(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.

Detention
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

Entrance into the Moria hotspot in Lesbos, Greece, where children registered as adults are accommodated with unrelated adult single men, exposed to very poor living conditions, including overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and frequent incidents of violence.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

(Athens) – Unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos are being incorrectly identified as adults and housed with unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and unable to access the specific care they need, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The misidentification of unaccompanied migrant kids on Lesbos as adults leads to real problems, including lumping them together with unrelated adults and denying them the care they need,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek authorities need to take responsibility for properly identifying unaccompanied children and providing them the protection and care every child needs.”

On visits to Lesbos island from May 22 to 28 and June 27 to 30, 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke with 20 children, some as young as 15, who said they had been wrongly registered as adults by the Greek authorities.

Flawed and inadequate procedures leave unaccompanied migrant children on the Greek island of Lesbos housed with unrelated adults, vulnerable to abuse, and unable to access the specific care they need.

Under Greek and international law, unaccompanied children are entitled to special care and protection. But the flawed age assessment procedures that are being followed in practice mean that some of these children are wrongly deemed adults during registration, despite an assurance by Greek officials to Human Rights Watch that a proper, multidiscipline procedure is followed. Other children claim to be adults, believing it will allow them to avoid detention or because they follow bad advice from adults, but then realize they have made a mistake and try to persuade the authorities to register them correctly. They can spend months trying to change their official status, and in the meantime often continue to be treated as adults, or reach adulthood, known as “aging out,” while waiting for their correct age to be assessed.

Human Rights Watch found that officials who register new arrivals sometimes arbitrarily record children’s ages as older than the children themselves give. Authorities also often require unaccompanied children to receive cursory dental examinations at the local hospital as a form of age assessment, following which authorities may insist the child is in fact an adult and register them as such. Human Rights Watch found this occurs despite a 2013 ministerial decision setting out a multidiscipline approach to age assessment, with medical examinations as an option of last resort and despite an assurance from Greece’s Reception and Identification Service (RIS), a Greek government agency, that the principle of the best interest of the child always prevails.

On the other hand, reception service officials do not usually question unaccompanied children who claim to be adults even when their appearance strongly suggests that they are well under 18. In practice, authorities fail to provide children with adequate information about their rights during the reception and identification process on the islands and take no steps to verify whether an individual claiming to be an adult is a child, creating a risk that trafficked children will not be identified and protected from further harm.

While registered unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, Greece has a chronic shortage of space. Pending placement in a shelter, the authorities often detain unaccompanied migrant children in police stations, immigration detention facilities, and European Union-managed asylum processing centers. As of June 20, 1,149 unaccompanied migrant children were on the waiting list for shelter, including 296 detained in such facilities.

Coastal area near Panagiouda village on Lesbos, Greece, one of the islands to which many asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, have been confined with the aim of returning them to Turkey following a deeply flawed March 2016 EU deal.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

The problem has grown more acute since the arrival of more than 1 million people in the Greek islands in 2015 and 2016. Border closures in countries to the north have effectively trapped asylum seekers and migrants in Greece, and a deeply flawed EU deal with Turkey, signed in March 2016, has led Greece to restrict asylum seekers to the Greek islands with the aim of returning them to Turkey.

Nongovernmental organizations on Lesbos told Human Rights Watch they have identified at least 60 people registered as adults who claim to be children.

Children registered as adults are left to fend for themselves and are vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, and other abuse. They live in official and unofficial sites with unrelated adult single men; are exposed to inhumane living conditions, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and frequent incidents of violence; and are unable to go to school or otherwise access education. They have little or no access to care, protection, or specialized services, and are excluded from accommodation for unaccompanied children.

Once the Greek authorities register unaccompanied children as adults for whatever reason, it is difficult, if not impossible, for them to change their status. Even when nongovernmental groups identify children as wrongly registered as adults, it can take months to overcome the burdensome bureaucratic procedures to establish their real age and register them as children. The process of being recognized as children took so long in some cases Human Rights Watch examined that the children had turned 18 during the intervening period. This undermined their ability to reunite with family members in other EU countries or to get specialized housing or services for children.

Statements from these children about how they feel suggest the situation in which they find themselves in Greece is causing psychological harm and exacerbates existing mental health conditions, Human Rights Watch said. All the children interviewed reported experiencing psychological distress, including symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Two children reported harming themselves.

Authorities in Greece should urgently improve the quality of their age assessment procedures, bringing them into line with international best practices, Human Rights Watch said. Greek authorities should take steps to identify children, give children whose age is disputed the benefit of the doubt in close cases, and ensure that unaccompanied children have access to decent accommodation where they can receive care, education, counseling, legal aid, guardianship, and other essential services. Those who are determined to be over 18 should be accommodated in special housing for young adults and given access to adequate services, including psychosocial support and mental health services.

The European Commission and the European Asylum Support Office should make use of their presence on the islands to ensure that the Greek authorities’ age assessment methods and procedures fully comply with the legal safeguards provided by Greek and EU law, and that children are given the benefit of the doubt where results are inconclusive. The EU emergency relocation mechanism should also be urgently extended to unaccompanied children identified on the Greek islands, irrespective of nationality, and EU member states should accelerate relocation of unaccompanied migrant children.

“Vulnerable kids in Greece who have endured dangerous journeys far from their families should not have to fight for months just to prove they are children,” Cossé said. “Greece should do a better job identifying these children so they get the care they need and deserve.”

“Amadou,” a 16-year-old unaccompanied boy from West Africa standing by two other people in hammocks in Lesbos, Greece.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

Registering Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Greek authorities formally registered over 1,800 unaccompanied asylum-seeking and migrant children arriving in Greece in the first five months of 2017. Many of them are from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, countries beset by armed conflict and serious human rights abuses. Some of the others, such as children from Pakistan, were escaping discrimination and poverty.

Greek legislation recognizes the government’s obligations to care for and protect unaccompanied migrant children. Under Greek law the government is supposed to appoint a guardian for each child to represent them in any legal or judicial proceeding, to hear the child’s views prior to any decision-making, and to act in their best interests. But Human Rights Watch found that authorities in Lesbos often register unaccompanied migrant children as adults. Invisible as children, and outside of care arrangements, these children are particularly vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse.

The Greek Reception and Identification Service (RIS) is required to provide for the reception of third-country nationals entering the islands under conditions that guarantee human rights and dignity in accordance with international standards. New arrivals are brought to EU-managed asylum processing centers on the Greek islands, the so-called hotspots, for identification and registration.

The RIS is responsible for identifying and registering people who belong to “vulnerable” groups upon their arrival, which should include unaccompanied migrant children. The agency is supported in doing this by the Greek police; EU agencies, such as the border agency Frontex; UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency; the International Organization for Migration; and medical nongovernmental organizations. RIS is responsible for referring unaccompanied migrant children to social services and providing them with information on their rights, including their right to seek asylum. In a July 10 letter to Human Rights Watch, RIS said that particular attention is given to the procedures for unaccompanied children who “receive specific information adapted to their age or maturity about their legal status and the procedural possibilities offered at subsequent phases of the process.” In practice on Lesbos, though, Human Rights Watch found that RIS is failing to meet its responsibilities toward these children.

“Zahid,” a boy from Pakistan who said he was 16 when he arrived on Lesbos in March 2016, described the inadequate procedure during his first encounter with the authorities:

When I arrived, I was 16 but they [authorities] wrote on the papers 19. They didn’t even take me to the doctor. …. They asked me my name, my age, and then they took my fingerprints…. I told them I was 16. They separated me from the other people and took me where the unaccompanied children are [a restricted section for unaccompanied children inside the Moria hotspot]. They kept me there for 10 or 15 days and then they took me out again. They never explained to me why, they just took me out. Then I stayed with other people, outside [the children’s section]…. I don't know why they changed my age. I asked them many times and the only thing they told me is to sign some papers.  

Fifteen months after his arrival, Zahid, today 17, was still being treated as an adult by the authorities and his real age hadn’t been formally recognized.

“Amadou,” a 16-year-old unaccompanied boy from West Africa playing with a soccer ball in front of a container on Lesbos, Greece. Amadou, on Lesbos since October 2016, said the lack of adequate information and fear of detention, made him register as an adult but after a few days when he realized he made a mistake he was unable to register his real age.

© 2017 Thanos Tsantas for Human Rights Watch

Children Who Claim to be Adults

Human Rights Watch spoke with six children in Lesbos who said they falsely claimed to be adults when they arrived in Greece. They did so, they said, because they feared detention or because they heard false information from smugglers or other migrants that registration as a child would lead to worse outcomes, such as separation from friends and distant family. When they realized the unpleasant consequences of being registered as an adult or because, finally, they were correctly advised, they said they told officials that they wanted to change their age to the correct one, but faced many obstacles.

