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

Migrants seeking asylum wait in line with their case paperwork on October 5, 2019, during a weekly trip by volunteers, lawyers, paralegals and interpreters to the migrant campsite outside El Puente Nuevo in Matamoros, Mexico.



© 2019 Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP

(Washington, DC, January 15, 2020) – The Trump administration is cruelly punishing migrants and eviscerating the right to seek asylum in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2020. Many state and local governments have stepped up policing in impoverished communities rather than address problems of homelessness, mental health, and gangs with services, support, and economic development.

“The Trump administration’s punitive approach to asylum seekers and poor people of color has pushed people so far from rights protections that even their lives may be at risk,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program director at Human Rights Watch. “For certain marginalized groups in the US, the government appears to be committing a total assault on their fundamental human rights.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The government has detained migrants, including children, in inhumane, traumatizing, jail-like detention facilities, forcibly separated families, and chilled access to public assistance for immigrants and their US citizen family members. It has returned asylum seekers to Mexico to await hearings in dangerous and unhealthy conditions and moved to block asylum claims from people who pass through other countries before reaching the US border.  

Local policing has effectively “criminalized” communities of color most affected by poverty. Using criminal processes to address social problems fuels incarceration, and the US maintains the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration, despite slight decreases of people locked up in recent years.

Uneven healthcare coverage across US states creates an environment in which women in the US die at much higher rates than they do in comparably wealthy countries from preventable causes of maternal deaths and cervical cancer. The Trump administration’s “gag” rule, which went into effect in August, bars doctors receiving federal family planning (Title X) funds from giving women information on the full range of pregnancy options available.

In its foreign policy, the Trump administration flouted international human rights and humanitarian law, undermined multilateral institutions, and made little use of its leverage to promote human rights abroad. Although the administration sanctioned some abusive individuals and governments, it also partnered with – and publicly praised – governments and leaders with horrific rights records. The administration approved sales of advanced military equipment to Saudi Arabia despite the country’s responsibility for numerous war crimes in Yemen and failed to properly investigate military operations killing civilians in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

The Trump administration should end abusive policies that punish asylum seekers and subject them and migrant children and families to unnecessary or inhumane detention and instead adopt fair asylum and migrant procedures. Federal, state, and local authorities should invest in the health and well-being of communities to end overpolicing of communities of color and should reverse policies that erode the health and reproductive rights of women.

“The US government needs to act at all levels to tip the scales in favor of human rights over human suffering for everyone in the US,” Austin-Hillery said.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A boy stands next to a hole in the fence of the Moria camp following rainfall, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, November 22, 2019. 

© 2019 Elias Marcou/Reuters
(Athens) – Hundreds of unaccompanied children on the Greek island of Lesbos are exposed to inhuman and degrading living conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. Children, unable to secure a place in the overcrowded specialized accommodation for unaccompanied children, face unsanitary and insecure conditions sleeping rough, sometimes in the open, in other formal and informal parts of the camp on the island.

“Hundreds of lone children on Lesbos are left to fend for themselves, sleeping on mats and cardboard boxes, exposed to worsening and dangerous weather conditions,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek authorities need to urgently make sure these children are safe and cared for.”

On a visit to Lesbos from October 15 to 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 22 unaccompanied children living in the Moria “hotspot,” some as young as 14, who described having little or no access to care, protection, or specialized services. Due to overcrowding in the sections of the Moria camp reserved for unaccompanied children, most of the children interviewed were living either in the camp’s general areas, mixed in with the general population, or in the adjacent overspill site known as the Olive Grove, a rocky hillside where people set up their own tents for shelter.

“Everything is dangerous here: the cold, the place I sleep, the fights. I don’t feel safe,” said Rachid R., a 14-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy who arrived in Moria at the end of August. “We are around 50 people sleeping in the big tent. It smells really bad, there are rats and sometimes they die inside the tent and it smells bad. There are so many.” Lesbos, Greece, October 2019

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

“Everything is dangerous here – the cold, the place I sleep, the fights. I don’t feel safe,” said Rachid R., an unaccompanied 14-year-old Afghan boy who arrived in Moria at the end of August. “We are around 50 people sleeping in the big tent. It smells really bad, there are rats, and sometimes they die inside the tent and it smells bad. There are so many.”

Most of the children interviewed reported experiencing psychological distress, including symptoms such as anxiety, depression, headaches, and insomnia.

When Human Rights Watch visited in mid-October, 1,061 unaccompanied children were registered in Moria. Of that number, 587 were registered as living in a large tent (a Rubb Hall) designed to temporarily accommodate all new arrivals until they go through the registration and identification procedure. Since early November, a minimum of 600 children have been registered as living there. Unaccompanied children sleep in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions that put their physical and mental health at risk.

Children who cannot find space in the Rubb Hall are living in the open areas in the camp or outside the camp, where they are exposed to frequent fights and other violence. Human Rights Watch interviewed and observed children sleeping on the ground without shelter, or sharing tents with adult strangers. Some had been living in those conditions for almost three months. Other children had to purchase their own tents. Twelve children interviewed said that Moria camp officials told them they could not have tents because they should be housed in the section for unaccompanied children, even though that section was too full to accommodate them.

A makeshift gym created by asylum seekers living in Moria is located in the Olive Grove. Lesbos, Greece, October 2019. 

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

On November 29, a government representative denied in a phone conversation with Human Rights Watch that any child is refused a tent or special protections. But an aid worker in the camp subsequently contacted confirmed that the authorities still “do not give tents to the [unaccompanied] minors,” adding that understaffing in the camp means that “children fall through the cracks.”  

The situation on the islands has grown more acute due to a spike in arrivals since July leading to extreme overcrowding in the hotspots, compounded by the Greek authorities’ containment policy, which has blocked transfers to the mainland. As of November 30, an estimated 1,746 unaccompanied children were housed in the Reception and Identification Centers on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos, and Leros. On November 20, the Greek authorities announced plans to relocate 20,000 asylum seekers to the mainland by early 2020 from 5 Greek islands currently hosting almost 40,000 asylum seekers and migrants, a positive move. However, the government also plans to turn the reception centers for identification, processing, and deportation, including Moria, into detention centers.

On November 24, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a plan to protect unaccompanied children, “No Child Alone,” which included creating more shelters. In October, Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis had sent a letter to all other European Union governments asking them to share responsibility by voluntarily relocating 2,500 unaccompanied children. On November 6, he told the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties that only one country had responded.

In keeping with the spirit of the No Child Alone plan, the authorities should urgently take steps to identify children living outside the dedicated sections in Moria and ensure that they have access to safe, humane accommodation where they can receive care, education, counseling, legal aid, guardianship, and other essential services, Human Rights Watch said.

EU states should share responsibility by relocating unaccompanied migrant children from Greece to their own countries and by facilitating family reunification.

“Unaccompanied children are among the most vulnerable people on the Greek islands, and they need Greece and other European countries to take care of them,” Cossé said. “The EU and its member states should demonstrate responsibility and care for kids who suffer there every day.”

For details about the law and accounts by unaccompanied children registered on Lesbos, please see below.

Greek and International Law

Under Greek law, registered unaccompanied children should be placed in safe accommodation, but there is a chronic shortage of shelter space. On the mainland, the authorities often detain unaccompanied migrant children in police stations and immigration detention facilities pending placement in a shelter. On the Aegean islands, Reception and Identification Centers such as Moria – commonly known as “hotspots” – have separate sections to provide secure shelter for unaccompanied children, but they are not large enough to accommodate all unaccompanied children waiting to be transferred to long-term accommodation.

Inside the large tent in Moria that authorities set up to temporarily accommodate all new arrivals until they go through the registration and identification procedure. Since early November, a minimum of 600 unaccompanied children are registered as living here. Lesbos, Greece, October 2019.

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

The separate protected area where children are accommodated in Moria provides a safer space for short-term stays than holding children in jail cells, which is unacceptable, Human Rights Watch said. Unlike police jails cells on the mainland, the protected area in Moria allows children to move in and out freely and provides some activities organized by nongovernmental organizations. But leaving children to fend for themselves in the open camps is akin to leaving them on the streets.

On December 5, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting that women and girls in Moria face relentless insecurity. Unaccompanied girls are housed in a “safe zone” that holds both unaccompanied boys under 14 and girls under 18, though they should be housed in separate, secure sections to mitigate the risk for gender-based violence.

Two unaccompanied sisters, 16 and 17, sitting at a table outside Moria. Unaccompanied girls are housed in a “safe zone” that holds both unaccompanied boys under 14 and girls under 18, though they should be housed in separate, secure sections to mitigate the risk for gender-based violence. Lesbos, Greece, October 2019.

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

Under Greek and international law, unaccompanied children are also entitled to special care and protection. Following a screening procedure, the authorities should identify unaccompanied children and refer them to appropriate support services and accommodation. However, a shortage of doctors, psychologists, and social workers to conduct vulnerability screenings in Moria has created a backlog. Unaccompanied children can wait months to be fully registered, in the meantime living in the open with unrelated adults and no arrangements for their care.

Delays in the registration process and the lack of representation and legal support for unaccompanied children in Moria undermine their ability to reunite with family members in other EU countries. A three-month deadline to submit a family reunification request is often not met because unaccompanied children are not identified during that period. Delays are compounded by the lack of legal support and the overstretched Asylum Service. EU countries should take into account the humanitarian emergency on the Greek islands when it comes to deadlines for submitting family reunification requests. For children who miss the deadline, the authorities should make use of the “discretionary clause” of the Dublin III Regulation.

The government’s No Child Alone plan includes a commitment to swiftly create new structures to provide long-term accommodation for 4,000 unaccompanied children. Under the plan, each new structure will provide housing, food, education, access to pharmaco-medical care, and psychological support for a small number of children. It will also provide the necessary legal services to unaccompanied children who have relatives in other European countries and who want to reunite with their families.

Accounts from Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Moria

All names have been changed to protect privacy and security.

Ali A., 15, and Reza R., 16, from Afghanistan, became friends soon after they arrived in Moria, about 2 months before Human Rights Watch interviewed them. Ali described his first days in Moria:

I came 10 days earlier than [Reza R.] did. When I arrived here, I spent one night in the ‘karantina’ [the Rubb Hall]. Then, they gave me a sleeping bag and said “Now you have to find a place to sleep.” Until now, I sleep with the sleeping bag, outside. They don’t give tents to the underage.

Reza R. added “We asked [those responsible for tent distribution in the camp] for some pallets and tents, but they said, ‘We can’t give them to you. You are underage.’ We tried to make a shelter by ourselves but they told us that they will call the police and destroy the place.”

Both boys were still sleeping on cardboard without shelter in the open area of Moria.

Jafar J., 16, from Afghanistan, photographed after he had been on Lesbos for 20 days. Before finding shelter in a large tent in the Moria camp, he slept outside for four days, and still does not have a proper bed: “They [authorities] never gave me a tent. I was sleeping outside. Totally outside. I don’t have a bed here, only a cardboard carton that I put on the floor and that’s where I sleep.” Lesbos, Greece, October 2019.

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

Jafar J., 16, from Afghanistan, has been on Lesbos for 20 days. Before finding shelter in the Rubb Hall, he slept outside for four days, and still does not have a proper bed:

They never gave me a tent. I was sleeping outside. Totally outside. I don’t have a bed here [in the Rubb Hall], only a cardboard carton that I put on the floor and that’s where I sleep…. You cannot count how many people there are in total. At night, you can see that it’s full. There’s no space at all.... We can’t sleep…. It’s mixed with a lot of people: four or five families, some people with health issues, single men that drink a lot of alcohol, and unaccompanied minors…. There is no control who will come and sleep in there…. The most difficult is that there’s no light in the tent at night because the lamps are broken. It’s terrifying because you don’t know who or what is moving inside the tent.

Hussein H., a 17-year-old Afghan boy sleeping in the Rubb Hall, said:

Conditions are really difficult … they don’t give tents to the underaged because they say they will transfer us to the section [for unaccompanied children]. But it takes months to be transferred to the section…. I’ve been three times to Eurorelief [the aid agency tasked with tent distribution] to ask for a tent. Not just one time. But they have told me, “We can’t do anything.”

Samir S., a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, was living in a tent in the Olive Grove that he purchased with 3 friends, also unaccompanied children. He said that when he arrived on Lesbos six days earlier, the camp authorities told them that there was no space for minors and that they had to find a place to sleep:

They said “You are underage so we can’t give you a tent. You have to wait, they will take you to the doctor, check if you are underage, and if you are, they are going to transfer you to the section [for unaccompanied children].” But we know this can take up to two to three months…. They gave me a blanket, a used T-shirt, and this small mat and they told me to find a place to sleep.

Samir and his friends borrowed money from other Afghans in the camp to buy their tent.

Yunus Y., 14, from Afghanistan was living in the Olive Grove: “I asked for a tent, they didn’t give me one. I asked for at least a sleeping bag, they didn’t give me one either. They told me to find people who could accept me in their tent. I found two [unrelated] single men. They agreed and took me in their tent. Then they left to live somewhere else and gave me their tent.” Lesbos, Greece, October 2019.

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

Yunus Y., 14, from Afghanistan, was living in the Olive Grove, next to Samir S.’s tent:

I asked for a tent, they didn’t give me one. I asked for at least a sleeping bag, they didn’t give me one either. They told me to find people who could accept me in their tent. I found two [unrelated] single men. They agreed and took me in their tent. Then they left to live somewhere else and gave me their tent.

Saleh S., a 16-year-old boy from Somalia, said he had been sleeping outside on the ground since his arrival, 10 days before the interview:

I sleep on the street. I and some other guys my age. There are drunk people at night and we are very scared. We don’t have a container or a tent. We just live outside, on the street, inside the camp. When we sleep on the ground, at night it’s wet and cold. We have a small carpet like the one Muslims pray on that we sleep on. And I have something to cover myself but it’s very thin, it’s not enough…. I have been told that I am a minor and can’t stay in a tent. I need to be in the place for minors.

Javet J., 15, from Afghanistan, described the symptoms of psychosocial distress he’s experienced since he arrived: “I forget a lot of things. In the last few days I have headaches and I forget a lot. It’s very bad here…. I spend most of my day inside the tent or in the line for food.”

