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

Debris covers the ground after an airstrike on the Tajoura migrant detention center in Tajoura east of Tripoli in Libya where 53 migrants were killed, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. 

© 2019 Hazem Ahmed/AP Photo

(Brussels) –  European Union foreign ministers gathering in Brussels on July 15, 2019, should issue a clear call to Libyan authorities to close their migrant detention centers, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said today. The EU ministers should make a commitment on behalf of EU states to facilitate the evacuation of detainees to safe places, including outside of Libya and to EU member states.

“Expressions of outrage over dire conditions and dangers to detainees amid fighting in Tripoli ring hollow without urgent life-saving measures to get people out of harm’s way,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “EU governments should offer concrete support to Libyan authorities to close all migrant detention centers and take immediate action to help evacuate those most vulnerable and at risk.”

Libyan authorities have shown an openness to release people from official detention centers, in the wake of a deadly attack on the Tajoura detention center earlier in July. The outgoing EU high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, said on July 10 that, “Libya’s current system of detaining migrants has to end.” Citing “ghastly conditions” in detention centers, on June 7, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights appealed to Libyan authorities and the international community to ensure that all migrants and asylum seekers detained in centers in Tripoli are “immediately released.”

However, EU governments have never conditioned their support to Libyan authorities on closing the detention centers and releasing the thousands of people unlawfully detained. They have insisted instead that EU-funded humanitarian assistance would lead to improved living conditions in the detention centers, despite lack of evidence that it does. And they have continued to aid the Libyan Coast Guard to return people intercepted at sea to indefinite detention in Libya. In a new statement on July 11, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called for all funding to be conditional on closure of the centers, with a range of proposals to allow immediate release of detainees.

Already appalling conditions in migrant detention centers under the nominal control of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, have deteriorated since forces under General Khalifa Hiftar began their assault on Tripoli in early April. An airstrike on the Tajoura detention center, located inside a military compound southeast of Tripoli, on the night of July 2, killed 53 people and wounded at least 130. Two detainees of the same facility had been injured in a previous attack on May 7, when an airstrike hit just 100 meters from the center. On July 9,  UNHCR announced that Libyan authorities had allowed survivors at Tajoura to leave the center, though it appears that they were not granted adequate assistance upon release, nor an opportunity to leave the country to reach safety elsewhere if they so wished. In late April, armed men had attacked detainees in the Qasr Ben Geshir detention center, about 24 kilometers south of Tripoli. Responsibility for both attacks remains unclear and should be established through credible and independent investigations.

In other centers in and around Tripoli, the fighting has interrupted food and water supplies and worsened sanitary conditions, as well as limited access to detainees by humanitarian organizations and UN agencies providing vital care. As of the beginning of July, UNHCR has transferred 1,630 people out of detention centers on the front lines to its Gathering and Departure facility, also in Tripoli, but also to other Libyan detention centers in areas deemed safer. UNHCR estimates that 3,800 people are detained in migrant detention centers near conflict areas, while the total detainee population is estimated at 5,800 as of June 21. Under Libyan law, any undocumented migrant, asylum seeker, or refugee may be detained without an opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of the detention, making the detention arbitrary.

All people arbitrarily detained in GNA facilities should be released from detention and those centers closed, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and ECRE said. Given the risks facing foreigners in Libya, the GNA should work with international agencies and the EU to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to released detainees and establish humanitarian corridors to safety.

EU member states should ensure that those evacuated from detention centers are offered safe routes and regular pathways out of Libya, including by increasing resettlement pledges and expediting processes to allow UNHCR to ramp up evacuations to its transit center in Niger or directly to EU member states. Since the beginning of April, UNHCR has been able to evacuate only 289 people to Niger and 295 to Italy—the only EU country that has agreed so far to take asylum seekers directly from Libya. Non-EU countries should also support evacuation efforts and pledge resettlement.

“The horrific attack on the Tajoura detention center last week has once more showed the mortal danger that women, men and children locked up in Libya are exposed to,” said Matteo de Bellis, researcher on migration and asylum at Amnesty International. “Rather than keeping their eyes closed in the face of the inhuman conditions, torture, rape and other abuse refugees and migrants face in Libya’s detention centers, EU governments should urgently set up safe routes out of Libya for them, and ensure that people rescued in the central Mediterranean are not returned to Libya.”

Outsourcing of migration controls to Libyan authorities by EU institutions and member states, and the EU’s collective abdication of responsibility for rescue at sea have contributed to the dire situation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and ECRE said. According to IOM, by July 6, the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted and taken back to Libya 3,750 people since the beginning of the year. In that same period, 4,068 people had reached Italy and Malta, while 426 people died in the central Mediterranean.

With an estimated total of 667 dead across the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2019, UNHCR calculates that one out of every six persons died in the attempt to reach Europe, compared with one in 18 in the same period last year.

Despite broad international consensus that Libya cannot be considered a safe place for returns, many EU governments and institutions have supported a policy of enabling Libyan authorities to assert control over a vast search-and-rescue area, pulling European forces out of the central Mediterranean and engaging in or tacitly supporting efforts to obstruct or criminalize nongovernmental rescue organizations that have sought to take responsibility for rescue in the absence of an effective state response.

This policy puts any shipmasters rescuing people in the Mediterranean in an untenable situation, as they are directly or indirectly encouraged by European governments to disembark people in Libya even though that clearly constitutes a breach of international law.

Negotiations among EU member states to address this issue through an agreement to share responsibility for disembarking and relocating people rescued at sea  have floundered, leading to ad hoc agreements to resolve stand-offs with nongovernmental rescue ships, and even coastguard and merchant vessels, amid Italy’s increasingly harsh “closed ports” policy.

In March, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published a Plan of Action for a fair and predictable rescue system in the Mediterranean. The plan, which draws on recommendations by the European Council of Exiles and Refugees (ECRE), proposes a temporary system to ensure that people rescued at sea are promptly disembarked in keeping with international law as well as an equitable system of shared responsibilities through relocation.

“With international and EU agencies, cities and civil society ready to provide operational support, an agreement among European states is urgently needed, and feasible,” said Catherine Woollard, Secretary General of ECRE. “The European Commission and the Finnish EU Presidency should focus on facilitating the agreement—not on peddling false solutions involving North African countries. The IOM, UNHCR, African Union and the shipping industry can all use their leverage to get European states on board. Taking the steps outlined would contribute to saving lives and improving the situation in Libya.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

This memorandum, submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (the Committee) ahead of its upcoming review of Greece, highlights areas of concern that Human Rights Watch hopes will inform the Committee’s consideration of the Greek government’s (the government) compliance with the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention). It contains information on Greece’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers that is inconsistent with the Convention and proposes issues that Committee members may wish to raise with the government.

Human Rights Watch has closely monitored the human rights situation in Greece and, in particular, the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers over the past ten years. As part of this work, we have documented violations against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, including those with disabilities and unaccompanied migrant children, and have produced reports and other documents describing our research findings.

We welcome the opportunity to provide information to the Committee ahead of its review of Greece’s compliance with the Convention. We recommend that the Committee members ask the Greek government to provide information that demonstrates how its legal and policy reforms have contributed to concrete improvements in the treatment of migrants generally, as well as asylum seekers, unaccompanied migrant children, and other vulnerable groups.

