border. Nahor said she was running when there was a sudden explosion as she stepped on the ground. She fell and, from the ground, saw one of her legs detached from her body. Several Rohingya picked her up and took her across the border, and from there she was transported to a hospital.

Subir Ahmed, 55, said that on August 28, his son, Azizul Huq, 15, stepped on a landmine and was killed within 60 meters of the Bangladesh border. Subir said that his son and his brother were separated from the family on August 25, after at least 30 Burmese soldiers arrived in their home of Taung Pyo Let Yar and opened fire on villagers who had just finished morning prayers. While waiting for his son at the border at Thiang Khali in Bangladesh, Subir heard a loud blast and then saw Azizul Huq lying on the ground near his brother. Subir rushed to where his son was lying on the ground and picked him up, leaving the remains of the boy’s shattered legs behind. Subir Ahmed noted that at least once a year, he had traveled on the same path to transport fish to markets in Bangladesh.

Mohammad said that the son of his neighbor, Noor Islam, was a victim of antipersonnel mines on August 29 at about midday in Buthidaung township. He said they were not aware that mines were in the area. “I saw his right leg was gone,” Mohammad said. “I saw the mines explode with my own eyes on the road.” Mohammad said he had traveled on the same road the day before the fighting broke out, and that at that time it was safe.

Military Placing of Landmines

The refugee who witnessed soldiers digging in the northern part of Taung Pyo Let Yar which borders Bangladesh said that he continued to monitor the activities of the military patrol, and went to several sites where he observed similar activities. He said that from September 4 to 10 he removed several antipersonnel mines from the ground, and used rocks to detonate another three mines.

A landmine is seen near the Bangladesh-Burma border, September 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Private

Senior Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) officers said that they observed similar activities by Burmese soldiers over several days before September 4. They alleged that Burmese officials acted contrary to border agreements and protocols by failing to notify their Bangladeshi counterparts in advance of entering the border area.

Refugees also described seeing landmines on other paths in no-man’s land. Human Rights Watch obtained images of emplaced PMN-1 type antipersonnel blast mines along the fence on the Burma side of the border. From the images alone, Human Rights Watch was not able to determine the origins of these PMN-1 type mines, particularly whether they were copies of the Soviet design produced by China (Type 58) or by Burma (MM-2).

In addition to mine-laying on the border, Human Rights Watch received credible accounts from two Rohingya who described the use of antipersonnel landmines on roads in Buthidaung township after August 25, just before the military started attacking villages, hindering flight from the villages.

“Rohim,” 52, described soldiers arriving by foot and in trucks to Chut Pyin, Rathedaung, in the early morning of August 25. He said that the soldiers were working in teams and placed landmines on the road outside his large, mud-walled house. “When they are coming, some are in four-man teams, some in 10-man teams, and some were sitting, digging, and putting mines in the roads,” said Rohim. He said they only laid mines in the roads, which prevented villagers from using the roads as they fled heavy gunfire and other attacks by the military.

Mohammad said that in addition to attacking his village with gunfire and other explosive weapons on the night of August 26, the military emplaced antipersonnel mines on the road in Taung Bazar, Buthidaung. He said that mines were placed near the hospital. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Hasina witnessed a massacre. Burmese army soldiers threw her infant into a fire. Her younger siblings were beaten to death. The soldiers attempted to rape her before leaving her for dead in a burning house. Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, September 22, 2017.

© 2017 Anastasia Taylor-Lind for Human Rights Watch

Hasina is a soft-spoken 20-year-old Rohingya woman from Rakhine State in Burma. She asked us to use her picture and tell her story so the world knows what is happening there.

Her village, Tula Toli, was attacked in late August by the Burmese army on a rampage of killing and arson after Rohingya militants carried out coordinated strikes on police posts. The villagers ran when the soldiers came, but some were trapped on a river bank. Dozens, Hasina said, were murdered on the beach in front of her eyes, but the nightmare was only beginning.

The army forced Hasina and many other women to stand waist-deep in water and watch while soldiers dug a pit to burn the bodies of those they had killed. She tried to hide her infant daughter under her shawl, but a soldier noticed the baby, snatched her away and tossed her into the fire.

Hours later the soldiers took Hasina, her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and three other relatives, all children, to a nearby house. The soldiers tried to rape the women, knifing the mother-in-law to death when she resisted and beating Hasina and her sister-in-law unconscious. They beat the young children to death with spades.

