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

What are some of your biggest concerns about the coronavirus moving through Europe and Central Asia?

Europe is one of the world’s epicenters of COVID-19 cases. There’s an awful death toll in Italy and Spain with the numbers of dead going up dramatically every day, also in France and the United Kingdom. We’re really concerned for the general public across the region.

From the human rights perspective, it’s about making sure governments are doing everything they can to uphold and protect the right to health, including access to health services for everyone. It’s key to protect at-risk groups, such as older people, people with disabilities, and people with underlying medical conditions, and to do so in ways that support and not restrict them.

It’s about the rights of women, who are taking on the majority of caregiving during the crisis and the risk that it entails. Women also face elevated risk of domestic violence during lockdowns. People in prisons or refugee detention centers are at high risk because of crowded, sometimes unhygienic conditions. And health workers on the front lines need protection and support – they’re doing the toughest jobs.

Migrants gather as riot police guard a gate in Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece, March 16, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas

How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that are harmful to rights?

Some governments are using the COVID-19 crisis as a cover to grab power. On March 30, Hungary’s parliament adopted a draconian emergency law that would allow Prime Minister Orban to suspend laws, bypass Parliament, and adopt decrees on an unlimited basis. Worryingly, journalists and others who criticize Orban can be accused of spreading ‘false facts’ and ‘distorted facts’ and sent to prison for five years. This is a sell out of human rights standards and core democratic principles in European Union treaties, all in the name of tackling the coronavirus.

Another government taking steps to consolidate power under the guise of dealing with the virus is Azerbaijan. In March, prominent opposition leader Tofig Yagublu was arrested on dubious charges of hooliganism, shortly after the country’s president said he would crack down on opposition members, using measures designed to take on the coronavirus.

We’re monitoring the way emergency laws are being implemented across the region to check they are not being misused. In the UK, we’re scrutinizing the fact that the government has made it easier to detain people on mental health grounds. It has also weakened safeguards that make sure people who need social care get good quality support. In Kazakhstan, it shocked us to learn that hundreds of people have been put in jail for violating quarantine rules, at a time when it is vital to reduce prison populations.

How are governments reacting to the virus in ways that respect rights?

It’s really challenging for governments. We have to accept that. Governments across the region have incredibly painful policy choices to make. It’s in the best interest of people that they’re taking sometimes drastic measures to control people’s movement and shutting down businesses to protect peoples’ health. When taking these steps, governments should have time limits and good parliamentary oversight. And in most cases, that’s happening. We appreciate this, but we also need to keep holding governments to account.

Many governments, and not just in wealthier European countries, have sought to help citizens hit hard economically by the crisis. In Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, tenants who cannot pay their utility bills and household internet connections are given more time to do so. Kazakhstan is giving monthly payments to undocumented and newly unemployed people.

Some countries are working to make sure women and girls can still access reproductive health services. England, Scotland, and Wales, for example, said they will permit women to take the pills required for a medical abortion at home, rather than traveling to a clinic.

What does COVID-19 mean for refugees in Greece and elsewhere?

The situation in many parts of Greece is desperate. On the Greek islands, tens of thousands of people are crammed into refugee camps designed for a few thousand. The government for the whole of March refused to accept asylum applications, which violates European Union and international law. We need better facilities and to spread asylum seekers out in smaller-scale facilities – such as hotels and apartments – across Greece. This is especially urgent for people with underlying medical conditions and others at particular risk. Better accommodation and better washing facilities, toilets, and soap are needed. And they should be accessible for people with disabilities.

Also, EU countries need to step up the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece. Europe has committed to relocating 1,600 unaccompanied children from these awful camps, and they should do this quickly.

The challenge for people held in immigration detention exists within many countries. We think there’s a particular danger of the virus spreading there. We’re calling on governments to release these people who can’t be deported any time soon and who don’t pose any risks to the public.

These releases are starting. Spain has said it will release people from immigration detention, and Belgium and the UK have both released 300 people in the past weeks. That needs to continue.

