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

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



© 2017 Sami Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

© 2011 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

© 2014 Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Rohingya boy from Burma carries his brother as he leaves after offering the afternoon prayer during the holy month of Ramadan, at a camp in New Delhi, India, June 28, 2015. 

© 2015 Adnan Abidi / Reuters

(New York) – The Indian government should not forcibly return ethnic Rohingya refugees to Burma, where they face persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. India should abide by its international legal obligations and protect the Rohingya – a Muslim minority predominately from western Burma – from systematic abuse by Burmese officials and state security forces.

On August 9, 2017, the Indian minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told the parliament that “the government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas,” noting that there were around “40,000 Rohingyas living illegally in the country.”

“India has a long record of helping vulnerable populations fleeing from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans, and Tibetans,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.”

Indian authorities should abide by India’s international legal obligations and not forcibly return any Rohingya to Burma without first fairly evaluating their claims as refugees.

Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

About 16,500 Rohingya living in India are registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The government contends that tens of thousands are unregistered. Minister Rijiju told Reuters news agency, “They [UNHCR] are doing it, we can't stop them from registering. But we are not signatory to the accord on refugees.” He added: “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.”

Rijiju’s statement does not accurately reflect India’s obligations under international refugee law. While India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by customary international law not to forcibly return any refugee to a place where they face a serious risk of persecution or threats to their life or freedom.

The Rohingya are largely living in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan. Since 2016, Rohingya refugees in Jammu have been targeted by right-wing Hindu groups who have been calling for their eviction from the state, with some groups even threatening attacks if the government rejected their call.

In December 2016, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group with links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), demanded the eviction of Rohingya from Jammu, calling them a threat to security. Another group, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, started a public campaign against the Rohingya, putting up billboards in the city calling on Rohingya and Bangladeshis to leave the state. In February 2017, a BJP member whose lawyer is the BJP spokesman in Jammu, filed a petition in the state high court seeking the Rohingya’s deportation, arguing that there had been a sharp increase in illegal migrants from Burma and Bangladesh.

The campaign by Hindu groups against the Rohingya in Jammu has prompted vigilante-style attacks against them. In April, unidentified assailants reportedly set on fire five huts housing Rohingya in Jammu. Four days earlier several Rohingya families living in the outskirts of Jammu alleged that unidentified people beat them up and set ablaze the scrap they collected to earn a livelihood.

Xenophobic statements by government officials about Rohingya could fuel further violence against them and Bengali-speaking Muslims.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the rampant and systemic violations against the ethnic Rohingya in Burma. The estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, most of whom live in Burma’s Rakhine State, have long been targets of government discrimination, facilitated by their effective denial of citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. The Rohingya have faced longstanding rights abuses, including restrictions on movement, limitations on access to health care, livelihood, shelter, and education; as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced labor.

An estimated 120,000 people, the vast majority Rohingya, are currently displaced in camps in Rakhine State as a result of violence in 2012 that amounted to crimes against humanity and “ethnic cleansing.” The displaced Rohingya live in squalid, prison-like conditions in these camps. An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are living in Bangladesh, where the vast majority have also been prevented from filing refugee claims. The Burmese government refuses to use the term “Rohingya,” with which the group self-identifies, but often uses the pejorative term “Bengali,” implying illegal migrant status in Burma.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses associated with recent military operations following attacks by alleged Rohingya militants in October 2016 in Rakhine State, including widespread arson, extrajudicial killings, systematic rape, and other forms of sexual violence. The United Nations estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed in the crackdown. A February report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concluded that the attacks against the Rohingya “very likely” amounted to “crimes against humanity.”

In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council, of which India is a member, passed a resolution establishing an independent international fact-finding mission with a mandate to investigate allegations of recent human rights abuses in Burma, especially in Rakhine State. The government has stated its intention to deny the mission access to the country.

Due to Burma’s discriminatory citizenship policies, it refuses to cooperate in the repatriation of Rohingya, itself a denial of the human right of any person to return to their country.

India has in the past called upon Burma to address the issues around the Rohingya and to ensure their protection. Minister Rijiju has stated that deportations will occur only in consultation with the authorities in Bangladesh and Burma.

“Without the willingness or capacity to evaluate refugee claims, the Indian government should put an end to any plans to deport the Rohingya, and instead register them so that they can get an education and health care and find work,” Ganguly said. “Most of the Rohingya were forced to flee egregious abuse, and India should show leadership by protecting the beleaguered community and calling on the Burmese government to end the repression and atrocities causing these people to leave.”

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

North Korean soldiers in a border guard post are seen from the Chinese side in Tumen, China, January 7, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

(Seoul) – China should not deport 15 North Koreans held in Chinese detention back to North Korea, but should either grant them asylum or allow them to safely go to a third country, Human Rights Watch said today. North Koreans who are forcibly returned after fleeing their country face a real risk of torture, sexual violence and abuse, incarceration in forced labor camps, and death.

According to North Koreans who have fled the country since 2013, or who maintain contacts inside the country, people repatriated by China face incarceration in forced labor camps, political prison camps (kwanliso), or even execution. Political prison camps in North Korea are characterized by systematic abuses and often deadly conditions, including meager rations that pose risk of starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment that includes sexual assault and torture by guards, and summary executions. Death rates in these camps are reported by former North Korean prisoners and guards to be extremely high. Detainees in ordinary prison camps also face forced labor in dangerous working conditions, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards.

“China needs to recognize that sending these 15 North Koreans back to their country means condemning them to suffer horrific rights violations, and immediately halt any effort to send them back into harm’s way,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “China’s leaders should instead call for Pyongyang to cease the human rights violations that are compelling people to flee the country in the first place.”

World Report 2017: North Korea

World Report 2017: North Korea

During his fifth year in power in North Korea, Kim Jong-Un continued to generate fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor.

Human Rights Watch learned about the situation of the 15 detainees through a father whose son left North Korea and was apprehended by Chinese authorities with four other North Koreans in early July. This father learned that five people were first detained near the Laos border, then grouped with another ten North Koreans, including three children, in detention in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan province.