Rohingya Crisis

Rohingya Crisis

Human Rights Watch reporting from the ground on the Burmese military’s ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing.

When Hasina regained consciousness, she found herself inside the house. It was on fire, and she had been left locked inside by the soldiers. Her sister-in-law was alive, too. They managed to escape the flames, but with serious burns. Badly injured, they somehow made their way to Bangladesh. Both still have burn injuries. Hasina’s sister-in-law, who confirmed this horrible incident, showed us a big gash on the back of her head from when she had been beaten unconscious, and that a doctor had stitched.

Hasina insisted we take her picture and show her face to the world. For her, it is a brave act of defiance to those who sought to eliminate her and her family. 

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

Smoke is seen on Myanmar's side of border as an old Rohingya refugee woman is carried after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, September 15, 2017. 

©2017 Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

World leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York this week will address the Myanmar government's ethnic cleansing campaign against its Rohingya population. Meanwhile, Thailand's military junta has announced a policy designed to push back desperate Rohingya seeking to escape the atrocities in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and deny them access to refugee protection.

On Aug 25 the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 30 police outposts and an army base. In response, the Myanmar military carried out mass arson, killing and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing nearly half a million Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The United Nations called it "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

Rather than sympathy and support for those at risk, Thailand is preparing to respond with the back of its hand. The Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), chaired by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, announced authorities will enforce a three-step action plan.

First, the navy will intercept Rohingya boats that come too close to the Thai coast. Then, upon intercepting such boats, officials will provide fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition the occupants agree to travel onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Lastly, any boat that somehow manages to land on Thai shores will be seized, and immigration officials will apprehend and put Rohingya men, women and children in indefinite detention.

These inhumane measures were announced shortly after the meeting between Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's army chief, responsible for the military operations against the Rohingya, and Thailand's junta leaders on Aug 31. In the past four weeks, over 420,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and satellite imagery and heat sensors analysed by Human Rights Watch have shown more than 228 villages burned to the ground in northern Rakhine state. Those refugees are joining more than 300,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh because of repression and abuses.

Thailand knows well that successive Myanmar governments have persecuted the Rohingya. Myanmar civilian and military officials have regularly imposed severe restrictions on the Rohingya's freedom of movement, assembly, and association. They have also levied demands for forced labour, engaged in religious persecution, and confiscated their land and resources. Despite the Rohingya having been in the country for generations, Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denies Rohingya citizenship, leaving them stateless. Even their right to self-identify as Rohingya is denied by a government that calls them "Bengali" and deems them immigrants from Bangladesh.

Many Thais can recall when the Thai-Malaysian border camps of human traffickers were broken up in May 2015, revealing many Rohingya had died from starvation and disease. Survivors told of a terrifying ordeal in the hands of traffickers. Still, given the lack of security and primitive camp conditions in Bangladesh, many Rohingya are expected to travel by sea starting next month, when weather conditions on the Andean Sea improve, and try to pass through Thailand to seek sanctuary in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Thai authorities have for years said they do not want to accept Rohingya refugees. However, under international law, Thailand cannot summarily reject at the border the claims of asylum seekers fleeing widespread human rights abuses or generalised violence. Thailand is obligated to allow them to enter the country and seek protection.

Thailand should help the oppressed Rohingya from Myanmar, not worsen their plight. The inhumane "push-back" policy planned for new boat arrivals should be scrapped immediately. Instead, Thailand should take the lead in efforts to set up a regional preparedness mechanism that will support search and rescue operations to help Rohingya boats at sea.

Thailand should also grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unhindered access to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand, and permit them to identify and assist those seeking refugee status. As the UNHCR guidelines state that detention should not be used as a punitive measure or as a means of discouraging refugees from applying for asylum, Thai authorities should work closely with the United Nations refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide temporary shelters for Rohingya before they are resettled in third countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. In this regard, it is critical for other governments to provide necessary assistance to Thailand.

One way for Thailand to help stem the flow of new arrivals would be to pressure Myanmar to stop the atrocities from which the Rohingya are fleeing. However, successive Thai governments have failed to speak up for the rights of the Rohingya, or the situation in Rakhine state. By continuing to turn a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya, Thailand's reputation will be at risk, and the government will face a continued exodus by desperate Rohingya. Thailand needs to act fast if it wants to play a leadership role in a regional solution to save lives of Rohingya facing ethnic cleansing in Burma.