We strongly believe that sustained monitoring and pressure on the Greek government by the UN and other rights bodies are crucial to ensure that the rights of groups that are at higher risks, such as persons with disabilities and migrants, are fully respected.

Detention of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Asylum-seeking and migrant children who are unaccompanied are often detained while authorities search for shelter facilities for them. A lack of shelter space has led to the prolonged detention of children in police station cells, pre-removal centers, and hotspots on the island. Detained children are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often alongside adults they do not know, and can be abused and ill-treated by police. Children are often unable to receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, education, or legal aid. Few even know why they’re detained or how long they will be behind bars and have little chance of challenging their detention.[1] Such practices are inconsistent with articles 11 and 16 of the Convention.

These practices are also inconsistent with the principle of respect for the best interests of children. Emphasizing “the harm inherent in any deprivation of liberty and the negative impact that immigration detention can have on children’s physical and mental health and on their development,” the Committee on the Rights of the Child has called in its Joint General Comment Nos. 4/23 for any deprivation of liberty based on a child’s migration status to be “prohibited by law and its abolishment ensured in policy and practice.”[2]

In two separate rulings, the first issued at the end of February 2019 and the second in June, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the abusive practice of detaining unaccompanied children in police stations. In both cases, the court ruled that the detention in police stations of the children violated their right to liberty, and that conditions there exposed them to degrading treatment.[3] We are particularly concerned with the fact that since the February 2019 ruling, incidents of such detention have increased, suggesting that the government is not taking reasonable steps to address it.[4]

The detention of unaccompanied children due to a shortage of sufficient and adequate accommodation is a chronic problem in Greece; a 2008 Human Rights Watch report called the routine detention of unaccompanied children “a fundamental dysfunction at the heart of the…Greek immigration and social welfare systems.” Human Rights Watch continued to document the detention of children in closed facilities on Greek islands in 2015 and 2016 and since then has monitored the situation closely.

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), the government authority responsible for managing the placement of unaccompanied children in shelters, as of May 31 there were 3,835 unaccompanied migrant children registered in Greece. According to the same data, an estimated 123 children were locked in police stations awaiting transfer. Hundreds of other unaccompanied children, EKKA reported, were held in special sections in the hotspots on the Greek islands, while over 1,000 have been reported as living in informal/insecure housing conditions such as living temporarily in apartments with others, living in squats, being homeless and moving frequently between different types of accommodation.[5]

Under a Greek law adopted in April 2016, unaccompanied children can be detained pending referral to a dedicated reception facility for a maximum of 25 days, though detention can be prolonged by a further 20 days if the child cannot be transferred to such a facility due to exceptional circumstances, such as a large number of arrivals of unaccompanied children. This law improves upon the previous framework, which provided no clear time limit, but does not provide the necessary safeguards to prevent unjustified prolonged detention.[6]

Human Rights Watch has found that children are often detained for longer than these already excessive periods.

We urge the Committee to call on the Greek government to:

  • End any practice of automatic detention of unaccompanied children as well as the deprivation of children’s liberty based solely on their migration status;
  • Make individual assessments of the needs of each child based on their best interests to determine arrangements for their care and protection;
  • Increase the number of spaces in existing long-term care facilities for unaccompanied children, create new facilities to the level required to ensure placements for all unaccompanied children in the country, while implementing the new national, government-run foster family system;
  • Ensure, while moving expeditiously to increase capacity in long-term care facilities and the foster family system, any period of “protective custody” in detention facilities is employed only in truly exceptional circumstances. In particular:
    • amend legislation to shorten significantly the maximum amount of time unaccompanied children may be detained in protective custody, and ensure that children are never detained in excess of the time permitted under law;
    • amend legislation to allow children to challenge the lawfulness of their detention with the assistance of a legal aid lawyer;
    • urgently improve detention conditions in police-run facilities and ensure that children in detention have access to interpretation services, information about the purpose of their detention, counseling, legal aid, and educational and recreational materials.

Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Northern Greece

During visits to three government-run centers holding asylum-seekers and migrants in Thessaloniki (Diavata) and at the land-border with Turkey in the Evros region (the Fylakio pre-removal detention center and the Fylakio Reception and Identification Center), in May 2018, Human Rights Watch found reception and detention conditions that we believe are inconsistent with Convention articles 10, 11, 12, 13 and 16.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 asylum seekers and migrants in the three facilities, as well as Greek authorities and facility personnel. All three facilities lacked adequate access to health care, including mental health care, and support for at-risk people, including women traveling alone, pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual violence. The lack of interpreters hindered essential communication. Asylum seekers and migrants said they did not know why they were being held. Interviewees reported verbal abuse by police, and two said they witnessed police physically abusing others.[7]

Conditions were especially poor at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, where Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed asylum seekers being held in dark, dank cells, with overpowering odors in the corridors. Female asylum seekers and migrants were being held with unrelated males at both the pre-removal center and the reception and identification center at Fylakio, where housing failed to meet such basic standards as having toilets and locking doors.

Twelve women and two girls interviewed said they had been locked in cells or enclosures for weeks, and in one case for nearly five months, with men and boys they did not know. Four said they were the sole females confined with dozens of men, in some cases with at least one male partner or relative. Five women said they had severe psychological distress as a result, including two who had suicidal thoughts. Other women and girls said they experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological distress, in part due to fear of confinement with unrelated men.[8]

Ten asylum seekers and migrants said police at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center and reception and identification center mistreated them, including through verbal abuse, humiliation, and violation of privacy. Two said they witnessed police hit other people being held in the facilities.[9]

Human Rights Watch researchers heard police at both facilities make derogatory comments about asylum seekers and migrants and address them aggressively.[10]  

We urge the Committee to:

  • Request specific information on the number of disciplinary and/or criminal investigations into law enforcement officials for allegations of ill-treatment of migrants in 2017, 2018 and 2019 across the country, as well as in the Evros region, and the number of cases in which sanctions have been imposed as well as the nature of these sanctions;
  • Call on the Greek government immediately to improve detention conditions at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, and the Fylakio Reception and Identification Center (RIC), including by taking immediate steps to ensure:
    • sanitary, hygienic conditions and access to medical care, including reproductive and maternal health care;
    • the security and protection of women and children. Women traveling alone and unaccompanied children should have separate, secure sleeping areas, and families should be provided with secure sleeping, toilet, and bathing facilities separate from those for single men;
    • availability of trained male and female interpreters to allow for communication between facility staff and migrants and asylum seekers, including regarding health and protection concerns.
  • Take measures to mitigate risks for female migrants and asylum seekers in police-run facilities at the Evros region and at the Fylakio RIC, including providing separate, secure shelter and bathroom facilities, for those traveling without adult male family members, making female staff and female interpreters available.

Collective Expulsions

Since the Committee’s last review of Greece in 2012 and its recommendations to the Greek government to ensure full protection from refoulement, there has been mounting evidence documented by nongovernmental organizations that Greek border guards engage in collective expulsions and “pushbacks” of migrants and asylum seekers at the borders with Turkey, in some cases involving ill-treatment. Such practices are inconsistent with articles 3, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 16 of the Convention.