“Hassan,” a boy from Afghanistan, said he was 15 when he arrived in June 2016:

Before doing my registration, several Afghans told me ‘don’t give your real age because they are going to keep you in the children’s section.’ … They [the authorities] told me ‘you look underage, if you have papers show them to us.’ I said I don’t have any papers and because the others had told me to not say I’m a minor, I said I’m an adult.

He said it took two other unrelated adults traveling with him to say he is an adult to convince the authorities. The inadequacy of identification procedures means that there is a serious risk that trafficked children are not recognized as such.

Hassan, who is now 16, lived for more than eight months with the general population of the Moria camp, mainly unrelated adult single men. At the time of our interview, in May, he had been living for two months in a protected area within the Moria hotspot that accommodates young men between the ages of 18 to 22 and some of those whose ages are disputed, run by the RIS. He said his age had been formally recognized by the Greek Asylum Service (GAS), in the context of the asylum process, but was still pending recognition by the RIS.

“[RIS told me] ‘You are a guest in our space and we are not responsible for you anymore.’ I just wanted to know what will happen to me and whether I’ll be transferred to a house [for unaccompanied children] and go to school.”

According to nongovernmental groups and children interviewed, when detention measures for unaccompanied children were relaxed on the island of Lesbos at the end of 2016, and children were allowed to go in and out of the section for unaccompanied migrant children, many children who had initially given a false age and registered as adults because of fear of detention said they changed their minds, wanting to register their real age. Others sought to do so when they received proper information from nongovernmental groups, which instructed them to tell the truth.

Rubber boats full of asylum seekers and other migrants arriving on the shore of Lesbos Island, Greece.

© 2015 Human Rights Watch

Inadequate Age Assessment

When authorities are in doubt as to whether a person is a child, Greek law requires that they must first give that person the benefit of the doubt, operating on a presumption of childhood, and second, perform a comprehensive age determination.

UNHCR and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have instructed countries not to base age determinations solely on the child’s physical appearance or on a single medical test, but also to consider psychological maturity and the margin of error of medical exams (which can be up to five years), and to give the benefit of doubt in making a determination. In ethical terms, such exams offer no medical benefit and the margin of error is so broad that the exams can’t establish what they are intended to do.

Best practices in age determination require a multidisciplinary approach. Any medical testing should be non-intrusive. X-rays for age determination are increasingly regarded as a violation of medical ethics because they expose children to radiological testing for no medical reason.

While an age determination process is ongoing, the person should not be detained or otherwise accommodated with unrelated adults.

As of October 2013, a decision by the health minister (MD 92490/2013) established for the first time an age assessment procedure applicable within the context of what was then called the First Reception Service, now the RIS.

The ministerial decision says that in cases in which there is justifiable doubt about the age of a third-country national, and the person may possibly be a child, they are to be referred to the RIS medical control and psychosocial support team for an age assessment. Initially, the age assessment will be based on physical appearance, such as height, weight, body mass index, voice, and hair growth, following a clinical examination by a pediatrician. In case the person’s age cannot be adequately determined, the psychologist and the social worker will assess the person’s cognitive, behavioral, and psychological development.

If a pediatrician is not available or the interdisciplinary staff cannot reach any firm conclusions – and only as a measure of last resort, the decision says – the person shall be referred to a public hospital for specialized medical examinations, such as dental or wrist X-rays. Staff there are to explain clearly their aims and the procedures to the person being examined.

In a July 10 letter to Human Rights Watch, RIS said that, “In any case, the principle of the child’s best interests, equal treatment, and proportionality must prevail. During the age assessment procedure as well as in case of doubts after its completion, the minority presumption prevails.”

Human Rights Watch found that the age assessment procedure provided in Greek law is not followed in practice on Lesbos. All 14 people interviewed who told the authorities they were under 18 when they arrived said they were registered as adults following a cursory age assessment, which in most cases consisted of a visit to the local hospital and a quick examination of their teeth. None of the children who had gone through this medical examination had first, or indeed ever, been interviewed by a psychologist or a social worker for an age assessment. Even though the procedure provided in Greek law had not been followed, RIS registered them as adults.

“Akash,” who is from Bangladesh and said he turned 18 in March, arrived on Lesbos in the summer of 2016, when he was 17. He said the authorities registered him as 18 following a quick visit to the hospital. “In the beginning, they wrote I was 17 but then they took me to the doctor and wrote down 18.” He said:

When they took me to the doctor, the doctor examined my teeth in order to define my age. But I don’t understand. There are people who have their wisdom teeth at the age of 17, others at the age of 18 and others at the age of 22. The doctor just examined my teeth. They changed my age [to 18] and took me out [of the children’s section].

Akash said he lived for more than four months with the general population of the camp before being transferred to a protected area inside Moria run by the RIS for people between the ages of 18-22. In early June 2017, he was transferred again outside, with the general population, due to lack of space. His real age was never formally recognized. “I tried as much as I could, but they [authorities] never accepted my age,” he said.

Contesting Designation as an Adult

Once children are registered as adults, either following a cursory age assessment procedure, or because they initially claimed they were adults, it is difficult if not impossible for them to change their status to that of a child.

Under Greek law, after a RIS age assessment procedure is completed, the person should be informed in a language they understand about the reasons for the decision. They have a right to appeal within 10 days, but RIS requires anyone who files an appeal to provide an original ID or original passport proving their age, which should be officially translated or verified, within this period.

All children interviewed said they faced practical difficulties in getting identification documents proving their age within the 10-day period. Human Rights Watch found that all appeals brought by children interviewed, were rejected by RIS. In rejecting the appeals, RIS disregarded the proven and objective difficulties for children to verify or officially translate the documents or to get legal assistance.

Some children said they had no parents or relatives in their home countries to provide the documents, and others had refugee profiles that could put them at risk if they contacted their embassies or relatives in their home countries.

For most, their only chance to seek to establish their age was at a later stage, during the asylum interview, conducted either by Greek Asylum Service (GAS) staff or officers of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Greek law sets out guarantees for children in that procedure, including the appointment of a guardian to protect the child’s rights and best interests throughout the age determination procedure, and the guarantee that a person who claims to be a child should be treated as such until the completion of the age determination procedure. The law also explicitly provides the applicant with the benefit of the doubt even after the conclusion of the procedure if the person’s age has not definitively been determined.

Human Rights Watch found that when it comes to children who have been wrongly registered as adults by RIS, the asylum service does not deviate from RIS findings unless explicit proof is provided. In a July 12 letter to Human Rights Watch, the asylum service confirmed that it cannot change data recorded by RIS and the police during initial registration “unless the applicant produces compelling evidence (e.g. an original passport not presented to RIS or the police) to the contrary.” The procedure before the asylum service can last for months, and while it is ongoing, children interviewed by Human Rights Watch were treated as adults.

“Anush,” a boy from Afghanistan who said he initially registered as an adult in August 2016, tried to get his real age – 16 – recognized during his asylum interview in February 2017:

Because I told them I am a child, they didn’t ask me many questions. Basically, they asked me why I came from Turkey and didn’t stay there…. The interview lasted for an hour. They asked ‘Why didn’t you stay in Turkey? Why you didn’t go to UNHCR offices and register there?’ I told them that when I was in Turkey, a guy [smuggler] had me as some kind of a prisoner and also because I am under age I couldn’t have access to school or go to the hospital.

A worker with a nongovernmental group supporting “Anush” with his case said:

He provided his original birth certificate more than two-and-a-half months ago. We went to EASO, provided it, and registered him as a minor. The document was checked by Frontex as to whether it’s original. After waiting for more than two months, Anush goes to renew his asylum card and is given an appointment for a second interview, as an adult…. We go again today, and the EASO officer says in front of Anush, and the lawyer, that we need to do a new registration and that they had forgotten we already submitted the papers. Today, Anush lost completely his trust in the system and us.

At the time of our interview, in May, Anush was living with the adult population of the Moria camp and his real age hadn’t been formally recognized yet.

In a July 12 letter to Human Rights Watch, the asylum service said that if it appears that the asylum seeker is a child traveling alone, its officers are instructed to treat the case as such. The officer is obliged to notify the public prosecutor, who will act as the temporary guardian, and the National Center for Social Solidarity. In more general terms, the asylum service said that its officers are instructed to conduct the asylum interview always bearing in mind the best interest of the child.

Children at Risk

Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable migrants in the world; international and European human rights law, as well as EU law, recognizes that vulnerability, and obliges countries to provide unaccompanied children with care. International law stipulates that the child’s best interest is a primary consideration in any decision affecting the child and that children deprived of their family environment are entitled to special protection and assistance by the state.