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

A general view shows Syrian refugee camps dotted in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, Lebanon, September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Beirut) – Many refugees in Arsal, a border town in northeast Lebanon recently cleared of armed groups, face pressure to return to Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Some have already returned to Syria because of the harsh conditions in Arsal. A recent Human Rights Watch visit to Arsal found widespread lack of legal residency, restrictions on freedom of movement, and fear of seemingly random arrests during army raids. Lebanese authorities should prioritize restoring services and protecting civilians there, following the military campaigns and negotiated agreements that pushed the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants out of the area.

“Conditions in Arsal have gotten so bad that many refugees have decided to go back into a war zone,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanese authorities have a difficult job maintaining security in Arsal, but now that ISIS and al-Nusra have been pushed out, it is essential to improve services and protect civilians.”

Syrians who left Arsal for Idlib told Human Rights Watch by phone that they went back to Syria because of the situation in Arsal, including army raids on refugee settlements, a widespread lack of legal status, fear of arrest and detention, restrictions on their movement, and limited access to education and health care. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence of direct forced returns, but all of those interviewed said they left under pressure, not voluntarily.

Lebanon should ensure that refugees can regularize their legal status and have freedom of movement and access to humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said. Security measures should respect the rights of civilians in Arsal.

Arsal currently hosts an estimated 60,000 Syrians alongside a population of 38,000 Lebanese, according to the municipality. The Lebanese army has maintained tight control over Arsal since the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the town in 2014, and has restricted access to the town since then. While the army quickly regained control of the town, fighters from the Islamic State and al-Nusra remained in areas around Arsal until recent campaigns by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ended in negotiated deals, under which armed men and their families as well as unaffiliated civilians returned to Syria.

Almost 10,000 Syrians have returned from Arsal since June, according to the municipality, largely under agreements negotiated by Hezbollah. Human Rights Watch entered Arsal in September, with permission from the Lebanese authorities, to interview Syrians and assess conditions first-hand. Human Rights Watch spoke with 19 refugees inside Arsal and by phone with five Syrians who returned to Syria.

“When we left [Arsal], we were forced to go,” said a doctor who returned to Idlib. “It wasn’t our place. We would always be persecuted there. Our fate was either arrest, or death, or permanently living in anxiety. This is why most people left, because of the persecution.”

Syrians said that the widespread lack of legal residency was a factor in the decision of many to return to Syria. Nine of the 19 said they did not have legal status, and that men in particular feared arrest by the General Security Organization when trying to renew their residency. Without residency, Syrians face restrictions on movement for fear of arrest, affecting their access to work, health care, and birth and marriage registration. Aid groups estimate that between 70 to 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal status.

Eight Syrians in Arsal said that either they or an immediate family member had been arrested when trying to renew their residency, and that authorities had detained children as young as 9. One camp representative showed Human Rights Watch a list of 222 people who attempted to renew residency but whose identification cards had been held by General Security for at least a year – and as long as three years in some cases.

Syrians said that they feared arrest by the army during frequent security raids on refugee settlements in Arsal. Many said they perceived the arrests as “random,” and feared they could be arrested at any time. Several said that the mass raids in June resulting in the arrests of more than 350 Syrians, and the deaths of four Syrians in military custody amid evidence of torture, created a sense of fear and contributed to families’ decisions to return. Human Rights Watch has called on the army to release its investigation of this incident, but the army has not done so. Camp leaders said they were still unaware of the whereabouts of some of those detained.

“I’m not against the army,” one camp leader in Arsal said. “We will enter with them if they want to enter camps, we want to cooperate with the Lebanese army.”

Syrians in Idlib said they did not have clear information about conditions there before they returned. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, does not have a permanent presence in Arsal, was not involved in facilitating the returns to Syria, and for the most part did not interview Syrians before they left to assess whether their departure was voluntary. UNHCR has not issued a public assessment as to whether these returns were voluntary.

“Our stay in Arsal was in fear, living in the unknown, our departure was in fear and to the unknown, and the trip was in fear and through the unknown,” said one man who returned to Idlib. “We were asking about guarantees but no one told us what it was. … We were in psychological torment. It’s the most difficult decision to make: whether to stay in the unknown or go toward the unknown.”