Ahmed A., 16, also from Afghanistan, said:

Everywhere you need to go, you have to wait in line. To take food, to go to the toilet, to go to the doctor. It’s making you feel that you are losing hope. I am feeling lost. Only to see a doctor to tell you your age, you have to wait for two months. This is exhausting.

Makeshift tents in the Olive Grove, a rocky hillside outside Moria where people set up their own tents for shelter. Lesbos, Greece, October 2019

© 2019 Eva Cosse/Human Rights Watch

Habib H., 16, from Afghanistan, lives outside the official camp, in the Olive Grove, sleeping in a sleeping bag near a family he knows. He described the dangers in the camp:

There are no rules here in Moria. After 9 p.m. you cannot walk around because people will start drinking alcohol. If I have to go to the toilet, I will wake up the family I know and we usually go three to four people together.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Syrian man reads inside his tent at a makeshift camp outside Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, May 5, 2018.

© 2019 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

(Athens) – Greece’s recently announced border control plans for the Aegean islands should not come at the expense of asylum seeker and migrant rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has said it will relocate 20,000 asylum seekers from overcrowded reception centers on the islands to the mainland by early 2020, but then transform the island reception facilities into detention centers.

“The government’s pledge to transfer thousands of people quickly out of overcrowded and inhumane conditions on the islands is right, but locking up everyone else is not,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece should ensure adequate conditions in open reception facilities on the islands and a fair, efficient process for regular transfer to avoid chaotic, unsafe overcrowding.”

The situation on the Greek islands is at its worst since the government in 2016 forced almost all asylum seekers arriving from Turkey to remain on the islands. By November 24, 2019, camps on 5 Aegean islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros) with an official capacity of 6,178 people were housing 35,590. Thousands of women, men, and children sleep in makeshift shelters in and around official facilities in conditions that are inhumane and degrading, often without adequate water, access to health care, and sanitation.

During a visit to Lesbos in mid-October, Human Rights Watch found asylum seekers and migrants living in tents in Moria camp’s open areas, including pregnant women and families with small children, some of whom had been there for over three weeks. Women said that toilets are unsanitary, unsafe, and far away. People interviewed also said that they often wait in line for hours for each meal, and were then sometimes told there was no more food.

Human Rights Watch found hundreds of unaccompanied children and many single women, including pregnant women and women with medical conditions, sleeping on the ground without shelter and exposed to inhumane living conditions, including overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and frequent incidents of violence due to lack of space in dedicated sections. They have little or no access to health care, protection, or specialized services.

Children said they had no information about their situation, what would happen to them, whether they had an appointed guardian as required by law, or any information about the asylum process. Even within the camp’s boundaries, women and girls told us they feel restricted in their movements and access to toilets, bathing facilities, and food distribution, and do not feel safe due to sexual harassment and outbreaks of violence.

The plan to convert the Aegean islands’ camps into detention facilities raises serious concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Under the plan, announced on November 20, the camps on all five islands would become detention centers for identification, processing, and deportation. The Lesbos, Chios, and Samos centers would have a capacity of at least 5,000 people each. Asylum seekers would remain deprived of their liberty until they are admitted to the regular asylum process or granted protection, and transferred to the mainland, or their claim is rejected and they are returned to Turkey or to their country of origin.

The blanket detention of all asylum seekers and migrants arriving on the Greek islands in closed facilities would be unjustified given the possibility of less restrictive options and the lack of individual assessment of the need for detention, and would amount to arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Detaining asylum seekers in relatively remote locations would also be detrimental to their ability to pursue their asylum claims, including access to legal advice and representation. On Samos, for instance, the current camp is near the town of Vathy, where nongovernmental groups provide legal support, but the authorities reportedly plan to relocate the detention center to a remote site that includes a former slaughterhouse.

In 2016, when the European Union (EU) - Turkey deal to facilitate the return to Turkey of people arriving by boat to the Greek islands came into force, camps on the islands were turned into closed facilities where asylum seekers were detained in deplorable conditions. Vulnerable people who were detained, such as children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, faced particular hardships. The detention centers were converted into open camps where people were free to enter and leave a few months later.

These measures are part of a broader package that includes plans to increase border surveillance, speed processing of asylum claims, and increased returns of migrants to their countries of origin or transit. Since the EU - Turkey deal came into force in 2016, Greece has returned 1,806 people to Turkey. 

In October, Greece’s parliament approved tougher asylum rules, making it easier to detain asylum seekers for longer periods, scrapping important protections for vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, and introducing numerous procedural changes that impede access to a fair asylum process and compromise the right of appeal. These rules will enter into force on January 1, 2020.

According to a report by the European Court of Auditors, Greece has received 2.2 billion Euros from the EU to support the reception and processing of asylum seekers and migrants since 2015.

The Greek government should move swiftly to transfer people from the islands to adequate, open facilities on the mainland. In the meantime, the authorities should urgently address the insecurity, lack of sanitation, and gaps in health care and in specific protection measures for children and women traveling alone in the camps.

Instead of automatically detaining people for potentially unjustifiable periods, the Greek authorities should ensure humane living conditions, in line with international and EU standards for reception, protection, security, health, and sanitation, in the open camps.

The European Commission should remind Greece that asylum seekers should not be detained without evidence that detention is necessary for each detained individual and for a legitimate purpose or reason set out in law, that detention should be as short as possible, and that children should never be detained for immigration-related purposes. The European Commission should ensure that none of its support for migration and border management finances closed facilities and arbitrary detention on the Greek islands.

“With winter fast approaching, and thousands of people living in extremely unsafe conditions, transfers to the mainland could be a matter of life or death,” Cossé said. “Those kept on the islands should be treated with dignity and given access to essential services and support for asylum seekers and migrants, not treated as prisoners.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Daouda S., a 16-year-old unaccompanied boy from Guinea, has slept on the streets of Paris for weeks at a time while he waits for a judge to hear his case. Occasionally, he is able to stay with families for short stretches. Photograph by Roopa Gogineni.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child tomorrow, the reality for many children around the world falls far short of the guarantees outlined in the treaty.

Children fleeing abusive situations in their home country and migrating without their families are among the most vulnerable. Some come to Europe, including France, hoping for a better life, only to find that here too, their rights are not respected.

In France, unaccompanied migrant children are pushed back at the French-Italian border, are falsely labelled adults and denied services by authorities, and made to live in shabby hotels or worse, in squats, even when recognized as children. These children are denied fundamental rights, such as protection and education. Human Rights Watch has exposed this situation, outrageous in a country like France, in reports on Calais, Paris, and the Hautes-Alpes region, and the French Ombudsman condemned it this week in his annual report on the rights of children.

The title of his report speaks for itself: “Childhood and violence: the part played by public institutions.” The Ombudsman considers that the failure of the institutions to take into account the best interests of the child constitutes a form of institutional violence. As many children have told us during our research, and as confirmed by the Ombudsman, procedures to determine the age of children often disregard the trauma these children have suffered in their home country and on their migratory journey. Far from the spirit of benevolence and the benefit of the doubt that, according to French and international law, should guide the procedure, evaluators seem to routinely conduct biased interviews and consider those who claim to be children first as liars and not as particularly vulnerable people entitled to special protection.

According to the Ombudsman, even when “unaccompanied minors [are] taken into the care of the child protection services, [they] do not receive the same treatment as other children in care” – who themselves suffer from the deficiencies highlighted in the Ombudsmen’s report. This constitutes serious discrimination against unaccompanied migrant children who should be considered first as children in need of protection and not reduced to their immigration status.

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







  1. Introduction: These submissions are presented on behalf of Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) (“the Interveners”) pursuant to the leave to intervene granted by the President of the Section on 14 October 2019, under Rule 44 § 3 of the Rules of Court. The submissions address: (A) the existence of Italy’s jurisdiction under Article 1 European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), as a result of its decisive influence over Libya’s migration policy and practice; and (B) the conditions for migrants[1] in Libya and the consequences of cooperation activities leading to the containment of migrants in the country, in light of Italy’s responsibilities under Article 3 ECHR.

A. Extraterritorial jurisdiction of States under Article 1 ECHR

I. Overview of ECHR standards

  1. This Court’s longstanding jurisprudence recognises that States’ protection of the rights and freedoms under the ECHR, as per Article 1, may extend to acts performed, or producing effects, outside their territory.[2] While this Court has developed guidance on extraterritorial jurisdiction, its case-law on this issue continues to evolve, taking into account the specificities of each case, thus allowing the Convention to remain practical and effective and not theoretical and illusory.[3] This Court considers that extraterritorial jurisdiction can generally arise by virtue of the presence of a Member State [MS] agent exerting ‘control and authority over an individual’ in a third country or due to the MS’s effective control over an area.[4] This Court also considered that jurisdiction can exist when a MS ‘exercises all or some of the powers’ of a country ‘through [its] consent, invitation or acquiescence’.[5]  
  2. In Ilaşcu and Others and subsequent cases, the Court indicated that jurisdiction can arise when a state operates ‘under the decisive influence’ of a MS.[6] Importantly, in these cases this Court links the concept of ‘decisive influence’ to the existence of a relation of dependency of some degree, to the effect that it considered ‘the fact that the local administration survives as a result of the [MS’s] military and other support’ to entail ‘that State’s responsibility for its policies and actions’.[7] This is irrespective of the active involvement of the influencing State in the alleged human rights violations.[8]. Various factors can be relevant in establishing if decisive influence exists.[9] The Court’s approach to the above cases should be taken as a place of departure to address situations where the relation of dependence is such that a MS does exert decisive influence over a third party’s policy and practice, thus attracting that state’s jurisdiction under the ECHR.
  3. The Interveners respectfully submit that even in the absence of physical occupation of a territory, States may nonetheless control areas of policy of third party entities. This could be argued by reversing the Court’s statement in Catan and others v. Moldova and Russia. Discussing situations where control on an area is established ‘as a consequence of lawful or unlawful military action’, the Court held that ‘Where the fact of such domination over the territory is established, it is not necessary to determine whether the [MS] exercises detailed control over the policies and actions of the subordinate local administration’.[10] Conversely, where such domination is lacking, it could be argued that other forms of control and influence should be sufficient to bring a situation within a State’s jurisdiction for the purpose of Article 1 ECHR. It is significant that this Court found the jurisdiction of MS beyond situations of military occupation, including following developments occurring after the facts of the case.[11] Failure to act to prevent human rights violations in the country where the MS exercises influence was also considered relevant in Mozer.[12]

II. Conduct of the Italian authorities and their relevance under ECHR Article 1 standards

  1. The Italy-Libya relation – legal and diplomatic framework: This Court acknowledged the longstanding cooperation between Italy and Libya on migration matters in Hirsi Jamaa and others v Italy.[13]. From the beginning of 2017, Italy has used the resumption of cooperation with Libya and the funding, political and material support that came with it to outsource migration control to Libya, while maintaining power to decide on its practical aspects. Following the change of policy resulting from Hirsi, between 2013 and 2017, when crossings increased sharply, Italian and other ships operating in the Mediterranean consistently disembarked those rescued in Europe and, most often, in Italy.[14] The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) would coordinate SAR operations not only in Italy’s SAR Region but also in the area of the central Mediterranean between the southern limit of its SAR region and Libya’s territorial waters, in line with international law standards (SAR/SOLAS).[15]
  2. Transferring coordination responsibilities to Libya would have been virtually impossible before 2017, as the country had not declared a SAR Region, constituted an MRCC or set up a coast guard function capable to receive and act upon distress communications. Between 2016 and 2017, Italy’s actions created conditions for Libya to build such capacity. On 2 February 2017, Italy signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA)[16] as a framework for joint efforts to stem irregular migration and smuggling,[17] with the clear aim of enabling Libyan authorities to conduct operations at sea and disembark people in Libya, with Italy’s material, technical and political support, coordination and capacity building, though without the physical presence of Italian forces in SAR operations. The combined effect of Italy’s withdrawal from the sea, its obstruction of SAR NGOs and active deferral of responsibility to the Libyan authorities contributed to this goal.
  3. Italy pursued these activities to enable Libya to conduct sea operations leading to the interception and return to Libya of migrants found at sea, and so to create the conditions for at least the appearance of Libya’s ownership of operations at sea with the effect, and arguably the intent, to achieve the same outcome of the pushback practices and policies that this Court found fell afoul of Convention standards in Hirsi, while trying to circumvent Italy’s relevant obligations. The Interveners submit that, in view of the extent and pervasiveness of Italy’s role in Libya’s migration and SAR system, Libya has acted under its decisive influence since at least 2017, to an extent that Italy should be found to have exercised jurisdiction, at least concurrently with Libya, in migration-related operations conducted by Libyan forces. The Interveners have conducted research on the range of acts realised by Italy to pursue this strategy and reported on their human rights implications throughout the post-Hirsi period, from 2013 to 2019.[18]
  4. Italy’s support to Libya enabling it to intercept and ‘pull back’ migrants:

a. Support in declaring Libya’s SAR region and establishing an MRCC in Libya: In early2017, the Italian government requested the Italian Coast Guard (ICG) to initiate activities instrumental to the declaration of Libya’s SAR region and to assist Libya in setting up its MRCC.[19] Relevant activities followed suit,[20] mostly funded by the EU.[21] As a result, Libya notified the creation of its SAR region to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), in July 2017,[22] and in December 2017.[23] IMO confirmed the establishment of the Libyan SAR region in June 2018.[24] As a result, the Libyan authorities assumed responsibility for coordinating SAR operations in the region, including the responsibility to instruct rescue vessels on where to disembark the rescued, also on its territory.