Increasing numbers of migrants, including asylum seekers from Turkey, have attempted to cross the Evros River, which forms a natural border between Greece and Turkey, since April 2018. A total of 18,014 people crossed through Evros in 2018, compared to 6,592 in 2017. Between January 1 and June 23, 2019, a total of 5,307 people had crossed the border via the Evros river, according to UNHCR data.[11]

Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 asylum seekers and other migrants in Greece in May 2018, and in Turkey in October and November 2018. They are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, and include families traveling with children. They described 24 incidents of pushbacks across the Evros River from Greece to Turkey.[12]

The 24 incidents described demonstrate a pattern that points to an established and well-coordinated practice of pushbacks. Most of the incidents share three key features: initial capture by local police patrols, detention in police stations or informal locations close to the border with Turkey, and handover from identifiable law enforcement bodies to unidentifiable paramilitaries who would carry out the pushback to Turkey across the Evros River, at times violently.

Most incidents took place between April and November 2018. All of those interviewed reported hostile or violent behavior by Greek police and unidentified forces wearing uniforms and masks without recognizable insignia. Twelve said police or members of the unidentified forces accompanying the police stripped them of their possessions, including their money and personal identification, which were often destroyed. Seven said police or unidentified forces took their clothes or shoes and forced them back to Turkey in their underwear, sometimes at night in freezing temperatures.

Abuse included beatings with hands and batons, kicking, and, in one case, the use of what appeared to be a stun gun. In another case, a Moroccan man said a masked man dragged him by his hair, forced him to kneel on the ground, held a knife to his throat, and subjected him to a mock execution. Others pushed back include a pregnant 19-year-old woman from Afrin, Syria, and a woman from Afghanistan who said Greek authorities took away her two young children’s shoes.

Accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch are consistent with the findings of other nongovernmental groups, intergovernmental agencies, and media reports.[13] UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, has raised similar concerns.[14] In a June 2018 report, the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Committee for the Prevention of Torture said it has received “several consistent and credible allegations of pushbacks by boat from Greece to Turkey at the Evros River border by masked Greek police and border guards or (para-)military commandos.”[15] In November, the CoE human rights commissioner called on Greece to investigate allegations, in light of information pointing to “an established practice.”[16]

We urge the Committee to:

  • Request information on disciplinary and criminal investigations by Greek authorities into all recorded incidents of collective expulsions, pushbacks, ill-treatment on Greece’s land borders with Turkey, as well as about steps taken to end and prevent the recurrence of such incidents and ensure that all measures to identify irregular migrants at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey are conducted in full compliance with human rights and refugee law.

Asylum Seekers Trapped on the Aegean Islands

Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has conducted numerous research missions on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, the locations where most asylum seekers enter Greece. We have consistently found that thousands of migrants and asylum seekers contained on the Aegean islands, most of them living in the so-called refugee “hotspots” (Reception and Identification Centers or RICs), face appalling reception conditions inconsistent with article 16 of the Convention.

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, a process that can take months or even years. Members of vulnerable groups—including pregnant women, older people, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture or sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities—and people eligible to be reunited with family members already in the EU are supposed to be exempt from the policy, but delays in vulnerability assessment procedure and the lack of accommodation on the mainland mean thousands of eligible individuals and families remain trapped on the island for months.

In addition, Human Rights Watch has previously documented that many vulnerable groups fall through the cracks in the identification process, and that the lack of prompt transfers put vulnerable people, including people with invisible disabilities and children, at higher risk of abuse and violation of their rights.[17]

According to government data, by June 18, 2019 there were 16,840 asylum seekers on all five Aegean islands, with 13,253 living in the hotspot facilities designed to host at a maximum 6,438 people. At present, the situation is particularly critical in the hotspots on Samos and Lesbos, where as of June 18 a total of more than 8,843 people are living in facilities intended for just 3,748.[18] 

Human Rights Watch research has found hotspot facilities to be severely overcrowded most of the time, with significant shortages of basic shelter and unsanitary, unhygienic conditions. People with disabilities were 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.[19]

Human Rights Watch has also heard consistent accounts from residents in the hotspots of the police’s routine failure to protect people during frequent incidents of violence. Camp residents have said that fights occur daily, particularly in the food lines, with no police intervention.

Despite a police order that directs all police working with refugees and migrants to ensure protection and security for women and children, women and girls interviewed in November 2017 at the Moria hotspot, on Lesbos island, described pervasive sexual harassment and a persistent sense of insecurity, and said authorities are unresponsive to their complaints and do not take adequate action to ensure their safety.[20] 

Women in Moria described being sexually harassed routinely, particularly when going to and from or while using the camp bathrooms. Human Rights Watch found that bathrooms and showers do not have doors with working locks and/or adequate lighting, as per international standards on protection from and prevention of gender-based violence. Women and girls also said they feel particularly exposed to the threat of sexual violence during episodes of fighting between other migrants/asylum-seekers in the centers.[21]

Pregnant women also told Human Rights Watch about lack of medical care or support, such as appropriate shelter and extra blankets. For example, two women who were nine months pregnant were sleeping on the ground in tents. Neither woman had received comprehensive pre-natal medical care or had information about whom to contact when she went into labor or where she could deliver her baby.

These findings echo what dozens of other female asylum seekers and representatives of agencies that provide aid to migrants told Human Rights Watch about conditions in the Greek hotspots, citing harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks, during earlier visits in 2016 and 2017.

Throughout our research missions, we have also documented the deteriorating psychological and emotional wellbeing of asylum seekers and migrants—including incidents of self-harm, suicide attempts, aggression, anxiety, and depression—caused by the Greek policy of “containing” them on islands often in horrifying conditions.[22]

With severe overcrowding still persistent at this writing, there has been little or no improvement in the situation.

We urge the Committee to call on the Greek government to:

  • End the containment policy that exposes individuals to inhuman and degrading conditions, cease holding asylum seekers in camps on the Aegean Islands and transfer them to appropriate facilities or housing on the mainland, and ensure sufficient and adequate accommodation and services on the mainland;
  • Urgently improve living conditions for asylum seekers on the Aegean islands that exposes them to inhuman and degrading treatment and protect the health and safety of those who remain, including by ensuring accessible, adequate and secure shelter, safe drinking water and sanitation, an enabling environment for good hygiene, pre-natal, maternal and other necessary health care, and protection;
  • Ensure there is enough separate, secure shelter for all women and girls traveling alone, and separate, safe, secure, physically accessible, and hygienic toilets and bathing facilities that ensure privacy and dignity for men and women. Camp management should provide adequate lighting and identify and monitor high-risk areas;
  • Ensure all asylum seekers and migrants can access protection and services without discrimination;
  • Ensure that people with disabilities and other at-risk groups, including children, have equal access to assistance provided in refugee and migrant centers and camps—including water and sanitation services, food distribution, shelter, and health care including mental health and psychosocial support;
  • The Greek government should issue clear guidance to field staff on identifying and registering people with disabilities, including disabilities that are not readily identifiable, such as intellectual disabilities or mental health conditions;
  • In the long-term, the Greek authorities, with the support of the EU and the UNHCR, should end encampment for everyone and provide accommodation in the community. Living in camps can perpetuate the trauma of displacement and increase other critical protection risks, including physical and sexual violence and health concerns.




[1] Human Rights Watch report “Why Are You Keeping Me Here?”: Unaccompanied Children Detained in Greece, September 8, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/09/08/why-are-you-keeping-me-here/unaccompanied-children-detained-greece

[2] United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child, Joint General Comment 4/23, para. 9 and para. 12, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5a12942a2b.html

[3] European Court of Human Rights, First Section, H.A. and Others vs. Greece, no. 19951/16, available in French at http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-191278 (accessed on July 1, 2019), and European Court of Human Rights, First Section, SH.D. and Others vs. Greece, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Northern Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, no. 14165/16, available in French at http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-193610 (accessed on July 1, 2019).