The failure to carry out proper age and vulnerability assessments means that many children are not recognized as children. Most find themselves without appropriate accommodation and therefore sleep in conditions that are overcrowded, unhygienic, and a risk to their physical health and mental well-being. They stay in open spaces on the Greek islands in official and unofficial sites, share tents or container housing with adult strangers, and are exposed to frequent incidents of violence. They are unable to go to school or otherwise access education.

On an ad-hoc basis, and depending on capacity, authorities on Lesbos place people who are seeking to prove they are under 18 in protected areas within the Moria hotspot. Some of the children interviewed were accommodated there at the time of the interview. But increased arrivals and overcrowding have resulted in transfers of these children to places outside of the protected areas. Others have been living in the open space with unrelated adult single men since their arrival.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of children who may be registered as adults but who haven’t been identified by nongovernmental groups or others or otherwise made themselves known to the authorities and are not receiving the special protection and care to which they are entitled under Greek and international law.

Anthi Karangeli, the director of RIS, confirmed that the lack of dedicated space on the island for age-disputed cases is problematic. “We can provide them with special treatment to the extent that space allows us,” she said.

“Samil,” from Afghanistan, said he was 14 when he arrived in Lesbos. He said he spent more than nine months living with the general population in the camp. At the time of the interview in May, it had been a month since he had been transferred, along with his 19-year-old brother, to the section for unaccompanied children inside Moria. He said his real age was formally recognized by the asylum service at the end of April:

I spent nine months in the tent…and now I’ve been one month here [section for unaccompanied children]…. When we were living in the tent [with adults], every day we were living in fear because of the many fights. Intense fear. I’ve been injured on my shoulder during a fight. Our tent was in the middle and it had been broken and burned twice…. I’ve reached a point where I harmed myself three times.

Recommendations

The Greek government should:

  • Ensure that there are sufficient and suitable alternatives to detention and end the unjustified detention of unaccompanied children, which deters children from registering as such;
  • Establish suitable separate reception facilities for young adults and age-disputed cases on the Greek islands and mainland Greece, and in the meantime, ensure that there are adequate and protected places in existing facilities;
  • Train RIS officers conducting initial screening and other officials, including Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office staff, and Greek Asylum Service officers, to correctly identify unaccompanied children, trafficking victims, and children with special protection needs, and to refer them to services as warranted;
  • Ensure that qualified interpreters assist unaccompanied migrant children;
  • Provide unaccompanied children who are illiterate with verbal and age-appropriate information about their rights and entitlements in Greece as children;
  • Ensure that all age determination procedures use a multidisciplinary approach that does not rely solely on appearance or medical or dental examinations. In the limited instances in which medical tests are carried out, use non-intrusive and non-invasive examinations to the extent possible;
  • In the case of uncertainty, give children whose age is disputed the benefit of the doubt and treat them as children;
  • Treat those with age assessment pending cases before the Greek Asylum Service as children, until their case has been finally resolved;
  • Re-examine cases of anyone assessed as an adult following inadequate and summary age determination procedures and until then, treat them as children;
  • Reform Greek law to ensure that anyone contesting designation as an adult has reasonable and adequate time to provide identification documents proving their age;
  • Provide free legal assistance for unaccompanied children, including those who claim to be under 18, in all administrative and judicial proceedings;

Expedite reunification processes for older children and, on an equitable basis, work with other EU member states to effect reunification in cases where the state’s delay has meant that children reach 18 during the process.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Washington, DC) – The Department of Homeland Security should not expand expedited removal from the United States for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Plans to expand the program from its current limit of people caught within 100 miles of the border who arrived within a 14-day period to a nationwide dragnet for anyone who cannot prove they have been in the country for more than 90 days were reported on July 17, 2017, by the Washington Post based on a 13-page internal agency memo.

A U.S. border patrol agent walks along the border fence separating Mexico from the United States near Calexico, California, U.S. February 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Human Rights Watch has documented cases and gathered information that points to abusive treatment by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that violates the right to seek asylum. On July 12, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit alleging that Customs and Border Protection agents violated US and international law by refusing to allow the plaintiffs and others to seek asylum in the United States, including by using threats, force, and misrepresentations.

“There is mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents are routinely denying people the right to seek asylum,” said Alison Leal Parker, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but everyone who expresses a fear of persecution has a right to fair consideration of their claims.”

The Department of Homeland Security should prioritize efforts to address abuses that pervade Customs and Border Protection, Human Rights Watch said. Homeland Security officials should also examine mounting evidence that Customs and Border Protection agents unlawfully turn away large numbers of asylum seekers at the border under the existing expedited removal procedures.

Customs and Border Protection officers are obligated under US law to refer people who express an intention to seek protection to an asylum officer from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The asylum officer, in turn, conducts a more in-depth evaluation of whether the person’s fear is “credible” – that is, whether it might qualify the person for asylum or other protections. If Customs and Border Protection agents fail to identify people who are afraid to return to their country, they can be summarily deported, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Customs and Border Protection Inspector’s Field Manual, “If the alien indicates in any fashion or at any time during the inspections process, that he or she has a fear of persecution, or that he or she has suffered or may suffer torture, you are required to refer the alien to an asylum officer for a credible fear determination…. Inspectors should consider verbal as well as non-verbal cues given by the alien.”

Human Rights Watch has obtained complaints under the Freedom of Information Act alleging that Border Patrol officers threatened migrants with having their children taken away if they sought asylum, sexually assaulted one migrant, refused to record migrants’ expressed fears on the appropriate governmental form, or otherwise denied them access to further consideration of their claims. Human Rights Watch has also gathered accounts from seven families who told Human Rights Watch separately that they had told Customs and Border Protection agents that they were afraid to return to their country of origin but were not granted access to the asylum process.

There is a growing body of evidence that seems to indicate that such practices are widespread. Human Rights First has documented numerous incidents in which Customs and Border Protection officers have allegedly turned asylum seekers away at the border, and released an audio recording of what appears to be one such incident on July 13, 2017.

A 2015 Guardian story documented deaths after deportation to Central America, and a 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented scores of cases of people returned to harm’s way in Honduras after being turned away by Customs and Border Protection agents during the expedited removal process.

The US immigration system is rife with other abuses as well. US law mandates the needless and excessive detention of immigrants who do not belong behind bars, and lacks adequate mechanisms to weigh the deep connections many immigrants have to their US families and communities when deciding whether to deport people. Without reform, any expansion of expedited removal will serve to multiply the impact of these harmful and misguided policies.

Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses

Alison Leal Parker

Co-Director of US Program

The Washington Post report about the internal Homeland Security memo cited two administration officials who confirmed that an expansion of expedited removal is under review. The Washington Post quoted Joanne F. Talbot, a Homeland Security spokesperson, as saying, “Anyone who is surprised that the administration is considering lawfully expanding the use of expedited removal has not been paying attention.”

Dramatic expansion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also being promoted through a US$1.9 billion increase in its appropriation bill over last year’s budget. The increased funding would be used to hire hundreds of new Customs and Border Protection agents and keep many thousands of additional immigrants in detention. It passed the House subcommittee on July 18 and will move to full consideration in the House. The Senate will also consider appropriations legislation before the end of July.

“Rather than ramping up the enforcement capacity of a broken and abusive CBP, Congress and DHS should work together to rein in its worst excesses,” Parker said. “Customs and Border Protection first needs to prove that it can do its job, which means both protecting US borders and ensuring that people who fear for their lives if returned to their countries get fair consideration.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Asylum seekers who sheltered Edward Snowden for a period in 2013 stand outside of Hong Kong's immigration department during a press conference in Hong Kong, China, May 15, 2017. 

© 2017 AP Images

(New York) – The Canadian government should fast-track its consideration of the refugee claims of seven people who sheltered US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden before he left Hong Kong in 2013.

The Hong Kong government has sent the adult asylum seekers detention notices, indicating that they could soon be deported to countries where they would face a credible risk of persecution and abuse. Their very young children face possible persecution if returned, or separation from their parents if the adults are detained and deported.

“The compassionate act of letting Edward Snowden into their homes should never have landed these families in peril,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong has failed to protect these families, who fear being returned to abusers who await them in the countries they fled, where they say they were persecuted and tortured.”

Prior to boarding the flight that ultimately stranded him in Russia, Snowden hid among others who sought asylum in Hong Kong, and was introduced to these families by their mutual lawyer, Robert Tibbo. The families hosted Snowden for short periods. They have said they willingly helped the young man who, like themselves, was seeking safety as a refugee. A US demand for his arrest in Hong Kong was not recognized and disclosed until after he had lawfully left the territory.

