A Turkish soldier surveys the border line between Turkey and Syria near the city of Kilis, March 2, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Murad Sezer
(Brussels) – Turkish security forces have routinely intercepted hundreds, and at times thousands, of asylum seekers at the Turkey-Syria border since at least December 2017 and summarily deported them to the war-ravaged Idlib governorate in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Turkish border guards have shot at asylum seekers trying to enter Turkey using smuggling routes, killing and wounding them, and have deported to Idlib newly arrived Syrians in the Turkish town of Antakya, 30 kilometers from the Syrian border.

The Russian-Syrian military alliance’s December offensive against anti-government forces in Idlib has displaced almost 400,000 civilians, according to the UN. They have joined more than 1.3 million others trapped inside Idlib in insecure, overcrowded camps, and in makeshift camps in fields near the closed Turkish border where they are under constant threat of attack and lack food, clean water, shelter, health care, and aid. At a March 26, 2018 summit meeting in Bulgaria, the European Union should press Turkey to allow Syrian civilians fleeing fighting to seek protection inside Turkey and pledge increased aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the region.

“As border guards try to seal the last remaining gaps in Turkey’s border, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are trapped in fields to face the bombs on the Syrian side,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should press Turkey to open its border to those in need, and provide meaningful support, not silently stand by as Turkey ignores refugee law and pushes thousands back to face the carnage.”

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Border area where Turkish security forces regularly carry out mass deportations of Syrian asylum seekers.

Satellite data © 2018 DigitalGlobe; Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch
In response to these allegations, the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) in Turkey’s Ministry of Interior provided Human Rights Watch with a lengthy statement, which said, in part, that “while maintaining the security of borders against terrorist organizations, Turkey continues to accept Syrians in need coming to the borders, and never opens fire on or uses violence against them.”

The DGGM said that it registered 510,448 Syrians coming through the designated border gates in 2017, and 91,866 so far in 2018, and provided them with temporary protection. As seen from the numbers, the DGMM statement said, “allegations suggesting that Syrians are not registered are not true.” It does not appear that Turkish authorities conducted an investigation into Human Rights Watch’s specific findings.

In mid-February, Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with 21 Syrians about their repeated failed attempts to cross into Turkey with smugglers. Eighteen of them said that intensified Russia-Syrian airstrikes in Deir al-Zour and in Idlib had repeatedly displaced them until they finally decided they had no option but to risk their lives and flee to Turkey.

Those interviewed described 137 incidents, almost all between mid-December and early March, in which Turkish border guards intercepted them just after they had crossed the border with smugglers. Human Rights Watch spoke with another 35 Syrians stuck in Idlib who had not tried to escape for fear of being shot by border guards.

Nine people also described 10 incidents between September and early March in which Turkish border guards shot at them or others ahead of them as they tried to cross, killing 14 people, including 5 children, and injuring 18.

Civilians in Idlib have also been caught in the crossfire between Kurdish and Turkish forces during the offensive by Turkey in the Kurdish-held town of Afrin in Syria, north of Idlib, which began on January 20.

In November, the United Nations refugee agency said in its latest country guidance on Syria that “all parts of Syria are reported to have been affected, directly or indirectly, by one or multiple conflicts” and therefore maintained its long-standing call on all countries “not to forcibly return Syrians.”

Syrians who tried to enter Turkey said they were intercepted after they crossed the Orontes River or near the internally displaced persons camp in al-Dureyya. They said Turkish border guards deported them along with hundreds, and at times thousands, of other Syrians they had intercepted. They said the guards forced them to return to Syrian territory at an informal crossing point at Hatya or across a small dam on the Orontes River known as the Friendship Bridge that aid agencies have used.

Human Rights Watch obtained satellite images of both crossing points and of four security posts with large tents set up on basketball courts in the immediate border area where asylum seekers said they were held before being sent back to Syria. 

The findings follow a February 3 Human Rights Watch report on Turkey’s border killings and summary pushbacks of asylum seekers between May and December 2017 and similar findings in November 2015 and May 2016.

In response to the February 3 report, a senior Turkish official repeated his government’s long-standing response to such reports, pointing out that Turkey has taken in millions of Syrian refugees. Human Rights Watch described its latest findings in a letter on March 15 to Turkey’s interior minister, requesting comment by March 21.

Turkey is hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the UN refugee agency. Turkey deserves credit and support for its generosity and is entitled to secure its border with Syria.

However, Turkey is also obliged to respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits countries from returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of persecution, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This includes a prohibition on rejecting asylum seekers at borders that would expose them to such threats. Turkey is also obliged to respect international norms on the use of lethal force as well as the rights to life and bodily integrity.

Turkey insists that it respects the principle of nonrefoulement. “Syrians are accepted and taken under protection in Turkey and Syrians who have entered into Turkey somehow and demand protection are definitely not sent back and the reception and registration procedures are carried out,” the DGMM’s statement in response to this report said. “Syrians coming to Turkey are under no circumstances forced to go back to their own country; their registration is continuing and these foreigners can benefit from many rights and services in Turkey.”

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Map of the Turkey-Syria Border.

Satellite data © 2018 DigitalGlobe; Analysis © 2018 Human Rights Watch
As of December, Turkey had completed almost 800 kilometers of a planned 911-kilometer border barrier with Syria, which consists of a rocket-resistant concrete wall and steel fence. The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch obtained of the area where Syrians say they crossed with smugglers shows areas without a wall.

Turkey’s continued refusal since at least mid-2015 to allow Syrian asylum seekers to cross the border legally has been reinforced by a controversial EU-Turkey March 2016 migration agreement to curb refugee and migration flows to the European Union. The EU should instead be working with Turkey to keep its borders open to refugees, providing financial support for Turkey’s refugee efforts, and sharing responsibility by stepping up resettlement of refugees from Turkey, Human Rights Watch said.

“The EU should stop ignoring Turkey’s mass refugee deportations,” Simpson said. “The meeting in Bulgaria is a clear opportunity for the EU governments and institutions to change course and ramp up efforts to help Turkey protect Syrian refugees including through increased refugee resettlement.”

For more details about Turkey’s mass border pushbacks and the situation displaced Syrians face in Syria’s Idlib governorate, please see below.

Turkey’s land borders are legally protected by army border units of the Turkish Armed Forces. Gendarmerie also on duty at the borders operate under the authority of the land forces command. There are also gendarmerie stations near the borders charged with regular rural policing activities. This report refers to border guards without specifying if they are soldiers or gendarmes since many of those interviewed did not provide or do not have such specific information.

Regular Mass Pushbacks at the Turkish Border

Between February 14 and 20, Human Rights Watch interviewed the 21 Syrian asylum seekers who had tried multiple times to cross the border. Human Rights Watch interviewed them by cell phone and explained the purpose of the interviews and gave assurances of anonymity. We also received interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.

They described 137 incidents – 107 of them between January 1 and March 6 – in which Turkish border guards intercepted them at the border near the Syrian town of Darkush and held them at nearby security posts and then deported them back to Syria with hundreds, and at times thousands, of others.