[4] Dispatch, Human Rights Watch, European Court Condemns Greece’s Migrant Kid Lockups, June 15, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/15/european-court-condemns-greeces-migrant-kid-lockups.

[5] National Center for Social Solidarity (E.K.K.A.), Situation Update: Unaccompanied Children (UAC) in Greece, May 31, 2019, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/69915 (accessed on July 1, 2019).

[6] Law on the organization and operation of the Asylum Service, the Appeals Authority, the Reception and Identification Service, the establishment of the General Secretariat for Reception, the transposition into Greek legislation of the provisions of Directive 2013/32/EC, No. 4375 of 2016, http://www.refworld.org/docid/573ad4cb4.html (accessed July 1, 2019) art. 46(10)(b) (Law on Reception). Prior to the law’s enactment, in April 2016, there were no set time limits on detention of children in protective custody.

[7] Human Rights Watch report, Inhumane Conditions at Land Border: Pregnant Women, Others ‘At-Risk’ Lack Health Care, Support, July 27, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/27/greece-inhumane-conditions-land-border.

[8] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Asylum-Seeking Women Detained with Men: Urgently End Dangerous Detention Conditions, June 7, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/07/greece-asylum-seeking-women-detained-men.

[9] Human Rights Watch report, Inhumane Conditions at Land Border: Pregnant Women, Others ‘At-Risk’ Lack Health Care, Support, July 27, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/07/27/greece-inhumane-conditions-land-border.

[10] Ibid.

[11] UNHCR, Mediterranean Situation Website, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[12] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Violent Pushbacks at Turkey Border: End Summary Returns, Unchecked Violence, December 18, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/18/greece-violent-pushbacks-turkey-border.

[13] See a few examples: Greek Council of Refugees report, The new normality: Continuous push-backs of third country nationals on the Evros river, no date, https://www.gcr.gr/en/news/press-releases-announcements/item/1028-the-new-normality-continuous-push-backs-of-third-country-nationals-on-the-evros-river (accessed July 1, 2019); The New Humanitarian, An open secret: Refugee pushbacks across the Turkey-Greece border, October 8, 2018, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/special-report/2018/10/08/refugee-pushbacks-across-turkey-greece-border-Evros (accessed July 1, 2019).

[14] UNHCR Report, Desperate Journeys, Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders, January – December 2018, https://www.unhcr.org/desperatejourneys/ (accessed July 1, 2019).

[15] Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Preliminary observations made by the delegation of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) which visited Greece from 10 to 19 April 2018, Strasbourg June 1, 2018, https://rm.coe.int/16808afaf6 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[16] Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Report of the  Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe  Dunja Mijatović Following Her Visit to Greece from 25 to 29 June 2018, Strasbourg, 6 November 2018, https://rm.coe.int/report-on-the-visit-to-greece-from-25-to-29-june-2018-by-dunja-mijatov/16808ea5bd (accessed July 1, 2019).

[17] Human Rights Watch report, EU/Greece: Pressure to Minimize Numbers of Migrants Identified As ‘Vulnerable’, June 1, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/01/eu/greece-pressure-minimize-numbers-migrants-identified-vulnerable.

[18] Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, National Situational Picture Regarding the Islands at Easter Aegean Sea (18/06/2019), 19 June 2019 http://mindigital.gr/index.php/προσφυγικό-ζήτημα-refugee-crisis/4015-national-situational-picture-regarding-the-islands-at-eastern-aegean-sea-18-06-2019 (accessed July 1, 2019).

[19] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Refugee “Hotspots” Unsafe, Unsanitary, Women, Children Fearful, Unprotected; Lack Basic Shelter, May 19, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/19/greece-refugee-hotspots-unsafe-unsanitary; Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Dire Conditions for Asylum Seekers on Lesbos, Mainland Space Shortage Bars Transfer of Vulnerable People, November 21, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/21/greece-dire-conditions-asylum-seekers-lesbos.

[20] Human Rights Watch report, Greece: Dire Risks for Women Asylum Seekers - In Lesbos Camp, Neglect Threatens Women’s, Girls’ Safety, Health, December 15, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/12/15/greece-dire-risks-women-asylum-seekers.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Human Rights Watch report, EU/Greece: Asylum Seekers’ Silent Mental Health Crisis - Identify Those Most at Risk; Ensure Fair Hearings, July 12, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/12/eu/greece-asylum-seekers-silent-mental-health-crisis.

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

With national elections coming up in less than a week in Greece, the widespread public debate about the country’s economy and future is not surprising. Unfortunately, other important issues are not getting the same attention.

This was brought home to me last week on a visit to Lesbos, the Greek island where thousands of asylum seekers are trapped due to an EU-backed policy that prevents them from travelling to the mainland where services are better.

In 2015, the world’s attention was focused on this issue, and it was a top priority for the Greek government. Now that attention has faded, but the problems remain.

More than 16,500 asylum seekers are trapped on Greek islands, most in the severely overcrowded “hotspot” camps. The largest, Moria camp on Lesbos, holds more than 5,000 people, while on Samos, a camp for 648 people, currently holds more than 3,600. Hundreds are forced to live in the forest surrounding the Samos camp. Thousands of children don’t have access to schools and vulnerable asylum seekers, including pregnant women and people with disabilities, can’t access critical services.

What was most disheartening about my visit is that there has been backsliding on key areas of progress. Asylum procedures have slowed down, services are short-staffed, and arrivals of asylum seekers from Turkey are increasing, with serious consequences for those in need.

“Authorities are again registering unaccompanied children as adults,” an NGO worker told me. Human Rights Watch documented in 2017 how unaccompanied migrant children on Lesbos were being incorrectly identified as adults and housed with unrelated adults, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and unable to access care they need. The government took steps to halt what was happening, but it seems to have re-started.

“There’s no psychologist in the camp [the Moria hotspot] since the beginning of May, and before that there was no doctor since October,” said another NGO worker. She explained that the lack of a psychologist combined with slow procedures means that at-risk asylum seekers – like victims of torture, gender-based violence survivors, people with invisible disabilities, or unaccompanied children – are not identified by the authorities and given the attention they need. The modest improvements in support in the previous year appear to have been lost.

Whoever leads Greece’s next government should pay a visit to Lesbos and make the Aegean Island’s emergency a priority again.

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

Weberson Santiago/VEJA

According to the recent UN refugee agency Global Trends report, Brazil received about 80,000 new requests for asylum in 2018,  more than double the  2017 requests. More than three-quarters -- 61,000 —came from Venezuelans. But between 2010 and the end of 2018, Brazil granted asylum to only 18 Venezuelans, Igarapé Institute and the press reported. More than 168,000 Venezuelans are now in Brazil according to UN refugee agency,  and the influx continues.

So, it comes as great news that Bernardo Laferté, coordinator of Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), the agency responsible for analyzing asylum seekers’ applications announced, on June 19, that CONARE will expedite the processing of asylum claims for Venezuelans. Instead of requiring each Venezuelan to show a well-founded fear of being persecuted, CONARE will now automatically extend asylum, on request, to all Venezuelans who approach the border. This is because it now considers that the human rights violations in Venezuela are threatening everyone’s life, safety or freedom.