Hong Kong for years has accepted exceptionally few refugees, fewer than one percent of claims. Because of the considerable risk they could be returned, the asylum seekers who helped Snowden have also sought protection from Canada, where they have been privately sponsored for refugee resettlement. The Canadian government is considering their cases, but has indicated through the consulate in Hong Kong that they are not expedited. The average waiting time for determinations on such applications is more than four years, – far too long should Hong Kong seek their prompt deportation to their home countries.

Each of the adults who sheltered Snowden – a single man, a couple with two children, presently aged 5 and 1, and a single mother with a 5-year-old child – allege that they experienced torture and ill-treatment in their home countries of Sri Lanka and the Philippines before fleeing to Hong Kong. The three children were born out of wedlock in Hong Kong and are stateless. Hong Kong does not recognize the family status of these parents and children, and if the parents are detained, there is a risk the children will be separated from them and placed in foster care, causing them further insecurity and trauma.

Although the asylum seekers and their lawyer kept their role secret, the director Oliver Stone depicted this episode in his movie Snowden, and reporters uncovered their identities and began seeking them out for interviews. At that point, they and their lawyer acknowledged their role and granted media interviews.

The publicity brought their plight to global attention, but appears to have led the Hong Kong government to move rapidly to detain and deport them after years of delay in hearing their asylum claims. There is no evidence that these families present any risk of flight, and they should not be separated from their children, Human Rights Watch said.

Once their connection with Snowden became known, the asylum seekers say, Hong Kong authorities repeatedly questioned them, to find out what they knew about Snowden, and denied them benefits for their basic living needs when they referred such questions to their lawyer.

Their situation became even more precarious when it was discovered that, in November and December 2016, Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department officers had been searching for several of them in Hong Kong, questioning other asylum seekers and showing them their photographs. The Hong Kong government did little to protect the asylum seekers in response and has not responded to expressions of concern for their safety by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.

The families are now preparing appeals to their rejection of asylum by the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which is currently trying to remove their lawyer from the cases.

“Canada should move quickly on these cases and safeguard these people from the prospect of detention and deportation,” PoKempner said. “No one should have to risk return to torture or persecution because they opened their door to another who feared the same. Canada has a unique opportunity to provide these people and their children both safety and a future.”  
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

My grandchildren’s other grandfather, Johannes, just arrived this week to meet his newest grandson, Oliver. Lucky for him, Johannes is a German citizen. Had he been a refugee awaiting resettlement into the US, or a citizen of Iran or Somalia, he might not have been able to hold Oliver in his arms. The US government might not have issued him a visa because the Trump administration does not regard the relationship between a grandparent and grandchild as “bona fide.”

Johannes (L) and grandson Oliver.

© Private

The supposed purpose of the US government’s travel ban on nationals of six Muslim-majority countries and suspension of refugee resettlement is to block potential security threats from entering the country while the Administration reviews its security screening.

But not a single one of the 2.8 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1980, nor any national of any the six-named countries, has ever committed a fatal terrorist attack on US soil.

But who cares?

At this point, it is hard to see how the travel ban itself has any “bona fide” connection to national security. In the six months since Trump first signed an executive order barring entry, his administration has had ample time to review security screening. There’s no evidence that it has been in much of a hurry to get that supposedly urgent work done. As cited by an appeals court when it upheld a suspension of Trump’s order, a draft Department of Homeland Security report written two weeks before the order was issued said that citizenship “is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity”.

And with respect to refugees, those admitted to the United States are more thoroughly screened than any of the 181 million visitors and immigrants who enter the country every year. Each refugee undergoes multiple interviews, biometric Interpol checks, as well as medical exams – a process that usually takes about two years. The slightest cause for concern stops the process in its tracks and the person is not admitted.

This week, the Trump Administration reached the annual cap of 50,000 it has sought to impose on refugee admissions this year, and said that no further refugees without “bona fide” connections will be admitted under the resettlement program. Pity the refugees who believed the United States would offer them a lifeline; and pity those who have just one simple wish: to hold their US grandchild in their arms.

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

Update: Human Rights Watch received reports on July 17, 2017, that local authorities in Bartala facilitated the transfer of families out of the “rehabilitation camp” to regular  camps for displaced people in the area, and closed the camp. This was a positive move, and Iraqi authorities should protect the rights of displaced families to free movement and prohibit all forms of collective punishment.

(Beirut) – Iraqi Security Forces have forcibly relocated at least 170 families with alleged Islamic State members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” east of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. Local authorities are also demanding the eviction of families thought to have ties to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), many of whom have been the target of threats and attacks.

On June 19, Mosul’s district council issued a directive that so-called ISIS families should be sent to camps “to receive psychological and ideological rehabilitation, after which they will be reintegrated into society if they prove responsive to the rehabilitation program.” On July 9, authorities in Nineveh opened the first “rehabilitation camp” in Bartalla, 14 kilometers east of Mosul. Forced displacements and arbitrary detentions have been taking place in Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Nineveh governorates, altogether affecting hundreds of families. Iraqi security and military forces have done little to stop these abuses, and in some instances participated in them.

Bartalla Camp.

© 2017 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

“Iraqi authorities shouldn’t punish entire families because of their relatives’ actions,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These abusive acts are war crimes and are sabotaging efforts to promote reconciliation in areas retaken from ISIS.”

On July 11, Human Rights Watch visited Bartalla camp, where 150 families, mostly women and children from areas of west Mosul, were being held. The camp received another 20 families by the next day. Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 families, each with up to 18 members.

New residents said that Iraqi Security Forces had brought the families to the camp and that the police were holding them against their will because of accusations that they had relatives linked to ISIS. None said they had been accused of any wrongdoing themselves. They did not know when they would be allowed to leave.

The camp had a mobile medical clinic, but only very limited humanitarian services were being provided, with no education, training, or other programs. Medical workers at the camp said that at least 10 women and children had died traveling to or at the camp, most because of dehydration. The camp is managed by local authorities and draws funding and support from the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

Human Rights Watch witnessed ethnic Shabak fighters from an Iraqi government Popular Mobilization Forces unit manning a checkpoint outside the camp. A Mosul emergency police unit stood guard at the camp entrance. Despite the absence of adult men in many of the families, no female police officers were evident, raising concerns about vulnerability to gender-based violence. Camp officials said that at least 20 unaccompanied children were at the camp, all under 12, who had been settled into tents with larger families.

Nineveh officials told Human Rights Watch that the camp, intended as the first of many, was constructed for 2,800 families, and that officials were planning to bring in ISIS families from other camps and areas. Residents and Nineveh officials said a committee would screen people inside the camp and allow them to leave if the committee found they did not actually have relatives in ISIS. They said some families had been released during the first two days.

The families said they hoped the screening committee would clear them for release. All said that Iraqi Security Forces had forcibly brought them in military trucks from two army mustering points for displaced people fleeing the fighting in west Mosul. Six families said they had fled the fighting in areas in and around the Old City of west Mosul, eight from the Tel Afar area. Only two of the families included adult men. Many said their male relatives were killed during the fighting. Others said that the men fled their homes later and had tried to join them at the camp but were turned away by the police. One said her two sons had been ISIS fighters and were killed, and another said her husband and son had been detained by Iraqi Security Forces as they fled.

One young woman said that after she got divorced at an ISIS-run courthouse in Mosul last year, the judge took her to his house and held her as a sex slave. When fighting neared, he and his family fled but kept her locked in their home. Iraqi Security Forces who retook the area presumed she was an ISIS family member because she was found in a known ISIS resident’s home, and took her to the camp.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the forcible relocation of at least 125 so-called ISIS families from Salah al-Din to a de facto detention camp near Tikrit. Human Rights Watch has also reported on calls for evictions of so-called ISIS relatives in Anbar and Babil governorates.

Since May, local tribal and governorate authorities in Hammam al-Alil, Qayarrah, and Mosul have issued eviction calls against so-called ISIS families, in tandem with grenade and other attacks on the families, as well as threatening letters and demands to deny these families humanitarian assistance. As a result, many of these families have been forced to move to nearby camps housing families displaced by the fighting in Mosul.

In June, a circular was sent to alleged ISIS families in Mosul telling them to leave the city by July 15, 2017, or “you will be shot,” according to social media. In July, an international organization said that some so-called ISIS family homes were set on fire. In Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, a Popular Mobilization Forces fighter and a senior security officer said that a group of families who were ISIS victims, with the backing of local tribal leaders, drew up a list of 67 families whom they demanded should leave the city. A video posted on Facebook on June 17 but later taken down showed residents going door to door, threatening the so-called ISIS relatives that if they did not leave, their lives would be at risk. The security officer said that some people threatening the families had resorted to violence. He said he detained four of them, and that as a result of the threats and violence, at least 25 of the 67 families left for the nearby Jadah camp.