A man from Deir al-Zour governorate who fled Syrian government attacks on his village in September 2017 said border guards intercepted him nine times in January and the first half of February in border areas close to the al-Dureyya displaced people’s camp in Syria.

Describing three incidents in February, he said:

Each time they insulted the men, calling them “Syrian traitors.” They forced some of them to collect firewood. Then they took all of us in military trucks to a basketball court at a security post near the Hatya border gate. There was also a big tent there. They put us all in the tent and kept us overnight. They didn’t give us any food or water or let us go to a proper toilet. There were so many in the tent, that we were spilling out into the open of the basketball court. We were hundreds of people. The next morning, they took us all back to the border in buses.

A Turkish security base about 250 meters from the Turkey-Syria border, 2 kilometres south of the Turkish village, Saribük. The base has a basketball court and large tent, as described in statements by deported Syrian asylum seekers who said they were held in such a location before being deported.

© 2018 Digital Globe
Three Syrians said they were deported with thousands of others. A man from al-Hamediyah who said Turkish border guards intercepted him 11 times between September and January said that he was usually deported with about 500 other people. However, he said that on one occasion, in January, the border guards gave the people they had intercepted trying to cross from Syria numbers and his was 3,890. He said he was one of the last to be put on buses and taken to the border.

Many people referred to two deportation points that they said were between 10 and 30 minutes’ drive from the security posts where border guards had held them: one was an informal border crossing at Hatya, and the other was a small dam on the Orontes River called “Friendship Bridge.” Human Rights Watch obtained satellite imagery of both crossing points and of four security posts in the immediate border area where asylum seekers said they crossed into Turkey.

A woman from Hama governorate who repeatedly tried to cross the border said she was deported six times during the first two weeks of February with groups she estimated to be between 50 and 600 other Syrians:

The second time, on around February 4, the border guards took us to a military post and put us in a big tent with 200 other people they had already caught. Four hours later, at about 8 a.m., they put us in large buses and drove us to the Friendship Bridge. There they told us to get out and walk across the river back into Syria.

The satellite imagery Human Rights Watch obtained confirms there are gaps in the wall the full length of the Orontes River, west of the Syrian town of Salkeen, and at various points between the southern tip of where the river meets the border and the Hatya border crossing.

Deportations from Antakya

Three Syrians said Turkish police had deported them or relatives from the town of Antakya, about 20 kilometers west of the Syrian border.

A man from Deir al-Zour governorate said:

I crossed the border at night with my wife and two daughters and about 20 other people in late December 2017 near the al-Dureyya [displacement] camp. The border guards didn’t find us. The smugglers took us to their house in Antakya, about two hours’ drive away. There were 20 other Syrians already there and they told us they had also crossed from Syria that night. Not long after that, Turkish police arrived at the house. They took all of us to a police station and held us there until the next morning. They took our fingerprints and photos. Then they took all of us in police vans to the border at Bab al-Hawa and sent us back to Syria.

A man from Hama governorate described what happened to his wife:

The Turks sent my wife back from Antakya twice. She told me everything that happened. The first time was a week ago [about February 10]. The smugglers drove her and about 10 other people from the border near the Orontes River up to Reyhanli and from there they drove to Antakya. They reached the edge of Antakya at about 6 a.m. Turkish police shot at the car’s wheels to force it to stop. They beat the driver and immediately put my wife and the others in a police van and drove them to the border at Bab al-Hawa.

My wife crossed again four days later. The smugglers took her and about 10 others to a small house in a Turkish village near the border and then drove to a house in Antakya where there were already about 50 other Syrians who said they had arrived that night. Suddenly Turkish police arrived, at about 7 a.m. They wrote down their names and took photos. They put them in a big truck and took them to the Bab al-Hawa crossing. They held them there for the whole day and then sent them back to Syria.

Shootings by Border Guards

Nine Syrians interviewed described a total of 10 shooting incidents by Turkish border guards between September and March in which they said 14 people were killed and 18 injured.

In mid-February, a man from Deir al-Zour governorate said that in the previous five weeks he had tried four times to reach Turkey with his wife and five children. The first three times, he said, Turkish border guards deported them. The fourth time they turned back because Turkish border guards shot at their group as they approached the border:

A few hundred meters from the border near the al-Dureyya [displacement] camp the Turks suddenly started shooting at our group. They killed an 8-year-old girl and injured two men, one in a leg and the other in the stomach. I helped the man shot in the stomach turn back with the rest of us while the others carried the girl and helped the other man. Later the smugglers told us that a 13-year-old girl in another group trying to cross at the next time had also been killed during the shooting.   

A man evacuated with his wife and baby from Aleppo in late 2016 said he unsuccessfully attempted to cross with them to Turkey three times near the al-Dureyya camp in September 2017 and January 2018 and was deported with hundreds of others the first two times. During the third attempt, in January, he said:

The border guards shot at us and injured my wife in her stomach and leg. She was pregnant and the baby died. They also injured two men and a 5-year-old boy, who was shot in the leg. We took my wife to a hospital in Syria near the border. Her heart stopped twice, but she lived. They couldn’t operate on her, so they sent her to Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa gate for surgery. They amputated her leg and removed her womb. They didn’t let me cross with her but a few days later a smuggler helped me and my daughter cross to Turkey.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with a doctor in a Syrian hospital near the Turkish border west of the town of Idlib who said that between August 1 and February 16, the hospital had received 66 people with gunshot-related injuries who said they had been shot while trying to cross the Turkish border.

Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis in Idlib governorate

According to the UN, about 2.65 million people are currently in Idlib governorate, over 1.75 million of whom have been displaced from elsewhere in Idlib or other parts of Syria, including almost 400,000 displaced since December. Civilians in Idlib have faced years of conflict. In September, Russian and Syrian forces began a fresh offensive in Idlib, three days after Russia, Iran, and Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire and “de-escalation” zone in the province and parts of Hama and western Aleppo. Human Rights Watch documented that attacks in September struck markets and populated residential areas and caused thousands of people to flee to displacement sites near the Turkish border.

Hostilities in Idlib halted on October 8 after Turkey deployed monitors there, but restarted in late December. In January, the Russian-Syrian military alliance carried out airstrikes to support Syrian ground troops. Some attacks involved prohibited weapons and targeted hospitals.

The Atma displaced persons camp on the Syrian side of Turkey’s border wall, where on February 6, 2018, during an exchange of fire between Turkish and Kurdish forces, a shell hit killing a girl and injuring seven others.

© 2017 Reuters/Osman Orsal
On January 21, Turkey started a military offensive in Kurdish-held Afrin, also putting displaced civilians at risk. Turkish and Kurdish forces have shelled each other on either side of Syria’s Atma displacement camp, on the Turkish border, which shelters 60,000 people.

Witnesses said that on February 6, during the fighting, shells hit the camp, killing an 8-year-old girl and injuring seven other civilians.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven displaced Syrians about the incident. They all said it left their children terrified of the shelling and unable to sleep.