Almost all of the Syrians interviewed said they would have preferred to stay in Lebanon if they had felt safe.

Syrians still in Arsal also said that they felt under pressure to leave. “The army is putting pressure, General Security is putting pressure, people are putting pressure on us, the situation here is unacceptable,” one man said. But while some said they would consider going back under an international agreement, all said they would prefer to remain in Lebanon if conditions improved, until it was safe to return to Syria.

“I want to go back home with my honor, go back to my house, not under pressure [to Idlib],” one woman said.

Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but is bound by the universally binding customary law principle of nonrefoulement not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of being persecuted, exposed to torture or other ill treatment, or to threats to their lives or freedom. Lebanon is also bound by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not to return anyone to a country where they would be in danger of torture or ill-treatment.

Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure on them is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.

The returns to Syria follow heightened calls by Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria. In July, President Michel Aoun called for safe, not voluntary, returns. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreement among some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but cannot be considered safe for returns. International experience has shown that “safe zones” rarely remain safe, Human Rights Watch said.

“With ISIS and al-Nusra gone from Arsal, Lebanon should recognize that it’s not in its interest for refugees to fear interaction with security services and reassess its security policy,” Houry said. “Lebanon should ensure that Syrians are able to obtain legal residency and that security operations respect the safety and security of refugees living in Arsal.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi Ministry of Transportation buses taking internally displaced families to Hammam al-Alil in May 2017. In late August, Iraqi authorities bused 1,400 foreign women and children to the site. 

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities are holding more than 1,400 foreign women and their children who surrendered with ISIS fighters in late August 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The detentions appear to have no legal basis and none of the detainees has been brought before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention. The authorities should promptly charge or safely release them and confirm the whereabouts of up to 200 men and teenage boys, many foreign, who surrendered during the same period.

Beginning on August 30, Iraqi authorities detained the women and children next to a displaced persons camp in the town of Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, then transferred them on September 17 to an informal detention site in Tal Kayf, 10 kilometers north of Mosul.

“Hundreds of foreign children risk being abandoned in a hellish twilight zone, with no legal identity and no country willing to take them,” said Bill Van Esveld, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Iraq, foreign countries, and international organizations should not let these children fall into statelessness, or consign them and their mothers to detention without charge.”

On September 10 and 11, Human Rights Watch visited the fenced Hammam al-Alil site, consisting of 17 large warehouse-style tents, which was controlled by Iraqi forces. Researchers conducted individual and group interviews with 27 foreign women. The family groups interviewed included no boys over 12 and no men. Two women were visibly pregnant, and dozens of children appeared to be under age 3.

The women and international humanitarian agency staff there said they included Afghan, Azerbaijani, Chinese, Chechen, Iranian, Russian, Syrian, Tajik, Trinidadian, and Turkish nationals. Reuters reported that they also included Algerian, French, and German nationals. Some women had identification documents but most said they did not. Most said they had traveled from their home countries to Turkey, then crossed into Syria before entering Iraq. Most of the children, particularly young children born in Iraq, had no birth certificates or ID documents.

One of the entry stamps in a Syrian woman’s passport who said she had entered Iraq lawfully, who was being held at the Hammam al-Alil site on September 10, 2017. Most women and children at the site had no identification documents.

© 2017 Bill Van Esveld/Human Rights Watch

An Iraqi military intelligence official who declined to give his name told Human Rights Watch at the site on September 10 that the women and children were being held “for their own protection.” There is no legal power under Iraqi law to detain people on this basis, nor is it legal to detain individuals merely because a spouse or parent was a member of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Under international law, Iraqi authorities may detain children only as a measure of last resort, and all detention needs to have a clear legal basis, be decided on an individual basis, and all detainees should be brought promptly before a judge to assess the legality and necessity of their detention.

In late August, the foreign women and children fled a military offensive that retook the Iraqi town of Tal Afar from ISIS, and surrendered to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga military forces, who held them temporarily in a school before handing them to Iraqi forces, said international humanitarian officials and the women.

Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that men and boys over 12 were separated, their hands tied, and lined up against a wall inside the school compound. Women who were there on August 28 said that a woman carried out a suicide attack at the school that day, after which the Kurdish forces killed six males, possibly including two boys, who were being held separately just outside the school compound. When the women were moved to Hamman al-Alil on August 30, the men remained and the women did not know what happened to them.