The father told Human Rights Watch that some family members of the detained North Koreans managed to visit the detention center where they were being held. They found out that on August 1, 2017, the group had been moved to the Tumen immigration detention facility in Jilin province, right across the border from the North Korean city of Namyang in North Hamgyong province. This facility is usually one of the last detention centers where North Koreans who face imminent forced return are held. On August 4, the father heard from a credible source that the 15 detainees, including his son, had arrived in Tumen, and authorities were preparing to send the group back to North Korea.

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them to North Korea under a 1986 bilateral border protocol.

According to interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch with North Koreans who have previously been apprehended in China and returned to North Korea, the North Korean government harshly punishes all those who leave the country without permission. In 2010, North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security adopted a decree making defection a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death. Human Rights Watch considers all North Koreans in China who left without permission to have refugee status (as refugees sur place) because they have a well-founded fear of persecution if forcibly returned.

Forcing North Korean refugees back to their country constitutes refoulement, or the sending of persons back to territory where they face threats to life or freedom, which is forbidden by international treaties to which China is a party as well as by customary international law. Under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1984 Convention against Torture, China is specifically obligated not to force back North Koreans, who would be placed at risk of persecution or torture.

North Koreans who leave their country are caught in a horrendous cycle of physical and psychological violence. I received information that some take their own lives when they find out that they are scheduled for repatriation.

Tomás Ojea Quintana

Special Rapporteur on North Korea

For North Koreans who are returned and not sent to political prisoner camps, the authorities may sentence them to between 2 to 15 years forced labor in ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso, or re-education correctional facilities) for living or working illegally in China.

A former senior official in the North Korean state security service (bowibu), who previously worked on the border and received North Koreans sent back from China, told Human Rights Watch that officials under his command tortured every returnee to find out where they went in China, who they contacted, and what they had done while outside North Korea.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, enslavement, and sexual violence, are committed against prisoners and people forcibly returned to North Korea from China. On July 27, 2017, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said: “North Koreans who leave their country are caught in a horrendous cycle of physical and psychological violence, and I received information that some take their own lives when they find out that they are scheduled for repatriation.”

Human Rights Watch calls on China to protect those in Chinese custody, to grant North Koreans asylum or safe passage to other countries, and to allow the UN refugee agency to exercise its mandate and protect North Korean asylum seekers.

“China should demonstrate to the UN and governments around the world that it will no longer be complicit with the North Korean government’s rights violations against its own people,” Robertson said. “By protecting these 15 North Koreans, Beijing would send a strong message that China will no longer play along and ignore North Korea’s human rights abuses.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) meet ahead of an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, aboard the USS Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, U.S. May 4, 2017. 

© 2017 Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The leaked transcript of the infamous January 28 phone call between US President Donald Trump and Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has some extraordinary revelations.

It confirms how Australia's foreign policy has been hijacked by immigration concerns. One might expect the first call between these two leaders would have focused on more pressing matters of global security but for nearly the entire call, Australia’s Prime Minister is desperately trying to persuade the US president to uphold an agreement to take a small number of refugees from Australia’s offshore processing centers in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru.

The transcript exposes the hypocrisy of Australia’s refugee policies and Turnbull’s complete disregard for international law. “If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here,” Turnbull says. But under the Refugee Convention, which Australia has ratified, countries can’t discriminate against those seeking asylum based on mode of transport. The treaty recognizes that refugees may need to enter a country illegally for protection and should not be punished for that. 

Turnbull also falsely refers to those on Manus and Nauru as “economic refugees” when in fact all of those being considered for US resettlement are recognized as refugees for having a well-founded fear of persecution if returned home.

Aside from President Trump’s mind-boggling statement that "I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country," perhaps the most surprising moment in the call was Turnbull admitting that the US doesn’t even have to accept any refugees, but just go through the vetting: “You can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to only go through the process.” This exposes the brutal truth that Australia’s leader does not really care about the refugees’ fate, but just needs to make it look like something is happening.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 men, women, and children remain in limbo in Nauru and Manus Island. Most have been there for four years, facing violence, mistreatment, and neglect in Australia’s offshore processing centers. Right now, refugee men on Manus are protesting plans to close the center and move them to another facility where they feel even less safe. 

Both of Australia’s major parties should stop playing politics with refugee lives and let these people settle in Australia; it is the humane, responsible thing to do. 

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

After police halted an evening distribution of food and clothing, three officers stop and question a boy who had paused to change his shoes before returning to the wooded area where he and other migrants spend the night, May 2017. 

© 2017 Help Refugees

In Calais at the end of June, I spoke to a 17-year-old Ethiopian boy (I’ll call him Biniam T.). He said French riot police (the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS) had sprayed him with a chemical substance as he was walking with some other boys along the side of a road: “It was the daytime, and they came in a van. They sprayed us from the van. They didn’t say anything; they just sprayed.”

It wasn’t the first time I heard such an account—in fact, nearly every one of the children and adults I interviewed had a similar story. Nor was it the only time police had subjected Biniam to such treatment. “If they catch us when we are sleeping, they will spray us and take all of our stuff. Every two or three days they do this,” he said. “This is normal for us. It’s part of our life.”

Conditions for migrants in Calais may soon improve, at least marginally. Interior Minister Gérard Collomb announced on July 31 that the state would open new shelters for migrants, provide access to water, toilets, and showers and investigate reports of excessive use of force by police.

This is a positive, if initial, response to the Human Rights Watch report last week of widespread police abuses against migrants in Calais and a court decision this week from France’s highest administrative court sharply criticizing officials’ refusal to provide water and other humanitarian assistance to migrants. City officials had at first opposed the Interior Ministry’s plans and had vowed not to comply with the court order.

And the minister also challenged our finding that riot police routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants when they pose no conceivable threat. A ministry news release stated that police use teargas rather than pepper spray. “I reiterate that in the security forces, there is no use of pepper spray,” he  told reporters, adding,  “There could be some misconduct by individuals.”