CONARE’s move to expedite Venezuelans’ claims—which in the past was only applied to Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Brazil—makes sense both as a humanitarian gesture and a recognition of rights violations by Venezuelan authorities. Brazil is the first country in the region to grant automatic asylum to Venezuelans seeking refuge abroad.

The usual standard for asylum-seekers under international law requires them to show a well-founded fear of persecution. Certainly, many Venezuelans have fled political persecution. But in Venezuela, the severe humanitarian crisis, together with brutal government-sponsored repression, presents a classic case for an expanded standard to offer more comprehensive protection. Announcing the new policy, which has yet to be publicized, Laferté said that Brazil has come to recognize a "serious and widespread threat to human rights" in Venezuela. In an August 2018 preliminary ruling over an effort by Roraima state government to close the border, a Brazilian Supreme Court judge ruled that Brazil has bound itself to respect an expanded refugee definition under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration; Brazilian law now recognizes as refugees “those who are forced to leave due to grave and generalized human rights violations.” 

In Venezuela, the health system is in collapse. Levels of maternal and infant mortality rose in 2016, according to the latest available official data. Preventable diseases are spreading. Infectious diseases are surging. A severe food shortage undermines Venezuelans’ ability to secure adequate nutrition. Instead of addressing the humanitarian emergency as a top priority, Venezuelan authorities have tried to suppress information about it.

CONARE’s change of policy acknowledges that deteriorating conditions make it unsafe for Venezuelans to be forced back home and will make an immediate difference for the Venezuelans seeking refuge in Brazil.

Although asylum seekers already have access to public services and work permits in Brazil, employers have often mistrusted Venezuelans’ permits, believing their provisional status doesn’t allow them to work. That kind of misconception can land Venezuelans in the informal sector, where generally they are much more vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, as well as to human trafficking. They are also less likely to report abuses to competent authorities. CONARE’s fast-tracking has the potential to reduce— substantially—Venezuelans’ vulnerability to exploitation.

What CONARE’s move won’t do, of course, is to stop the repression in Venezuela. While at least four million Venezuelans have left recent years, President Nicolás Maduro clings to repressive policies and practices.

That is why international and multilateral pressure remains key. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is scheduled to present a report on Venezuela, based in part on a visit she made there last week, in Geneva on July 5. She has the opportunity and responsibility to be the voice of Venezuelan victims whose rights—including the rights to freedom from torture and access to health care and food—have been violated. She should seize it and clearly expose Venezuelan authorities’ responsibility for the spiraling crisis.

Venezuelans stranded in Brazil will gain important protections from CONARE’s recognition of their nation’s humanitarian and human rights crisis—and if enough countries and international agencies shine a spotlight on the Maduro government’s rights violations and failure to address the humanitarian crisis, those Venezuelans may one day get to go home.

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

Men recently deported from the US wait in line to be registered with Mexican authorities at the border in Nogales, Mexico.

© 2010 Associated Press

Americans watching the first night of the US Democratic Party primary presidential debates heard a lot about “1325,” as candidate Julian Castro challenged others on the stage to join him in calling for a repeal of this law. That’s a reference to Section 1325, in Title 8 of the US Code, which makes illegal entry into the US a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. As Castro pointed out, the “zero-tolerance” policy based on this law was the justification the Trump administration used for separating families at the border.

While the issue has erupted under the Trump administration, the laws criminalizing illegal entry and illegal reentry (reentering the US after deportation) have had a devastating effect on families – and dominated the federal criminal docket – long before Donald Trump took office.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a report based on dozens of interviews with people who had been criminally prosecuted for illegal entry and reentry. We found many of the people charged under these laws are people who have lived in the US for many years, and who are desperate to reunite with family and community in the US. We met people like Rosa Manriquez, a grandmother with no other criminal history, who had spent most of her life in the US going to church and cleaning houses, and who had been prosecuted for illegal entry for trying to return to her US citizen children and grandchildren. We also met Gabriela Cordova-Soto, a former legal resident who successfully overcame her dependency on methamphetamine and reentered the US illegally so she could be a mother to her four US citizen children.

Judge Robert Brack, who has presided over tens of thousands of immigration cases in New Mexico, told Human Rights Watch: “I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day.”

To be clear, repealing these laws alone will not keep families together. A much broader overhaul is needed of the US immigration system. But treating unauthorized immigration as a civil violation rather than a crime would be an important step toward scaling back an immigration enforcement machine that destroys families every day.

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

Clint border patrol station, Texas, June 2019.

© 2019 Warren Binford

Prompted by public outcry over the news that children detained in US immigration holding cells don’t have enough food, water, or care, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said they’re looking for ways to make sure that what we saw in the Clint, Texas facility last week doesn’t happen again.

Here are four things you can ask the US Congress to do now:

  1. End family separation. Yes, it’s still happening. Congress can and should require US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to stop separating kids from parents and extended family members like grandmothers, aunts, and older siblings – people who are in many cases their caregivers.

Congress should also insist that the relevant US agencies dramatically speed up family reunifications.

  1. Make sure funding for CBP and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for long-term care of unaccompanied children and those separated from their families, is conditional on the agencies’ adherence to strict protection standards for children.

This includes time limits for their detention in border station holding cells. And yes, that means toothbrushes, soap, showers, and mattresses for children while they’re in these cells.

  1. Fund community-based alternatives to detention for kids who can’t immediately be placed with family members. That includes foster care arrangements and small, state-licensed group homes for teens, with appropriate supervision by social workers.
  1. Write child rights protections into law and ensure the law is followed. CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have consistently treated their own standards as optional and disregarded court orders. They’ve just proposed regulations that would give them even more discretion to detain children indefinitely in abusive conditions. What’s needed is a statute on the books and a way to compel compliance.

Yes, these reforms cost money. But they are a better use of public funds than the cruel containment policy government agencies are currently paying for – more than US$1 million per day to run the largest ORR facility, in Homestead, Florida, and even more for the detention camp outside Tornillo, Texas until it closed in January.

When we add to that the cost of having Border Patrol officers do childcare tasks and the human cost of the trauma of abusive detention, the humane approach may well be the most economically prudent option as well.

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

Italian Finance Police board the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 after it disembarked 47 migrants at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy, January 31, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli, file

Update: (June 27, 2019) – As of 5:30pm local time, Italian authorities were still blocking the Sea Watch 3 from docking at the Lampedusa port, over 24 hours after they entered Italian waters. A tweet from the organization at 5:37pm carried a video message from the captain Carola Rackete saying authorities had indicated that “a solution is about to be found.”

(Milan) – Italy’s deliberate, inhumane policy of stranding migrants and asylum seekers on rescue ships puts all on board at risk and highlights Europe’s wider failure on migration in the Central Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two weeks after rescuing over 50 people off the coast of Libya, the rescue ship Sea Watch 3, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) boat, is defying Italy’s refusal to let the vessel enter Italian waters. The ship’s captain rightly ignored instructions to return the people to Libya since it is not safe. European governments and institutions have been largely silent.

“Having stranded people at sea for weeks, Italy should not compound that abuse by prosecuting the Sea Watch captain for the vessel’s life-saving efforts,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s high time that European Union institutions and members started looking at their own responsibility for a heartless policy that would rather see people die at sea or tortured in Libya than delivered to safety in Europe.”