b. Donation of vessels and training of LCGN:[25] In May 2017, Italy provided the LCGN with 4 fast patrol boats[26] and committed to donate 6 more.[27] Italy allocated 2.5 million euros to maintaining the boats and related activities.[28] In parallel, it trained LCGN staff, including those to be employed on those boats, both independently and via the Italy-led naval operation EunavforMed Sophia.[29]

c. Operational assistance in SAR operations and presence on scene: Italy’s cooperation has crucially involved also the physical presence of Italian personnel in Libya, including its territorial waters. On 2 August 2017, in agreement with the Libyan government,[30] Italy launched naval operation ‘Nauras’ in Libyan waters and deployed navy officials on Libyan soil to support the contrast of irregular migration and smuggling.[31] Through an Italian Navy vessel docked in the port of Tripoli,[32] Italy directly supported the coordination of SAR operations, in particular by providing the Libyan naval authorities with the technical capabilities necessary to ensure communication and coordination between LCGN, IMRCC and any state or private ships operating at sea. As highlighted in a ruling by the Court of Ragusa in April 2018,[33] these capabilities were instrumental to enabling the LCGN to locate migrant boats at sea and issuing instructions to any ships in the area, including instructions to stay away from migrant boats as the LCGN would approach them.[34] With its formal intervention in Libyan territory since 2017, with Libya’s consent, and the formal assistance provided in the exercise of migration management and border control, Italy’s conduct should therefore be seen as meeting the conditions for extra territorial jurisdiction established by this Court.

d. Participation in SAR operations conducted by the LCGN: The Interveners’ research indicates that, throughout 2017, LCGN operations were increasingly conducted with Italian authorities’ input, which alerted them of the presence and position of boats in distress, and even directly participated in operations at sea. On 27 September 2017, a LCGN vessel intercepted two migrant boats in international waters, while testing a boat recently repaired by Italian officials. After receiving assistance from the Italian warship Andrea Doria, which was in the area and provided lifejackets, the LCGN ship took all of the approximately 200 people back to Libya.[35]

e. Transfer of responsibility for SAR operations to the LCGN: As of 2017, the IMRCC increasingly sought to transfer responsibilities for the coordination of SAR operations to the LCGN. As of at least May 2017, IMRCC started to transfer information and coordination to the Libyan authorities, in those cases when IMRCC had been informed first and had therefore assumed such responsibility, and to decline to indicate a place of safety for disembarkation to rescue vessels that had conducted operations in the Libyan SAR Region. On 10 May 2017, the IMRCC received a distress call about a boat in trouble and instructed the German rescue NGO Sea-Watch to provide assistance, before transferring the coordination to the LCG, which intervened with one of its speedboats to take over the operation.[36]  IMRCC also began instructing rescue NGOs to wait before conducting certain rescue operations, to facilitate the intervention of the LCGN. On 15 August 2017, a vessel run by NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) initiated a rescue operation, but IMRCC reportedly requested that the crew wait for the LCGN to intervene before taking people on board. The LCGN failed to intervene and after two hours IMRCC authorised MOAS to take people on board and transfer them to Italy.[37] On 24 November 2017, NGO SOS Méditerranée reported that IMRCC instructed its rescue vessel Aquarius to stand by as the LCGN conducted the interception of three rubber boats in international waters, after which everyone was returned to Libya. The IMRCC’s approach, consolidated over time, must be deemed as an element of the established framework of cooperation and support provided by Italy to Libya, instrumental to achieving the aim of preventing migrants’ arrivals in Italy and ensuring the LCGN’s ownership of operations at sea. This should be read with Italy’s failure to offer a place of safety in its territory following rescues in the Libyan SAR region, including after the transfer of coordination for SAR operations. The decisive influence exercised over Libya through the support described above attracted Italy’s jurisdiction, for the purpose of its ECHR obligations.

f. Activities to hamper the involvement of NGOs in rescues: Italy’s strategy to ensure the undisturbed operation of the LCGN included activities to obstruct the action of NGOs, through policies and practices discouraging their intervention. In 2017, NGOs were continuously slandered by authorities and subjected to baseless criminal investigations. In July 2017 the government drafted a code of conduct for NGOS, substantially restricting SAR activities.[38]

B. Article 3 consequences of Italy’s role in Libyan migration policies and practice

  1. It is a well-established principle under this Court’s jurisprudence that States’ obligations under Article 3 shall be understood to include the internationally recognised principle of non-refoulement.[39] The non-refoulement obligation also applies to indirect or chain refoulement.[40] Procedurally, Article 3 imposes positive obligations on MS, who have a duty to ensure that people under their jurisdiction ‘would not face a real risk of being subjected to treatment contrary to Article 3 in the event of repatriation’.[41] Addressing the situation of Libya in Hirsi, this Court recalled that this obligation ‘is all the more important when...the intermediary country is not a State Party to the Convention’.[42]  It found on the facts that the material conditions for migrants in the country were such that, by transferring the applicants there, ‘the Italian authorities, in full knowledge of the facts, exposed them to treatment proscribed by the Convention’.[43] Since Hirsi, the Interveners have continued to document abuses against migrants by Libyan agents in the country, including guards operating in detention centres managed under the responsibility of the General Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration (DCIM) within the Ministry of Interior, and members of the LCGN, and Libya’s inability or unwillingness to address violations by trafficking and smuggling groups.
  2. Research published by the Interveners between 2013 and 2019[44] documented how the treatment experienced by migrants in Libya, acknowledged in Hirsi, continues unchanged to date, and examined how cooperation by the EU and its member states – Italy in particular – with Libya on migration has been pursued despite the well documented abuse of migrants there. Abuses facing migrants start as early as during operations at sea conducted by the LCGN and extend to the often-automatic detention in centres on land. The Interveners documented episodes where the LCGN engaged in reckless conduct during rescue operations in international waters and used threats and violence against migrants on board boats in distress.[45] The Interveners also documented the systematic use of arbitrary detention, often in inhumane conditions, and the persistence of torture and other ill-treatment, in particular in the form of rapes and beatings, as well as of unlawful killings, sexual exploitation and forced labor.[46] The state of migrants’ rights in Libya is well-known and has been widely documented by international observers. UN bodies called the country’s situation a “human rights crisis” for migrants.[47] The severity of the situation was addressed by the UN Secretary General in his update to the UN Security Council in September 2017,[48] while in September 2018, the UNHCR reiterated its call on all countries “to allow civilians (Libyan nationals, former habitual residents of Libya and third-country nationals) fleeing Libya access to their territories”. UNHCR also urged all countries to suspend forcible returns to any part of Libya, including of anyone rescued at sea.[49] The Interveners consider that Italian authorities pursued cooperation activities with Libya, with the purpose of ensuring as many as possible migrants rescued or intercepted at sea would be returned to Libya while they knew or ought to have known that this would result in exposing people to arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and other serious human rights violations.
  3. Risk of ill-treatment at sea as a result of cooperation with the LCGN: In 2017, the LCGN on multiple occasions harassed, intimidated and threatened NGO rescue boats particularly in mid-2017. The Interveners have spoken to multiple NGOs who perform rescue operations in the Mediterranean about these incidents. For example, on 23 May 2017, crew aboard rescue ship Aquarius witnessed – and videotaped – LCGN approaching migrants on a boat, firing shots into the air. Survivors testified that the officers had demanded phones and money from them and that after hearing the shots, panicked people leapt into the sea.[50]
  4. Monitors on the scene reported that on 26 May 2017 LCGN fired shots at an ICG vessel in international waters, as it was taking rescued migrants to disembark on Lampedusa.[51] Overheard radio communication between a nearby Italian Navy ship and the LCGN made it clear that the LCGN boat had fired the shots because they mistook the ICG vessel for a migrant boat. The crew of NGO rescue vessel Golfo Azzurro reported that the LCGN threatened them in international waters, including by shooting in the air, in order to make them leave the area, on both 7 and 15 August 2017.[52] On 26 September 2017, an LCGN boat approached a vessel run by the NGO Mission Lifeline through a dangerous manoeuvre and fired one shot, before two LCGN officials jumped on board the NGO ship and said they wanted to take those rescued back to Libya. The NGO crew explained that they could not comply with the request because they were bound by the principle of non-refoulement. The Libyan officials threatened that they would sink the ship the next time they found it in “their waters”.[53] The OHCHR also reported similar behaviour from the LCGN.[54] The Interveners also heard similar descriptions of abusive use of force and firearms from individuals who were detained after LCGN intercepted their boats. One woman from a boat with approximately 170 people stopped by the LCGN in international waters explained: “Men on the large Libyan boat threw us a rope …The Libyans shot into the air and threatened us: ‘If you don’t tie it onto the boat then we will shoot at you.’”[55] A detained male reported a similar issue saying that individuals on the LCGN boat that approached them ‘shot into the water next to where we were. They also came very close to our boat and started to make waves to scare us. People got scared and finally started to board their ship’.[56] In April 2017 an LCGN commander told the Interveners that the use of force against migrants during rescue operations was “necessary to control the situation as you cannot communicate with them. Some can swim but others not.”[57]
  5. Collusion with Criminal Gangs: A confidential interim report from the UN Panel of Experts on Libya,[58] leaked to the press, concluded that most smuggling and trafficking groups have links to official security institutions. The report expresses concern ‘over the possible use of state facilities and state funds by armed groups and traffickers to enhance their control of migration routes’. A previous report from the same Panel in June 2017 had already concluded that ‘smugglers, as well as the Department to Counter Illegal Migration and the coastguard are directly involved in [...] grave human rights violations’ against migrants.[59] In June 2018, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on six Libyans accused of human smuggling and trafficking including the head of a coast guard unit.[60] The Interveners interviewed many migrants who described how smugglers colluded with the LCGN. Interveners’ research reveals that the collusion between smugglers and the LCGN occurs through 3 main methods: LCGN officers escort boats until they reach international waters; boats are marked to show that they belong to a smuggler who has paid for ‘safe passage’; or the name of the “right” smuggler is communicated to LCGN staff conducting interceptions.[61] Many migrants also reported that criminal gangs engaging in trafficking and exploitation had access to detention centres and colluded with guards operating there.[62]
  6. Prolonged arbitrary detention as a result of interception at sea by the LCGN: Migrants without a regular status in Libya are detained based on laws that criminalise undocumented entry, stay and exit, which can be punished by a prison sentence, a fine and ultimately deportation.[63] The law does not indicate maximum terms for migration detention, and there are no formal procedures in place allowing detainees access to a lawyer or any opportunity to challenge the decision to detain them.[64] Coupled with the absence of an effective system to protect asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking, mass, arbitrary and indefinite detention has become the primary migration management system in Libya. When the LCGN –or other Italy-backed Libyan authorities, such as the General Administration for Coastal Security (GACS) under the Ministry of Interior – intercept boats at sea, they bring migrants back to Libya and routinely transfer them to DCIM detention centres. The support received from Italy and the EU massively increased Libya’s operational capacity and since 2016 the LCGN has intercepted tens of thousands of people at sea and returned them to Libya, to be placed in detention centres.[65]
  7. Abuse in detention: Individuals arbitrarily detained in DCIM centres are held in deplorable conditions.[66] As recently as July 2018, the Interveners documented inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate healthcare, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks. The detention of children in unsuitable conditions and allegations of rape and beatings of children by guards and smugglers were also documented.[67] Research by the Interveners includes testimonies by male and female detainees, held after being intercepted at sea, describing various forms of torture and other ill-treatment.[68] DCIM guards are directly involved in torturing and otherwise ill-treating migrants, very often in order to extort a ransom from them or their families in exchange for their release from indefinite arbitrary detention.  The Interveners submit that to date the conditions and treatment of migrants in Libyan centres has remained substantially the same, and there has been no development that could justify departing from this Court’s assessment in Hirsi.[69]
  8. Italian Knowledge of Abuses: At the time when they began engaging with Libya on migration-related cooperation, Italian authorities were aware of the widespread human rights violations and abuses suffered by migrants in Libya, and that the country lacked capacity to safely carry out SAR operations or to afford adequate protection to migrants in the event of their disembarkation in Libya.[70] Indeed, not only should Italian authorities have been aware of the long list of UN reports detailing such situation,[71] but in multiple circumstances Italian authorities openly acknowledged abuses. For example, in August 2017 Italy’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, signalling partial disagreement with the government’s decision to cooperate with the LCGN, noted Italian ships should keep collecting migrants, including those intercepted by Libyan authorities, ”because taking them back to Libya, at this moment, means taking them back to hell.”[72] In a letter to AI on 3 November 2017, Ambassador Mariangela Zappia, Diplomatic Counselor to the Italian Prime Minister, declared inter alia: “We are on the front line for the improvement of living conditions in the reception centres for migrants in Libya – whose problems have been well known to us for a long time – in cooperation with the main actors and international agencies.”[73] (emphasis added)
  9. In conclusion no meaningful action has been taken to avoid the predictable and foreseeable result that  decisive support for and cooperation with Libya would expose thousands of people to serious human rights violations, including in violation of Article 3. On the contrary, the MoU between Italy and Libya did not condition support and assistance upon human rights standards and recognition of the right to seek asylum, helping to perpetuate the horrific human rights violations against migrants in Libya.