Why the ministry would think tear gas would be better than pepper spray is anyone’s guess. Tear gas (usually containing the chemical agent 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS) and pepper spray cause similar symptoms, including a painful, burning sensation in the eyes and difficulty breathing, although the effects of tear gas often last far longer and can be more severe than those of pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum, OC). Tear gas is a nerve agent, and frequent exposure has been associated with long-term decreases in pulmonary function and increases in respiratory complaints. Put more plainly, people who have been repeatedly exposed to tear gas don’t breathe as well as the average person, even months afterward.

We can say confidently that riot police carry hand-held spray canisters as well as tear gas grenade launchers. I saw both in the hands of police dispersing aid distributions in Calais. Nearly every migrant I spoke with said they had been sprayed by police at close range, usually in the face, most within the previous two weeks. Aid workers said they had witnessed the same, and two aid workers told us a police officer had sprayed them in the face.

It’s possible that the sprays used by the French riot police contain teargas rather than pepper spray. At least one company that sells equipment to French police forces sells hand-held spray canisters containing CS tear gas as well as pepper spray.

We described the chemical sprays used by French riot police in Calais as pepper spray because the symptoms that migrants and those who treated them reported to us were more consistent with pepper spray and news reports on the riot police’s arsenal have stated that it includes pepper spray.

Whatever the police are using, the accounts we heard suggest that they do so routinely and abusively. They also regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, and sometimes migrants’ food and water, apparently to pressure them to leave the area. Such acts violate the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment and international standards that call for police to use force only when it is unavoidable, and then only in proportion to the circumstances, and for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.

The police abuses we documented in Calais are serious human rights violations. They also adversely affect migrants’ willingness to apply for asylum and, in the case of children, to enter the protection system.

The Interior Ministry’s investigations should assess all relevant evidence, including accounts from aid workers who can corroborate elements of migrants’ accounts—injuries and other symptoms they’ve observed, the repeated requests they receive for sleeping bags and clothing, and abusive practices they’ve witnessed or directly experienced.

Investigators should bear in mind that many people who have been sprayed will be unable to identify individual police officers. Those who can may reasonably fear retaliation. All will need concrete assurances that these investigations will confront bad practices.

The announced investigations are a good start in addressing these pernicious practices—but only if they’re comprehensive, public, and lead to individual sanctions where appropriate.

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

A road sign is seen near Abu Samra border crossing to Saudi Arabia, Qatar June 12, 2017. 

© 2017 Tom Finn/Reuters

The age-old adage that finds opportunity in every crisis is truer than ever in Qatar today. No doubt the Qatar government is under intense pressure from its once-brotherly neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia.

Yet it can take some immediate actions to alleviate the impact of the crisis on its citizens, as well as those who have sought shelter in the country from more repressive governments in the region; it can also take actions that may well deter its neighbors from violating the laws of war in its territory. These actions are not only the right things for Qatar to do; they are smart as well, with direct, practical import to the security and safety of its people.

Citizenship Rights

Perhaps in an act that is easiest, quickest and already entirely within its powers, the Qatar government can move to grant citizenship automatically to the children of Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers. Like many of the countries in the Middle East, Qatar does not allow women automatically to pass nationality to their children, in violation of its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and in insult to the at least 100,000 Qatari women who are deprived of this basic right.

Qatar allows adult children of Qatari women and non-Qatari fathers to apply for citizenship, but it has strict criteria, including residency in Qatar for 25 years; the process can take years and is often arbitrary. Qatari families are feeling the harm of this unjustifiable policy during Qatar’s current stand-off with its neighbors, as such children and fathers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE are barred from rejoining their families in Qatar.

Human Rights Watch spoke to a 36-year-old man in June who said that despite being born in Qatar to a Qatari mother and having lived his entire life there, he had spent years waiting in vain on a response to his citizenship application.

In our meeting in Doha last week, Qatar’s Prime Minister Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani said that it would be difficult to amend the nationality law, as it requires the same majority vote and procedures by the Advisory Council, Qatar’s legislative body, to change the constitution.

But the prime minister can issue a decree overnight stating that the government will automatically approve any application by a person born to a Qatari woman for citizenship, without requiring any change in the law.

Such a procedural fix will not only solve the crisis many Qatari families are now facing and put Qatar closer in line with its human rights obligations to its citizens. It will make Qatar a better model among the Gulf Cooperation Council states, where discriminatory nationality laws remain rampant.

Second, Qatar should immediately ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and establish procedures for those in Qatar who have fled political persecution to apply for asylum. Some of Qatar’s neighbors have raised a ruckus about Qatar’s “sheltering” political exiles from some of the region’s tyrannical regimes, like Egypt and Libya, in fact a brave and honorable tradition for the small Gulf state.

I spoke with several such exiles in Doha, grateful for their refuge, but lacking any security in their status, subject to deportation at any time, and in many cases unable to travel due to expired passports from their home states.

Providing Asylum

If Qatar were to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and establish an asylum procedure, it would allow the government to review asylum claims in a disciplined and orderly fashion, and provide asylum – and rights, not just mercy – to those who are deemed eligible. And no one would be in a position to criticize Qatar for doing what so many other countries have done in providing political asylum to today’s “undesirables,” within its obligations under international law.

Some Qatari officials expressed concern that joining the Refugee Convention would open Qatar to a flood of refugees from around the world, but the reality is that Qatar’s geographic location makes that extremely impractical. Those who would benefit are the refugees and asylum seekers Qatar is already sheltering, but in a fashion that would entitle them to travel and receive basic protections.

Qatar would once again also chart a path of progress for the Arab world, where many states have failed to ratify the Refugee Convention and establish asylum procedures.

While Gulf states have been generous in signing checks to support Jordan and Lebanon’s hosting of Syrian refugees and generally allowed Syrians in their countries to remain indefinitely, the lack of asylum procedures precludes them from recognizing them as refugees with the legal protections such status affords. Qatar can show the Arab world that it can do better.

Rome Statute and ICC

Finally, Qatar should move urgently to accede to the Rome Statute and join the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Joining these treaties is not just the morally sound thing to do. The protections they offer at this critical juncture are not hypothetical. They could provide an important shield of deterrence against Qatar’s neighbors, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should they ever consider mimicking the unlawful military tactics they have carried out in Yemen.