Since June 2018, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini has effectively denied or delayed letting rescued people disembark in the country, leading to numerous similar stand-offs. However, this is the first time Italian authorities have applied a new decree, in effect since June 15, that allows the interior minister to deny entry to Italian territorial waters on public order grounds. Ships who disobey the order face fines up to 50,000 euros and seizure of the ship in case of repeated offense.

The European Commission should put Italy on notice that it is examining whether the decree breaches Italy’s obligations under EU law, Human Rights Watch said. The measure arguably contravenes the Asylum Procedures directive, the Schengen Border Code, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although the Italian parliament has 60 days to approve the decree, it already has the force of law and is having a direct impact on the lives of people concerned.

EU countries should also urgently agree on a mechanism that would ensure predictable disembarkation within a reasonable time to avoid these unnecessary stand-offs at sea, Human Rights Watch said. Any agreement should include provisions for sharing responsibility for disembarked people among EU countries.

In this most recent stand-off, the Sea Watch 3 rescued 53 people from a rubber dinghy roughly 47 miles off the Libyan city of Zawiya on June 12. According to the organization, they alerted Italy, Malta, Libya, and The Netherlands (the ship’s flag state). Libyan authorities assumed coordination of the rescue operation, but according to Sea Watch, a Libyan coast guard boat arrived only after the organization had completed transfers of people from the rubber dinghy to their ship.

When Sea Watch requested all four authorities to assign a safe port for disembarkation, only Libya replied and instructed the ship to disembark in Tripoli. Refusing to take people to Libya on the grounds that it is not a safe place under the terms of international law, the Sea Watch 3 captain headed towards Lampedusa as the closest safe port.

While Italy evacuated 11 people off the ship to Lampedusa, it refused to allow the Sea Watch 3 to even enter Italian territorial waters. Forty-two people, including six women and three unaccompanied children, remain on board.

The European Court of Human Rights, responding to an urgent filing on behalf of the rescued persons on board Sea Watch 3, asked Italy to “continue to provide all necessary assistance,” but failed to order Italy to allow disembarkation. The Court adopted a similar position in January in a case also involving a Sea Watch ship, arguing both times there was no risk of irreparable harm.

There is mounting international concern over Salvini’s closed ports policy and the wider impact of EU policy on the human rights situation in the Central Mediterranean. Six United Nations (UN) experts recently called on Italian authorities to “stop endangering the lives of migrants, including asylum seekers and victims of trafficking in persons, by invoking the fight against traffickers. This approach is misleading and is not in line with both general international law and international human rights law.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said measures that criminalize humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, including those targeting sea rescues, “violate ancient and precious values that are common to us all, by penalizing compassion.”

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović issued a report on June 18 urging European countries to “ensure disembarkation only happens in safe places and without unnecessary delays,” as well as cooperate with rescue NGOs and “cease any acts of harassment.” The head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Human Rights office has also criticized “judicial harassment and criminalization, smear campaigns, threats and even attacks” against organizations and individuals defending the rights of migrants and refugees.

Libya is a main hub for migrants and asylum seekers who attempt to reach European shores by sea. As a matter of policy and practice, Libyan forces take people they rescue or intercept at sea to Libya, where they face arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions and a well-documented risk of serious abuse, including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence. The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Libya is not a safe place to take people rescued at sea. Concerns about the dangers posed to those returned to Libya have been heightened as fighting rages around Tripoli among rival militia factions, putting detainees in detention centers there at further risk.

The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to a safe place, which should be understood to mean a place where people would not face persecution or risk of torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the right to asylum.

“It’s an upside-down world if the cost of a ship’s captain bringing people to safety on shore is breaking unjust laws and risking a massive fine,” Sunderland said. “Fundamental rights and compassion for those fleeing harm should prevail.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, in a photo dated May 29, 2019.

© 2019 US Customs and Border Protection via AP, File

The three-year old before me had matted hair, a hacking cough, muddy pants, and eyes that fluttered closed with fatigue. His only caretaker for the last three weeks in a United States Border Patrol chain-link cage and then a cell…his 11-year old brother.

The two boys crossed into the US with an 18-year old uncle late last month, the older brother said, as the toddler passed out asleep on two office chairs. They were separated from their adult relative and sent to the Clint Border Patrol Station, an outpost near El Paso, Texas that, as of yesterday, housed about 250 unaccompanied and separated migrant children.

This week, I’ve been working as part of a team of lawyers and doctors monitoring conditions in border facilities, including in Clint. What we found has left me devastated.

Children should spend no more than a few hours in short-term border jails and US-law limits their detention under typical circumstances to 72 hours, but many of  the children we interviewed at Clint had been there for three or four weeks. The Border Patrol claims that high numbers of border arrivals are causing these delays as they wait for space to open up in the somewhat more child-friendly detention centers and shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement at US Health and Human Services. Based on our interviews, officials seem to be making no effort to release children to caregivers – and many have parents in the US – rather than holding them for weeks in overcrowded cells sleeping on concrete floors. Nearly all of the children I spoke with had been held without any communication from desperate parents.

Meanwhile, a public health emergency is brewing. While we were denied access to speak with children quarantined in special cells for those with flu at Clint, several infants held in South Texas facilities were admitted recently to a hospital, after the intervention of doctors and lawyers. Children at Clint told us they don’t have regular access to showers or clean clothes, with some saying they hadn’t been allowed to bathe over periods of weeks and don’t have regular access to soap. The US government argued in court on Tuesday that its obligation to provide “safe and sanitary” conditions does not require it to provide kids with hygiene items such as soap or toothbrushes.

Many of the kids in the Clint facility are too young to wash or feed themselves, yet they are left to fend for themselves with the help of unrelated older children. The detained children we spoke with told us about an infant as young as six-months old being cared for by an unrelated teenager because the baby’s mother was in the hospital. We were also told about a 15-year-old taking care of a sick two-year-old, unrelated to her, who had been separated from her family.

Dr. Nancy Wang, a pediatric emergency physician at Stanford who formed part of our team, told me if a child came into her emergency room and reported this kind of treatment, under law, she would be obligated to report it as child neglect. Last week, the monitoring team encountered a teenage mother who was using a wheelchair after a recent cesarean section and vulnerable premature baby in a Border Patrol jail in south Texas. (The pair has since been transferred to a shelter.)

The conditions I saw this week are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s prior findings on the harms children face in Border Patrol detention, with impacts now accruing over weeks instead of days. Congress should urgently investigate and take action to stop these unconscionable abuses, such as requiring immigration agencies to release these children as soon as possible to their family members.

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

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

© 2015 Kelly Lynn Lunde

This week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled for the second time in four months against Greece’s abusive practice of locking up unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children in police cells under the so-called “protective custody” regime.

The problem seems to be getting worse. As of May 31, 123 unaccompanied children were still detained in police station cells or immigrant detention centers across the country. That’s 43 more kids than were being detained at the end of March, just as the court first ruled against the practice.

Human Rights Watch has found that detained children are forced to live in unsanitary conditions, often alongside adults they do not know, and can be abused and ill-treated by police. Detention can also have serious long-term impacts, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, and harm to children’s development.

To make things worse, because they are in detention, these kids – who may have suffered horrific experiences while escaping from war zones – are often unable to receive medical treatment, psychological counselling, or legal aid. Few even know why they’re detained or how long they will be behind bars.