A father of seven children from Hama who lived close to where the shell landed on February 6 said:

I was there when it happened and rushed to help. I heard a young girl had been killed, but I only saw two who were injured. One had lost an arm and a leg and the other was blinded. I was so scared the same might happen to my children, we fled the camp and went to live in a field near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. But we couldn’t stay there all alone, without help, so we had to come back to the camp. We are all scared now, all the time.

A father of four children said the incident had so shaken his family, he had returned to his still conflict-riven home town of Kafr Zita in Hama governorate because all other displacement camps in Idlib were full. As his house had been destroyed, he said, he was living in a field on the edge of the town and struggling to survive: “There is still shelling here but if we die, it’s better to die at home.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke with five Syrians who had been repeatedly displaced in recent months within Idlib to escape the shifting front line and who, as of mid-February, were living as close as possible to the Turkish border in the hope of escaping the fighting.

The UN says that since December, the violence has displaced at least 385,000 people who have joined 2.65 million other civilians, including 1.35 million civilians displaced in the past few years.

In mid-February, Human Rights Watch interviewed two aid officials working in Idlib governorate. One summarized the dire humanitarian situation:

There is no more room anywhere for people displaced in the past few months. Displacement camps are completely full and we [humanitarians] do not have the resources to properly address basic needs of water, food, heating, health care, and education. Rent has skyrocketed so people end up living in the tens of thousands on the edge of towns and villages in fields in makeshift camps. There is simply no way the aid agencies can help all these people. At best they can give very limited help once in a while to some of them, and it is not done in an organized way. There is suffering everywhere, in every camp and in every village.

The 56 displaced Syrians in Idlib that Human Rights Watch interviewed, including 42 displaced by the recent violence, all described the extremely difficult conditions they had faced in Idlib in previous months. The newly displaced said they had heard that displacement camps were completely full and that they could not afford to pay the extremely high rents in the towns and villages in the area. They ended up living in waterlogged fields across Idlib governorate, often with other families in makeshift tents made from sacks and other material sewed together, because they could not afford to buy proper tents.

They said they struggled to find food and had to pay high fees for water, delivered by trucks. They either had seen no one from an aid agency, or those who had, said they were unable to help or had promised help but hadn’t returned.

Turkish authorities have allowed Turkish and international aid groups based in Turkey to cross into Syria and join Syrian aid groups to distribute tents and other assistance to Syrians in camps in border areas. Human Rights Watch said that allowing much-needed cross-border aid is important, but does not absolve Turkey of its obligation to allow Syrian civilians fleeing fighting to seek protection in Turkey.

EU Silence

Human Rights Watch has documented that, since at least mid-August 2015, Turkish border guards enforcing the country’s March 2015 border closure have deported Syrians trying to reach Turkey. In April and May 2016, Human Rights Watch documented Turkish border guards shooting and beating Syrian asylum seekers trying to cross to Turkey, resulting in deaths and serious injuries, and sending those who managed to cross back to Syria. In February 2018, Human Rights Watch reported on further killings, injuries and pushbacks that happened in the second half of 2017.

On May 20, 2016, Human Rights Watch called on UN member states and UN agencies attending the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul to press the Turkish authorities to reopen Turkey’s border to Syrian asylum seekers. But neither the European Commission nor any European Union member state – or any other country – has publicly pressed Turkey to do so, while UN agencies have also remained publicly silent.

The world’s – and in particular the EU’s – silence over Turkey’s breach of the cornerstone of international refugee law condones Turkey’s border abuses.

The EU’s failure to take in more Syrian asylum seekers and refugees also contributes to the pressure on Turkey. The EU should swiftly fulfill its own commitments to relocate Syrian and other asylum seekers from Greece and, together with other countries, it should also expand safe and legal channels for people to reach safety from Turkey, including through increased refugee resettlement, humanitarian admissions, humanitarian and other visas, and facilitated family reunification.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

More than 13,500 asylum seekers remain trapped on the Greek islands in deplorable conditions as winter begins on December 21, 2017. Greece, with support from its European Union partners, should urgently transfer thousands of asylum seekers to the Greek mainland and provide them with adequate accommodation and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.

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

(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 images Before and after satellite images

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

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

© 2017 Sami Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban before a photo at the European Union Tallinn Digital Summit in Tallinn, Estonia, September 29, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters
Last week, the European People's Party (EPP) had a chance to stand up for its values and those of the European Union. But instead, it ducked the issue.

The umbrella group of center-right and Christian democrat parties in European institutions came together first in Warsaw and then in Munich. The elephant in the room? The conduct of its most renegade party member, Hungary's Fidesz.

A year earlier, the EPP leadership had warned Fidesz's leader and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban that the party needed to live up to EPP values.

But rather than doing so, Fidesz has further reduced space for civic debates in Hungary, demonising critics and smearing media and non-governmental groups.

Populist and xenophobic campaigns accompanied migration policies that are the most restrictive, brutal and degrading throughout the EU.

Hungary is on the verge of forcing the Central European University out of the country, only because Hungarian-born philanthropist and billionaire George Soros is funding it. And Hungary's parliament is now debating a new law that would make is virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to receive protection in Hungary, criminalise any assistance, research or advocacy on their situation, and make NGO and humanitarian workers face prison.

So, all eyes were on the EPP gatherings to see if the group were willing to follow their own standards, and expel Fidesz.

Yet, when the EPP meet in Warsaw on 5 June, its communique focused not on Hungary but on Poland. The EPP leaders stressed that "rule of law, the independence of justice and respect for all freedoms are the foundations of a healthy democracy".

The EPP is right to express concern about the rule of law in Poland, as judges there are being purged from their positions, and new appointments risk leading to a politicised takeover of the judiciary by the ruling coalition.

But while criticising Poland's government is right, it is also easy, since its ruling Law and Justice party is not in the EPP.

The EPP's silence on Fidesz shows a majority within the group still accept shielding Fidesz from criticism.

Voices of principle are starting to be heard within the group however. The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Dutch EPP member, supported suspending Fidesz if it fails to abide by EU's democratic standards; others, including within Germany's Christian democratic party, warned Orban not to cross the line.

Just last week, the congress of the Finnish member party discussed if they could move forward with sanctioning Fidesz at EPP's upcoming Congress in November in Helsinki, as it had crossed all the lines.

EPP - size versus principles?

The worry, however, is that the EPP leadership, far from recognising that Fidesz has no place in a party that is supposed to stand for human rights and rule of law, has decided to embrace it more tightly.

Its motivation is presumably in part to remain the largest political group at the European Parliament, including after next year's elections.

So, rather than act on the concerns of the Dutch CDA party, the EPP leadership has taken the side of Fidesz in its 'war of words' with the CDA, calling on the Dutch to apologise for speaking the truth on Hungary's democratic rollback?

It may get worse.

Some within the ruling Law and Justice party in Warsaw clearly see the best resolution to the cognitive dissonance of the EPP criticising Poland's ruling party while remaining silent on Hungary's is to join the club.