On September 17, Iraqi military officers and Transport Ministry officials arrived at Hamman al-Alil, loaded the women and children onto buses against their will and left with them, saying they had orders from Baghdad to move them to a military intelligence detention site in Tal Kayf, humanitarian officials who were there told Human Rights Watch. Iraqi authorities did not give them advance notice or say where the families were being taken. It is not clear if the women currently have access to humanitarian assistance and protection monitoring, which is cause for concern, Human Rights Watch said.

Col. Ahmed al-Taie from Mosul’s Nineveh Operation command told Reuters on September 10 that the Iraqi army was holding the women and children under “tight security measures” while “waiting for government orders” as to how to deal with them, including women he described as having been “deluded” by “vicious IS [Islamic State] propaganda.”

On September 12, the Norwegian Refugee Council stated that it would no longer manage the Hammam al-Alil site, where Iraqi military forces were present, because it could not be considered a humanitarian facility.

A KRG spokesman confirmed the suicide attack on August 28, but denied that Peshmerga forces had carried out the alleged extrajudicial killings. He said Peshmerga forces shot a man on August 30 because he was armed and carrying a bomb and threatened to kill a Yezidi captive and Peshmerga forces. The official said the Peshmerga had turned over to Iraqi security forces all the people who surrendered. Bodies found in Mosul since October 2016 suggested some Iraqi forces had extrajudicially killed suspected ISIS members there.

On September 16, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq stated in an interview that most of the women and children were not guilty of a crime, and that his government was “in full communication” with their home countries to “find a way to hand them over.” Human Rights Watch confirmed with humanitarian sources on September 18 that none of the women and children detained since late August at the Hammam al-Alil site had been repatriated.

Iraqi and KRG criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings, by any party to the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.

Iraq should confirm the whereabouts of the missing men and boys, prioritize prosecution of ISIS members found to have committed the worst abuses, and consider alternatives to prosecution for people whose only alleged crime is ISIS membership or who entered Iraq illegally through Syria.

The Iraqi authorities should clarify the legal basis for holding the women and children, ensure all detainees are either charged with a crime and brought promptly before a judge, or immediately released, and are informed of their right to request consular assistance if they choose. Many of the foreign women apparently entered Iraq illegally, but not all are necessarily ISIS members. Iraq should work with international agencies to safely return foreign women who are not charged with a crime to their home country while considering the best interests of their children, taking into account the possibility that the mothers might be imprisoned. The government and international agencies should urgently identify durable solutions, including resettlement to third countries, for released women and children who cannot safely return to their home countries, including Syrian nationals.

While Iraq is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the women and children, their home countries’ and other foreign embassies have a key role to play in finding durable solutions, including potential third country resettlement.

“The Iraqi government should ensure the women’s safe repatriation, asylum or resettlement if they release them, or fair trials if it charges them with violating Iraqi laws,” Van Esveld said. “It would be a terrible irony if children, who were notoriously victimized by ISIS, were forced to pay with their future for ISIS’s crimes.”

Fleeing Tal Afar
ISIS took control of Tal Afar in June 2014. Iraqi forces opened an offensive on August 20, 2017, and retook control of the city and the eastern parts of the district from ISIS fighters on August 26, and the rest of the province in late August. A United Nations humanitarian update published on August 29 reported that 20,000 people fled the area between August 14 and 22, but that 1,500 who remained in the city attempted to flee on August 26.

The women Human Rights Watch interviewed said they fled fighting in Tal Afar at various times on or after August 26, in groups ranging from about 20 to hundreds of people. The majority were foreign women and children, but there were smaller numbers of older, wounded, or fighting-age men. Most women said their husbands were also non-Iraqi, and had been killed in fighting in Mosul or more recently in Tel Afar. Many had lived in the al-Askari neighborhood in Tal Afar.

Those fleeing found themselves stuck in a zone between Iraqi forces advancing from the south and a front line held by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north. All the women interviewed said they had surrendered to Peshmerga forces, who later transferred them to the custody of Iraqi forces.