How prepared are ECA countries in terms of infrastructure to deal with COVID-19?

The coronavirus is exposing weaknesses in infrastructure that need to be fixed quickly.

There are many structural barriers to accessing health care even without the virus, such as out-of-pocket payments poorer people cannot afford, or problems for ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities to get proper health care. There’s a danger these will be reinforced during the crisis.

We need to make sure governments help health workers. In nearly every country there are severe shortages of masks, gloves, and other essential items.

In the UK, kids from poor families who rely on schools for their main meal of the day are at risk of going hungry. The government and local authorities now have schemes to replace free school meals with supermarket vouchers or other arrangements, which is progress.

Older people in the UK are also suffering. The government needs to urgently improve social care provisions for older people, especially in England, to ensure they can stay healthy at this time. Instead, it has suspended requirements for social care assessments and services arrangements.

There is also the problematic use of infrastructure. Moscow is installing one of the biggest surveillance camera systems in the world. The authorities want to use these cameras and possibly an online registration system to catch people breaking quarantine and access personal financial transactions. Using technology could be a good thing for controlling the virus. But Russia’s track record gives rise to concerns. In Armenia, authorities have passed a law giving very broad surveillance powers to use cell phone data to identify, isolate, and monitor coronavirus cases, at the expense of privacy rights.

Who within your region is most at risk to the virus?

In addition to the groups I’ve mentioned, I’d say people in prison. Facilities are often cramped and overcrowded. Even in the best prison it’s difficult to control the spread of the virus, which is bad for prisoners and staff. Italy has approved the early supervised release of some prisoners. The Turkish government has taken a good step with plans to accelerate the release of people from prisons because of the virus. However, some categories of prisoners risk being excluded. There are tens of thousands in Turkey who are imprisoned on spurious terrorism charges, especially people alleged to be linked to the Fethullah Gülen religious movement or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Some of these prisoners are older and sick and could die there. They deserve to be treated as human beings and be with their family members.

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

Clothing hangs to dry at a makeshift migrant camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on March 1, 2020. 

© 2020 Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, known as “Remain in Mexico,” is driving asylum seekers to stay in unhygienic camps and shelters in Mexican border cities where they are at heightened risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus, Human Rights Watch said today. Additionally, the United States announced new travel restrictions on March 20, 2020 that would allow US border agents to deny entry to people who previously may have been held in border detention centers in the US, including unaccompanied children and other asylum seekers, trying to cross the border.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should immediately end the MPP program and reverse the new travel restrictions, Human Rights Watch said. Asylum seekers removed from the MPP program should not be detained, but rather paroled into the United States with quarantine or other measures as necessary for public health. Any policies closing the border to asylum seekers would violate US and international rights obligations.

“The US government is pushing people who are in the process of seeking asylum, including children, to live in unhygienic conditions that unnecessarily increase their risk of contracting the coronavirus,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The US has an obligation under international law not to compel people to risk their right to life in order to pursue their right to seek asylum.”

Under the MPP program, non-Mexican asylum seekers in the United States are returned to cities in Mexico while awaiting asylum hearings in US immigration courts, where they often appear in mass group hearings. Immigration attorneys, judges, and prosecutors have called for the Department of Justice to suspend immigration court hearings to protect public health. Immigration courts have since announced that all MPP hearings scheduled through May 1 will be rescheduled, effectively stranding asylum seekers in the program in Mexico.

Human Rights Watch found the camps and shelters along the border are often overcrowded, so that people living in close contact with one another are forced to share very limited, rudimentary sanitation facilities. They also often lack clean running water sufficient to follow the basic hygiene recommendations put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO), other public health entities, and human rights experts.

About 2,500 asylum seekers are crowded together in this makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, November 5, 2019, just feet away from a US port of entry. 