Law and Justice is reportedly considering joining the EPP ahead of next year's European elections. And Viktor Orban is seeking to rebrand his "illiberal democracy" as a "Christian democracy," suggesting he sees himself and his party as part of the EPP's future.

This is a real moment of truth for Europe's centre-right and its adherence to EU's values of democratic pluralism and the rule of law.

It's also a real moment of truth for Manfred Weber, the EPP leader in the European Parliament who is said to have ambitions to become the next president of the European Commission.

The choice should be clear: to save the soul of the EPP, the group should take a principled stand for their own core principles and reject members who pursue and promote anti-democratic, anti-rule of law, and anti-human rights policies.

This means the expulsion of Fidesz until Hungary's ruling party reviews its rights-damaging policies, and sending a clear 'no' to any request by the Poland's Law and Justice Party to join a mainstream European alliance as it wrecks the country's independent judiciary.

In short, the choice for the EPP is between sanctioning those promoting authoritarian populism or accepting that they will succeed to change the EPP into something far darker and less democratic.

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

Proposed changes by France’s Senate Law Commission to a controversial and widely criticized asylum and immigration bill could make things worse and open the door to improper and unlawful exclusion of refugees.

The commission’s amendments would require examiners to refuse an asylum seeker refugee status if there are “serious reasons to believe a person’s presence in France constitutes a threat to public security or state security.”

Migrants queue for a free meal distributed by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA) humanitarian agency on a street near Stalingrad metro station in Paris, France, October 28, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

While at first blush this may seem like a legitimate ground, it is unnecessary and contrary to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which France is party. Under the Convention a persecuted person, who otherwise qualifies as a refugee, can be denied that status, if there are serious reasons to believe he or she has already committed a serious crime against international or domestic law. The bill’s proposed standard is much lower, vaguer and open to abuse, making it easier and more likely that asylum seekers who have a right to protection in France, would be rejected. Moreover, if a refugee with status does prove to be a threat to public order or national security, that is a ground for expulsion from the country following due process under the Convention anyway.

Senators on the commission also backtracked on three improvements adopted by the lower house of parliament. They rejected the extension from one to four years for permits for people who benefit from ‘subsidiary’ protection, but not full refugee status; refused to extend a right to family reunification to parents and siblings of a child who is receiving international protection in France; and withdrew protection from prosecution for people providing humanitarian assistance to migrants, going against changes proposed by parliamentary members who hoped to shield such activists from prosecution for so-called crimes of solidarity.

The bill also forces refugees to wait two years, instead of 18 months, before they can be reunited with family members.

The Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty, has recently recommended a ban on the detention of children in line with international norms, but the commission’s senators voted only to limit detention of children to five days. Senators also want to allow migrants slated for deportation to be held for up to five days, up from the current 48 hours limit, before they see a judge.

The one positive note: the commission rejected the heavily-criticized proposal to shorten the deadline to appeal asylum rejections from one month to 15 days.

Now, it is critical that senators in the plenary sessions uphold international refugee law and do the right thing by amending and adopting a text that will protect not damage asylum seekers’ rights.

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

The arrival of over one million asylum seekers and migrants in 2015 set off a political crisis in the European Union (EU), the effects of which are still being felt today. The chaos at borders and the strain on unprepared and under-resourced national asylum systems laid bare serious deficiencies in the EU asylum system.

EU institutions and national governments are drawing the wrong lessons from the challenges of managing mixed migration flows since 2015. The focus of EU policy over the past three years has been on preventing arrivals, outsourcing responsibility to countries outside the EU, and downgrading refugee protection inside the EU.

The current policy responses to migration and asylum from EU institutions and governments pose serious human rights concerns and threaten the integrity of the international refugee protection system. A different approach is possible and necessary. The paper presents Human Rights Watch’s recommendations towards an effective and principled approach that ensures EU global leadership on refugee protection, preserves the right to asylum, more equitably shares responsibility among EU member states, safeguards the rights of all migrants and allows EU governments to control their borders.

The EU’s Current Approach

Outsourcing Responsibility

“Externalization”—the prevention of irregular arrivals by outsourcing migration management and border controls to regions and countries outside the EU, including the processing of refugees and asylum seekers—has become a central plank in the EU’s response to mixed migration flows. Externalization is not per se harmful as a policy approach. It can lead to improvements in protection capacity in transit countries and countries of first arrival. However, in practice, EU externalization policy often leads to the violation of people’s rights.

It involves frustrating the right of any person to leave a country, whether their own or another, leading people to be trapped in abusive situations. It undermines the right to seek asylum, by forcing people to seek protection in countries that lack functioning asylum systems. It exacerbates human rights abuses that drive migration instead of ameliorating them, by providing support for abusive security or border forces or by muting human rights diplomacy with third countries in the name of migration cooperation.

The EU-Turkey statement

Agreed in March 2016, the deal seeks to provide a mechanism that would result in the return to Turkey of all asylum seekers who arrived after the deal entered into force without first having their protection claims determined, while increasing Turkey’s ability to humanely host and fairly process asylum seekers and refugees. It is based on the presumption that Turkey is a safe third country or a safe first country of asylum, despite the fact the country lacks a properly functioning asylum system. Syrian asylum seekers benefit from a temporary protection regime but since the deal entered into force they continue to face obstacles to employment, healthcare, and, despite some improvements, education. As of the end of April 2018, only 23 Syrians had been returned to Turkey on grounds of their asylum application being inadmissible because Turkey is a safe country for them. Almost 1,600 others had been removed to Turkey, but only after their claims were rejected on the merits or because they did not file an asylum claim or agreed to return voluntarily.

The European Union and its member states have largely failed to address the negative human rights impact of the EU-Turkey agreement in Turkey and on the Greek Islands. Human Rights Watch has documented violent push-backs, including live fire shootings by Turkish authorities at the effectively closed Syrian border, and summary deportations of Syrians and Afghans.  We have documented the human toll of containing asylum seekers on the Greek islands, which happened because the deal relates exclusively to asylum seekers and migrants entering Greece via the Aegean Sea, even though there is no evidence so far to indicate that most of them will be returned to Turkey.

There is also little evidence that the deal has delivered much improvement in Turkey’s protection of asylum seekers and refugees, especially for non-Syrians. While EU member states have resettled 12,000 Syrians from Turkey, the number is dwarfed by the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Migration cooperation with Libya

The EU and individual member states are providing training, equipment and funds to Libyan coast guard forces. Italy is increasingly enabling Libyan coast guard forces to assume control over operations in international waters, and ordering NGO rescue vessels to stand down, despite ample evidence of reckless, dangerous behavior by Libyan coast guard forces and the knowledge that everyone intercepted by Libyan forces will be disembarked in Libya and placed in indefinite, arbitrary and abusive detention. EU support for UN agencies and NGOs working to improve conditions and treatment in Libyan detention centers is positive, as is the European Commission’s pledge in March to work to end systematic detention of migrants in Libya. Efforts by the UN refugee agency UNHCR to evacuate refuges to Niger for resettlement elsewhere and by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to assist people to return to their home countries also represent important progress. However, aid groups do not have full and regular access, and Libya has yet to sign a Memorandum of Understand with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Premising development aid and diplomatic ties on migration cooperation

The EU adopted in June 2016 a Partnership Framework with third countries signalling an intention to recast the EU’s external relations by placing migration cooperation at the core of foreign policy and development aid. A central goal of the framework is to provide positive and negative incentives to countries of origin and transit to improve border controls and accept the return of migrants and rejected asylum seekers. This includes cooperation with countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. Making development aid and EU foreign relations conditional on countries’ agreement to cooperate with EU migration control objectives represents a sharp turn away from a forthright defense of human rights as a central plank of EU foreign policy, in ways that could ultimately prove self-defeating by failing to address the human rights abuses that often drive forced migration and by bolstering the very security forces that violate rights, including the right to leave.