The latest ruling concerns five unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, aged between 14 and 17, who first applied to the European Court in 2016. The court ruled that the detention in police stations of three of the children violated their right to liberty, and that conditions there exposed them to degrading treatment. The court also held that the authorities had not done all that could reasonably be expected of them to provide for and protect four of the children, who had lived for a month in the makeshift Idomeni refugee camp in an environment unsuitable for adolescents.

The Greek government should respond to the ruling by immediately transferring all kids now in police custody to open and safe accommodation. Greece should also work to increase its shelter capacity, find alternatives to detention, and implement a comprehensive foster family system introduced in 2018, which would also benefit Greek children.

Unaccompanied kids in Greece should not have to spend another day locked up in filthy police cells. 

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

Migrant families cross the Rio Grande to get across the border into the United States, to turn themselves in to authorities and ask for asylum, next to the Paso del Norte international bridge, near El Paso, Texas, Friday, May 31, 2019. © 2019 Christian Torrez/AP Photo

© 2019 Christian Torrez / AP Photo

The US Congress should urgently turn its attention to the impact of a new agreement between Mexico and the Trump administration aimed at reducing the number of migrants coming to the United States’ southern border.

The deal, struck after President Trump threatened last month to levy a five percent tariff on Mexico, raises serious human rights concerns.

The two main pillars of the deal are Mexico’s commitment to take “unprecedented” enforcement steps to curb immigration to the US – particularly along its southern border – and the immediate expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), that returns Central American asylum seekers to Mexico while their application to live in the US is considered. Both elements endanger the rights of asylum seekers.

I was in Juarez, Mexico last month assessing the impacts of the returns program – which swept up over 11,000 people, raising serious concerns about their access to fair process in the US. On Tuesday, the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee in the US House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security’s fiscal year 2020 spending bill that would prohibit using US government funds to return asylum-seekers to Mexico. This amendment should be incorporated into the final spending bill to stop the harms of the returns program.

Congress also needs to investigate whether the Trump deal with Mexico is resulting in the expulsion of refugees from Mexico on the US’ behalf. As part of the deal, Mexico will deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border, a move my colleague Daniel Wilkinson recently called a “recipe for abuse” given Mexico’s record with militarized policing.

Asylum seekers stopped in Mexico, including children, may not have meaningful access to asylum. Human Rights Watch found in 2016 that Central American children in need of protection in the country faced major obstacles, including lack of proper screening and legal assistance, delays, and detention. Mexico has taken important steps to increase its capacity to handle asylum claims, but its refugee agency still lacks the resources to handle more than a fraction of the people with protection claims who cross its borders.

The US-Mexico deal removes people seeking asylum from US soil or makes sure they never reach it, but it does not absolve Congress of its responsibility to address the human rights consequences of the deal.

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

Mexican authorities stop a migrant caravan that had earlier crossed the Mexico - Guatemala border, near Metapa, Chiapas state, Mexico, Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced that the country would send 6,000 National Guard troops to the country’s southern border to contain irregular migration from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras. Mexico’s long and ugly history of abuses linked to militarized policing makes it easy to see that this could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Successive administrations in Mexico have justified using the armed forces for public security operations on the grounds that they’re needed to confront heavily armed and extremely violent criminal drug cartels. Yet this militarized approach to policing has only contributed to increased violence and resulted in widespread human rights abuses. 

The National Guard, created by the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to replace the federal police, represents an extension of this militarization of public security. The Guard, which is slated to be inaugurated officially on June 30, will be comprised largely of military troops and led by an army general who is currently on active duty.

If the López Obrador administration follows through on this plan, it will mean deploying essentially a military force not against violent criminal organizations, but rather against impoverished families and their children, many of whom are fleeing persecution by such violent groups.

Mexico is entitled to secure its borders, but it is hard to think of a less appropriate test for its new National Guard. Given the deplorable human rights record of Mexican security forces in recent years – and especially the military – it’s predictable that the deployment will result in serious abuses.

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

A detainee stands outside a toilet stall in the Ain Zara detention center, Tripoli, July 5, 2018. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch
“Please try to help us to be evacuated from this critical situation,” the message popped up on my mobile phone.  In struggling English, the plea continued: “Our is full of suffering such as starvation, frightened sound of weapons, working as military by force and sickness….”

Women, men, and children held in nightmarish migrant detention centers in western Libya now face an even greater risk than usual to life and limb as fighting by rival factions over the Libyan capital of Tripoli escalates.

In WhatsApp messages and calls over the past several weeks, men (and one boy) from sub-Saharan Africa described to me how they have been forced to work for militias, stockpile weapons, and, in one case, sleep right next to a room full of guns, bullets, and grenades—all of which puts them at risk of attack. They have listed their woes, including a diminishing supply of food, drinking water, and medicine.

They have told me their fears of retaliation for giving me information—which is why I won’t say their names or nationalities—and begged me to help them. A 16-year-old who’s been in detention for a year said he was talking to me from the toilet because he was so frightened of being caught with a phone.

“It’s a war zone. There’s a lot of sounds of bombing. So we are scared. The militias come. Some people want to work with them to get food because there is a lot of starvation.”

Over the years, colleagues and I have spoken with hundreds of people who have experienced captivity and abuse at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, and Libyan officials. Men have told me of being tortured, women have whispered accounts of rape. Children recounted being abused and going hungry and witnessing unspeakable violence.

Last year, I visited four detention centers, in the system nominally under the control of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), where everyone caught trying to reach Europe by sea by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard is incarcerated, along with many who didn't even make it that far. Even before the recent flighting, these were miserable places, where people were detained arbitrarily in the most abysmal conditions and exposed to violence, forced labor, extortion, and deprivation.

On April 4, Libyan National Army (LNA) forces based in eastern Libya, under General Khalifa Hiftar, advanced on Tripoli in a bid to oust the GNA. According to the World Health Organization, 432 people have died in the clashes between rival militias, including 23 civilians, and 2,069 have been wounded, including 79 civilians. An estimated 58,800 people have been displaced.

Over 3,400 people are in centers on or near the front lines in and around Tripoli. On April 23, LNA fighters reportedly entered the Qasr Ben Ghashir center, south of Tripoli, and opened fire. Shelling and fighting have surrounded other centers in Tripoli, interrupting delivery of food, water, and health services. On May 7, three detainees at the Tajoura detention center messaged me that an airstrike had hit a part of the compound housing military vehicles, less than 100 meters from where detainees are held. One man told me the blast blew out the windows of his building; UNHCR later confirmed that two people were injured by the airstrike.

While the United Nations has called for a humanitarian truce, General Hiftar has urged his fighters to persevere during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on May 5, and the prime minister of the besieged GNA, Fayaz al-Sarraj, is asking for more help from Europe to repel the attack.

UN agencies have helped transfer hundreds of detainees from centers closest to the fighting to others, a life-saving but temporary intervention since front lines change with the ebb and flow of the fighting. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has managed to evacuate about 163 refugees to its center in Niger, and 146  directly to Italy since the outbreak of hostilities. These laudable efforts are still nowhere near enough.

Migrants and refugees trapped in Libya urgently need help reaching places of safety. The international community should heed calls from UNHCR and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to help create humanitarian corridors to safety, including outside of Libya, for the people currently detained in Tripoli and surrounding areas.