© 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, recently expressed deep concern about those living in informal settlements and emergency shelters: “Housing has become the front-line defense against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

The Department of Homeland Security should ensure asylum seekers currently subjected to the MPP program are quickly paroled into the United States where they can first undergo public health screening and appropriate quarantine as warranted by public health standards. They should then be allowed to safely join family members and existing networks of support, following government “shelter in place” guidelines applicable to the general population. They could be required to maintain “check-ins” as part of their parole to ensure appearances at immigration proceedings, recognizing that public health concerns may dictate such interactions will be conducted in ways that minimize physical contact.

Relying on faulty information provided by DHS, the CDC director, Robert Redfield, mistakenly claimed in his order authorizing the asylum ban that it was necessary for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to deny entry to migrants, because border agents could not reasonably release people from crowded Points of Entry or Border Control Stations as “many of the aliens covered by this order may lack homes or other places in the United States where they can self-isolate, and CDC lacks the resources and personnel necessary to effectively monitor such a large number of persons.” However, a recent study shows 91.9 percent of asylum seekers have family or close friends in the United States. For those asylum seekers who do not have family or friends with a known address willing and able to shelter them, the federal government should provide safe and decent accommodations where they can be sheltered in place until their claims and immigration status are finally decided, or the public health advisories have been lifted.  

Many of those waiting for their US immigration court hearings are homeless in Mexico and have little access to health care. For example, Human Rights Watch found that in Matamoros, Mexico, just across from a US port of entry, about 2,500 asylum seekers live back-to-back in tents holding up to five people each with only a handful of outdoor showers and portable restrooms that have at times overflowed with human waste.

Portable bathrooms overflow with human waste at a makeshift encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on November 5, 2019. 

© 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

An outbreak of COVID-19 in such conditions would spread rapidly and could prove deadly.

Under the new travel restrictions, asylum seekers are not being provided with the legal protections designed to ensure they are not returned to a threat of persecution; CBP agents have been empowered to “expeditiously expel” to Mexico or their country of origin migrants encountered between ports of entry, including unaccompanied children. Human Rights Watch has previously witnessed and documented CBP agents performing illegal “turnbacks” of migrants exercising their right to seek asylum, including unaccompanied children, and has found agents have failed to refer those who have expressed credible fear for interviews with asylum officers, and instead, rapidly deported them to potential danger. Giving CBP agents even greater power to unilaterally and summarily decide claims under the travel restrictions will very likely risk further wrongful return of people who may be refugees.

Even in times of emergency, governments remain obliged to protect refugees from return to a threat of persecution, exposure to inhuman and degrading conditions, or threats to life and physical security. Health workers have said that an outbreak of COVID-19 in camps and shelters is inevitable, meaning asylum seekers face a real risk of life-threatening disease. Paroling asylum seekers into the United States would respect the right of anyone to seek asylum without compelling asylum seekers to choose between seeking protection from serious harm in their home countries or being exposed to potentially life-threatening conditions in Mexico. Rational, evidence-based quarantine measures to protect public health are not in conflict with the right to seek asylum but rejecting asylum seekers at borders and pushing them back to face threats to their lives is.

The DHS-proposed rule that accompanies the new travel restrictions outlining “essential” and “non-essential” travel at the US-Mexico border fails to account for the travel of refugees fleeing persecution. Such travel is fundamentally the most essential, as it can mean the difference between life or death.

People with certain disabilities and chronic health conditions are particularly at risk of COVID-19, and border agents have continued to send people with disabilities and chronic health conditions to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols. Human Rights Watch found that Mexico failed to consistently identify or provide appropriate support to such people, including access to health care. Asylum seekers with underlying health conditions are at particular risk of serious illness from a COVID-19 infection.

Customs and Border Protection has also sent several pregnant women – another high-risk population – to Mexico under the program. Older asylum seekers with underlying health conditions are also disproportionately impacted.