Aid workers said that in May and June 2017, so-called ISIS relatives from Mosul living in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, told them that the local tribal elder warned them that they might be killed if they did not leave. The aid workers also said that there had been numerous cases of vigilantes vandalizing homes of people believed to be relatives of ISIS members, leading a number of families to leave town.

A local police chief said that his forces had intervened to stop the attacks and evictions in mid-June. However, a Dutch journalist said that another local police chief told him that the police would not stop or arrest members of an armed group called the “Hamam al-Alil Revolutionaries” that had publicized on Facebook grenade attacks on homes of so-called ISIS families. The journalist also reported that a local lawyer collected signatures calling for evicting all ISIS families.

International law requires that punishment for crimes only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime.

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

Local authorities should reverse any decrees targeting the families of alleged ISIS affiliates in violation of international standards. Iraq’s prime minister should issue a decree requiring local authorities to rescind the decrees and to cease the forced displacements. The government should order the security and armed forces not to participate in unlawful displacements and to take appropriate disciplinary action against those who do.

The authorities should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations, allow families to stay in camps that allow for free movement and communications if they choose, or to relocate elsewhere. Where authorities cannot ensure the safety of families because of threat of revenge attacks, they should allow families to freely choose to relocate to camps or other areas where authorities can provide adequate protection.

“The camps for so-called ISIS families have nothing to do with rehabilitation and are instead de facto detention centers for adults and children who have not been accused of any wrongdoing,” Fakih said. “These families should be freely permitted to go where they can live safely.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Souda refugee camp on the island of Chios. Poor living conditions in the camp and overcrowded hotspots, with little to no access to basic services, such as sanitation and proper shelter is key factor that contributes to psychological distress.

© April 2017 Private/Human Rights Watch
(Brussels) – The EU-Turkey deal designed to stem migration and refugee flows to Greece has had a devastating impact on the mental well-being of thousands of women, men, and children trapped on Greek islands since March 2016, Human Rights Watch said today.

In research conducted in May and June 2017 on the island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch documented the deteriorating mental health of asylum seekers and migrants – including incidents of self-harm, suicide attempts, aggression, anxiety, and depression – caused by the Greek policy of “containing” them on islands, often in horrifying conditions, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey.

 “The psychological impact of years of conflict, exacerbated by harsh conditions on the Greek islands and the uncertainty of inhumane policies, may not be as visible as physical wounds, but is no less life-threatening,” said Emina Ćerimović, disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The European Union and Greece should take immediate action to address this silent crisis and prevent further harm.”

The psychological impact of years of conflict, exacerbated by harsh conditions on the Greek islands and the uncertainty of inhumane policies, may not be as visible as physical wounds, but is no less life-threatening

Emina Ćerimović

Researcher, Disability Rights Division

Thousands of asylum seekers, including women and children, are trapped in worsening conditions in EU-sponsored processing centers – so-called hotspots – and other facilities, amid an ongoing flow of new arrivals and slow decision-making on the part of the Greek government. In December 2016, the EU and the Greek authorities ended exemptions for vulnerable groups protected by Greek law from the requirement to remain on the islands.

The EU-Turkey deal, signed in March 2016, commits Turkey to accept the return from Greece of most asylum seekers who traveled through its territory and arrived on the Greek islands, in exchange for billions of euro in aid, visa liberalization for Turkish citizens, and revived negotiations for Turkish accession to the EU.

Human Rights Watch met in Greece with representatives from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM), European Commission, Greek Asylum Service, local and international nongovernmental organizations (including disabled persons organizations and aid organizations), lawyers, and volunteers. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 37 refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants on Lesbos, including unaccompanied migrant children. The vast majority of interviewees described the deteriorating mental health among asylum seekers and other migrants trapped on Greek islands.

“Camps are places where vulnerabilities are created,” one IOM official said.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides medical care on the islands of Samos and Lesbos, reported a high prevalence of depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and a significant increase in suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm, particularly since January 2017.

The trauma of war or forcibly leaving homes is enough to trigger anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in asylum seekers and migrants. But medical personnel interviewed said that mental health of asylum seekers and migrants has been impacted by factors related to the EU-Turkey deal. These include insecurity; harsh camp conditions; lack of access to services and information about the asylum process and their prospects for the future; delays in the asylum procedure; detention and fears of being detained and deported to Turkey; and feelings of hopelessness.

Rabiha Hadji, a 33-year-old Kurdish mother of four children from Syria who was detained at the Moria hotspot on Lesbos, was refused asylum protection in Greece on the basis that Turkey is a safe third country for her and her family. “My hope is dead since they brought me here,” she said. “We saw all the terrible miseries [in Syria] but me and my children haven’t seen a jail [until coming to Greece].” She was awaiting deportation to Turkey.

An EU official in Athens confirmed the negative impact that prolonged uncertainty has had on people’s mental health on the islands. Asked what steps the EU will take to address the issue, the official said the aim is to speed up the asylum process and to increase returns to Turkey in a timely manner, thus preventing people from being trapped on the islands for longer than needed.

While length of the asylum procedure is one factor contributing to people’s distress, speeding up the process could undermine the effective exercise of asylum seekers’ rights. The length of asylum procedures should not be reduced at the expense of the quality of the process. Human Rights Watch has documented cases since the EU-Turkey agreement entered into force in which there were no interpreters, or inadequate ones, during asylum and admissibility interviews and serious gaps in access to information and legal assistance.

Registration and examination of asylum claims on the islands are prioritized based on nationality, resulting in severe delays for people of some nationalities, including for people from Afghanistan and Iraq. Asylum seekers from countries with a relatively low claim recognition rate, such as Algeria and Morocco, are often detained because Greek authorities allege that they apply for asylum merely to delay or frustrate returns to Turkey, raising concerns about the use of arbitrary detention based on nationality.

This differential treatment, and frustration at delayed procedures, has led to unrest in the hotspots and island detention facilities and psychological distress, Human Rights Watch found.

Greek authorities, with EU support, should ensure asylum seekers have meaningful access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure based on individual claims, not nationality. Asylum seekers should be admitted so that their claims for protection can be examined on their merits in Greece. The EU and the Greek government should work together to ensure that people receive timely and accessible information in a language they understand.

In addition, the Greek government should end the containment policy on the islands, including for at-risk groups, and, with EU and UNHCR support, transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and provide them with adequate accommodation. The Greek government should also enroll all children in schools, and provide adults with work visas and an opportunity to work.

“The European Union and the Greek government should work to restore the dignity and humanity of people seeking protection, not foster conditions that cause psychological harm,” Ćerimović said.

Inhumane Policies

The EU-Turkey deal aims to return most asylum seekers from the Greek islands to Turkey under the flawed assumption that Turkey is a safe country for asylum seekers, without considering the merits of their asylum claims in Greece. Since the deal entered into effect on March 20, 2016, tens of thousands of people have been bottle-necked in deplorable and volatile conditions on Greek islands. According to governmental figures published by UNHCR, 12,873 asylum seekers are currently on the Greek islands. Thousands of them are living in extremely harsh conditions in overcrowded facilities while their protection claims are being processed.

An Action Plan between the European Commission and the Greek government published in December 2016 recommended that Greece take tougher measures aimed at increasing the number of returns to Turkey. Those measures included ending exemptions for vulnerable groups and people eligible for family reunification from the requirement to remain on the islands and requiring them to go through a fast-track admissibility process. The commission also recommended expanding detention on the islands and curbing appeal rights.

The Greek government is already carrying out some of these measures, including by increasing detention capacity, and by containing people identified as “vulnerable” on the islands until the first instance examination of their asylum claim under the regular procedure. In April, the government adopted a policy excluding asylum-seekers on the Greek islands who appeal negative asylum decisions from the possibility of participating later in the IOM Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme, which offers voluntary returns to the home countries of asylum seekers, and forcing those who wish to participate to forego their right to appeal.

In May 2017, Human Rights Watch documented that the EU is inappropriately pressing Greek authorities and medical aid organizations to reduce the number of asylum seekers identified as “vulnerable,” including people with disabilities, torture victims, and other at-risk groups. As a result of not being identified, at-risk people struggle to get the protection and assistance to which they have a legal right.

Factors Causing Psychological Distress

Insecurity and Uncertainty

The insecurity in the camps and uncertain futures, including when the first asylum interview will take place or when the decision will be made, have increased the risk of distress among asylum seekers trapped on the Greek islands.

Nakibullah, a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, said: “I’ve been here for 10 months and I am worried about what will happen…. I am not well mentally because I live in insecurity.”

“Hamid,” an 18-year-old Bangladeshi stranded on Lesbos since November 2016, said, “It’s been a while that I live here and every day that passes is worse…. My biggest stress is about what will happen the next day. What tomorrow will bring. Why are you keeping me here?”