Insourcing Misery

Across the EU, governments appear determined to create a hostile environment for migrants and asylum seekers. National governments seek to impede access to territory and asylum procedures, as well as to limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. At EU-level, efforts led by the European Commission to modify the Common European Asylum System risk downgrading protection, despite some positive aspects. 

Failing to share responsibility internally

The starkly unequal distribution of responsibility for incoming migrants and asylum seekers among EU member states—laid bare during the fall of 2015—is at the heart of the divisive political debate around EU policy. The Dublin Regulation imposes the general rule that the first EU country of entry is responsible for processing asylum claims, placing a significant responsibility on countries at the EU’s external borders, and repeated efforts by the Commission to reform it have yielded few results. A temporary relocation plan to alleviate the burden on Greece and Italy failed to meet even one-third of its objectives—30,310 people had benefitted from it by the official end of the program, in September 2017, out of the original 106,000 target. At the same time, a number of EU countries have reinstituted border controls and Dublin returns, while pressuring Greece to contain asylum seekers on the Greek islands and weaken its asylum safeguards to facilitate returns to Turkey.

Downgrading protection

The European Commission has proposed a raft of adjustments to EU asylum laws, including measures to make it harder to qualify for protection in EU countries, punish asylum seekers for moving between EU countries, and impose compulsory reviews to facilitate revoking protection and forced returns. More positively, the proposals would increase safeguards in asylum procedures and include siblings and families formed during the migration journey or in transit countries in the definition of family. Of particular concern is the proposal to make obligatory the application of the “safe country of origin,” “safe third country” and “safe first country of asylum” concepts, with watered-down requirements and safeguards. Numerous EU countries have adopted or proposed domestic legal or policy changes that effectively limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to appeal decisions and to family reunification and have rolled back entitlements.

Making life miserable

Across the EU region, migrants and asylum seekers face pushbacks at borders, unlawful and/or degrading detention, containment in specific designated areas or in the case of Greece, on its island, and local measures designed to create a hostile environment by limiting or denying access to basic services. The European Commission and member states have largely failed to condemn or take action against deliberate policies aimed at harming asylum seekers or making access to asylum at borders meaningless such as implemented by Hungary at its border with Serbia and Poland at its border with Belarus. Nongovernmental organizations providing direct services face harassment in countries like France and Italy, while groups performing search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean are the subject of concerted smear campaigns and criminal cases alleging facilitation of irregular migration. Proposed legislation in Hungary would cast a person seeking asylum in Hungary as a threat to national security, and penalize and restrict groups working with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

What the EU and its Member States Should Do

In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, EU governments joined the global call for  “a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, sensitive, compassionate and people-centred manner,” and committed themselves to “a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees, while taking account of existing contributions and the differing capacities and resources among States.” European Union member states are also bound by EU law, including the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and by human rights and refugee law.

To live up to these commitments and duties, the EU should save lives at sea, expand safe and legal channels, create a fair mechanism for sharing responsibility within the EU, ensure fair asylum procedures, pursue the safe return of irregular migrants in a way that respects rights, and invest diplomatic and economic capital in ways that help tackle the abuses that drive migration and to improve protection in regions of origin.

Save Lives at Sea

According to the International Organization for Migration, over 15,800 people have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2014. As of early May, 619 people had died or gone missing since the beginning of 2018. The EU and member states have implemented various policies over the years, including everything from physical pushbacks to Libya to a vast humanitarian rescue operation. Overall, the default response has been to ignore, to prevent, and to shift responsibility. The focus now is on building capacity of Libyan coast guard forces and enabling them to intercept boats in international waters as well as preventing departures from Libyan waters. Increased insecurity in the central Mediterranean, smear campaigns, legal action and restrictions on their ability to operate effectively have led several major rescue NGOs to pull out. The Italian maritime rescue coordination center is increasingly shifting coordination of rescue operations to Libyan forces, and delaying disembarkation in Italy from NGO boats, citing breaches of a code of conduct the Italian government imposed last year. A German and a Spanish NGO are under investigation in Italy on charges of facilitating “illegal migration.”

Regional agreements on search-and-rescue and disembarkation can help ensure timely rescues and predictable procedures. Such an agreement in the Mediterranean region could include disembarkation in a country outside the EU only if there is prior independent verification that the country is capable of ensuring fair treatment for all migrants, including procedural guarantees around detention and unsafe returns, and of access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure with a chance to be recognized as a refugee in line with the 1951 Convention. Any such regional agreement and its implementation must be consistent with states’ obligations under regional and international human rights, refugee and maritime law.

There are no definitive data to support a strong correlation between presence of rescue NGOs and boat departures. To the contrary, a detailed statistical analysis by the Italian think-tank ISPI found no correlation between the presence of NGO rescue boats and departures. The push factor argument ignores the complexity of forced migration and the myriad reasons why people migrate; it also assumes a level of information and expectation among asylum seekers that is not borne out by field research. And even if a greater chance of rescue has an impact on some people’s decisions, the alternative—letting people drown—is unacceptable. Trapping people in Libya or favouring policies that send them back where they face torture, ill-treatment, rape, sexual violence and forced labour is neither consistent with EU values nor saves lives, since many later escape and attempt the boat journey again.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Adopt a commitment of shared responsibility for saving lives at sea. This means supporting, not smearing, NGOs performing search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean.
  • Refrain from enabling Libyan coast guard forces to intercept boats in international waters until Libya can be considered a place of safety within the meaning of international maritime law, human rights law, and refugee law.
  • Implement a dedicated rescue mission with an operational plan that provides for disembarkation in a place of safety in EU countries including but not limited to Italy.
  • Prioritize ending systematic, abusive detention of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. 

Expand Safe and Legal Channels

While even significantly expanded safe and legal channels will never satisfy all demand, they could help to avoid some dangerous migrant journeys, and allow for appropriate planning, preparation, and orderly arrivals. There are a range of policy options for safe and legal channels for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. We focus here only on refugee resettlement.