We know that the Saudi-led coalition, of which Qatar was a part only a few weeks ago, has repeatedly bombed Yemeni schools, hospitals, markets and homes. We’ve documented 81 apparently unlawful coalition attacks, some of which most likely amount to war crimes that could fall under the ICC’s prosecutor’s scrutiny were Yemen a member of the court. We know that the Saudi-led coalition has littered Yemen with cluster munitions, with unexploded submunitions that unless cleared will leave a legacy of contamination in the country for generations to come.

Perhaps the Saudis and the Emiratis would think twice about using such heinous tactics in Qatar should the current political conflict ever deteriorate into a military one.

Perhaps they will pause before they deploy cluster bombs along the Qatari border, knowing that the strong weight of the international community, including the targeted state, deems their use de facto unlawful; perhaps the risk of facing war crimes charges could make them think twice before engaging in any potential war crimes such as launching strikes on Al Jazeera’s headquarters, which some commentators have repeatedly encouraged them to target.

These are not just sound policies that stand to benefit Qatari women and families, those who have fled violence and persecution in neighboring countries, and Qatari civilians.

These are not just policies that will benefit the reputation of Qatar as a state committed to upholding its human rights obligations and a leader in the Arab world. They are policies that will resound to the benefit of all of humanity, and pave a path for a more peaceful, rights-respecting region.

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

A demonstrator is detained by security forces during clashes at a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 10, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Anacelis Alfaro’s troubles started late last year in the main plaza of Barquisimeto, the quiet capital of Venezuela’s Lara state, on the banks of the Turbio River. Alfaro, 51, was an event organizer for a private university there — and an activist for an opposition political party, Popular Will, in charge of organizing working-class neighborhoods throughout Lara. On a sunny day last December, the party was celebrating its anniversary fiesta in the town square. Alfaro’s keynote speech celebrated the role of women in politics, mentioned the arbitrary jailing of opposition party leader Leopoldo López, and urged hope in grim times. She basked in the December sunshine, catching up with activists from various states, and went home without a clue that life as she knew it was over.

The next day, a criminal judge issued a warrant to search the homes of two party activists for “posters and signs” and “other evidence of criminal interest.” Alfaro, unaware that her apartment was on the list, was visiting friends for the weekend in neighboring Carabobo state. So when the police arrived in the small unit, only her 79-year-old mother, who lived with her, was there to see them ransack the place and to answer questions about Alfaro’s whereabouts.

The warrant did not specify a crime, but a friend with links to the government warned Alfaro to stay away from home. Officers who had interrogated the other activist for two days asked repeatedly where Alfaro was. So she spent a week hiding with friends before taking their advice to flee the country. A friend fetched her passport, and Alfaro flew to Buenos Aires, where, after months of getting her papers in order and seeking work, she found a job making sandwiches in a fast-food restaurant in Argentina’s capital — exiled for the crime of dissenting. “I felt like a coward,” Alfaro said when I met her in the cafe. But, she added, “In jail, I am useless.”

The scale and brutality of violent repression by Venezuelan security forces is evident in video footage shot in recent months, Human Rights Watch said in a multimedia piece released today. 

As Venezuela transforms into a police state, hundreds of thousands are fleeing hardship and persecution. Historically, this country welcomed immigrants, including many who escaped the Latin American dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. (Arrivals from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay increased by 800 percent during that period — a wave that included my parents, who fled Buenos Aires days before the 1976 military coup.) But now the pipeline moves in the opposite direction, and countries around the region are scrambling to return the favor.

I’ve interviewed dozens of people from the new Venezuelan diaspora in recent months, including professionals, students and members of indigenous communities who left the country by plane, like Alfaro, or on days-long bus rides, or even on foot. They fled in search of food, medical treatment or shelter from persecution. Argentina has more than doubled the number of temporary resident permits issued to Venezuelans every year since 2014, reaching 35,600 in May 2017, according to Argentine immigration authorities. Chile has more than quadrupled its visas to Venezuelans in recent years, from 1,463 in 2013 to 8,381 in 2015. Peru has received more than 10,000 Venezuelan requests to stay so far in 2017, immigration authorities told Human Rights Watch.

Venezuelans were sixth on the 2014 list of countries whose nationals requested legal residency permits in Uruguay, but they jumped to the first place this year, authorities told Human Rights Watch. Brazil has a backlog of thousands of Venezuelan asylum applications, and Venezuela last year sent more asylum seekers to the United States than any other country (some 18,000, according to reports).

Each of my interviewees gave new meaning to the depth of the political and economic collapse.

Hunger forced Pablo López, a 23-year-old member of the Venezuelan Warao indigenous community, to cross to Brazil. When I interviewed him in February, he was sleeping on the street in a Brazilian border city with 100 of his fellow Warao. Men, women and children lived, cooked and ate in extremely unhygienic conditions there. López earned $1.40 an hour loading trucks. Other members of his community sold handicrafts or begged on the streets. Everyone I spoke with told me they were better off in Brazil than in Venezuela.

Cancer forced out Ludiskel Mass, a 32-year-old schoolteacher and student activist with the opposition party, A New Time. Doctors in her hometown of Maracaibo told her in 2015 that vaginal bleeding was probably caused by a cyst, but they lacked the medical supplies to provide a proper diagnosis. Two friends paid for her bus ticket to Lima, where she arrived after a six-day road trip, she told me. In Peru, doctors diagnosed her and operated successfully to remove a uterine cancer. A year later, she moved with her 11- and 12-year old children to Lima.

Alfaro is sure she would be in prison if she hadn’t run. Many activists — the powerful and well-known, as well as the low-profile — have been harassed, detained or threatened with arrest since she fled. Venezuelan Penal Forum, a nonprofit group, counts about 400 political prisoners, and says that, since April, military courts have prosecuted more than 460 civilians, over whom such courts are supposed to have no jurisdiction.