List of relevant publications and statements by the Interveners

in the period between 2013 and 2019





1. Malta: the El Hiblu 1 Case: three teenagers in the dock for daring to oppose their return to suffering in Libya

October 2019



2. Cut adrift in the Med

September 2019



3. Libya: Abhorrent attack on migrant detention centre must be investigated as a war crime

July 2019



4. Italy: refugees and migrants' rights under attack: Amnesty International submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review, 34th session of the UPR Working Group

March 2019



5. Human rights in Libya: Review of 2018

February 2019



6. Libya: EU’s patchwork policy has failed to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants

November 2018



7. Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Europe fails refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean

August 2018



8. Libya’s dark web of collusion: Abuses against Europe-bound refugees and migrants

December 2017



9. Europe: a perfect storm: the failure of European policies in the central Mediterranean

July 2017



10. Italy: losing the moral compass: innuendoes against NGOs which rescue lives in the central Mediterranean

April 2017



11. Hotspot Italy: how EU’s flagship approach leads to violations of refugee and migrant rights

November 2016



12. Refugees and migrants fleeing sexual violence, abuse and exploitation in Libya

July 2016



13. EU risks fuelling horrific abuse of refugees and migrants in Libya

June 2016



14. A safer sea: the impact of increased search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean

July 2015



15. ‘Libya is full of cruelty’: Stories of abduction, sexual violence and abuse from migrants and refugees

May 2015



16. Europe's sinking shame: the failure to save refugees and migrants at sea

April 2015



17. Lives adrift: refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean

September 2014



18. Scapegoats of fear: Rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants abused in Libya

June 2013






1. EU Governments Face Crucial Decision on Shared Sea Rescue Responsibility

October 3, 2019



2. Libya: Deadly Attack Highlights Disregard for Civilians

EU Containment Policy Helps Keep Migrants in Harm’s Way

July 3, 2019



3. Italy: End Curbs on Rescue at Sea

Rome Should Not Prosecute NGO Ship Captain

June 26, 2019



4. Italy: Reject Anti-Rescue Proposals

Criminal Penalties Could Deter Saving Lives at Sea

May 16, 2019



5. Libya: Detained Migrants at Risk in Tripoli Clashes

Release and Evacuate Them to Safety

April 25, 2019



6. Libya: Nightmarish Detention for Migrants, Asylum Seekers

EU and Italy Bear Responsibility, Should Condition Cooperation

January 21, 2019



7. No Escape from Hell

EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya

January 21, 2019



8. Libya: Migrants Forced off Ship at Libya Port

Misrata Security Forces Use Force After Rescued People Refuse to Land

November 21, 2018



9. Europe: Save Mediterranean Rescue Ship

Aquarius Has Saved Thousands of Lives

October 3, 2018



10. EU/Italy/Libya: Disputes Over Rescues Put Lives at Risk

Allow European Rescues, Agree on Safe Disembarkation

July 25, 2018



11. Italy: Migrant Rescue Ship Impounded

Don’t Criminalize Saving Lives

March 19, 2018



12. Italy: Navy Support for Libya May Endanger Migrants

Help for Libyan Coast Guard Risks Complicity in Abuse

August 2, 2017



13. EU: Draft Code for Sea Rescues Threatens Lives

Leaked Document Would Tie Nongovernmental Groups’ Hands

July 12, 2017



14. EU: Boat Migration Demands Shared Responsibility

Rescue and Safe Ports Needed as Libyan Authorities Unable to Guarantee Rights or Protect People

July 4, 2017



15. EU: Shifting Rescue to Libya Risks Lives

Italy Should Direct Safe Rescues

June 19, 2017



16. EU: Put Rights Above Politics

Outsourcing Migration Responsibility to Libya Fraught with Risks

February 1, 2017



17. Libya: End ‘Horrific’ Abuse of Detained Migrants

UN Report Details Widespread Torture, Forced Labor, Sexual Violence

December 14, 2016



18. EU Policies Put Refugees At Risk

An Agenda to Restore Protection

November 23, 2016



19. EU/NATO: Europe’s Plan Endangers Foreigners in Libya

Migrants, Asylum Seekers Face Killings, Torture, and Rape

July 6, 2016



20. EU: Migrants Seeking Opportunity or Refugees Seeking Protection?

July 28, 2015



21. The Mediterranean Migration Crisis

Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do

June 19, 2015



22. EU: Rights Abuses at Home Drive Mediterranean Crisis

Migrants Detail Horrors That Caused Them to Flee

June 19, 2015



23. EU: Mixed Messages on Boat Migration

Augmented Search and Rescue, but Focus Still on Preventing Departure

April 23, 2015



24. EU: Mediterranean Deaths Warrant Crisis Response

April 19, 2015



25. EU: Intolerable Inaction Costs Lives at Sea

Set Up Robust, Mediterranean-wide Search and Rescue Operation

April 15, 2015



26. EU: Act to Save Lives at Sea

Justice and Home Affairs Council Meeting in Luxembourg

October 8, 2014



27. Libya: Whipped, Beaten, and Hung from Trees

Detained Migrants, Asylum Seekers Describe Torture, Other Abuse in Detention

June 22, 2014



28. EU: Make Saving Lives at Sea Top Priority

Step Up Joint Rescue Operations; Resettle More Syrians

June 5, 2014



29. EU: Improve Migrant Rescue, Offer Refuge

Summit Needs Rights-Based Approach to Boat Migration, Syria Refugees

October 23, 2013





European Union/Libya: Act Now to Save Lives, Release, Evacuate Detained Refugees and Migrants, joint statement by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), 12 July 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/07/european-union-libya-act-...


[1] The Interveners note that in this document the term ‘migrants’ is understood to include any individual on the move outside of their country of nationality or citizenship, including for reasons such as needing international or other protection.

[2] As summarised in N.D. and N.T. v Spain, nos. 8675/15 8697/15, § 49-51 and cases cited therein.

[3] ECtHR, Guide on Article 1 of the ECHR, 31 August 2019, § 28-29, https://bit.ly/2NMPn2r. and Renucci, Jean-François. Introduction to the ECHR: the rights guaranteed and the protection mechanism. Vol. 1. Council of Europe, 2005, p.6, https://bit.ly/36W3YBl

[4] ECtHR Guide on Article 1, §29 and subsequent.

[5] ECtHR Guide on Article 1, §33.

[6] Ilaşcu and Others v. Moldova and Russia, no. 48787/99 § 392

[7] ECtHR Guide on Article 1, §47, Cyprus v. Turkey, no. 25781/94, §§ 76-77; Catan and ors. v. Moldova and Russia nos. 43370/04 8252/05 18454/06, § 122 and others.

[8] In Mozer v. The Republic of Moldova and Russia, no. 11138/10, §101, the Court accepted that there was ‘no evidence of any direct involvement of Russian agents in the applicant’s detention and treatment’.. no.

[9] Catan and ors., above in full, § 121, on Russia’s various forms of support.

[10] Catan and others., §106.

[11] See summary of political, military and economic developments considered in Catan, as listed by Mozer v Moldova and Russia, no. 11138/10 at §103.

[12] Ivantoc and ors v Moldova and Russia, no. 23687/05, §119: Russia ‘continued to do nothing either to prevent the violations of the Convention allegedly committed...’. Cited by Mozer at §106

[13] Bilateral agreement of 29 December 2007 and the Treaty on Friendship of 30 August 2008, particularly Article 19 - provision for efforts to prevent clandestine immigration in the countries of origin of migratory flows.

[14] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion: Abuses against Europe-bound refugees and migrants, December 2017, p.42

[15] AI, Lives adrift: Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean, September 2014

[16] This was then backed up by the members of the European Council in their Malta Declaration, adopted the following day, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/02/03/malta-declaration/.

[17] Memorandum d'intesa sulla cooperazione nel campo dello sviluppo, del contrasto all'immigrazione illegale, al traffico di esseri umani, al contrabbando e sul rafforzamento della sicurezza delle frontiere tra lo Stato della Libia e la Repubblica Italiana, 2 February 2017, https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Libia.pdf

[18] See Annex for a list of the Interveners’ relevant publications between 2013 and 2019. 

[19] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017, p.45. A project agreement between ITG and EU Commission recognized that an efficient LCGN would be instrumental to border control activities to tackle irregular migration. https://www.guardiacostiera.gov.it/stampa/Pages/isf-bv-051.aspx.

[21] In July 2017 the EU Trust Fund for Africa approved a 46.3million euro programme largely focussed on increasing the operational capacity of the LCGN through, inter alia, setting up operational rooms to enable the LCGN to co-ordinate operations, assisting with the establishment of a Libyan MRCC and demarcating and declaring a Libyan SAR zone. See https://bit.ly/33NU1nu and AI, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, above, p.45.

[22] The first declaration was then withdrawn due to technical issues. At a press conference in Tripoli on 10 August 2017, Libyan authorities announced the declaration and stated that foreign vessels would not be allowed to enter the zone without prior authorization, in breach of law of the sea principles regarding freedom of navigation in the high seas (UNCLOS Art.87).

[23] During the same month, the ICG wrote to AI, indicating that work towards the establishment of a MRCC in Libya was still at an initial stage. Letter dated 1 December 2017, Ref. 0149176, in file with AI. A presentation by the ICG, dated 28 February 2018, included a timeline for the project, indicating that only from July 2021 “The Libyan SAR Region is under the LCG control”, https://bit.ly/2Kc78am.

[25] Training of LCGN and Navy staff was carried out via EunavforMed Operation Sophia and through Italian programmes. See: https://bit.ly/2JNBRdO and www.facebook.com/EunavforMed/posts/1518004711608771

[26] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, pp.34-36.

[27] See relevant press releases by the Italian Ministry of Interior at: https://bit.ly/32E6BV4 and https://bit.ly/33D90Rp.

[28] Law no. 232, 11 December 2016, Article 1 c.621 174 Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Director General for Italians abroad and migration policies, Decree 4110/47 of 28 August 2017, www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Allegato_2.pdf

[29] In June 2016, the EU amended the mandate of the operation to include capacity-building and training of the LCGN. As of November 2017, 195 Libyan personnel had undergone training. AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, p.45.

[30] Italian Chamber of Deputies, Deliberazione del consiglio dei ministri in merito alla partecipazione dell’Italia alla missione internazionale in supporto alla guardia costiera Libica, 28 July 2017, at: https://bit.ly/32iCPVD

[31] Ibid., in Libya’s dark web of collusion the Italian mission aims to provide ‘technical and logistical support and advice to the Libyan navy, including the LCG; protection for Libyan vessels involved in activities against irregular migration; reconnaissance capabilities to determine what operations should be carried out…support to set up a centre for co-ordinating operations’.

[32] Italian Navy vessels rotate in this role. The first to be deployed was ship Tremiti (August-December 2017), followed by Capri (December 2017 - March 2018) and Caprera (March-September 2018).

[33] Tribunale di Ragusa, Ufficio del Giudice per le indagini preliminari, Decreto di rigetto di richiesta di sequestro preventivo, 16 April 2018, https://bit.ly/34CM9p6. The decision was confirmed in May, see: Giornale di Sicilia, Il Tribunale del Riesame di Ragusa conferma il dissequestro dell'Ong Open Arms, 17 May 2018

[34] Media investigations have highlighted how the LCGN has used lines of Italian vessels to communicate, that its emergency lines are not fully functional, and that its officers in charge of answering phone calls often do not speak English. See: https://bit.ly/2rAAAAJ and https://bit.ly/2p981cH.

[35] Italian Ministry of Defence, Difesa – Marina Militare: unità della Guardia Costiera libica effettua prima operazione di salvataggio dopo le verifiche di efficienza, 27 September 2017, https://bit.ly/36Sq4F0, Also, AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion.

[36] HRW, EU: Shifting Rescue to Libya Risks Lives, June 2017, https://bit.ly/32BUYxO

[37] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017, p.48.

[38]AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017, p.48

[39] Saadi v. the UK, no. 13229/03 § 56, Hirsi § 123. 

[40] Hirsi, § 146

[41] Hirsi, § 146 citing T.I. v. the United Kingdom (dec.), no. 43844/98, ECHR 2000-III, and M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece, cited above, § 342), and 147 “It is a matter for the State carrying out the return to ensure that the intermediary country offers sufficient guarantees to prevent the person concerned being removed to his country of origin without an assessment of the risks faced’. This Court has provided detailed guidance on the requirements for State’s assessment of whether return decisions may expose individuals to risks under this Article. See: F.G.  v. Sweden, no. 43611/11, §111.

[42]Hirsi, §§ 146-47

[43] Hirsi § 137

[44] See Annex listing publications from the Interveners

[45] HRW, EU: Shifting rescue to Libya risks lives, June 2017; AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017; HRW, Disputes Over Rescues Puts Lives At Risk, July 2018; HRW, No Escape from Hell, January 2019

[46] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, pp.26-33, HRW, No Escape from Hell, January 2019

[47] A December 2016 report from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN mission in Libya documented widespread malnutrition, forced labor, illness, beatings, sexual abuse, torture, and other abuses in immigration detention centres in Libya: UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), "Detained and Dehumanised" - Report on Human Rights Abuses Against Migrants in Libya, 13 December 2016, https://bit.ly/2Q6XqKo

[48] UN, Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council resolution 2312 (2016), 7 September 2017, §42, www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2017/761; “The conditions of detention in most facilities are characterized by chronic severe overcrowding, poor hygiene, and a lack of access to basic necessities or adequate medical care. Undernutrition in adults and children is rampant, particularly in facilities outside Tripoli. In some facilities, the conditions of detention in themselves may amount to torture or other ill-treatment.”

[49] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR Position on Returns to Libya - Update II, September 2018, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/5b8d02314.html

[50] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017, p.35.

[52] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, p. 37, citing: among others, Reuters, 15 August 2017, https://reut.rs/2Cni94E

[53]AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, citing Information shared by Mission Lifeline via email on 5 October 2017. See also Steve Scherer, Rescue ship says Libyan coast guard shot at and boarded it, seeking migrants, Reuters, 26 September 2017, https://reut.rs/2NU7Wlg.

[54] OHCHR, "Detained and Dehumanised", abovepp.19-20

[55] HRW, Disputes over rescues puts lives at risk, July 2018, https://bit.ly/36Sumfn

[57] HRW, EU: Shifting rescue to Libya risks lives, Italy should direct safe rescues, June 2017; https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/19/eu-shifting-rescue-libya-risks-lives;

74 HRW, No escape from hell, January 2019, citing: United Nations, “Interim Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011) Concerning Libya.” On file with Human Rights Watch.

[59] UN, Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), 1 June 2017, undocs.org/en/S/2017/466, § 104

[60]https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13371.doc.htm and https://bit.ly/32CH6nh. In 2019 it emerged that, Abd al Rahman al-Milad, head of the Zawiya branch of the LCGN, and, according to the UN report, ’directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms’, was at meetings with Italian officials in Mineo and Rome in May 2017: https://bit.ly/2Cz0AOU (ITA) https://bit.ly/2X5eces (ENG)

[61] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, pp.37-40.

[62] AI, Libya’s dark Wweb of Ccollusion

[63] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, p.20, citing Law no. 6 of 1987 Organizing the Exit, Entry and Residence of Foreign Nationals in Libya, 20 June 1987

[64] HRW, No escape from hell, January 2019

[65] The presence of UN agencies at points of disembarkation in Libya has limited benefits, as Libyan authorities continue to perpetrate violations and those disembarked are immediately transferred to detention centres. See e.g. IOM, IOM deplores death of migrant, killed Thursday upon disembarkation in Tripoli, 19 September 2019,


[66] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, pp.30-33.