 The EU and other governments should ramp up their resettlement efforts for those already evacuated from Libya to Niger, which would allow for more transfers there, and follow Italy’s example of direct evacuation.  They should also call unequivocally on Libyan authorities to release all migrants and refugees who are arbitrarily detained.

The WhatsApp message I received asking for evacuation ended with a simple call: “We would just like to be in safe place.” Let’s hope the world is listening.

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

The migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, carrying 47 migrants, comes into dock at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. The Sea-Watch 3, operated by the German aid group Sea Watch, had been kept at sea for nearly two weeks while Italy pressed other European countries to agree to take them in. 

@ 2019 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli
(Milan) –The Italian government should firmly reject a proposal to fine shipmasters up to €5,500 for every person they rescue and take to Italy, Human Rights Watch said today. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has proposed this and other problematic anti-rescue measures in a decree to be examined by the government starting as early as today.

“Salvini’s latest salvo in his war on humanitarian rescue puts a price tag on the right to life,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The rest of the coalition government should reject this naked effort to discourage saving lives at sea, including by merchant vessels.”

Since becoming interior minister, Salvini has repeatedly sought to further restrict the already extremely tight Italian policies on rescues at sea and disembarkation of people rescued at sea. Italy has cut back on search-and-rescue operations, delayed or refused taking people rescued at sea to Italy, and supported efforts by Libyan coast guard forces to interdict asylum seekers and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe and return them to abusive detention in Libya.

The first draft of the decree would impose fines of between €3,500 and €5,500 per foreigner rescued at sea and subsequently taken to Italy in the event the rescuing ship did not comply with “the operating instructions issued by the authorities responsible for the area in which the rescue operation takes place or by the respective authorities of the flag state” or the laws of the sea.

The flag state is the country that has licensed the ship. In cases involving ships flying the Italian flag, the decree allows for temporary suspension or revocation of the license of vessels whose instances of rescue and disembarkation in Italy are considered “grave or repeated.”

The proposed measure is based on a partial and deeply flawed reading of international law, Human Rights Watch said. The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to safe places. This includes general guidance to cooperate with and follow instructions from coastal states that have assumed responsibilities to conduct and coordinate rescue operations in their declared search-and-rescue region.

These duties should be read in conjunction with the nonrefoulement obligation in international human rights and refugee law, which prohibit the return of refugees to persecution and the return of any person to the risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Guidelines issued by the International Maritime Organization stress that factors to be considered when designating a place of safety for rescued people to land should include “the need to avoid disembarkation in territories where the lives and freedoms of those alleging a well-founded fear of persecution would be threatened.”

As a matter of policy and practice, Libyan forces take people they rescue or intercept at sea to Libya, where they face arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions and a well-documented risk of serious abuse, including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence. The United Nations has repeatedly emphasized that Libya is not a safe place to take people rescued at sea. Concerns about the risks for those returned to Libya have been heightened as fighting rages in Tripoli among rival militia factions, putting detainees in detention centers at further risk.

As drafted, the decree could conceivably apply to Italian Coast Guard or Navy vessels and other European vessels that abide by the nonrefoulement obligation. It would also apply to private vessels, including commercial ships, that decline to take rescued people to Libya, given the risks there. It would include shipmasters following their flag states’ guidance to comply with nonrefoulment obligation and to avoid disembarkation in Libya due to the risk of human rights violations in that country.

The Italian measure also rests on a self-serving mischaracterization of the capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard, under the EU-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, to perform fully its responsibilities in its vast, self-declared search-and-rescue region. Despite concerted efforts since 2016 by Italy and the European institutions to build the Libyan Coast Guard’s capacity, Human Rights Watch research has found that this corps lacks the capacity, equipment, and training to perform safe rescues.

Since the beginning of an attack, on April 4, on Tripoli by forces loyal to General Khalifa Hiftar, who is allied with a rival government to the GNA that is based in eastern Libya, the Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to detention in Libya at least 871 refugees and migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration. There are also indications that it has diverted assets for military use in the context of current hostilities.  

The decree includes a provision to transfer authority over passage in Italian territorial waters from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to the Interior Ministry. It also gives jurisdiction over all cases of alleged facilitation of unlawful entry into the country to district prosecutors’ offices with anti-organized crime powers. Finally, it provides a budget of €3 million over the next three years to enable agents of foreign police corps to conduct undercover investigations on Italian territory into unlawful entry.

Combined, these measures could lead to heightened criminal investigations and prosecutions in relation to rescue efforts. This would further discourage rescue at sea, including by commercial shipping, by raising the real and perceived costs of responding to migrants and refugees in distress.

Salvini is trying to push through these measures using a procedure that allows for legislation by government decree only in “extraordinary cases of need and urgency.” Such decrees have immediate force of law but must be enacted, including with amendments, by parliament within 60 days or expire. Given that only 1,091 people have been disembarked in Italy since the beginning of the year, it is not clear that the requirements of necessity and urgency are met, Human Rights Watch said.

“The real emergency is the risk of death at sea, and the horrifying detention conditions in Libya, including in centers on the front lines of warring militias,” Sunderland said. “Instead of criminalizing humanitarian rescue operations, the Italian government should work with other EU governments to ensure search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, coupled with a fair distribution of responsibility for people rescued, and to ensure safe ways for migrants and refugees to escape Libya.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Satellite images taken on April 25, 2019 show rapid construction activity in anticipation of increased family and child detention in tents built at the El Paso and Donna, Texas Border Patrol Stations since April 14, 2019. The new tents are highlighted in red. A Border Patrol official told the New York Times the agency could hold families for up to 20 days. Human Rights Watch will monitor changes in construction activity at these sites in coming weeks.

©2019 Planet Labs; Source: Human Rights Watch
Satellite images taken on April 25, 2019 show rapid construction of migrant tent jails intended to house families and children at Border Patrol stations in El Paso and Donna, Texas.
In mid-April, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contracted with New York-based Deployed Resources, LLC to erect “temporary (8 months) soft-sided facilities” meant to give CBP “additional capacity to accommodate family units and UAC [unaccompanied children] arriving in surging numbers to the southwest border,” housing up to 500 people at each location.
“At a time when humanitarian needs are stretched dangerously thin, CBP is spending almost $40 million dollars on new tent jails to hold families and children,” said Clara Long, senior researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Children and families should not be detained, particularly by an agency with such a horrendous track record on respect for detained migrants’ basic rights.”
In March, US officials apprehended over 103,000 migrants at the US-Mexico border, including many families seeking asylum in the United States. Most families are released in border towns to travel on to their destination in the US where they will go before an immigration judge to decide their case. Nonprofit and religious groups along the border have struggled to respond to the humanitarian needs of these recently released families.
The new tents appear aimed at increasing the number of families and children CBP can detain. A Border Patrol official told the New York Times the agency could hold families up to 20 days.
The images analyzed by Human Rights Watch show that since April 14, 2019, two days after the government’s contracting notice, three large structures were erected at the El Paso and Donna, Texas Border Patrol stations. On Friday, the CBP solicited bids from contractors for crowd control barricades and metal fences at the Donna, Texas site meant to detain and partition with chain-link fences the unaccompanied children the agency is expecting to keep there.
“Instead of doubling-down on detention facilities, the government should be investing in a truly humanitarian response at the border,” Long said. “Nonprofits and religious groups already receiving migrants after their time in CBP custody have a lot to teach the government about how a compassionate and humanitarian response might be structured.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am