The EU has improved over its dismal previous record on resettlement, but the numbers are still far too low. As of mid-March 2018, EU countries had resettled just over 29,300 people through a temporary resettlement plan adopted in July 2015 and the resettlement provision of the April 2016 EU-Turkey Statement. Since November 2017, the UNHCR has evacuated almost 1,500 vulnerable refugees out of Libya to a transit facility in Niger with a view to resettling them in EU countries and elsewhere. Evacuations resumed in May following a two-month suspension due to Nigerien government concerns that resettlement was not keeping pace with arrivals. As of late April, UNHCR had received 2,681 pledges, with France pledging 1,500 places through October 2019, Sweden 400 places, and Germany 300 (other European countries have pledged smaller numbers, and Canada has offered 200 places).

The UNHCR also facilitated, in December 2017, the direct resettlement out of Libya to Italy of 162 refugees, and has received 1,100 more pledges for this program, the majority (650) from Canada. Out of the current 24,436 pledges for resettlement from countries along the Central Mediterranean migration route, only 30 percent have come from European countries.

A permanent EU resettlement program, proposed by the European Commission, is a good step in the right direction, but includes conditionalities and restrictive criteria that will undermine the overall goal. The Commission proposed that the EU resettle refugees from countries that demonstrate “effective cooperation” EU migration control imperatives. It also laid out restrictive criteria, such as “integration potential,” and the exclusion of anyone who tried previously to enter the EU irregularly. 

The EU should:

  • Establish a permanent EU-wide resettlement program commensurate with EU capacity and global need, with ambitious minimum targets rather than low maximums, based on UNHCR eligibility and exclusion criteria.
  • Ensure that refugees with family members in the EU are processed under family reunification mechanisms to reserve resettlement places for people without other means to reach the EU. Resettled refugees should receive a secure status in keeping with the goal of providing durable solutions and encouraging integration.
  • Ensure that resettlement out of countries of first asylum is not linked to the level of migration cooperation by those countries with the EU.
  • Do not use resettlement as a substitute for asylum procedures or as a rationale for returning asylum seekers in the EU to countries of first arrival.

Share Responsibility Among EU Countries

The number of arrivals at Europe’s external borders is manageable across all member states, but not across two or three. The failure to share responsibility drives a sense that the numbers of arrivals are unmanageable and undermines public confidence in policy responses to migration. Fixing the system to share responsibility equitably requires reforming Dublin Regulation which generally requires the first country of arrival in the EU to examine an asylum application. Reform of the Dublin Regulation is on the table as part of the general overhaul of EU asylum laws, but negotiations are stalled. Arguably the most controversial aspect among member states is the creation of a mechanism to ensure fair distribution of responsibility for examining asylum claims among EU countries.

The European Commission proposal as well as ideas discussed under the aegis of successive EU presidencies envision a distribution mechanism only in emergency situations, that would be triggered only when a country surpasses a pre-determined threshold for accommodating and processing asylum seekers. Such emergencies-only responsibility-sharing proposals would likely increase the burden on member states at EU external borders and impose greater restrictions and penalties on asylum seekers who move onward, and make it more likely (in conjunction with other changes to EU asylum law) that individuals in need of protection may be rejected in mandatory admissibility assessments or accelerated procedures on the grounds that they had or could have had sufficient protection in a country outside the EU. These admissibility and accelerated procedures based on safe country concepts could prevent applicants from being reunited with family members already in another EU country.

The European Parliament has issued a proposal for a permanent distribution mechanism that strikes a better balance between states’ concerns and the rights and wishes of asylum seekers. At the time of writing, there is no agreement among member states on the modalities of such a solidarity mechanism.

A forward-looking reform of Dublin should:

  • Create a permanent distribution mechanism that is not based on a triggering mechanism.
  • Include incentives for asylum seekers to remain (e.g. swift access to right to work), take into greater consideration individual circumstances (e.g. social and/or family ties) in determining the state responsible, and provide incentives for member states to share responsibility.
  • Refrain from punishing onward movement by limiting access to asylum procedures or limiting access to housing and decent material reception conditions.
  • Do not impose mandatory admissibility or accelerated procedures based on safe country concepts.

Ensure Fair Asylum Procedures

Expanding safe and legal channels is not a substitute for ensuring the rights of those who arrive spontaneously to seek asylum. EU institutions and member states are currently debating significant reforms to EU asylum directives that will affect criteria for refugee status or other forms of protection, asylum procedures, and reception conditions for asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch believes that any reform of the Common European Asylum System should improve, rather than weaken, access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, as well as ensure adequate material support for those seeking protection.

As such, we have deep concerns about changes that would make the use of safe country concepts mandatory and systematic. Their use in accelerated procedures in national asylum systems based on existing EU asylum rules has given rise to concerns about rushed and poor-quality decision making, especially in complex cases, and resulted in extended detention and in some cases removals to risk of human rights abuse.

If safe country concepts are further entrenched in EU asylum law, EU governments and institutions should at a minimum ensure the following:

  • Any list of safe countries of origin should be based on detailed, reliable information from a variety of authoritative sources and be subject to continuous monitoring and a flexible system for removing countries from the list due to changing circumstances.
  • Applicants from countries on such a list should be able to rebut the presumption of safety, with their removal suspended pending result of any appeal.
  • Only countries that have ratified without limitations and effectively implement the 1951 Refugee Convention should be included on any list of safe third countries, and applicants should be sent to such countries only where there is a meaningful connection (mere transit should not suffice to meet that criterion).

Conduct Safe Returns

EU countries have the right to return persons with no legal claim to remain, following fair procedures and in accordance with human rights and refugee law. While carrying out safe and timely returns for rejected asylum seekers who have exhausted their remedies is a reasonable policy objective alongside fair asylum procedures, removing people is difficult in practice and return rates are low. The Commission stated in September 2017 that the effective return rate stands at 36.4% but drops to 27% when returns to Western Balkans countries are discounted.

The European Commission and individual member states place a high priority on increasing effective returns of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers. The removal of all irregularly-staying migrants is an unrealistic objective, and it has proven difficult to reach agreements with countries of origin for the identification and return of their nationals. The European Commission has repeatedly—most recently in March 2018—threatened to tighten visa requirements for citizens of countries that are not cooperating on returns. Increased returns may also not have the deterrent effect policy makers project. 

A disproportionate emphasis on increasing returns without a sufficient focus on safeguards can lead to a series of negative rights consequences, including but not limited to: 1) increased resort to detention and lengthier detention; 2) emphasis on accelerated procedures and the overreliance on poorly defined safe country of origin, safe third country, and safe first country of asylum concepts to deem asylum applications inadmissible; 3) poor human rights safeguards in readmission agreements with other countries, including for the return of third-country nationals; and 4) shortcuts on procedural guarantees such as failure to ensure legal representation and interpretation services.

EU member states and institutions should:

  • Ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place as they work to carry out safe and timely returns. High-quality asylum procedures across the EU space will help justify confidence that returns of rejected asylum seekers are permissible, as will strong safeguards against unsafe returns of rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, who while not deemed beneficiaries of protection may face risks upon return or have other claims to remain, such as EU-citizen children, that should be factored into the removal decision.
  • Ensure that readmission agreements with third countries include strong human rights conditions, particulary with respect to the return of third-country nationals to countries they have transited. Removals should ensure procedural fairness, including the right to contest a removal decision.
  • Offer incentives to countries of origin to cooperate on returns of their own nationals in the form of visa schemes for legal migration for students and workers at all skill levels. If such visas are offered in sufficient numbers they could provide a meaningful alternative to irregular migration.
  • Ensure that detention pending removal is only used as a last resort, and only for the shortest time necessary for the purposes of deportation, during which time authorities should show due diligence in arranging the removal. The use of alternative measures to detention should be increased.
  • Children as a rule should not be detained.