[67] HRW visited four DCIM centres in early July 2018. These were Tajoura and Ain Zara centres, both located on the outskirts of Tripoli, Zuwara centre in the town of the same name near the border with Tunisia, and the centre in the area of al-Karareem, near Misrata, a city to the east of Tripoli. They witnessed overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate health care, HRW, No escape from hell, January 2019.

[68] HRW, No escape from hell, July 2019, includes testimonies from detainees in various detention centres who have endured or witnessed abuses: one woman held in detention after an interception at sea said they “beat you with a pipe ... One man, they beat him so bad and they gave him electric shocks ...a man from Sierra Leone tried to escape but they caught him. They beat him unconscious”; a woman who was seven-months’ pregnant, described a guard beating her with a hose; another confirmed: “There is ill treatment here and beatings ... they beat women and flog women on the hand even if you are pregnant. One man tried to escape. They tied his neck like a dog to his legs so he cannot move his legs. They beat him seriously.” Another intercepted at sea confirmed “they will beat us with wooden sticks or plastic tubes”.

[69] See also: UNSMIL/OHCHR, Desperate and Dangerous: Report on the human rights situation of migrants and refugees in Libya, 20 December 2018, pp.38-47.

[70] AI, Libya’s dark web of collusion, December 2017.

[71] A list is provided in AI, Libya’s Dark web of collusion, December 2017, pp. 56-58.

[72] La Stampa, Giro: “Fare rientrare quelle persone vuol dire condannarle all’inferno”, 6 August 2017, https://www.lastampa.it/cronaca/2017/08/14/news/giro-fare-rientrare-quel...

[73] AI, Libya’s Dark web of collusion, December 2017, p.58. Original letter in file with AI.



Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


Croatia Slams Door on Migrants

Abuses Should Rule Out Schengen Accession

 (Budapest) – The European Commission’s October 22, 2019 conclusion that Croatia is ready to join the Schengen Area wilfully brushes over evidence of violent pushbacks of migrants at its borders, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a video documenting the abuses.

The European Commission’s action sends the message that serious human rights abuses are no obstacle to Schengen accession. The European Commission should investigate the situation instead of rewarding Croatia.

“Croatia’s unlawful and violent summary returns of asylum seekers and migrants should disqualify it from joining the Schengen Area,” said Lydia Gall, senior Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ignoring Croatia’s abuses of migrants at its borders makes the notion that Schengen membership is contingent on respect for human rights just meaningless talk.”

The Human Rights Watch video features interviews with people shortly after they were summarily returned to Bosnia by Croatian police in August. It includes interviews with other pushback victims and witnesses of pushbacks, including the mayor of Bihac, a Bosnian town across the border from Croatia. It also shows credible secretly recorded footage of Croatian police officers escorting groups of migrants across the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina without following due process.

A migrant who claims he was beaten by Croatian police while attempting to cross the border to Croatia shows his injury at a factory hall turned migrants facility in Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

© 2019 Darko Bandic/AP Photo

In its assessment, the European Commission acknowledges that denying potential asylum seekers access to the asylum procedure and allegations of use of force by Croatian law enforcement officials remain a challenge. It concludes, however, that the creation of a system to monitor Croatian border guards’ actions and the Croatian government’s promises to investigate allegations are sufficient to conclude that Croatia has done enough “to fulfil its commitment in relation to the protection of human rights.”

The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to European Union asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Human Rights Watch has documented summary collective expulsions from Croatia to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2016. In some instances, Croatian border officials have used force, pummeling people with fists, kicking them, and making them run gauntlets between lines of police officers. Violence has been directed against women and children. Unlike with lawful deportations, migrants are not returned at ports of entry, but rather in remote border areas, including, at times, forced to cross freezing streams.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, and other nongovernmental organizations have echoed Human Rights Watch concerns. Although President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in July acknowledged that authorities engage in pushbacks, Croatian authorities have repeatedly denied the allegations, including to Human Rights Watch, and in some cases have accused aid groups and victims of fabricating facts to make Croatian police look bad.

Croatian authorities have not taken credible steps to halt the practice and to hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in May, the Interior Ministry state secretary, Terezija Gras, said the Croatian police would investigate any complaints filed by migrants about police mistreatment but could not say how many complaints the authorities had received. Nor could she explain how a migrant pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina would be able to a file a complaint with the authorities in Croatia.

To join the Schengen area – where 22 EU member states and 4 non-EU countries have effectively abolished border and passport controls – member states have to fulfil certain criteria set out in EU law, including respect for the right to seek asylum. The EU Schengen Borders Code Article 4 says that member states should act in compliance with EU law and “obligations related to access to international protection, in particular the principle of non-refoulement [banning the return to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or other irreparable harm] and fundamental rights.” Pushbacks effectively preventing people from accessing the Croatian asylum procedure violate Article 4.

Before using the European Commission’s report to approve Croatia’s full access to Schengen, the European Council should call for a reassessment of Croatia’s compliance with the EU Schengen Borders Code. It should press Croatia to demonstrate concrete progress by putting in place an independent and effective monitoring mechanism and require evidence of thorough investigations of summary returns of migrants and asylum seekers at its borders and allegations of Croatian guards using violence against them. The Commission should also initiate legal enforcement action against Croatia for violating EU laws, Human Rights Watch said.  

“Letting Croatia join Schengen when migrants and asylum seekers continue to be brutally pushed back would be an EU green light for abuses,” Gall said. “The European Commission should not just accept Croatia’s empty promises, but ensure that Schengen criteria are truly met, which is clearly not happening now.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Greek national flag flutters atop the parliament building in Athens, Greece, January 28, 2019.

© 2019 REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

(Athens) – Greece’s parliament should scrap provisions in a new bill that threaten to limit asylum seekers’ access to protection, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law, to be debated in parliament this week, would reduce safeguards for asylum seekers from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq in an effort to block the arrival of migrants and refugees in Greece, per a 2016 European Union (EU) migration deal with Turkey.

“The bill is a naked attempt to block access to protection and increase deportations in the face of the recent increase in arrivals,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Greek government should instead prioritize resolving the humanitarian crisis that the deeply flawed deal with Turkey has caused for asylum seekers, and ensure a fair and efficient asylum procedure.”

The bill would make it easier to detain asylum seekers for longer periods. It would scrap important protections for vulnerable people, including unaccompanied children, and it would introduce numerous procedural changes that impede access to a fair asylum process and compromise the right of appeal.

The bill also introduces stricter rules for receiving asylum seekers, delays access to the right to work, narrows the definition of family, and imposes more burdens on torture victims in being recognized as such.

The complex 237-page bill on “international protection and other provisions” was introduced on October 21, 2019 after a rushed six-day public consultation period.

On October 24, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said the draft law “will endanger people who need international protection,” noting the risk that people could be returned to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. The Greek National Commission for Human Rights and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have expressed concerns about the proposals and the accelerated way they were submitted.

The European Commission, which financially supports migration management in Greece, should openly press the Greek government to ensure that any changes in the law will include safeguards required by EU standards. The commission should promote a meaningful responsibility-sharing system among EU member states to ensure fair and efficient asylum procedures.

The bill comes at a time of increased arrivals to the Greek islands. Since the beginning of 2019, 53,462 asylum seekers have reached islands in the Aegean Sea from Turkey, compared to 42,010 during the same period in 2018. The situation on the Greek islands, where 34,400 women, men, and children are trapped in abysmal conditions, has reached a crisis point. Under a containment policy in place since the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, Greek authorities confine asylum seekers on the Aegean islands until their asylum claims are adjudicated, which can take months or even years.

Facilities are severely overcrowded, with significant shortages of basic shelter and unsanitary, unhygienic conditions. At-risk groups such as people with disabilities are often unable to access basic services, such as water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to a chaotic and volatile atmosphere.

“The response to the situation on the Greek Islands should be to ensure a properly equipped asylum system with meaningful responsibility-sharing,” Cossé said. “Greece should abandon the concept that limiting protection for those who escaped conflict and persecution is the way to deal with this situation.”

For details of problematic provisions in the bill, please see below.

Officials from the EU border agency Frontex on a boat between Lesbos, Greece and Dikili, Turkey, deporting migrants on April 4, 2016.

© 2016 Getty

Human Rights Watch highlights the following key concerns:

More Detention

The bill increases the maximum duration of detention of asylum seekers from three months to 18 months. It allows for detaining people who were not detained when they initially applied for asylum. And it scraps the automatic review of administrative detention decisions by a judge, affecting the right of asylum seekers to an effective remedy.

Under international standards, asylum seekers should not, as a rule, be detained. Although EU law allows for immigration-related detention of up to 18 months, it also allows member states to adopt more favorable provisions. EU law also stresses that a person should not be detained solely because they are seeking international protection, and requires states to provide judicial review of the lawfulness of detention.

Fewer Protections for Children

The bill allows the asylum claims of unaccompanied children to be processed under “accelerated” border procedures. The use of such accelerated procedures in national asylum systems has caused concerns about rushed and poor-quality decisionmaking, especially in complex cases. This regression from the current law, which provides for processing asylum claims from unaccompanied children under the regular procedure, would be contrary to the best-interest-of-the-child principle. It would also infringe on EU law, which requires giving asylum claims by unaccompanied children appropriate treatment that respects protections for children.

In addition, the bill perpetuates the detention of unaccompanied children under the so-called “protective custody” regime, even though the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has repeatedly determined that such detention violates children’s rights. Children should never be detained for migration purposes. Detention can cause serious, long-term harm to children’s development, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and memory loss.

Human Rights Watch has documented that children detained in Greece are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often alongside adults they do not know, and that the police have been abusive at times and ill-treated them.

Unfair Procedures

The bill introduces numerous changes to the asylum procedure that would make it harder to receive a fair evaluation and to appeal negative decisions. These include:

  • Asylum seekers currently guaranteed access to the regular asylum procedure because they belong to certain vulnerable groups protected under the law would be subjected to the accelerated border procedure in certain cases. People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTSD), including survivors of shipwrecks, would no longer qualify as vulnerable asylum seekers.
  • The draft law would allow the authorities to forgo an individualized examination of an asylum applicant’s relationship to a third country when that country is designated as generally safe and included in a national list of safe third countries. The draft law would also lower the standard of protection a third country would have to provide to make an asylum seeker’s claim inadmissible in Greece.
  • Under current law, a “first country of asylum” is a country that the asylum seeker has passed through which would provide the applicant “effective protection,” a term that has been defined and analyzed in the context of applying the safe-third-country concept. Under the draft law this would be ratcheted down a notch to merely “adequate protection,” which is not further defined or analyzed. The vagueness and apparent downgrading of the sufficiency of protection in order for a first country of asylum to be considered safe raises concerns about rushed and poor-quality decision making.
  • The bill creates a list of so-called safe countries of origin, with nationals of those countries subjected to an accelerated border procedure that presumes they don’t need international protection. But countries that appear calm on the surface may, in fact, be powder kegs ready to explode, as can be seen over the years in places as diverse as Rwanda, Syria, and Ukraine. Once a country is listed as a “safe country of origin,” a government is not likely to act quickly to remove that country from the list, even as piles of dead bodies quickly mount or as the first waves of refugees make their way to neighboring countries. [In this context, it should be remembered that the European Commission recommended including Turkey on a list of safe countries of origin in 2015.
  • Police officers and members of the armed forces would conduct first instance admissibility interviews in cases of mass arrivals and massive lodging of asylum applications. Such a provision would be a serious setback that would jeopardize the independence of the asylum process. In 2007, when the asylum procedure was entirely in the hands of the Greek police, the approval rate stood at 0.04 percent. At that time, Human Rights Watch attributed the minuscule approval rate to “an institutional culture that takes a presumptively negative view of asylum seekers,” and added that,“Police interviewers do not have sufficient specialized training or independence to conduct proper interviews.”
  • The bill puts a disproportionate burden on asylum seekers. It includes complex and demanding procedures, which an asylum seeker cannot be expected to follow, exacerbated by the gaps in legal aid. If an asylum seeker does not comply with some specific procedural requirements, their application may be deemed to have been tacitly withdrawn and can be rejected without being substantively examined. In some cases, an appeal can be difficult with a very short seven-day filing limit, and requirements to provide full grounds for appeal, even in the absence of being able to get legal counsel during this period. There is also no guarantee that filing an appeal will suspend deportation until it is heard.That would undermine the right to appeal as the effective remedy as required by international and European law.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants and asylum seekers in camp Vucjak where 2,500 people are now living in inhumane conditions without water, electricity, and medical care, Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 2019. 

© 2019 Private

Over a year after Human Rights Watch first criticized Bosnia’s failure to protect the basic rights of migrants and asylum seekers, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is warning of a fast-developing humanitarian emergency in a makeshift camp near the border with Croatia. Over 20,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Bosnia since January 2019, but violent and unlawful pushbacks from Croatia have created a bottleneck on the border, leaving many stranded in unsafe conditions.

The Vučjak tent camp was already overcrowded with 700 migrants living without running water, electricity, or medical care. But on October 16, police transferred around 1,700 more people to the camp from Bihać, the largest town in the area.

Built on a landfill near a field of active landmines left over from the war, conditions at Vučjak were already so deplorable that IOM has refused to operate there since Bihać city administration set up the camp in June 2019. Earlier this month the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights of Migrants called the camp unlivable for humans, which the UN office in Bosnia also echoed this week, calling for the immediate relocation of all migrants to adequate accommodation. Part of the problem, Šuhret Fazlić, the mayor of Bihać, told Human Rights Watch recently, is the failure of central authorities to provide shelter that meets acceptable humanitarian standards for the roughly 6,000 migrants in his town. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner urged the government to provide help to local authorities to handle the crisis in a manner compliant with human rights standards.