The women described passing the town of Ayadiya, 17 kilometers north of Tal Afar, before meeting Kurdish forces, in an area of active fighting along a route strewn with landmines. Five of the women said they saw body parts or dead people along the route and some said that they saw incoming fire that killed some people fleeing. In most cases they could not attribute the source of the attacks. One woman said she saw a 12-year-old boy hit by a gunshot that blew off his leg below the knee. Another woman said that she saw a helicopter fire on a group fleeing ahead of her.

Surrender to Kurdish Forces, and Alleged Killings of Boys and Men
The women consistently said that Peshmerga soldiers gave them water and food, and facilitated the evacuation of some of the wounded and sick in ambulances. Some women said the soldiers took their money or gold. All the women said that when they surrendered, Peshmerga soldiers separated women from men and boys ages 13 or 14 and older, and took everyone to an empty school compound, apparently in the village of Saleh al-Malih. At the school, the Peshmerga placed the women, girls, and younger boys in classrooms, and the men and older boys along the inside of one of the walls that enclosed three sides of the compound, with their arms tied behind their backs.

Women who were there on the afternoon and evening of August 28 described seeing between 150 to 200 men and boys on the inside of the compound wall. Two women said they saw an older, heavy-set man with white hair, wearing a red T-shirt, lying unmoving on the ground for hours and apparently dead, among the men and boys seated next to the wall. They said a Peshmerga soldier walked back and forth in front of the men and boys, hitting them with his belt. Three women also said that they saw a group of around 20 men in their 20s and 30s, whom they described as ISIS soldiers, with arms tied, outside an earth mound along the fourth side of the compound.

These women said they arrived at the school at around 10 or 11 a.m. and that at around 1 p.m., a foreign woman who was apparently being checked by female Peshmerga soldiers at the school entrance detonated a bomb she was wearing or carrying, killing and wounding Peshmerga soldiers and displaced people. A KRG official said the bombing killed three soldiers. A UN report stated that a suicide bomber killed a child and two women and wounded 11 people, including 6 civilians. One witness had a small scar on her face and a bandage on her left forearm, which she said were from injuries caused by the explosion.

Two women, interviewed separately, said that minutes later, they saw Peshmerga soldiers shoot at least six men near the earth berm. The women did not know the victims or whether any were children, but “two of them were young and the other four had beards,” one woman from Syria said. They said the men’s arms were tied and that they did not appear to pose a threat. Three other women also described hearing an explosion, followed within 5 to 10 minutes by gunshots. The women said that shortly afterward, a Peshmerga soldier in a white flatbed truck drove with the men’s dead bodies around the school compound, and that they saw soldiers put the remaining members of the group of men outside the berm onto other trucks and drive away with them. It is not known what happened to the men.

In a separate incident, a Syrian woman in her 20s said that Peshmerga forces shot her husband, who was Turkish, and another Turkish man, both ISIS members, after they surrendered on August 30:


My husband had told the Kurds that he would surrender us and give back our Yezidi slave girl, and they told him we could go to Turkey, but then we surrendered and he was talking with another [ISIS member]. I was six meters away from him. I heard gunfire and turned around and his bloody body was on the ground. The other [ISIS member] started running and they shot him down.


In response to Human Rights Watch, a KRG spokesperson stated that “government sources strongly reject the allegation” that Peshmerga forces extrajudicially executed men at the school at Saleh al-Malih on August 28. He said Peshmerga had unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the woman suicide bomber, who killed three soldiers and wounded two. On August 30, the spokesperson said, Peshmerga forces, who had been alerted by a Yezidi woman’s family that she was being held captive, shot and killed her Turkish captor when he arrived at their lines, threatening to kill her.

Transfer to Iraqi Forces; Disappearances of Men, Boys
The women said that Peshmerga soldiers held them at the school compound for varying amounts of time, not exceeding 24 hours, then loaded them and their younger children onto buses that took them to areas under the control of Iraqi forces, and ultimately to the Hammam al-Alil site. The military forces in control of the busses were Iraqi, not Peshmerga, soldiers.

The women described a large convoy of more than a dozen buses. Some women said that older men or wounded men were loaded onto the buses as well, but that most passengers were women and young children.

The women said that was the last they saw of the men and boys held along the school wall. Human Rights Watch interviewed women who were relatives of Turkish men ages 20, 43, 73, and around 45; an Azeri man in his 40s; and a Trinidadian man of 53 who last saw them at the school compound and do not know their whereabouts. Two Syrian women named eight women, four Syrian and four Azerbaijani, they last saw at the compound who had not turned up in Hammam al-Alil, and whose whereabouts they didn’t know.