On July 16, more than 7 million Venezuelans participated in an unofficial plebiscite organized by the opposition with the support of civil society groups, universities and hundreds of volunteers. With their participation, they expressed their opposition to President Nicolás Maduro’s proposal for a Constituent Assembly made up of government supporters. About 10 percent did so from abroad. (Two weeks later, Maduro went ahead with his plan anyway, erecting a Constituent Assembly with frighteningly wide and vaguely defined powers for an indeterminate amount of time.)

Whether they were fleeing privation or imprisonment, all the people I interviewed thought they’d had no choice but to leave. In Venezuela today, there are no independent institutions left to check executive power. The supreme court, which became an appendix of the Miraflores Palace after former president Hugo Chávez stacked it in 2004, has repeatedly upheld measures that erode Venezuela’s democracy and violate fundamental rights. Recently, the court stripped the National Assembly of legislative powers — and instead of insisting on Maduro’s adherence to the constitution, the court supported his call to rewrite it. It also rejected every legal challenge brought by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former government loyalist who has begun to speak out against the government. The National Electoral Council, likewise, failed to carry out regional elections that the constitution mandated for 2016 and delayed a referendum to recall Maduro — until the courts shut down the recall effort entirely.

The Maduro administration has taken advantage of its monopoly on power to arrest and prosecute critics, to disqualify opponents from running for office — and jail them for good measure — to detain or expel journalists, and to take TV channels off the air. Venezuelan security forces, together with armed pro-government groups, have brutally repressed massive anti-government protests, killing dozens, injuring hundreds and detaining thousands.

Hernán González, 40, told me recently in Uruguay that he fled Venezuela after the National Guard killed his brother, Pablo. For years, he and his family had been hardcore chavistas, but they had soured on the regime because of food lines and malnutrition; they voted for the opposition in the 2015 legislative elections. One evening in November 2016, witnesses told González (which is not his real name), that Pablo was playing dominoes with friends on the sidewalk near his home when guardsmen detained him. Later that evening, Pablo’s body turned up at a hospital; members of the National Guard told González his brother had died in a “confrontation.” The body was covered in bruises had a bullet hole in the chest.

The government has also denied a humanitarian crisis resulting from a mishandling of the country’s economy, and has refused to seek readily available international aid. So severe shortages of medicine, medical supplies and food drive out more and more people like López and Mass, who cannot feed their families or get the most basic health care. And the cycle of government repression and denial continues. Days after the health minister reported 2016 figures showing skyrocketing maternal mortality, infant mortality and malaria cases, she was fired.

The South American nations giving refuge to Venezuelans have opened a pressure valve — albeit a small one — on the crisis. But exile is no permanent solution. The problem is the Maduro administration’s abusive policies and practices. Since thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in early April to protest its growing authoritarianism, the government has responded with a brutal crackdown. Security forces have shot demonstrators at point-blank range with riot-control munitions, run over demonstrators with an armored vehicle, beaten people who offered no resistance and broken into homes of suspected opponents. The security forces have also arbitrarily arrested hundreds of demonstrators, bystanders and critics.

The region’s leaders need to redouble pressure on Maduro to set a date for free and fair elections with rigorous international oversight. They need to keep pressing him to end the repression, release all political prisoners, prosecute human rights crimes, restore judicial independence, reinstate the powers of the National Assembly and allow an ample flow of international aid. They need to impose sanctions against key officials and signal that human rights violators will eventually be brought to justice — once judicial independence is restored in Venezuela.

The people in prison for dissenting, the people going home empty-handed from bread lines and the people ailing with preventable diseases deserve as much. So do the exiles who are longing to return to their country.

Alfaro is getting used to Buenos Aires. She likes strolling the city, which she couldn’t do in her crime-ridden country. She has friends among the migrant Venezuelans, and although she was grateful to learn restaurant work late in life, she is happier now that she found a job using her Caribbean charm to sell jewelry in Buenos Aires. She collaborates with Venezuelan opposition members who travel to Argentina, and she ran one of the centers in Buenos Aires for the opposition’s July 16 plebiscite, so she knows she is contributing to restoring democracy in Venezuela. But at the deepest level, she feels homesick and disenfranchised. “I will eventually go back to my country to help rebuild it,” Alfaro said as we gathered our things to leave the cafe.

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

Refugee children take part in a protest in March 2015 against their resettlement on Nauru and living conditions on the island.

© 2016 Private

Migrant children might soon be separated from their parents as a matter of course when families enter the United States irregularly, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told CNN in early March. Under the proposal, which another Homeland Security official described as among the options the department is considering to “discourage [others] from even beginning the journey,” separated parents would be detained in jail-like facilities while children would be placed in foster homes or shelters for children.

The suggestion rightly drew considerable criticism, and by early April, Secretary Kelly had begun to back away from it. “The idea that the government would cause harm to children to dissuade other families from crossing the border is cynical in the extreme,” my colleague Clara Long wrote in response.

Holding children in immigration detention is a recurring, if abusive, practice around the world, as Australia, Europe, and the United States each seek ways to respond to recent migration flows.

To be sure, it’s unusual to deliberately separate young children from their mothers, as the US proposal would do. But families are frequently split up, with men held separately from women and children. It’s also common for countries to detain unaccompanied children, sometimes for protracted periods.

As one example, Mexico began to detain unaccompanied children as well as adults in large numbers after 2014, at least partly at the urging of US authorities who sought to “stem the flow” of Central American asylum seekers, in the words of Lev D. Kubiak, the assistant director of international operations for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in testimony before a House subcommittee in June 2015. Mexican immigration authorities apprehended more than 20,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in 2015 and over 17,500 in 2016, detaining the vast majority.

In Europe, Hungary has just adopted a measure allowing its authorities to detain asylum seekers on its territory, including families with children and unaccompanied children age 14 and above. Belgium, which had been something of a regional model after it eliminated immigration detention for families in 2009, announced at the end of 2016 that it planned to resume the practice sometime this year.

In perhaps the most extreme and flagrantly abusive use of immigration detention, Australia has forcibly transferred all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, including unaccompanied children and families with children, to offshore facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The asylum seekers sent there face the choice of indefinite banishment to those countries, relocation to Cambodia, or return to the countries they fled.