Detention and the risk of deportation to Turkey is another catalyst for anxiety, depression, or self-harm. “This is especially the case since [increased] detention and deportations became a reality in the last few weeks,” a lawyer on Lesbos told Human Rights Watch in May. Twenty-two people were deported back to Turkey the week before Human Rights Watch’s visit to Lesbos on May 18. A total of 1,210 people had been returned back to Turkey by June 13, since the deal entered into force in March 2016.

Greek authorities transferred “Ahmad,” a 20-year-old Syrian, in May 2017 from Chios island, where he had lived since August 2016, to the Moria pre-removal detention center on Lesbos. “We came here and we don’t know if we are going back to Turkey or whether we are going back to Chios,” he said. “I’m in a nervous situation. Being between [other detainees] makes me nervous. Yesterday, an Algerian guy hurt himself…. My feelings are dead.” Two other people in separate interviews confirmed that an Algerian man had harmed himself by cutting.

In response to EU prodding, Greece is taking some steps to speed up the asylum process. Authorities recently started to apply a fast-track procedure provided for in a Greek law adopted in April 2016 that entails examining the admissibility or eligibility of international protection claims within 15 days, including appeal.

“More frequently, new arrivals have their interviews scheduled in the first five days of their arrival,” said Lorraine Leete, a lawyer from the Lesbos Legal Centre, which provides legal advice to asylum seekers and other migrants on Lesbos. “They are not given adequate time to prepare for interviews or meet with the lawyers.”

MSF said that it takes time and expertise for experiences of abuse, torture, or persecution to come to light. Reducing the length of asylum procedure should go hand in hand with an improved capacity to detect people’s “vulnerabilities” while maintaining their right to appeal.

Harsh Camp Conditions

Extremely bad living conditions in overcrowded hotspots with little to no access to services is another key factor that contributes to deteriorated mental health. An MSF representative said that on Samos, they see more and more refugees intentionally harming themselves.

“Imran,” a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan who lived for more than 10 months in overcrowded and volatile conditions at Moria, said:

 

I’ve been 10 months here [on Lesbos] and the situation is very difficult. I am not well at all here. I have ‘psychological problems’ that I also had in Afghanistan. During my time here, they have worsened because I live under these conditions. I’ve reached a point where I harmed myself three times. Now, I [get counseling and] am on medication.… I also have pain in my stomach. It hurts. I don’t sleep much. I don’t fall asleep easily. I might fall asleep at 3 or 4 in the morning and wake up by 8. I feel awake all the time. I don’t have an appetite and energy.

 

An MSF representative said that poor conditions in hotspots are especially harmful to people with mental health conditions or torture victims: “For persons who have experienced extreme violence in detention back in their countries of origin, a place surrounded by barbed wire, the presence of police, and violent clashes clearly cannot be a proper place for them.”

Amir, a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Iran who has been detained on Lesbos since mid-April, including for 20 days at a police station cell, said: “I am not good because in Iran I was in a military prison and while I’m here I see the fences and I remember my past […] During the first week I was here, I couldn’t sleep all week […] I had nightmares of the torture I’ve been through in the military prison.”

“Halid,” a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan who has been living in Moria since December 2016, said harsh camp conditions, uncertainty, and fear of deportation exacerbated psychological distress he felt while in Afghanistan:

 

When I first came here it was very hard because I didn’t know anyone. Now I see a psychologist. I speak, and I feel a bit better. Back in Afghanistan I did not feel well with everything that happened. Here, the conditions didn’t help. And now, the fact that I don’t know what will happen in the future also makes me not feel well. I am afraid of being deported.

 

The hotspots were originally designed as registration and transit centers where people were supposed to stay for short periods, not as places of indefinite containment.

An MSF representative said that the treatment of refugees, including being contained on the islands and in camps, not only exacerbates existing mental health conditions but also creates new psychological distress:

 

There are many people with PTSD, due to violence they have experienced in their home countries or because of trauma they have experienced during the treacherous journey, but the uncertainty of what is going to happen and the living conditions on the island [Lesbos and Samos] further exacerbates the symptoms and creates new mental health conditions. We have new cases of people with anxiety, depression, self-harm, and more people will most likely develop new forms of mental health conditions due to the conditions on the islands.

 

“Bilal,” a 26-year-old asylum seeker from Syria with a mental health condition, has been detained on Lesbos for more than three months pending return to Turkey. He said he was held for more than two months at a police station cell, where he said he attempted suicide, before being moved to Moria. “All this time [at the police station] I had seen no doctor,” he said. “Then I hurt myself in the police station, and then they [the police] brought me here [to Moria].”

“Anush,” a boy from Afghanistan who was registered by Greek authorities as 20 but says he is 16 and is living with the general population in Moria since the end of August 2016, said:

 

I feel very bad. Whatever you do, even if you change it [Moria], it is not a place to be. Psychologically I feel very bad. I go to a psychologist and a psychiatrist, every week for a month now. It helps but when you live in Moria it doesn’t help. From the moment I got here, my psychological well-being got worse because of all the situation and whatever happens in Moria. We came here because of a better life but there are lots of problems.

 

An NGO worker following Anush’s case added: “[He] has lots of psychological ‘problems’. We visited a psychiatrist, we visited a neurologist but as he says, if the conditions don’t change, this doesn’t help. He has lots of anxiety and at least one panic attack per day. His fingers are trembling and he has severe headaches.”

Discriminatory EU and Greek Policies

The discriminatory policy adopted by Greece that is based on nationality, not individual cases, is another source of mental anguish. An MSF representative said:

 

The procedure is different for nationalities of applicants within the recognition rate [granted protection] below 20 percent. Such discriminatory procedure is not comprehensible. The person rightly believes that their case should be assessed on the basis of their individual claim, not their nationality, but that is not happening on the islands. The system completely destroys the dignity of people.

 

Asylum Process Stress

Two lawyers providing legal advice to asylum seekers on Lesbos said that the Greek Asylum Service (GAS) has taken some steps to schedule interviews and issue written notices for dates that, if kept, would allow for relatively prompt consideration of claims, but it has not been consistent in keeping those appointments.

For example, the interview for “Anar,” a 27-year-old man from Afghanistan, has been postponed without explanation at least 5 times during the 10 months he has lived in Moria. “It’s made me ‘crazy,’” Anar said. “When I think of the person I was 10 months ago when I first arrived and the person I am today, it’s not the same person.”

Leete, the lawyer providing legal advice to Anar and other asylum seekers on Lesbos, confirmed that Anar’s first interview was postponed without explanation. Leete added that Anar’s experience is not unusual. “Many go there regularly on the scheduled day of the appointment, wait for hours, only to be told to come instead another day,” Leete said. She added that Rohingya from Myanmar, who had been on Lesbos for nine months at the time of our interview, in mid-May, are repeatedly given new dates, because the asylum service says it cannot get interpreters.

Many people also fear having their asylum claim rejected. A member of a Syrian Kurdish family of five who were rejected on both first and second instance hearings said:

 

We got rejected twice. We were in Kara Tepe [open camp on Lesbos] one month ago. My husband went to renew the [asylum] application card. He went inside the asylum office and the police arrested him. The police then came to my room, inside Kara Tepe and brought us here [Moria]. They didn’t even let us take our stuff. Later the police brought our stuff. For four days I didn’t eat at all, I went on a hunger strike. And they took me to a hospital.  

 

One of the lawyers interviewed and a representative of MSF confirmed that the family had been denied full examination of their claim in Greece on the basis that Turkey is a safe third country for them, and has been detained in a closed compound inside Moria since April 28. A family member said:

 

When we arrived here first, the lawyer told us, ‘You will get out in 10 days.’ But, we don’t know how long we are going to stay here. They should tell us. Is it two months, three months? If you killed someone the court would say, ‘you are going to be in jail for six years.’ But to us, they don’t say anything.

 

Leete said that one of the biggest tragedies of the declining mental health of refugees in Greece is that people who have a right to international protection and who are refugees under EU and Greek law are in fact being denied protection:

 

Many people have given up and are volunteering to go back to their home countries. They came to Europe seeking safety, they are not finding it here, and are instead trapped on the islands. They don’t know if they will be allowed to stay, or returned back. Will they be rejected as other people who have had valid claims? That’s the biggest tragedy: the system has come to the stage where people ‘volunteer’ to go back to the countries where their lives might be in danger. And when I say ‘volunteer’ that should be put in a quote as I think it is a forced departure. Everyone who came to Greece, and decided to risk their lives, came here for a reason.

 

A representative of Doctors of the World (MDM), an international organization which operated in Moria until end of June 2017, said: “Not only are we not meeting their needs, but [the system] is doing more harm.”