Fazlić is now threatening to cut services that the city has been providing to the camp, including water and sanitation. Meanwhile, the Red Cross, the only organization still operating in Vučjak, has announced it may need to halt operations due to the deteriorating situation in the camp. Bosnian authorities should act quickly to move migrants and asylum seekers from Vučjak to a place with safe and sanitary living conditions.

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

Building owned by the Marseille Church, where about 320 migrants currently live, including families and about 170 unaccompanied migrant children, Marseille, France, October 2019. 

© 2019 Collectif 59 Saint-Just

In Marseille, France, unaccompanied migrant children whom child protection authorities failed to provide a living place for have been squatting in an unoccupied building owned by the Catholic church. Now, even though it’s the Bouches-du-Rhône department that has failed to protect them, the authorities are prosecuting the children for illegal occupation of this building.

This perverse situation illustrates the French authorities’ shortcomings in protecting these children. About 170 unaccompanied children live in the building, according to the Collectif 59 St-Just and Réseau éducation sans frontières (Education Without Borders), groups working with youth.

The squat is overcrowded and infested with bed bugs, and is wholly inappropriate for children. But because the child protection system didn’t find them a place to live as it should have, the children view the squat as their only solution.|

Some of the youth being brought to court have been legally recognized as children and should be taken into care by child protection services. Others are in the process of having their age assessed, which sometimes takes weeks, and should be placed in shelters. According to local groups, as of yesterday, 36 children who had received a placement order from a judge, and should legally have been taken into care, were still living in the squat.

Age assessment in France has not always been fair, and Human Rights Watch has documented inappropriate age assessment procedures in Paris and the Hautes-Alpes. However, in Marseille, even some who were recognized as children after these procedures are left in the streets.

On October 11, in a case brought before Marseille’s administrative court on behalf of a migrant child, the court acknowledged that the squat’s living conditions are not acceptable for unaccompanied migrant children. It ordered the department to provide appropriate accommodation, as well as to take the child into care.

Even though the authorities’ failings have forced the children to live in precarious conditions, it is the children, because of the eviction proceedings, who have had to appear before a court. This is wrong. It’s past time for authorities to assume responsibility for these children, including those awaiting an age assessment, and find them a safe place to live and give them the care to which they are entitled.

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

A Syrian man reads inside his tent at a makeshift camp outside Moria on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, May 5, 2018.

© 2019 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

The Greek islands are under the spotlight again, as a new wave of tragic events has hit asylum seekers trapped there. On 29 September, a big fire broke out in Moria - the notorious camp on the island of Lesbos - killing one woman, and injuring at least nine more people, including a baby, the health ministry reported.

On 24 September, a truck killed a five-year-old Afghan boy who was playing just outside Moria.

The number of asylum seekers crossing the Aegean from Turkey is also increasing.

With camps already overcrowded, conditions are horrific for asylum seekers and migrants trapped there. According to the government's most recent figures, 26,753 women, men and children live in camps designed for about 6,300.

The number has almost doubled since June.

But while the numbers have increased, neither the horrible conditions nor the flawed policies that cause them are new. Underinvestment, a poorly functioning asylum system, and a deliberate policy choice to confine asylum seekers to islands has left thousands trapped there for months or years in inhuman and degrading conditions.

Forcing migrants and asylum seekers to remain on the islands was ostensibly to expedite their return to Turkey under the March 2016 EU-Turkey deal.

But on 11 September, Gerald Knaus, head of a research organisation whose ideas inspired the EU-Turkey deal, wrote that: "The situation on Greek islands is unacceptable, the asylum system on the verge of collapse. This is a moment of truth."

This is indeed a moment of truth.

And the real challenge is not the number of arrivals by sea on the Greek Islands, but the unjustified suffering of thousands of people.

The crisis narrative leads only to security-driven responses that put asylum seekers' rights and dignity second.

The reality is that very few of those stuck on the islands have been returned to Turkey or to their countries of origin. Most can't be returned as Turkey is not a safe country for them.

And while Greek authorities have transferred some people to the mainland, they have refused to change the containment policy, even after a high court ruling.

Meanwhile, many people are sleeping in tents in makeshift camps around government-run facilities, or just out in the open.

They face severe unsanitary, unhygienic conditions, and don't have access to most basic services such as water and food. Medical care, trauma counselling, and mental health support are inadequate. Physical and gender-based violence are quite common.

Almost 1,300 unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children are living in this insecure environment. Along with thousands of other school-age children, they are out of school, effectively denied education.

This has been going on for four years now.

Deliberate chaos

Aid groups say that about 7,000 people have received the green light to move to the mainland but transfers are extremely slow due to the lack of organisation, and of available accommodation.

But even when they are able to move, it won't solve the problem. The lack of a permanent relocation system for asylum seekers to other European countries as well as the long delays in processing family reunification requests only makes the situation worse.

The chaos on the Greek islands is not the evidence of Europe's inability to manage migration - but of its deliberate unwillingness to do so.

The Greek government needs to improve how it meets its legal obligation toward asylum seekers, including improving reception conditions and procedures.

It needs a long-term strategy that takes into account both the benefits of refugee integration and the needs of local host communities.

And European leaders need to take on their share of responsibility with a permanent system for receiving asylum seekers, processing their asylum applications and speeding family reunification to alleviate the burden on Greece.

Last week's discussion on the 'central Mediterranean route' in Malta should offer inspiration to Greece and EU leaders.

What Greece needs is for its new government to have the courage to say what everyone knows needs to happen, namely that the large-scale returns to Turkey are off the table, that the island containment policy is unsustainable and that the asylum system needs to be properly resourced.

And Greece also needs its fellow EU member states to work together to create a meaningful responsibility-sharing system to treat people with dignity and provide them with fair and efficient asylum procedures.

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

Italy's Giovanna Epis is pushed in a wheelchair during the women's marathon at the World Athletics Championships, in Doha, Qatar, September 29, 2019.

© 2019 Grigory Sysoev / Sputnik via AP

Nearly half the athletes participating in the women’s marathon at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha on Sunday pulled out of the race in what The Telegraph described as “shocking scenes of multiple athletes collapsing in distress.” Despite starting the race at midnight, runners were battling 30 Celsius temperatures and humidity levels above 80 percent.

“The humidity kills you,” said one runner who did manage to cross the finish line.

In response, the IAAF said they had done everything possible to minimize heat-related risks, including recruiting leading medical experts to monitor weather conditions, more medical staff on site, and increasing the number of refreshment points along the course. Organizers also proudly proclaimed no athlete succumbed to heat stroke following the race.  

Watching this unfold, it is impossible not to reflect on the thousands of migrant construction workers in Qatar who do grueling work in similar weather conditions for up to 12 hours a day for six, and sometimes even seven, days a week, with woefully less protections in place.

Two years ago, Human Rights Watch released a report on the failure of the government to implement adequate heat regulations to protect the lives of workers toiling away outdoors. The report also documented the government’s lack of transparency on migrant worker deaths.

Today, despite repeated warnings of potentially fatal heat-related illnesses and precise recommendations on how to improve working conditions for migrant workers, heat protection regulations for workers in Qatar still only prohibit outdoor work at midday hours during the hottest summer months of the year. Authorities are also still refusing to report how many migrant workers died since 2012 and to seriously investigate why.

Will images of elite runners tumbling to the ground in exhaustion and being wheeled off course by medical teams spur athletes, journalists, event organizers, and international spectators to pressure Qatar to finally make migrant workers’ lives a priority? It should. Could that prompt Qatar to do so before the next and by far the biggest sports event in the world takes place in Doha in three years – the 2022 FIFA World Cup? After all, it is migrant workers who continue to shoulder the burden of building and delivering the mega event – and they are doing so, day after day, in the same oppressive heat that brought down the runners.

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

Migrants applying for asylum in the United States go through a processing area at a new tent courtroom at the Migration Protection Protocols Immigration Hearing Facility, September 17, 2019, in Laredo, Texas. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Eric Gay

(Ciudad Juarez, Mexico) –The Trump administration has drastically expanded its “Remain in Mexico” program while undercutting the rights of asylum seekers at the United States southern border, Human Rights Watch said today. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – known as the “Remain in Mexico” program – asylum seekers in the US are returned to cities in Mexico where there is a shortage of shelter and high crime rates while awaiting asylum hearings in US immigration court.

Human Rights Watch found that asylum seekers face new or increased barriers to obtaining and communicating with legal counsel; increased closure of MPP court hearings to the public; and threats of kidnapping, extortion, and other violence while in Mexico.

“The inherently inhumane ‘Remain in Mexico’ program is getting more abusive by the day,” said Ariana Sawyer, assistant US Program researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The program’s rapid growth in recent months has put even more people and families in danger in Mexico while they await an increasingly unfair legal process in the US.”

The United States will begin sending all Central American asylum-seeking families to Mexico beginning the week of September 29, 2019 as part of the most recent expansion of the "Remain in Mexico" program, the Department of Homeland Security acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, announced on September 23.

Human Rights Watch concluded in a July 2019 report that the MPP program has had serious rights consequences for asylum seekers, including high – if not insurmountable – barriers to due process on their asylum claims in the United States and threats and physical violence in Mexico. Human Rights Watch recently spoke to seven asylum seekers, as well as 26 attorneys, migrant shelter operators, Mexican government officials, immigration court workers, journalists, and advocates. Human Rights Watch also observed court hearings for 71 asylum seekers in August and analyzed court filings, declarations, photographs, and media reports.

“The [MPP] rules, which are never published, are constantly changing without advance notice,” said John Moore, an asylum attorney. “And so far, every change has had the effect of further restricting the already limited access we attorneys have with our clients.”

Beyond the expanded program, which began in January, the US State Department has also begun funding a “voluntary return” program carried out by the United Nations-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM). The organization facilitates the transportation of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico back to their country of origin but does not notify US immigration judges. This most likely results in negative judgments against asylum seekers for not appearing in court, possibly resulting in a ban of up to 10 years on entering the US again, when they could have withdrawn their cases without penalty.

Since July, the number of people being placed in the MPP program has almost tripled, from 15,079 as of June 24, to 40,033 as of September 7, according to the Mexican National Institute of Migration. The Trump administration has increased the number of asylum seekers it places in the program at ports of entry near San Diego and Calexico, California and El Paso, Texas, where the program had already been in place. The administration has also expanded the program to Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, even as the overall number of border apprehensions has declined.

As of early August, more than 26,000 additional asylum seekers were waiting in Mexican border cities on unofficial lists to be processed by US Customs and Border Protection as part the US practice of “metering,” or of limiting the number of people who can apply for asylum each day by turning them back from ports of entry in violation of international law.

In total, more than 66,000 asylum seekers are now in Mexico, forced to wait months or years for their cases to be decided in the US. Some have given up waiting and have attempted to cross illicitly in more remote and dangerous parts of the border, at times with deadly results.

As problematic as the MPP program is, seeking asylum will likely soon become even more limited. On September 11, the Supreme Court temporarily allowed the Trump administration to carry out an asylum ban against anyone entering the country by land after July 16 who transited through a third country without applying for asylum there. This could affect at least 46,000 asylum seekers, placed in the MPP program or on a metering list after mid-July, according to calculations based on data from the Mexican National Institute of Migration. Asylum seekers may still be eligible for other forms of protection, but they carry much higher eligibility standards and do not provide the same level of relief.

Human Rights Watch contacted the Department of Homeland Security and the US Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review with its findings and questions regarding the policy changes and developments but have not to date received a response. The US government should immediately cease returning asylum seekers to Mexico and instead ensure them meaningful access to full and fair asylum proceedings in US immigration courts, Human Rights Watch said. Congress should urgently act to cease funding the MPP program. The US should manage asylum-seeker arrivals through a genuine humanitarian response that includes fair determinations of an asylum seeker’s eligibility to remain in the US. The US should simultaneously pursue longer-term efforts to address the root causes of forced displacement in Central America.

“The Trump administration seems intent on making the bad situation for asylum seekers even worse by further depriving them of due process rights,” Sawyer said. “The US Congress should step in and put an end to these mean-spirited attempts to undermine and destroy the US asylum system.”

New Concerns over the MPP Program

Increased Barriers to Legal Representation

Everyone in the MPP has the right to an attorney at their own cost, but it has been nearly impossible for asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico to get legal representation. Only about 1.3 percent of  participants have legal representation, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, a research center that examined US immigration court records through June 2019. In recent months, the US government has raised new barriers to obtaining representation and accessing counsel.

When the Department of Homeland Security created the program, it issued guidance that:

in order to facilitate access to counsel for aliens subject to return to Mexico under the MPP who will be transported to their immigration court hearings, [agents] will depart from the [port of entry] with the alien at a time sufficient to ensure arrival at the immigration court not later than one hour before his or her scheduled hearing time in order to afford the alien the opportunity to meet in-person with his or her legal representative.

However, according to several attorneys Human Rights Watch interviewed in El Paso, Texas, and as Human Rights Watch observed on August 12 to 15 in El Paso Immigration Court, the Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which manages the immigration court, have effectively barred attorneys from meeting with clients for the full hour before their client’s hearing begins. Rather than having free access to their clients, attorneys are now required to wait in the building lobby on a different level than the immigration court until the court administrator notifies security guards that attorneys may enter.

As Human Rights Watch has previously noted, one hour is insufficient for adequate attorney consultation and preparation. Still, several attorneys said that this time in court was crucial. Immigration court is often the only place where asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico can meet with attorneys since lawyers capable of representing them typically work in the US. Attorneys cannot easily travel to Mexico because of security and logistical issues. For MPP participants without attorneys, there are now also new barriers to getting basic information and assistance about the asylum application process.

Human Rights Watch observed in May a coordinated effort by local nongovernmental organizations and attorneys in El Paso to perform know-your-rights presentations for asylum seekers without an attorney and to serve as “Friend of the Court,” at the judge’s discretion. The Executive Office for Immigration Review has recognized in the context of unaccompanied minors that a Friend of the Court “has a useful role to play in assisting the court and enhancing a respondent’s comprehension of proceedings.”

The agency’s memos also say that, “Immigration Judges and court administrators remain encouraged to facilitate pro bono representation” because pro bono attorneys provide “respondents with welcome legal assistance and the judge with efficiencies that can only be realized when the respondent is represented.”