Several women said Iraqi forces stopped their buses at checkpoints on the way to Hammam al-Alil, screened the passengers, and removed suspected ISIS members. At one of these stops, one woman said, a person whose identity was obscured by a mask identified 10 men and boys who were taken away by security forces that she could not identify, before the buses continued. A second woman said that Iraqi forces took her and other bus passengers into an empty building that was still under construction for screening.

Another woman, who was on a different bus, said that after it had passed two checkpoints, Iraqi security forces stopped it at a checkpoint in Hamdaniya, a Christian town 16 kilometers northeast of Hammam al-Alil, where a masked informant pointed out her Iraqi husband, age 56. A soldier took him and three other men from the bus to a prefabricated caravan at the checkpoint, and another soldier told her, “If he is innocent they’ll let him go.”

The woman, 39, has four young children, and insisted that her husband was not an ISIS supporter, and that the family had been in Mosul when ISIS took the city and had been unable to flee. Once the United States-led coalition started carrying out heavier airstrikes on Mosul, the family fled to Tal Afar, she said, where ISIS forces refused to let them leave.

According to international legal principles on the treatment of prisoners, Iraqi authorities have a duty to inform the families of the men who were taken off the buses, and to treat them humanely – regardless of whether they are ISIS supporters. Some Iraqi units have a record of enforced disappearances and executions of suspected ISIS members.

Treatment of the Women, Children
News media reported that Iraqi officials said Iraq was negotiating with the women’s home countries for their return. Human Rights Watch received information that the Azerbaijan embassy was pursuing the return of its nationals among the detained women and children.

Iraqi authorities should notify the women that they have the right to request consular support, and contact and facilitate consular access for women who wish to do so, while ensuring that women are not arbitrarily separated from their children except based on the determination that doing so would be in the child’s best interest. Iraqi authorities should ensure that women and children are not deported or repatriated if they would be at risk of persecution, torture, or unfair trials for their alleged Islamic State affiliation.

Iraqi authorities should protect the women and children from reprisal attacks, but not detain them or prohibit their freedom of movement unless they are suspected of specific crimes and have judge-issued warrants against them. Iraqi authorities and authorities in the women’s home states, if they are returned, should prioritize prosecutions for involvement in serious crimes.

Iraqi authorities should facilitate humanitarian access to them and their children, and ensure access to medical care and decent living conditions.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Unaccompanied children line up for an evening meal at a detention facility run by the Greek police.

© 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

Is it ever acceptable for children to be detained in dark and dirty police cells, without access to the most basic services? Of course not. But when it comes to unaccompanied migrant children, Greek authorities appear to think the answer is yes. 

According to the government’s latest figures, published in early September, at least 113 children were detained in so-called protective custody at police stations or police-run detention facilities, waiting to be transferred to a shelter. The number was higher in August, when 142 children were kept in those cells. Human Rights Watch research has documented the detention of unaccompanied migrant children in police cells and other detention centres in Greece, in violation of international and Greek law.

Greek authorities justify the detention of unaccompanied children as a temporary measure to protect children from harm when the shelter system is full. But under international law, detention of unaccompanied children should be avoided. Binding European directives and national law state that when unaccompanied children are detained, it should be only as a measure of last resort, in exceptional circumstances, and for the shortest appropriate period. 

Children we interviewed described the deplorable conditions they faced: held for weeks in dirty, unsanitary, and overcrowded police cells, often sharing space with unrelated adults.

Far from protecting them, this makes children vulnerable to all kinds of abuses, including sexual violence and harassment and increases the risk of further deteriorating their already fragile psychological state. As if that wasn’t enough, we found unaccompanied children in detention are not correctly informed about their rights and have no access to educational or recreational activities.

In response to an open letter from Human Rights Watch in July, Greek Minister for Migration Policy Yannis Mouzalas has pledged that by the end of the year not a single child would be kept in protective custody.

To fulfil this pledge, Greece should use EU funding to provide suitable short-term alternatives to detention, increase the number of places in long-term shelters, and establish a foster family system. Other EU countries have a responsibility to address the situation too. They should make relocating unaccompanied children a priority, speed up family reunification, and broaden eligibility requirements for relocation so more kids can benefit. Unaccompanied children currently in police cells in Greece cannot wait any longer.