Practices such as these are a particularly inhumane response to humanitarian crises. It’s no mystery why Central American children flee their home countries in large numbers, on their own or with their families. Gang violence has plagued Central America’s Northern Triangle for decades, and children are particularly targeted. It’s not uncommon to hear reports that 13-year-olds, or even younger children, were shot in the head, or had their throats slit, or were tortured and left to die, as Óscar Martínez observed in The Nation.

Many of the arrivals to Europe, including large numbers of unaccompanied children, are coming from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen or from highly repressive states, Eritrea and Ethiopia among them.

Similarly, Australia’s offshore operations on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island house men, women, and children from these and other countries who fled armed conflict or sustained persecution because of their political beliefs, religion, or ethnic origin.

Detention has particularly devastating human consequences, which is why international standards discourage detaining asylum seekers and call on countries to end the immigration detention of children. Nevertheless, politicians and policymakers frequently turn a blind eye to the abuses immigration detention entails. What’s more, they sometimes attempt to justify detention in terms that suggest that it somehow serves the “greater good.” The reality, as I’ve seen, is anything but humane.

The Effects of Immigration Detention on Mental Well-Being

Perhaps nowhere are the adverse effects of immigration detention more evident than in Australia’s offshore operations on Manus Island and Nauru, where refugees and asylum seekers have been warehoused for more than three years. A leaked report by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, found, in fact, that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression “have reached epidemic proportions” among those held in both locations.

I’ve been to the facilities on both islands, and many of those I spoke with told me they were seriously considering suicide. More than a dozen adults and some of the children I and an Amnesty International researcher interviewed on Nauru had tried to kill themselves at least once by overdosing on medication, swallowing bleach, other cleaning products, or razors, hanging or strangling themselves, or setting themselves on fire. “I’m tired of my life,” a 15-year-old girl said, telling me that she had tried to commit suicide twice since she arrived on the island.

Children who were separated from one of their parents suffered particularly dramatic and immediate downturns in their mental state. A woman whose husband had been transferred to Australia for medical treatment told me that their 9-year-old son began to repeatedly talk about killing himself: “Two weeks ago, my son took the lighter. He said, ‘I want to burn myself. Why should I be alive? I want my daddy. I miss my daddy.’ I look in his eyes and I see sadness.”

The father of another boy reported that his son had begun to have violent mood swings, stopped speaking, and avoided leaving his room after the boy’s mother was transferred to Australia for medical care without advance warning.

These kinds of adverse effects on mental well-being aren’t restricted to places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Human Rights Watch documented similar feelings of depression and suicidal feelings among asylum-seeking mothers and children detained for long periods in the United States. In Greece, where unaccompanied children are frequently held in police custody with no access to mental health care, we’ve spoken to children who appeared to be experiencing psychological distress and in some cases had attempted to harm themselves.

Whatever the circumstances, immigration detention causes significant harm to children and adults. Studies by Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/New York University School of Medicine Program for Survivors of Torture, among others, have found that detained asylum seekers suffered high levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder and that their mental health worsened with continued detention.

Children, in particular, can experience extreme distress in reaction to even short periods of confinement. Research shows that they may become aggressive, display separation anxiety, have difficulty sleeping, and suffer loss of appetite.

These consequences are lasting: children continue to experience emotional distress for months after leaving detention settings. In light of these outcomes, a 2014 survey of pediatricians by the Medical Journal of Australia found that 80 percent of those responding believed that the mandatory detention of asylum-seeking children amounted to child abuse.

The Impact on Children’s Protection Claims

Detention can also be particularly problematic for those who are in need of refugee protection. As a practical matter, it’s much more difficult for people in detention to get the kind of specialized support they need to present their asylum claims effectively. Moreover, children as well as adults may decide not to pursue claims, even very strong ones, because they don’t want to remain locked up in the meantime.

In the United States, where most people in immigration proceedings do not have court- appointed lawyers (instead, under US immigration law, they have the “privilege of being represented, at no expense to the Government”), a 2015 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that only 37 percent of all immigrants (and 55 percent of all child immigrants) were represented in immigration cases. For detained immigrants, adults as well as children, the representation rate fell to 14 percent.

In part, that disparity in the United States is because many immigration detention centers are located in rural areas that are often far from pro bono or private lawyers. For example, the immigration detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, where women and children fleeing violence in Central America were held when they began to arrive in large numbers in 2014, is “far away from public scrutiny and public access,” with “no lawyers to speak of [,] . . . no human rights groups, and no community based organizations,” Stephen Manning wrote in The Artesia Report, published that year.

The US government has opposed efforts to provide representation for unaccompanied children and other groups of particularly vulnerable people in immigration proceedings. In fact, one immigration judge went so far as to claim that even very young children could represent themselves adequately. “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience,” the judge said in a March 2016 deposition reported in the Los Angeles Times, claiming, “They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done.”

But the difference between having a lawyer and being unrepresented is far from trivial: among detained immigrants, those with lawyers are more than 10 times more likely than their unrepresented counterparts to win their cases, the 2015 University of Pennsylvania Law Review study found.

Elsewhere in the world, I’ve seen that detention has similar adverse effects on children’s ability to pursue protection claims.

In Mexico, which has also detained large numbers of Central Americans in recent years, UNHCR has estimated that as many as half of all Central American children there  have strong cases for asylum—not meaning necessarily that all are refugees, but rather that their cases warrant in-depth review.

In October 2016, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that Mexico would strengthen its refugee recognition procedures and “develop alternatives to immigration detention for asylum seekers, particularly children.”

These promises were largely unfulfilled by the year’s end. Mexico’s refugee agency, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, COMAR), afforded international protection to just 124 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in 2016. That’s a considerable increase from 2015, when 57 children from these countries received protection, but still less than 1 percent of the total number of unaccompanied children Mexican authorities apprehended in each of these years.

If my interviews are any indication, Mexico’s practice of detaining most asylum seekers is an important factor that helps explain the discrepancy between the large number of unaccompanied children with plausible claims and the very small number who apply for and receive asylum.  Edgar V., a 17-year-old Honduran boy, told me that when he was apprehended in Oaxaca, Mexican immigration officials advised him to apply for asylum. But it is far more common for immigration officials to tell unaccompanied children not to bother making an asylum claim, other children reported.