To that end, immigration courts are encouraged to support “legal orientations and group rights presentations” by nonprofit organizations and attorneys.

One of the attorneys involved in coordinating the various outreach programs at the El Paso Immigration Court said, however, that on June 24 the agency began barring all contact between third parties and asylum seekers without legal representation in both the courtroom and the lobby outside. This effectively ended all know-your-rights presentations and pro bono case screenings, though no new memo was issued. Armed guards now prevent attorneys in the US from interacting with MPP participants unless the attorneys have already filed official notices that they are representing specific participants.

On July 8, the agency also began barring attorneys from serving as “Friend of the Court,” several attorneys told Human Rights Watch. No new memo has been issued on “Friend of the Court” either.

In a July 16 email to an attorney obtained by Human Rights Watch, an agency spokesman, Rob Barnes, said that the agency shut down “Friend of the Court” and know-your-rights presentations to protect asylum seekers from misinformation after it “became aware that persons from organizations not officially recognized by EOIR...were entering EOIR space in El Paso.

However, most of the attorneys and organizations now barred from performing know-your-rights presentations or serving as “Friend of the Court” in El Paso are listed on a form given to asylum seekers by the court of legal service providers, according to a copy of the form given to Human Rights Watch and attorneys and organizations coordinating those services.

Closure of Immigration Court Hearings to the Public

When Human Rights Watch observed court hearings in El Paso on May 8 to 10, the number of asylum seekers who had been placed in the MPP program and scheduled to appear in court was between 20 and 24 each day, with one judge hearing all of these cases in a single mass hearing. At the time, those numbers were considered high, and there was chaos and confusion as judges navigated a system that was never designed to provide hearings for people being kept outside the US.

When Human Rights Watch returned to observe hearings just over three months later, four judges were hearing a total of about 250 cases a day, an average of over 60 cases for each judge. Asylum seekers in the program, who would previously have been allowed into the US to pursue their claims at immigration courts dispersed around the country, have been primarily funneled through courts in just two border cities, causing tremendous pressures on these courts and errors in the system. Some asylum seekers who appeared in court found their cases were not in the system or received conflicting instructions about where or when to appear.

One US immigration official said the MPP program had “broken the courts,” Reuters reported.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review has stated that immigration court hearings are generally supposed to be open to the public. The regulations indicate that immigration judges may make exceptions and limit or close hearings if physical facilities are inadequate; if there is a need to protect witnesses, parties, or the public interest; if an abused spouse or abused child is to appear; or if information under seal is to be presented.

In recent weeks, however, journalists, attorneys, and other public observers have been barred from these courtrooms in El Paso by court administrators, security guards, and in at least one case, by a Department of Homeland Security attorney, who said that a courtroom was too full to allow a Human Rights Watch researcher entry.

Would-be observers are now frequently told by the court administrator or security guards that there is “no room,” and that dockets are all “too full.”

El Paso Immigration Court Administrator Rodney Buckmire told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of people receive hearings each day because asylum seekers “deserve their day in court,” but the chaos and errors in mass hearings, the lack of access to attorneys and legal advice, and the lack of transparency make clear that the MPP program is severely undermining due process.

During the week of September 9, the Trump administration began conducting hearings for asylum seekers returned to Mexico in makeshift tent courts in Laredo and Brownsville, where judges are expected to preside via videoconference. At a September 11 news conference, DHS would not commit to allowing observers for those hearings, citing “heightened security measures” since the courts are located near the border. Both attorneys and journalists have since been denied entry to these port courts.

Asylum Seekers Describe Risk of Kidnapping, Other Crimes

As the MPP has expanded, increasing numbers of asylum seekers have been placed at risk of kidnapping and other crimes in Mexico.

Two of the northern Mexican states to which asylum seekers were initially being returned under the program, Baja California and Chihuahua, are among those with the most homicides and other crimes in the country. Recent media reports have documented ongoing harm to asylum seekers there, including rape, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, assault, and other violent crimes.

The program has also been expanded to Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros, both in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which is on the US State Department’s “do not travel” list. The media and aid workers have also reported that migrants there have experienced physical violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, and other abuses. There have been multiple reports in 2019 alone of migrants being kidnapped as they attempt to reach the border by bus.

Jennifer Harbury, a human rights attorney and activist doing volunteer work with asylum-seekers on both sides of the border, collected sworn declarations that they had been victims of abuse from three asylum seekers who had been placed in the MPP program and bused by Mexican immigration authorities to Monterrey, Mexico, two and a half hours from the border. Human Rights Watch examined these declarations, in which asylum seekers reported robbery, extortion, and kidnapping, including by Mexican police.

Expansion to Mexican Cities with Even Fewer Protections

Harbury, who recently interviewed hundreds of migrants in Mexico, described asylum seekers sent to Nuevo Laredo as “fish in a barrel” because of their vulnerability to criminal organizations. She said that many of the asylum seekers she interviewed said they had been kidnapped or subjected to an armed assault at least once since they reached the border.

Because Mexican officials are in many cases reportedly themselves involved in crimes against migrants, and because nearly 98 percent of crimes in Mexico go unsolved, crimes committed against migrants routinely go unpunished.

In Matamoros, asylum seekers have no meaningful shelter access, said attorneys with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) who were last there from August 22 to 26. Instead, more than 500 asylum seekers were placed in an encampment in a plaza near the port of entry to the US, where they were sleeping out in the open, despite temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Henriette Vinet-Martin, a lawyer with the group, said she saw a “nursing mother sleeping on cardboard with her baby” and that attorneys also spoke to a woman in the MPP program there who said she had recently miscarried in a US hospital while in Customs and Border Protection custody. The attorneys said some asylum seekers had tents, but many did not.

Vinet-Martin and Claire Noone, another lawyer there as part of the L4GG project, said they found children with disabilities who had been placed in the MPP program, including two children with Down Syndrome, one of them eight months old.

Human Rights Watch also found that Customs and Border Protection continues to return asylum seekers with disabilities or other chronic health conditions to Mexico, despite the Department of Homeland Security’s initial guidance that no one with “known physical/mental health issues” would be placed in the program. In Ciudad Juárez, Human Rights Watch documented six such cases, four of them children. In one case, a 14-year-old boy had been placed in the program along with his mother and little brother, who both have intellectual disabilities, although the boy said they have family in the US. He appeared to be confused and distraught by his situation.

The Mexican government has taken some steps to protect migrants in Ciudad Juárez, including opening a large government-operated shelter. The shelter, which Human Rights Watch visited on August 22, has a capacity of 3,000 migrants and is well-stocked with food, blankets, sleeping pads, personal hygiene kits, and more. At the time of the visit, the shelter held 555 migrants, including 230 children, primarily asylum seekers in the MPP program.

One Mexican government official said the government will soon open two more shelters – one in Tijuana with a capacity of 3,000 and another in Mexicali with a capacity of 1,500.

Problems Affecting the ‘Assisted Voluntary Return’ Program

In October 2018, the International Organization for Migration began operating a $1.65 million US State Department-funded “Assisted Voluntary Return” program to assist migrants who have decided or felt compelled to return home. The return program originally targeted Central Americans traveling in large groups through the interior of Mexico. However, in July, the program began setting up offices in Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Mexicali focusing on asylum seekers forced to wait in those cities after being placed in the MPP program. Alex Rigol Ploettner, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Ciudad Juárez, said that the organization also provides material support such as bunk beds and personal hygiene kits to shelters, which the organization asks to refer interested asylum seekers to the Assisted Voluntary Return program. Four shelter operators in Ciudad Juárez confirmed these activities.

As of late August, Rigol Ploettner said approximately 500 asylum seekers in the MPP program had been referred to Assisted Voluntary Return. Of those 500, he said, about 95 percent were found to be eligible for the program.

He said the organization warns asylum seekers that returning to their home country may cause them to receive deportation orders from the US in absentia, meaning they will most likely face a ban on entering the US of up to 10 years.

The organization does not inform US immigration courts that they have returned asylum seekers, nor are asylum seekers assisted in withdrawing their petition for asylum, which would avoid future penalties in the US.

“For now, as the IOM, we don’t have a direct mechanism for withdrawal,” Rigol Ploettner said.  Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the failure to notify the asylum courts when people who are on US immigration court dockets return home and the negative legal consequences for asylum seekers. These concerns are heightened by the environment in which the Assisted Voluntary Return Program is operating. Asylum seekers in the MPP are in such a vulnerable situation that it cannot be assumed that decisions to return home are based on informed consent.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

September 23, 2019

Via Federal e-Rulemaking Portal

Acting Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan 
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20229

RE: Request for Comment on Designating Aliens for Expedited Removal, 84 Fed. Reg. 35409 (Jul. 23, 2019)
Docket No. DHS-2019-0036-0001

Dear Acting Secretary McAleenan,

Human Rights Watch writes in response to Docket No. DHS-2019-0036-0001, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) request for comments on Designating Aliens for Expedited Removal, 84 Fed. Reg. 35409 (Jul. 23, 2019) (hereinafter, the Rule). This immediately effective notice broadly expanded the scope of expedited removal to include individuals apprehended after residing in the United States for up to two years and/or in the interior of the United States. The new rule will likely result in serious harm to immigrants and their families.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[e]veryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948). The United States committed to the central guarantees of the 1951 Refugee Convention by its accession to the Refugee Convention’s 1967 Protocol. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 150, entered into force April 22, 1954; U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 U.N.T.S. 268, entered into force October 4, 1967. The US government passed the Refugee Act of 1980 in order to bring the country’s laws into compliance with the Refugee Convention and Protocol, by incorporating into US law the convention’s definition of a “refugee” and the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of refugees to countries where they would face persecution. Refugee Act of 1980, Pub. L. No. 96-212, 94 Stat 102 (1980).

The US, as a party to the Convention against Torture, is also obligated not to return someone to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that [they] would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” Convention against Torture, art. 3(1).

Human Rights Watch has found that under expedited removal, as previously applied at the border, US immigration officials have failed to properly identify asylum seekers and have therefore violated its international human rights obligations. Human Rights Watch “You Don’t Have Rights Here”: US Border Screening and Returns of Central Americans to Risk of Serious Harm” (Oct. 2014).

A 2005 study commissioned by Congress similarly documented numerous “serious problems” in the expedited removal process “which put some asylum seekers at risk of improper return.” U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Religious Freedom, Report on Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal: Volume I: Findings & Recommendations 4-5, 10 (2005) (“2005 USCIRF Study”). A 2016 follow-up study “revealed continuing and new concerns about [Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”)] officers’ interviewing practices and the reliability of the records they create, including . . . certain CBP officers’ outright skepticism, if not hostility, toward asylum claims; and inadequate quality assurance procedures.” U.S. Comm’n on Int’l Religious Freedom, Barriers to Protection: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Expedited Removal 2 (2016) (“2016 USCIRF Study”).

The broad expansion of expedited removal into the entire country will expose thousands more people living in the US to these same flawed procedures.

For the following reasons, Human Rights Watch requests that DHS immediately halt implementation of the expansion of expedited removal and take steps to ameliorate the well-documented problems in the expedited removal process as it existed prior to the Rule.

1.   DHS should not expand the scope of expedited removal because its officers regularly fail to identify asylum seekers and interfere with the right of individuals in expedited removal to pursue asylum claims.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are required to screen people in expedited removal for fear of return to their country and, if the noncitizen expresses fear, refer them for a credible or reasonable fear interview by asylum officers with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

Despite this requirement, Human Rights Watch spoke with deportees who reported that they were not informed of the availability of protection or that they were not referred to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview after they told a Border Patrol agent they were afraid to return to their country. Human Rights Watch, “You Don’t Have Rights Here” at 26.

All of the people we interviewed for this report expressed a fear of returning to Honduras, but fewer than half were referred by US Border Patrol for a credible or reasonable fear interview. Id. at 6.

Some would-be asylum seekers reported that Border Patrol officers harassed, threatened, and attempted to dissuade them from applying for asylum. One man told Human Rights Watch, “The officers don’t pay attention to you. If you say you are afraid they say they ‘can’t do anything…All they said to me was that if I came back they would give me six months in prison.” Id. at 27.

In another investigation, parents separated from their children told Human Rights Watch immigration officials induced them to waive their rights, including to seek asylum, telling them it was the only way, or the fastest way to be reunited with their children. Human Rights Watch, “Separated Families Report Trauma, Lies, Coercion” (July 26, 2018). See also, Human Rights Watch, In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells (Feb. 2018) at 30 (several women told Human Rights Watch that immigration officials pressured them to accept return to their home countries).

Asylum seekers who were not referred for a credible fear interview told Human Rights Watch that interviews by CBP are brief and focused on explaining additional consequences of deportation, such as bars to return for set periods of time, rather than exploring their fear of return. Some asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that when they tried to tell US officials about their fear of returning, they were denied further exploration of that claim, and were put in touch with consular officers from their country of origin. This practice runs counter to international protection standards, which recognize the problematic relationship asylum seekers may have with officials from their home countries. Human Rights Watch, “You Don’t Have Rights Here” at 29.

Human Rights Watch has also received and analyzed governmental records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that demonstrate asylum officers within the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have repeatedly provided internal reports on Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) problematic practices. Human Rights Watch, “US FOIA Suit on Border Guards’ Rights Abuses” (March 26, 2018). Although these records were heavily redacted and Human Rights Watch filed suit to obtain production of more responsive documents, the documents it has obtained provide details about multiple cases of intimidation, verbal, and even physical abuse by CBP officers.

One email from an asylum officer indicated that an asylum seeker was intimidated by CBP into withdrawing his case: “What is especially disturbing about this is that … the record indicates that he has been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical mistreatment by CBP upon his recent entry into the US, and [ ] this mistreatment. . . affected his decision to dissolve his case.” Ibid.