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

Satellite image of the Rukban Syrian refugee encampment at the Jordanian berm on Jordan-Syria border, June 24, 2016. 

© CNES 2016 / Distribution Airbus DS
Displaced Syrians are trapped as never before. The Rukban camp, a desolate encampment on Jordan’s remote northeastern border known as “the berm,” is a microcosm of Syria’s stranded civilians. They face an immediate threat as the Syrian government forces they fled advance along the border with Jordan.

Media outlets have reported that hundreds of the roughly 50,000 people there are now heading north, leaving the “no-man’s land” at the Syria-Jordan border and going back into Syria to face unknown dangers rather than to stay in a place of known suffering and increasing peril.

Since June 2016, when Jordan sealed its border with Syria, the Syrians in Rukban have been denied the right to seek asylum in Jordan and have had limited distributions of food and periodic cut-offs of water. Without any lawful authority protecting them, they have been at the dubious mercy of a Jordanian-backed militia, the Tribal Army, who appear to have controlled what little access they have to humanitarian assistance.  

Throughout Syria, millions of lives are at stake. In Idlib province, in Syria’s northwestern corner abutting Turkey, 2 million Syrians—approximately half of them displaced people—are hemmed in. They were forced from their homes into Idlib either as the only available place to flee the regime of Bashar al-Assad or transferred there as part of evacuation deals between the Syrian government and local Syrian councils and opposition groups. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreementamong some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but de-escalation is a far cry from “safe.”

Civilians there have no real assurances of safety or confidence that the area will not soon become a hot-war zone. In the meantime, armed groups—including al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of the province—exacerbate their misery by interfering with humanitarian aid. But what makes their situation truly dire is a barbed-wire topped concrete wall that blocks access to Turkey and the risk of being shot by Turkish border guards if they try to cross.

And in Lebanon an estimated 10,000 Syrian refugees and militants have returned to Syria since June, under deals negotiated primarily between Hezbollah and Syrian armed groups. Under these agreements, Syrians have returned to both Assad-government-held areas such as Assal Al-Ward as well as rebel-held Idlib—none of which can be considered safe.

Most of these returns have taken place from the northeast border town of Arsal, a restricted-access military area, where refugees told Human Rights Watch the living conditions and constant security raids on their camps were the main reasons behind their decision to head back into Syria. In the majority of cases, the UN Refugee Agency has not been able to interview returnees to ensure that the returns are voluntary. Now, the Lebanese Army is exerting firmer control over this once-porous border, and has arrested Syrians attempting to cross into Lebanon.

This bleak situation should come as no surprise. Syria’s neighbors have been signaling for years the limits of their capacity to host roughly 5 million Syrians, and the levels of international support continue to lag far behind the need. The UN humanitarian appeal for Syria is only 36.6 percent funded, while the appeal to support Syrian refugees in the region is funded at only 38 percent. US President Donald Trump’s order to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement and to ban entry of Syrians combined with the paltry resettlement offers from most European Union members speaks loudly to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan about the extent of international support they can expect and the silence that will likely greet their pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers.

But this is a situation that cannot simply be contained. Declaring zones de-escalated doesn’t make them so. In fact, Idlib is looking increasingly like a pressure cooker where civilians are feeling squeezed not only by the near doubling of the population of a province now mostly controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked group, but also by their fears that the Syrian government will turn its sights to the region and they will have no place to flee.

While peacemaking initiatives—including the Russia-, Turkey-, and Iran-brokered talks now in their sixth round in Astana, Kazakhstan—are welcome, the needs of civilians cannot be ignored. De-escalation zones cannot be a pretext for containing civilians trying to escape for their lives. All governments with capacity to support Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey both financially and through refugee resettlement, should do so, including by assisting these countries with screening new arrivals and ensuring their national security. As governments far from the conflict ramp up their assistance to the countries on the frontline, they need also to insist that pushing asylum seekers back to danger is not an acceptable response to war and humanitarian disaster.

When all other human rights have been lost, the last remaining right, the difference between life and death, is the right to flee. The denial of that right can be a death sentence. After more than six years of war in Syria, this cannot be allowed to be the way it ends.

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