The feeling of helplessness and lack of activities are other factors that influence people’s mental health. “They have fought for months, nothing has changed,” an MSF representative said. “It is also the feeling of not being able to change anything, of not having anything to do, the feeling of hopelessness and uselessness.”

Nakibullah, the 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan who has been trapped on Lesbos for 10 months, said: “I am losing my time here…. Here time goes by without anything happening.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2017 Reuters

(Brussels) – Thousands more refugees and migrants could be at risk of dying at sea if a flawed code of conduct for nongovernmental groups conducting search and rescue in the central Mediterranean is put into practice, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today after reviewing a leaked draft of the document.

On July 12, 2017, the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament will hold an “exchange of views on Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean” between MEPs, the Italian coastguard, the EU border management agency FRONTEX, and nongovernmental organizations.

“Perversely, the proposed code of conduct for NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean could put lives at risk,” said Iverna McGowan, director of the Amnesty International, European Institutions Office. “Attempts to restrict NGO search and rescue operations risk endangering thousands of lives by limiting rescue boats from accessing the perilous waters near Libya.”

The code of conduct, drafted by Italy, was first proposed at an informal meeting of the European Council Justice and Home Affairs meeting on July 6, 2017.

The draft pact would curtail the work of nongovernmental groups carrying out search and rescue operations on the central Mediterranean by:

  • Barring them from entering Libyan territorial waters to undertake rescues;
  • Banning them from using lights to signal their location to vessels at imminent risk of sinking; and
  • Forcing them to return to port to disembark refugees and migrants, rather than allowing them to transfer rescued people onto other vessels at sea if necessary. This would remove nongovernmental groups’ search-and-rescue teams for long periods from the area where they are needed, leaving more people at risk of drowning in the central Mediterranean.

The draft includes the threat of refusal to allow vessels from nongovernmental groups to disembark in Italy if they do not sign the code or fail to comply with any of its provisions.

Any code of conduct, if necessary, should have the goal of making rescue operations at sea more effective at saving lives, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. It should be agreed upon consultation with the groups involved in search-and-rescue, should apply to all vessels carrying out rescues in the Mediterranean, and should not be linked to disembarkation.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe that the code of conduct may in some cases hinder rescue operations and delay disembarkations in a safe place within a reasonable amount of time, breaching the obligations states and shipmasters have under the law of the sea.

Italy’s proposal for a code of conduct for nongovernmental groups comes amid a concerted smear campaign against these groups, and Italy’s request for more sharing of responsibility among EU member states for rescue and disembarkation. While the EU has been extremely poor in providing Italy with the shared support and assistance it needs, it is instead focusing on training the Libyan Navy coast guard, under the UN-backed Government of National Accord, to build its capacity to intercept boats. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented reckless and abusive behaviour by Libyan coast guard forces.

“NGOs are out there in the Mediterranean rescuing people because the EU is not,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the scale of tragedies at sea and the horrific abuses migrants and asylum seekers face in Libya, the EU should work with Italy to enhance robust search and rescue in the waters off Libya, not limit it.”

Background

More than 2,000 people have died in the central Mediterranean since January 2017 according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Last week, Amnesty International released a new report, “A Perfect Storm,” about how failing EU policies are clearly linked to this soaring death toll and the horrific abuses faced by thousands of refugees and migrants in Libyan detention centers. On June 19, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed briefing on the lack of capacity of Libyan coast guard forces to perform safely search-and-rescue operations.

Nongovernmental organizations have rescued more than 80,000 refugees and migrants crossing from Libya towards Italy since the Italian operation “Mare Nostrum” was removed in 2014.

The UN Refugee Agency and the International Organisation for Migration have both criticized the nongovernmental organization code of conduct.

Two parliamentary committee inquiries this year in Italy found no evidence of misconduct on the part of nongovernmental organizations undertaking search and rescue and their contribution to search and rescue activities. The Italian Coastguard and Navy have expressed their view that nongovernmental organizations have been helpful and cooperative.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces have expelled at least four Yezidi families and threatened others since June 2017 because of their relatives’ participation in Iraqi government forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The KRG’s security forces, Asayish, returned the displaced families to Sinjar, where access to basic goods and services is very limited.

The expulsion of Yezidi families from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) because a relative joined the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha'abi or PMF) amounts to collective punishment in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said.

A Yezidi fighter in Sinjar, Iraq, November 16, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

“Kurdistan Regional Government authorities should stop expelling Yezidi families because of their relatives’ actions, a form of collective punishment,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These displaced families have the right not to be forcibly returned to their still-damaged home villages.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to three Yezidi commanders who said that Yezidi forces had been integrated into the PMF under the name Yezidi Brigades (Kata'ib Ezidkhan), with the forces holding positions in four areas of Sinjar. Sinjar is technically under Iraqi central government administrative control, but KRG security forces remain active in the area and control the main road from Sinjar to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

In late June and early July, Human Rights Watch interviewed nine displaced Yezidis originally from Kocho, Tel Kassab, and Siba Sheikh Khidr villages in Sinjar, which the PMF retook from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in May. All had been living in the KRI and did not want to return to their villages because of widespread destruction of property, mass graves, unexploded improvised explosive devices, and the lack of water and electricity. Their families had fled Sinjar in August 2014, after ISIS attacked the area, massacring and enslaving thousands of Yezidis. All those interviewed said that Asayish threatened them with expulsion because they had relatives who joined the Yezidi Brigades, and in four cases, they alleged that Asayish forces had forcibly expelled them to Sinjar as recently as July 5, 2017.

A Yezidi man who had been living in a camp near the town of Zakho in the KRI said that in late May, three of his sons joined the PMF’s Yezidi Brigades. On June 12, an Asayish officer told him to appear at the local Asayish office the following day. He said that when he arrived, officers told him that if he did not get his sons to leave the PMF and return to the camp, he and 15 family members would need to leave the KRI by June 21 and return to Kocho.

His sons did not leave the group, and on June 29, Asayish officers at the camp ordered him and his family to leave immediately. He asked for a 24-hour extension to get his family ready, but the officers refused. An officer drove him and his family to Sinjar. “I don’t know what to do next,” he said. “My village was completely destroyed, and there is no water or electricity in the area.”

Another Yezidi man who had been living in a camp near the city of Dohuk said that his father had joined the Yezidi Brigades in late May. On June 21, Asayish officers at the camp told him his family of 10 had one week to convince his father to come home or they would be expelled from the KRI. On June 30, the officers told him that because his father had not returned, the family would need to leave that same day, he said.

He said his uncle has close ties with the KRG, and so officers said they would spare the family the shame of picking them up at their tent, and would instead allow a relative to drive them to Sinjar. “We are now living with a relative in Khanasoor [in Sinjar], because our village is still littered in landmines,” he said. “We don’t know what we will do.”

A Yezidi man living in a camp near Zakho said that on June 17, two Asayish officers from the camp management office told him that they knew his brother had joined the Yezidi Brigades, and that if his brother did not leave the group within four days, his family of 10 would be returned to Kocho, in Sinjar. The man said that he had two brothers who had joined the Yezidi Brigades and that they would not be willing to leave the armed group. At least 10 other families at the camp told him that Asayish had made the same demand of them. He said he and the other families expected to be expelled any day.

One Yezidi Brigades commander said that on June 24, Asayish officers called his family, who live in a village near Dohuk, into the city’s Asayish office. An officer made his wife sign a pledge that she and her two daughters would leave the KRI within seven days because of her husband’s role within the PMF, he said. “I don’t know where I should move my family,” he said. “I can’t bring them here to Sinjar. My older daughter is an engineering student at the American University of Dohuk and we cannot interrupt her studies.”

A Yezidi woman who had been held captive by ISIS for a year and a half, now living with two relatives in a town near Dohuk, said that her brother joined the Yezidi Brigades in mid-May. On June 14, an Asayish officer came to her home and told her to come to the local Asayish office the following morning. When she arrived, an officer there told her that if her brother did not leave the PMF, she and her two relatives would need to return to Kocho. She said she had persuaded her brother to leave the Yezidi Brigades and he informed Asayish that he had.

Human Rights Watch received reports from a Yezidi rights’ activist of another 15 Yezidi families who were expelled and returned to Sinjar by Asayish forces, but could not confirm the report.

On June 23, Human Rights Watch sent a set of questions regarding these allegations to Dr. Dindar Zebari, chairperson of the KRG’s High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports. Human Rights Watch has not received a response.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch documented severe restrictions on moving goods in and out of Sinjar that interfered with residents’ livelihoods and their ability to get food, water, and medical care. Three aid workers told Human Rights Watch that the situation had improved dramatically since May. However, while more goods are moving into Sinjar as more families have returned in 2017, many items have been heavily taxed, making them beyond the reach of many families.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch had also documented cases in which Asayish forces ordered families to leave the same camps and areas in and around Dohuk and threatened to expel others from the KRI after learning that their children had joined forces affiliated with the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê or PKK) in Sinjar.