Marrying an adequate focus on safeguards and a credible asylum system will ensure that returns are safe and consistent with EU values and legal obligations.

Promote Safety and Dignity in Regions of Forced Displacement

EU financial and political support for efforts to tackle the root causes of forced migration, including hardship circumstances and lack of durable solutions for refugees in first countries of asylum, are vital. Around 84% of the world’s refugees are hosted in the global south, and about twice the number of refugees are people internally displaced inside their own countries.

The EU and its member states are collectively the world’s leading donors of development aid and have contributed significantly to UN humanitarian appeals to support victims of displacement and their host communities.

The 2015 EU Agenda for Migration, the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement and the June 2016 Partnership Framework for relations with third countries all privilege migration cooperation as a top priority in relations with countries outside the EU. The primacy of this objective raises concerns about the distortion of development and humanitarian aid, as well as the diversion of funds. The EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) is financed predominantly by the European Development Fund, with only 12 percent of contributions coming from Member States and other donors (for example Norway and Switzerland, which are not EU countries). A portion of EUTF-funded programs focus explicitly on increasing border surveillance and security, such as the Italy-led 42 million euro project on “integrated border and migration management” in Libya. According to the European Commission, the EUTF is facing a €1 billion gap in funding for planned projects.

Long-term efforts to address forced migration should be informed by the commitment, explicitly laid out in the EU action plan on human rights, to ensure that human rights are a central plank in EU foreign policy. They should also be guided by principles of development effectiveness and refugee protection. Development assistance and aid to countries hosting large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers should not be linked to migration management objectives but focused instead on improving protection capacity and tackling human rights abuses in ways that may reduce the need for onward movement. These programs should be designed, implemented and monitored to ensure that cooperation does not trap people in abusive situations or contribute to human rights violations.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl holds a placard during a protest held by migrants and refugees to call for the reopening of the borders at a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni on March 23, 2016.

© 2016 ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
(Brussels) – The failure by European Union governments and institutions to develop an effective and rights-based policy response to migration causes real suffering and fuels a sense of political crisis around migration, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. EU heads of state will meet in Brussels on June 28-29, 2018, to discuss migration and asylum policy.

The report, “Toward an Effective and Principled EU Migration Policy: Recommendations for Reform,” contains concrete recommendations to ensure EU global leadership on refugee protection, uphold the right to asylum, and more equitably share responsibility among EU member states. Human Rights Watch policy recommendations are intended to safeguard the rights of all migrants while allowing EU governments to control their borders.

“EU governments only seem able to agree on outsourcing responsibility and insourcing misery,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Heads of state should take the opportunity of the summit to endorse rights-based migration policies that are both more humane and more efficient.”

Human Rights Watch provides a prescription for a fundamental reset in migration policy at a time when the EU is deflecting responsibility away from its borders. The EU is making it harder to seek asylum in Europe, creating a hostile environment for migrants and asylum seekers, and threatening the integrity of the international refugee system, Human Rights Watch said. An effective and principled approach to migration should be grounded in respect for human rights and the right to asylum.

The recent refusal of the Italian government to allow a nongovernmental rescue ship to dock reflects that country’s new hardline approach and willingness to flout its international obligations but also the breakdown in regional cooperation and solidarity, Human Rights Watch said.

The incident illustrated starkly the need for predictable and fair systems for sharing responsibility, not only for rescue at sea and landing at a port but also for legal processing of arriving migrants and asylum seekers.

Yet negotiations to reform the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims, are stalled, with many proposals likely to increase the current pressure on front-line EU countries rather than to distribute responsibility more equitably.

Numerous EU countries have already adopted or proposed domestic legal or policy changes that limit the rights of asylum seekers and refugees to appeal decisions and to be reunited with their families and that limit assistance. At the same time, EU countries have intensified efforts to prevent arrivals and deter asylum claims, with far-reaching disregard for their significant human rights consequences.

The 2016 EU-Turkey deal has led to a policy of containing thousands of asylum seekers in inadequate conditions on Greek islands, without noteworthy improvements in protection for refugees in Turkey or significant resettlement to EU countries. Cooperation with Libyan authorities, and particularly the Libyan coast guard forces, may be nurturing a cycle of violence and detention despite simultaneous efforts to evacuate vulnerable refugees to Niger for resettlement elsewhere and to repatriate migrants not needing protection from Libya to their countries of origin.

At the Council Summit, EU leaders should focus on strategies to minimize dangerous migration journeys while respecting the right to leave any country and acknowledging the myriad drivers of migration, including violence and persecution.

Efforts to save lives at sea and on land should be a priority, and the EU should expand safe and orderly channels such as refugee resettlement and legal channels for employment and study, while pursuing the safe return of irregular migrants in ways that respect their human rights. EU governments should invest diplomatic and economic capital in ways that help tackle the abuses that drive migration and that improve protection in regions of origin. The improvements in countries of origin should be based on solutions that would promote human rights, protect refugees, and foster effective development.

Preserving the EU as a protection space for those in need requires forward-looking reform of the Dublin system that distributes responsibility more equitably and provides an incentive to asylum seekers to stick to the constraints of the system, as well as efficient and fair asylum procedures in all EU countries. The use of safe country provisions to reject asylum seekers should be limited and subject to stringent safeguards to prevent what could be unsafe returns.

As EU countries work to increase repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and migrants who are not allowed to remain, the countries should ensure that their procedures are fair, with strong human rights provisions included in readmission agreements, and any detention pending deportation limited to the shortest time necessary. As a rule, children should not be detained. The EU should offer incentives, rather than threats, to countries of origin to cooperate on returns of their own nationals in the form of more visas for students and workers at all skill levels.

“The divisive political debate in Europe should not obscure the fact that a principled approach could both uphold human rights and manage migration,” Sunderland said. “EU leaders should to show genuine leadership and stand up for their shared values and commitments.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

After a nerve-wracking stand-off and intense negotiations, 629 people rescued in the Mediterranean Sea by the Aquarius, a rescue ship run by two nongovernmental groups, SOS MEDITERRANEE and MSF, are finally heading towards Spain. Spain’s humane gesture stands in stark contrast to the disgraceful behavior by Italy and Malta.

The saga began on Monday when Italy refused to let the Aquarius dock and disembark passengers in Italy, insisting Malta should do so. Malta refused, insisting Italy had responsibility. Finally, the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez stepped up to offer safe harbor in Valencia.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, architect of this drama, crowed that “It pays off to raise one’s voice politely.” Stranding hundreds of people at sea is hardly polite.