Other organizations have similarly found CBP routinely fails to identify asylum seekers. See e.g., Borderland Immigration Council, Discretion to Deny: Family Separation, Prolonged Detention, and Deterrence of Asylum Seekers at the Hands of Immigration Authorities Along the U.S.-Mexico Border 12 (2017) (“In 12% of the cases documented for this report, individuals expressing fear of violence upon return to their country of origin were not processed for credible fear screenings and instead, were placed into removal proceedings.”); DHS Office of the Inspector General, Special Review—Initial Observations Regarding Family Separation Issues Under the Zero Tolerance Policy (Sept. 27, 2018) (describing CBP practices amounting to failure to properly refer asylum seekers for CFIs in order to “regulat[e] the flow of asylum-seekers at ports of entry”); Amnesty International, Facing Walls: USA and Mexico’s Violations of the Rights of Asylum-Seekers (2017) (describing CBP agents’ coercion of and threats to asylum seekers, including making them recant their claims of fear on video, claiming that they cannot seek asylum without a ticket from officials in Mexico, and claiming that there is no more asylum for individuals from certain countries); American Immigration Council, Deportations in the Dark: Lack of Process and Information in the Removal of Mexican Migrants, 1, 2, 5, 7-8 (Sept. 2017) (reporting that 55.7% of a survey of 600 deported Mexican migrants were not asked if they feared return to Mexico and describing numerous incidents of CBP interference with asylum claims); American Immigration Council, Still No Action Taken: Complaints Against Border Patrol Agents Continue to Go Unanswered, 9 (Aug. 2017) (reporting CBP’s failure to act in response to complaints of misconduct, including complaints that agents ignored claims of fear or persecution); Human Rights First, Crossing the Line: U.S. Border Agents Illegally Reject Asylum Seekers (May 2017) (documenting CBP abuses towards asylum seekers, including ignoring asylum claims, stating that the United States no longer provides asylum, providing other false information, mocking and intimidating asylum seekers, imposing procedures to deter asylum seekers from pursuing their claims, and coercing asylum seekers into giving up their claims); 2016 USCIRF Study at 20-32 (documenting examples of failure to properly screen for fear of return in CBP primary inspection interviews); American Civil Liberties Union, American Exile: Rapid Deportations That Bypass the Courtroom, 4 (Dec. 2014) (reporting that 55% of 89 interviewed individuals who received summary removal orders, including expedited removal orders, were not asked about fear of persecution in language they could understand and 40% of those asked about fear were deported without a CFI despite expressing fear of return); 2005 USCIRF Study at 53-54 (finding that in 15% of observed cases, when a noncitizen expressed a fear of return to an immigration officer during the inspections process, the officer failed to refer the individual to an asylum officer for a credible fear interview). 

US government data itself indicates that credible fear referrals by CBP for nationals of Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been extremely low. An analysis of data obtained from CBP by Human Rights Watch under the Freedom of Information Act found that between October 2010 and September 2012, only 1.9 percent of Hondurans were flagged for credible fear assessments by CBP. Similarly, only 0.1 percent of Mexicans, 0.8 percent of Guatemalans, and 5.5 percent of Salvadorans in expedited or reinstatement of removal were referred to a credible or reasonable fear interview by CBP. However, 21 percent of migrants from countries other than these, who underwent the same proceedings in the same years, were flagged for credible fear interviews by CBP. Human Rights Watch, “You Don’t Have Rights Here” at 21-24.

Should DHS continue to implement the Rule, the well-documented failure of immigration officers to fulfill their basic obligations to asylum seekers facing expedited removal is likely to continue as well. The Rule itself suggests, now that DHS has expanded the scope of expedited removal, that tens of thousands more individuals each year could be forced through this flawed system that routinely deprives individuals of their right to have their claims examined in a credible fear interview with an asylum officer. See 84 Fed. Reg. at 35411.

In order to safeguard asylum seekers’ right to seek protection from persecution and torture, DHS should halt implementation of the Rule.

2.   DHS should not expand the scope of expedited removal because its officers routinely record inaccurate or false information on expedited removal forms and coerce noncitizens into signing forms they do not understands. 

The content of the paperwork that DHS officers complete during expedited removal proceedings has a profound impact on the individuals subject to expedited removal—for many, it will result in their immediate deportation; for others, the content of forms filled out during initial interviews will impact assessments of their credibility in subsequent proceedings. Yet this paperwork is often replete with errors.

Human Rights Watch has spoken with deportees and detainees who reported they resisted signing forms offered by Border Patrol, or were coerced into signing something they did not understand. As noted above, Human Rights Watch has also received documents in which USCIS asylum officers have recorded complaints of DHS officers coercing asylum seekers to sign forms and including inaccurate information in such paperwork.

Mateo S., who had fled death threats from a gang, said he tried to not sign papers agreeing to his deportation:

I was detained for six days in the cold rooms. They just asked me my name, where I came from, and they told me I was punished for five years and I had to sign the deportation. I didn’t want to sign. When the moment of the interview came I said I wouldn’t sign. The officer insulted me. They started waking me up every couple of hours and moving me from cell to cell. It was hard…. The officer filled out all the paperwork and told me to sign, I told him I wouldn’t sign and I hoped the US government would admit me. He ripped up all the paper and threw it almost at my face. He told me I was deported anyway. He said he “had the law in his hand and he was going to sign for me.” I told him he was violating my right to life and he said, “You don’t have rights here.” Human Rights Watch, “You Don’t Have Rights Here” at 28.

The records also include instances recorded by asylum officers in which CBP officers are said to have refused to record an asylum seeker’s fear: “I told them I was very fearful and please not to be deported, they started laughing”; as well as instances in which CBP officers allegedly fabricated the response to a question that it never asked: “Q: when border protection asked you if you were afraid to go back to El Salvador, you said no; why did you say no? A: I did not say no, those questions were not asked from me.” Human Rights Watch, “US: FOIA Suit on Border Guards’ Rights Abuses.”

Edwin H., from Honduras, who was separated from his son in 2018, told Human Rights Watch, “An official gave me the results of my interview [an initial credible fear interview, the first stage in pursuing an asylum claim]. He pointed to a box and told me to mark it and sign the form. I said I wasn’t going to sign it because I didn’t know what I was signing. He got angry. ‘You have to sign. You don’t want to have your son back?’ Under that pressure, I signed. I didn’t understand it because it was all in English.” Human Rights Watch examined the document he signed, in which he waived the right to see an immigration judge to explain the reasons why he feared returning to his home country. Human Rights Watch, “Separated Families Report Trauma, Lies, Coercion.”

Others have made similar findings, including DHS officers’ failure to provide people in expedited removal proceedings with the opportunity to review and respond to information in the paperwork, use of coercion to force people to sign forms they do not understand, and requiring individuals to sign paperwork despite interpretation failures that impact their ability to understand the proceedings. See, e.g., Borderland Immigration Council, Discretion to Deny at 13 (noting that “[i]ndividuals are forced to sign legal documents in English without translation” and “that CBP affidavits are often inconsistent with asylum-seekers’ own accounts”); 2016 USCIRF Study at 2, 20-22 (discussing “continuing and new concerns about CBP officers’ interviewing practices and the reliability of the records they create”); American Civil Liberties Union, American Exile at 34-36 (describing noncitizens who were required to sign forms in languages they do not understand); 2005 USCRIF Study at 74 (explaining that statements recorded by CBP officers “are often inaccurate and are almost always unverifiable”); id. at 55 (“Study observations indicate that paper files created by the inspector are not always reliable indicators” of whether a credible fear interview was merited.); id. at 53 (noting that expedited removal forms were routinely inaccurate); United States v. Sanchez-Figuero, No. 3:19-cr-00025-MMD-WGC, slip op. at 2, 9 (D. Nev. July 25, 2019) (dismissing unlawful reentry indictment where defendant, who had not slept for 36 hours at the time of apprehension, “was not informed of the charge against him and never received a meaningful opportunity to review the sworn statement”); United States v. Raya-Vaca, 771 F.3d 1195, 1205-06, 1210-11 (9th Cir. 2014) (holding that immigration officer’s failure during expedited removal process to advise the defendant of the charge of removability and to permit him to review the sworn statement prepared by the officer violated his due process rights to notice and an opportunity to respond).

Forcing tens of thousands more individuals, many of whom will have lived in the United States for significant periods of time and developed substantial ties, through this flawed and fast-tracked system is not appropriate. To avoid subjecting more individuals with claims to relief—or who never should have been subject to expedited removal even under the Rule’s broad scope—to a system replete with coercion, factual errors, and inadequate translation, DHS should halt implementation of the Rule.

3.   There are well-documented failures in the credible fear process.

Furthermore, even those individuals who receive credible fear interviews after DHS inspection in expedited removal face significant barriers to fair adjudication of their claims. As multiple reports indicate, individuals who must establish a credible fear—rather than immediately being placed in immigration court proceedings to pursue their asylum claims—may not receive adequate consideration of their claims.

Instead, they face erroneous denials of credible fear, denials of access to counsel, and inadequacies in interpretation. See, e.g., U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec. Advisory Comm. on Family Residential Ctrs., Report of the DHS Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers 96-100 (2016) (discussing inadequate or nonexistent interpretation services during credible fear interviews and immigration judge reviews of negative credible fear determinations); Borderland Immigration Council, Discretion to Deny at 13 (describing interpretation failures during CFIs); 2016 USCIRF Study at 28 (describing case of a detained Ethiopian asylum seeker who was denied an interpreter); American Civil Liberties Union, American Exile at 34 (“Most of the individuals interviewed . . . stated that they were given forms to sign in English, which most did not speak or read, and often were not interviewed by an immigration officer who fluently spoke their language or through an interpreter.”); Interior Immigration Enforcement Legislation: Hearing Before the H. Judiciary Subcomm. on Immigration & Border Sec. 5 (Feb. 11, 2015) (statement of Eleanor Acer, Dir., Refugee Protection, Human Rights First) (“In some cases, interviews are sometimes rushed, essential information is not identified due to lack of follow up questions, and/or other mistakes are made that block genuine asylum seekers from even applying for asylum and having a real chance to submit evidence and have their case fully considered”).

Rather than placing additional strain on the CFI system, DHS should halt implementation of the Rule.

4.   DHS officers have wrongfully removed numerous individuals through expedited removal.

As a result of the widespread flaws in the expedited removal process, numerous individuals have been wrongfully removed from the United States. This includes multiple reported instances of deportations of U.S. citizens. See, e.g., Lyttle v. United States, 867 F. Supp. 2d 1256, 1272-73 (M.D. Ga. 2012); De la Paz v. Johnson, No. 1:14-CV-016 (S.D. Tex. habeas petition filed Jan. 24, 2014); Ian James, Wrongly Deported, American Citizen Sues INS for $8 Million, L.A. Times (Sept. 3, 2000) (recounting expedited removal of U.S. citizen Sharon McKnight). Similarly, due to the rushed system of expedited removal, DHS fails to identify immigrants who should not be subject to the process because, for example, they have lived in the United States for many years or they have credible fear of persecution. See, e.g., American Exile at 63 (describing erroneous expedited removal of Mexican citizen who had lived in the United States for 14 years); id. at 38 (recounting case of a Guatemalan citizen and mother of four U.S. citizen children who was removed under an expedited removal order even though she told the CBP officers that she was afraid to be deported to Guatemala, where her father had been murdered and her mother had been the target of extortion by gangs); id. at 39 (describing 22-year-old woman who fled domestic violence removed to El Salvador without being provided a credible fear interview); United States v. Mejia-Avila, No. 2:14-CR-0177-WFN-1, 2016 WL 1423845, at *1 (E.D. Wash. Apr. 5, 2016) (dismissing indictment where defendant was not subject to expedited removal because the record was “clear” that he had lived in the United States for more than two years).

These errors are likely to increase under the Rule. Proving two years of continuous physical presence, while detained and alone, will be unfeasible for many people detained under the Rule under the short timeframe provided for expedited removal proceedings. Long-time residents and citizens of the United States have been improperly deported, including to countries where those individuals face persecution or torture, and they will continue to face that risk of improper deportation. To prevent these foreseeable harms, DHS should halt implementation of the Rule.

* * * *

We request that DHS consider these recommendations, halt expansion of the scope of expedited removal, and act immediately to address the long-standing problems with implementation of the pre-July 23, 2019 expedited removal system. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions regarding our comments. Thank you for your consideration.


Nicole Austin-Hillery
Executive Director
US Program
Human Rights Watch

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants are crowded together on deck of the rescue ship "Eleonore" as it seaches for a safe port in the Mediterranean. The "Eleonore" took in the migrants on August 26, 2019 off the Libyan coast, as their boat was sinking.

© 2019 Johannes Filous/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Italy’s new coalition government, fragile as it may be, presents a chance for the country to move away from migration policies that put lives at risk and back to those grounded in respect for human rights, including the right to life.

The new Five Star Movement-Democratic Party government should seek to undo the damage done by anti-immigrant and anti-rescue decrees introduced by outgoing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The decrees should be revoked, not simply tweaked, as the coalition has suggested, and the government can rebuild policies from a clean slate.

The first decree, from late 2018, effectively abolished humanitarian visas that allow people who experienced extreme hardship and abuse to remain in Italy, leading to an increase in the number of people without legal status, according to a study. It also downgraded the care asylum seekers receive and increased the amount of time people can be detained pending deportation.

The second decree, which became law in early August, formalized the outgoing government’s “closed ports” policy, which barred rescue ships from entering Italian territorial waters. Ships that violated the decree could face fines of up to €1 million and seizure of the ship. This has left rescued people stranded on boats for weeks and deterred life-saving rescue efforts.

Just as the new coalition partners were finalizing their pact, authorities have seized the ships of two rescue NGOs, and one is facing a €300,000 fine for rescuing people at sea and making sure they were disembarked in a safe place.

Salvini didn’t push through these shameful policies on his own. The Five Star Movement was a willing, at times enthusiastic, partner. When it governed under the previous legislature, the Democratic Party took steps to undermine NGO rescues and led the way on greater cooperation with Libyan authorities despite the overwhelming evidence of brutality against migrants and asylum seekers there. Both parties should break with the past and set Italy on a new rights-based course.

Italy is right to call for and expect more European cooperation in the Central Mediterranean, and European Union governments should agree on a serious relocation mechanism. Italy can and should lead the way to more humane polices, on land and at sea.

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