International humanitarian law prohibits collective punishment, which includes any form of punitive sanction or harassment by authorities on targeted groups of people for actions that they did not personally commit.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that all internally displaced persons have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their residence (principle 14). They also have the right to seek safety in another part of the country and to be protected against forcible return to “any place where their life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk” (principle 15).

“While the Kurdistan Regional Government may not like the Popular Mobilization Forces, punishing family members of PMF fighters is the wrong – and unlawful – way to address the issue,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Bangkok) – On the occasion of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Mr. Filippo Grandi’s visit to Thailand, we, the undersigned, urge the Thai government to demonstrate its commitment to protecting refugees by ending abusive practices as well as instituting and implementing laws that guarantee the rights of refugees in Thailand. These rights should be guaranteed without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality or national origin, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

On July 7, the head of UNHCR—the U.N. agency mandated to protect and identify permanent solutions for refugees—is scheduled to meet with Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to discuss the protection environment for refugees in Thailand. This is the first time in five years that a High Commissioner has visited Thailand, and it is part of a regional visit to countries in Asia Pacific.

According to UNHCR, Thailand hosts approximately 102,000 refugees, a majority of whom are protracted refugees from Myanmar living in temporary shelters along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Included in this figure are 8,000  “urban refugees” from Pakistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, China, and other countries living in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces.

Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the Thai government has repeatedly expressed a commitment to protect refugees in Thailand, including most recently during the U.N. Human Rights Committee review of Thailand’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in March 2017. As part of the review process, the Thai government affirmed a commitment to “humanitarianism and to take care of various groups of irregular migrants.” In a speech at the Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis on September 20, 2016 in New York, Prime Minister Prayut committed to end the detention of refugee children in Thailand and to establish an effective refugee-screening mechanism. The Prime Minister also committed to ensure that refugee returns to Myanmar would be voluntary and to increase refugees’ access to education, healthcare, and birth registration in Thailand.

These commitments are noteworthy and appreciated. However, we remain concerned by the lack of progress in implementing these commitments and addressing serious and ongoing human rights violations affecting the situation of refugees in Thailand. These include:

Refoulement

Thailand has long failed to respect the legally binding principle of non-refoulement, which is explicitly prescribed by Article 3 of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and is considered part of customary international law. Under this principle, states are prohibited from returning an individual to a country where they may face torture or other serious human rights violations.

In recent years, Thai authorities have forcibly returned refugees, asylum seekers, and others based on the requests of foreign governments, despite the credible risk of torture or other grave human rights abuses. Most recently, on May 26, 2017, Thai transferred M. Furkan Sökmen, a Turkish national with alleged links to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, to the custody of Turkish authorities despite warnings by U.N. agencies that he would face human rights violations if returned. In 2015, Thailand also reportedly returned to China approximately 100 alleged Uighurs—an ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority in China. Uighurs returned to China are known to have faced persecution.

Thai authorities also are known to conduct unofficial deportations by transporting individuals to a border and forcing them into a neighboring country without appropriate regard to the risks of further human rights violations they may face. Thailand has implemented a “help-on” or “push back” policy with regard to possible refugees arriving by sea. Under this policy, Thai authorities have intercepted and towed ill-equipped boats of people out to sea. These policies and practices contravene the principle of non-refoulement and greatly endangering the lives of refugees. These policies and practices continue in Thailand at the time of writing.

In March, the U.N. Human Rights Committee reiterated Thailand’s obligation to “ensure in law and practice that people in need of international protection are not returned to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk of irreparable harm...” During its review of Thailand’s obligations under the ICCPR, the Committee expressed concern about “reports of deportations and forcible returns without review or adequate assessment…” We share these concerns.

Arbitrary and Indefinite Detention

Thai authorities continue to arbitrarily and, in some cases, indefinitely detain refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants in immigration detention centers (IDCs) and government-run shelters. Although Thailand’s immigration detention facilities are designed for stays of up to 15 days, some refugees have been detained for several years. During its review of Thailand’s obligations under the ICCPR, the U.N. Human Rights Committee also expressed concern at reports of the protracted detention of refugees and called on Thailand to “refrain from detaining refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants and implement alternatives to detention…” The Thai government confirmed during the ICCPR review that 121 Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine State and Bangladesh continue to be confined to government-run shelters, where their movement is limited and liberty denied.

In addition to concerns about the protracted detention of refugees, we are also concerned about the substandard conditions in Thailand’s IDCs. Detention facilities in Thailand can be severely overcrowded with appalling sanitation and limited access to basic needs, including clean water for washing and drinking, adequate and quality food, and sufficient toilets. The authorities have also detained children solely on the basis of their or their parents’ immigration status in violation of the rights of the child. Access to adequate medical care and psychological support in the IDCs is reportedly limited, which can lead to or exacerbate preventable medical conditions including skin and respiratory infections as well as tuberculosis. In May, a 36-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker died in a Bangkok IDC, bringing attention to the urgency of the situation. 

Access to Legal Status

Currently, Thailand lacks a legal framework to assess asylum claims and fails to provide formal legal status to refugees in the country, heightening the risk of other human rights violations, including arbitrary and indefinite detention, refoulement, and human trafficking.

On January 10, 2017, Thailand adopted Cabinet Resolution 10/01, B.E. 2560, which created a “Committee for the Management of Undocumented Migrants and Refugees” to develop policies concerning the screening and management of undocumented migrants and refugees. This is a potentially positive step towards providing domestic legal status and basic rights to refugee and asylum seekers as well as ensuring the right to asylum as guaranteed by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While this Resolution lays the groundwork for developing effective procedures to identify and manage undocumented migrants and refugees, a screening mechanism that employs discriminatory or overly restrictive criteria could entrench rather than resolve outstanding concerns regarding asylum protections in Thailand.

We call on the Thai government to work closely with UNHCR, civil society, and refugees to develop a full, effective, and fair procedure to evaluate claims for refugee status and protection.

Lack of Access to Livelihoods and Labor Protections

Thailand’s labor laws prohibit refugees from working legally in the country. As a result, refugees often have no option but to engage in work that is frequently unauthorized and characterized as dangerous and degrading. Refugees generally do not enjoy the protections stipulated by Thailand’s Labor Protection Act and other domestic labor laws. Rather, refugees are often subjected to abusive, exploitative, and dangerous work environments. This is contrary to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Thailand is a state party. Under Article 7 of the ICESCR, states are obliged to protect the rights of everyone to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work.

Access to Education

Thailand’s domestic legislation guarantees that all children have a right to quality and free “basic education provided by the State for the duration of at least 12 years,” regardless of legal status. However, most refugee children are largely unable to access Thai schools due to restrictions on movement, language barriers, and discriminatory treatment by school administrators. Access to secondary and tertiary education is even more limited.

Based on the above mentioned concerns, we urge the Government of Thailand to:

  • Prevent the refoulement of individuals whose life or freedom would be threatened upon return to their home countries. In particular, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha should instruct relevant ministries and state security forces to discontinue the “help on” policy and to end the practice of unofficial deportations, which put refugees at risk of refoulement.
  • End the arbitrary and indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers in immigration detention centers and government-run shelters, ensuring that refugees are never detained because of their immigration status and that asylum seekers are detained only in exceptional circumstances, following an individualized assessment, and after all less invasive alternatives to detention have been exhausted, and in conditions that meet international standards.
  • Engage UNHCR, civil society, and refugees in meaningful consultations and ensure full access to information with regard to the planning and implementation of voluntary return programs on the Myanmar-Thailand border.
  • Work transparently and in participation with UNHCR, civil society, and refugees to develop full, effective, and fair asylum procedures that are enshrined in legislation, effectively implemented, and in line with international standards. Ensure all individuals seeking asylum in Thailand have access to asylum procedures, regardless of the manner, place, or date of entry.
  • Ensure that all refugees in Thailand are provided with access to legal documentation, healthcare, work permits and labor protections, educational opportunities, and other forms of assistance.
  • Accede to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol as well as other key human rights treaties and withdraw the reservation to Article 22 of Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to the rights of refugee and asylum seeking children.

Signatories:

Amnesty International

Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network

Asylum Access Thailand

Coalition for the Rights of Refugees and Stateless Persons

Coalition on Refugee Protection

FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights

Fortify Rights

Human Rights Watch

Migrant Worker Rights Network

Migrant Working Group

People Empowerment Foundation

Save the Children

Ummatee

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am