It’s true that Italy has shouldered an out-sized responsibility for saving lives at sea – including in waters well outside its designated search-and-rescue area – and for processing and accommodating disembarked migrants and asylum seekers. But closing Italy’s ports is an unconscionable way to pressure other European Union states to do more.

Malta, a tiny island nation with a vast search-and-rescue area, already hosts a high per capita number of asylum seekers and refugees. But this cannot excuse its refusal to allow the Aquarius to dock either.

Italy and Malta’s actions flout international maritime norms. Italy coordinated Aquarius sea rescues, and the Italian Coast Guard directly saved nearly 300 people and then transferred them to the NGO ship; Italy had the duty to promptly designate a safe place to disembark. The closest safe port Malta was a reasonable option.

Italy and Malta’s rejection of the ship’s passengers at the borders of their territorial waters, knowing some of those on board likely need international protection, denied those passengers the opportunity to exercise their right under EU, refugee, and human rights law to seek asylum.

Diverting the rescue ship to Spain – some four days’ away, with poor weather forecast – keeps the Aquarius away from the area where its search-and-rescue capacity is most needed, in international waters off the Libyan coast, putting other lives at risk. To ensure safe passage, 500 people were transferred off the Aquarius to Italian coast guard and Navy boats for the journey to Spain.

Blocking ships from disembarking rescued passengers could discourage both nongovernmental organizations and merchant vessels from responding to boats in distress. This episode should remind EU states that they share responsibility for saving lives at sea and making sure those rescued reach a place of safety.

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

Messages of mourning, candles and flowers are placed by people for Susanna F., the teenager who was found dead two days ago, in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, Germany, June 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The murder of a 14-year-old girl in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, in late May shocked many in Germany. According to police, a 20-year-old man from Iraq, who failed in his bid to claim asylum in Germany, confessed to the crime at the weekend, just days after girl’s body was discovered.

The case has drawn particular attention because the killing of the girl, identified only as Susanna F, is one of several highly-publicized cases in recent months in which girls and women have been murdered by non-German men, some of whom arrived in the country as asylum seekers. German media outlets have focussed on these cases, having been stung by criticism that they are ignoring violent crimes by asylum seekers.

Issues around asylum, integration, and crime have been fiercely debated in Germany since the government’s humane response to Europe’s crisis in 2015.

Yet just as it is dishonest to pretend that asylum seekers are incapable of committing crime, singling out cases where the perpetrator is an asylum-seeker or Muslim risks furthering a xenophobic anti-Muslim and anti-refugee agenda. It ignores the fact that in Germany – like other countries – women and girls frequently face violence committed by abusers of all faiths and backgrounds. An estimated 22 percent of German women face violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime and 7 percent experience sexual violence perpetrated by a stranger.

Germany has a right to deport foreign criminals, as long as doing so does not expose them to the risk of torture, persecution, or breach family rights. In the case of the suspect in Susanna F’s murder, Germany rightly decided to pursue the case against him in Germany rather than Iraq where he may have faced the death penalty.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that Susanna F’s murder “shows how important it is that the people who have no permit to stay quickly receive their administrative court proceedings and can be quickly sent back home”. Safe returns following fair procedures can send a signal that the asylum system is working.

But what is most important is that Susanna F’s murderer – and all those responsible for violence against women in Germany – are brought to justice, regardless of the background of the perpetrator and victim, and that the criminal justice system is seen to be working, fairly and efficiently.

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

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini arrives at the Republic Day military parade in Rome, Italy, June 2, 2018.

© 2018 REUTERS/Tony Gentile
After almost three months of jumping up and down in place, the newly invested Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has hit the ground running in the worst possible direction. The head of the anti-immigrant party, the League, Salvini has positioned himself as the strongman in the unlikely coalition government recently formed with the ideologically fungible Five Star Movement.

In a speech to supporters on May 31, the night before he was sworn in, Salvini upped the inflammatory rhetoric and doubled-down on the League’s worst campaign promises. He announced plans to cut the budget for reception centers for asylum seekers and, in an unnerving call-and-response with the excited crowd, said that sending all irregular migrants back home was a top priority.

On June 3, Salvini went to Pozzallo, a Sicilian port where many rescued migrants and refugees  disembark, to thunder that the “good times are over” for undocumented migrants and to insinuate that nongovernmental organizations saving lives in the central Mediterranean are complicit with smugglers.

The timing was heartless at best. It came just after a fatal day in the Mediterranean, with at least 112 people estimated drowned when a boat that departed from the Tunisian coast sank at sea, and nine people, including six children, died in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. Salvini insists he values human life but has yet to condemn the fatal shooting of a Malian labor rights activist in Calabria on June 2.

It is true, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said only recently, that the rest of the EU has largely abandoned Italy  to deal with large numbers of migrants and refugees. It is understandable that Salvini has intoned against a proposed reform of the Dublin Regulation, the EU rules that generally require the first country of entry to examine asylum claims. The proposed changes would arguably increase the pressure on Italy without ensuring a more equitable distribution of responsibility.

But there are no excuses for Salvini’s dangerous rhetoric, which is likely to inflame social tensions and intolerance while promoting policies that are both unrealistic and unsavory.

Increasing safe returns for migrants to their countries   after fair and efficient procedures is a reasonable policy objective. But Italy cannot simply expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants without severe repression, and Italy doesn’t yet have the agreements with many key countries of origin needed to facilitate returns. Cutting already minimal and often sub-standard accommodation and care for asylum seekers is no solution, while potentially violating binding EU rules and being just plain cruel.

Limiting the ability of nongovernmental groups to rescue people in distress at sea and take them in a place of safety could contribute to more deaths at sea, strip Italy of the moral standing it has acquired over the last several years for its leadership in rescue at sea, and undermine the valiant work of volunteers from nongovernmental groups and Italian Coast Guard and Navy personnel who have saved tens of thousands of lives at sea.

The outgoing Democratic Party government had already intensified cooperation with Libyan authorities to stop departures and enable Libyan coast guard forces to intercept migrant boats in international waters and take people back to horrific conditions in arbitrary detention in Libya. It’s not yet clear what Salvini and the new government have in mind, but it’s worth remembering that the League’s Roberto Maroni was interior minister in 2009 when Italy implemented its nefarious policy of literally pushing boats back to Libya.

Italy’s new government assumes power at a time when nativist populist parties have growing clout in Europe and its anti-immigrant stance will no doubt be welcomed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose government is currently trying to criminalize people working for groups that assist asylum seekers. Salvini has already said he wants to work with Orban, with whom he has already spoken on the phone, to “change the rules” of the EU.

Salvini’s migration policies may well face challenges not only from Italy’s vibrant civil society groups but also in the courts and from EU institutions.

Given the League’s and Five Star Movements’ anti-EU rhetoric and willingness to condemn institutional checks and balances like the Italian Constitutional Court and the Italian president, there is cause for concern they will have few compunctions about flouting constraints on their power.

Europe should recognize that Italy needs greater support to ensure a humane approach to migrants and to protect refugees, but also be willing to insist that Italy’s government respect human rights.

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