Despite the advice he received, Edgar had decided not to seek asylum. “I was locked up, and they said it would be a long time before I heard. I couldn’t handle that,” he said. “At least two months, up to six months for the response. When they told me it would be six months before I heard back, I said no, I don’t want that.”  Instead, he accepted being returned to Honduras.

I heard from other unaccompanied children as well as families who made similar decisions to forego asylum claims even when they thought they would face serious risks on return. “I don’t want to return, but because of the time locked up here, I told myself it’s better to return,” another 17-year-old boy told me, after describing a series of death threats that had led him to flee. I asked him how he would stay safe. “I won’t leave the house unless I have to,” he said. “There are criminals on every corner. They walk around armed as if they were the police appointed by law.” 

To be sure, a large number of unaccompanied children would probably prefer to travel through Mexico to the United States rather than staying in Mexico. But it’s also the case that other countries in the region—Costa Rica, Panama, even Belize—are seeing increasing numbers of asylum applications from children and adults, just as Mexico is. Put another way, children and adults fleeing persecution and violence will seek safety in countries throughout the region if they are aware of their right to do so, aren’t locked up, and receive appropriate assistance to go through the process.

Using Detention to Deter Others

As Homeland Security officials did with their family separation proposal, lawmakers and policymakers often try to justify immigration detention as a deterrent to future irregular arrivals. Australian lawmakers, for example, have repeatedly stated that mandatory detention and offshore processing of maritime arrivals are necessary to “stop the boats.”

These kinds of explanations fail to hold up in several respects.

For one, a policy of deterrence means that the state is imposing a hardship on some people to change the behavior of others. But there is something contradictory at the heart of any policy calling for the detention of asylum-seekers, since it means that people seeking refuge from persecution are welcomed first by being locked up,” as Michael Kagan, a University of Nevada law professor, wrote in a 2016 Texas International Law Journal article.

For another, these policies don’t serve their stated purpose. Refugees and asylum seekers are primarily motivated by finding a place of safety and may be completely unaware of detention policies in destination countries, researchers have found.  Similarly, migrants who aren’t fleeing persecution probably choose their destinations on the basis of factors such as family or community ties and perceived educational and economic opportunities. Alice Edwards, a senior UNHCR official, observed in a 2011 article for the Equal Rights Review,There is no empirical evidence that the prospect of being detained deters irregular migration.” Similarly, the International Detention Coalition concluded in an April 2015 report that detention is largely ineffective at reducing irregular migration.

Moreover, international standards call for limits on the use of immigration detention. UNHCR’s Detention Guidelines call for immigration detention to be used sparingly, and only after a detailed, individual assessment; even then, they maintain that detention must be reasonable in the specific circumstances and proportionate to a legitimate public order, public health, or national security purpose. These guidelines explicitly note that mandatory or automatic detention is arbitrary, and therefore impermissible.

For children, the standard is clearer, stronger and even stricter: the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which oversees compliance with the global treaty on children’s rights, says that countries should “expeditiously and completely cease the detention of children on the basis of their immigration status.”

In short, as UNHCR noted in a 2014 report, Beyond Detention, “[n]ot only does detention not work as a deterrent, it is not a legitimate purpose for detention under international law.”

In truth, immigration detention often serves a purpose that’s largely symbolic. As the sociologists Arjen Leerkes and Dennis Broeders have observed, countries use immigration detention as a signal that they are acting to control their borders. Australia’s offshore processing system, which holds 2,000 people on remote islands as an example to others, provides a clear illustration of this function of immigration detention. As a refugee on Manus put it, “The cost of Australia’s border protection policies is a human sacrifice—us. They need us here as a symbol to stop the boats.”

 Rebranding Detention and Other Restrictions as Protection

Perhaps the most pernicious claim I hear from government officials is that detention, with its purported but unproven deterrent effect, has a protective function. Australian officials have perfected this tactic, spinning the sustained abuse of their offshore operations as a life-saving measure by claiming that offshore operations are necessary to deter smuggling by boat and thus save lives at sea. Some European lawmakers are adopting this rhetoric and also claiming, largely without evidence, that immigration detention prevents trafficking.

Countries deploy other strategies in combination with detention. Australia, the European Union, and the United States are each taking steps to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching their territories, as Bill Frelick, Ian Kysel, and Jennifer Podkul discuss in a 2016 article Journal of Migration Security on the “externalization” of migration control.

In Australia, methods include the interdiction of boats on the high seas and pushbacks of boats to Indonesian waters. A 2015 Indonesian police investigation also found that Australian authorities paid smugglers to turn boats around. Asked to respond, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to admit or deny the reports of collusion with smugglers, saying only that the Australian government had stopped the boats “by hook or by crook.”

The United States has also employed high seas interdictions and shipboard screenings. And both the European Union and the United States have pursued intensive efforts to support and encourage third countries to “contain” asylum seekers and migrants.

In the case of the United States, that’s meant pushing Mexico to apprehend, detain, and deport Central Americans in large numbers.

The EU has negotiated an arrangement that commits Turkey to accept the return of all asylum seekers who travelled through Turkey in exchange for billions of euros in aid, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and revived negotiations for Turkish accession to the EU. In principle, the €3 billion funding is designated for projects to improve the lives of refugees as well as of host communities in Turkey. The deal also provides for the resettlement of one other Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian returned to Turkey.

Under the deal, Greece and other EU countries regard Turkey as a safe country even though Syrians often face significant hurdles in registering for temporary protection and asylum seekers of other nationalities, including Afghans and Iraqis, are ineligible even to apply. Turkey has accepted obligations under UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, but only for refugees from Europe. As Human Rights Watch and other groups have found, many Syrians, as well as Afghans, Iraqis, and others seeking international protection in Turkey cannot lawfully work, access health care, or enrol their children in school, meaning that their presence in Turkey is precarious.

In addition, individual EU member states are known to have turned asylum seekers away at their borders with other non-EU states. Hungary’s violent pushbacks of asylum seekers to the Serbian border are well-known. Poland, which receives large numbers of asylum seekers from the Russian Republic of Chechnya as well as from Tajikistan and Georgia, routinely denies them the right to seek asylum at its border with Belarus and instead summarily returns them there, Human Rights Watch found in a March report.

Characterizing such tactics as protective is both contrary to the facts and shamelessly manipulative.  It’s simply not credible to claim that immigration detention and efforts to contain migrants in third countries protect people from serious harm.

The Way Forward

Authorities should know by now that immigration detention has serious adverse consequences for mental well-being, particularly for families and unaccompanied children. It’s also the case that detention can lead unaccompanied children, as well as adults, to abandon well-founded asylum claims and accept return to possible harm. And closing off safe and legal routes for refugees makes it more likely rather than less that people will turn to smugglers in their search for safe destinations.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For many adults, probation-style periodic reporting to the authorities, or being asked for a financial deposit, and other alternatives are proven means of avoiding the negative consequences of detention while providing reasonable guarantees of appearance in immigration proceedings, the International Detention Coalition has found.

When it comes to children, countries should eliminate the use of immigration detention. Some countries have already agreed in recent years to end or sharply reduce the detention of migrant children: Japan, Panama, Taiwan, and Turkey now prohibit the detention of migrant children, and half a dozen other countries have placed limits on immigration detention of children.

But more countries, Australia and the United States among them, need to recognize that locking children up as a means of migration control is unnecessary, abusive, and counterproductive.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
UPDATE: On August 4, the European Court of Human Rights issued a preliminary injunction ordering Russia not to deport Khodoberdi Nurmatov to Uzbekistan, until the court can review his case.

Ali Feruz at Basmanny district court in Moscow waiting for his hearing in the evening of August 1, 2017.

© 2017 Elena Kostyuchenko
(Moscow) – An Uzbek journalist and asylum-seeker faces a risk of ill-treatment, including torture, if Russia returns him to Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Khodoberdi Nurmatov, whose expulsion Moscow’s Basmanny district court ordered on August 1, 2017, is a journalist known as Ali Feruz with one of Russia’s leading independent investigative newspapers, Novaya Gazeta. He covers such issues as hate crimes, migrant workers’ rights, and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“Russia has an obligation to protect Nurmatov, not send him directly into harm’s way,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan has a long and well-established record of torture, and there is little doubt that Nurmatov faces a serious risk if he’s forcibly returned there.”
A journalist with Novaya Gazeta who works closely with Nurmatov told Human Rights Watch that Nurmatov fled Uzbekistan in 2008, after Uzbekistan’s security services detained him.
The court ruled that Nurmatov had violated Russia’s migration rules and sanctioned his expulsion. Russian authorities should uphold its human rights obligations and ensure that Nurmatov is not expelled or otherwise forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, where he risks serious ill treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Police took Nurmatov into custody directly after the court hearing and transferred him to a temporary holding center for foreign nationals, operated by the Interior Ministry in Sakharovo, a Moscow suburb. Nurmatov will promptly appeal the decision to the Moscow city court. His lawyers will also seek an emergency order from the European Court of Human Rights instructing Russia to suspend the expulsion.
Nurmatov’s Novaya Gazeta colleague said that Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB) detained, interrogated, and severely beat Nurmatov in September 2008 in an attempt to coerce him to become an informant on acquaintances and friends who were religious Muslims. After the SNB released Nurmatov, he fled to Kyrgyzstan, where he considered seeking refugee status but feared for his safety due to the risks of forced return and kidnappings that Uzbek asylum seekers faced there.
In 2009, he traveled from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, where he contacted UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, about refugee status. He fled Kazakhstan in 2011 after Kazakh authorities forcibly returned to Uzbekistan at least 28 religious Muslims who had fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan. In 2011 he moved to Russia, where his mother and two siblings, all Russian citizens, live.

Activist outside Moscow’s Basmanny District court on August 1, 2017 holds a poster declaring “Say no to persecution of journalists! We demand asylum for Ali Feruz.”

© Cornelius Runtsch for Human Rights Watch, Moscow, 2017
In March 2016, Russia’s Federal Migration Service denied Nurmatov’s request for asylum, and in November Russian authorities rejected his request for temporary protection. The authorities rejected his application twice, and both times higher authorities overturned the rejection and returned the case for additional review. His current application is under review. Svetlana Gannushkina, a leading expert on migration issues in Russia, told Human Rights Watch that the “court ruling on Ali’s expulsion from Russia was simply lawless because by Russian law, he has the right to remain in Russia while his request [for temporary protection] is under review.”
In 2012 Nurmatov lost his Uzbek passport and other identification documents, and reported the loss to police. Novaya Gazeta said he did not seek to replace his passport, fearing threats to his security if he approached the Uzbek embassy.
In March 2017, police in Moscow detained Nurmatov and questioned him about his journalism work and his temporary protection application. They released him 12 hours later.
Uzbek authorities have imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges, most of them religious believers, who, like Nurmatov’s friends on whom the SNB wanted Nurmatov to inform, practice forms of Islam that authorities brand “extremist.” They have also imprisoned rights and opposition activists, journalists, and other perceived critics. Authorities frequently torture detainees and arbitrarily extend their sentences.
In its last review of Uzbekistan, in 2013, the UN Committee against Torture found that torture in Uzbekistan was “‘systematic,’ ‘unpunished,’ and ‘encouraged’ by law enforcement and security officers.”
Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has promised reforms, but such endemic problems as torture and politically motivated detention have yet to be addressed, Human Rights Watch said.
Russia’s obligations as a party to the Convention against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights include ensuring that no one in Russian custody is forcibly sent to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations. The European Court of Human Rights has issued numerous rulings, including on cases emanating from Russia, forbidding forced returns to Uzbekistan because of the risk of torture anyone returned would face there.
“It’s difficult to imagine what more information Russian authorities need to be persuaded of the dire risk of abuse Nurmatov faces in Uzbekistan,” Denber said. “Now they need to do what’s right, and what the law prescribes – to free Nurmatov, protect him, and not return him to Uzbekistan.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am