MPP hearings themselves have not been conducted in accordance with public health standards. After the US government, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, shut down mass immigration court hearings throughout the United States for immigrants who are not detained, some hearings for asylum seekers in the MPP program continued, along with those for detained migrants. Those hearings are held en masse in small courtrooms where asylum seekers are crammed into rows of benches side-by-side or else in small lobbies where they are made to wait for hours. Asylum seekers should have the venue for their immigration proceedings changed to the court located nearest to the US community where their support family networks reside.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, released guidance on March 16 calling for border measures relating to COVID-19 to be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. Any “blanket measure” to preclude the admission of refugees and asylum seekers would not meet this standard, UNHCR said.

Human Rights Watch has called for the US government to release people in immigration detention who are at high risk of serious effects from COVID-19 with appropriate measures, including non-discriminatory quarantine, as necessary and proportional to ensure public health.

“The pandemic has laid bare the added dangers faced by asylum seekers placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program,” Sawyer said. “The US can best meet its obligations to protect public health, refugees, and the right to seek asylum by fully ending ‘Remain in Mexico’ now.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am


(Beirut) –  Qatari authorities should ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of 16 nongovernmental organizations and trade unions said in a letter on March 31, 2020 to Qatar’s prime minister and interior minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al-Thani. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Migrant-Rights.org.

While acknowledging the positive steps taken to protect migrant workers infected and at-risk of infection by COVID-19, the coalition urged the authorities to supplement these with further actions that protect public health and are consistent with fundamental human rights, including the principle of non-discrimination.

Qatari authorities should, among other recommendations, ensure that all migrant workers including undocumented workers, quarantined or otherwise, have access to testing and get appropriate medical treatment, the groups said.

They should ensure that migrant workers who are unable to work, either due to preventive quarantine or testing positive for COVID-19, continue to receive wages; provide public information to ensure that migrant workers, including domestic workers, do not face discrimination or stigma in relation to the COVID-19 virus; and in light of their acute vulnerability, ensure that domestic workers have access to timely and adequate protective measures and health care.

The coalition will send similar letters to other Gulf Cooperation Council States with similarly large vulnerable migrant worker populations, but where, for many states, there is less transparency on how the issue is affecting migrant workers.

“Qatar has made promising commitments to support migrant workers during this unprecedented crisis, including earmarking funds to cover quarantined migrant workers’ wages, and setting up a hotline for grievances,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, more than ever, such promises need to be implemented and rights of migrant workers – who helped build Qatar’s economy and cared for its families – should be protected.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Honorable Robert R. Redfield, MD 
Director 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
1600 Clifton Road 
Atlanta, GA 30333 

The Honorable Chad F. Wolf 
Acting Secretary 
Department of Homeland Security 
1880 2nd Street SW 
Washington, DC 20024

Sent via email

April 1, 2020

Re: CDC and DHS Orders Related to Suspending Travel Across US Borders

Dear Director Redfield and Acting Secretary Wolf:

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I write to share our concerns regarding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Order dated March 20, 2020, “Suspending the Introduction of Certain Persons from Countries Where a Communicable Disease Exists” (hereinafter CDC Order), and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) Order published in the Federal Register on March 24, 2020, “Temporary Travel Restrictions” (hereinafter DHS Order). These orders do not directly address the situation of asylum seekers. Under US law and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the US is party, the United States may not return asylum seekers to face threats to their lives or freedom without affording them an opportunity to apply for asylum and conducting a full and fair examination of that claim. The Orders also do not address US legal obligations to unaccompanied children (hereinafter “UACs”), who are also often asylum seekers. 

We believe the CDC Order failed to address the issue of asylum seekers, in part, because it was based on: insufficient and incorrect information provided by the DHS to the CDC regarding the categories of non-citizens (or “aliens” as the term is used in the Orders) who have a lawful reason to enter in the United States; incorrect information provided by DHS to the CDC regarding the opportunities for release of asylum seekers to families and communities of support inside the United States; lack of information provided by DHS to the CDC about DHS’ discretion to release asylum seekers from custody after appropriate periods of quarantine and under appropriate conditions of supervision; and lack of information provided by DHS to the CDC about the enduring US obligations to asylum seekers under US and international law, even during an emergency.

The CDC Order states that it applies to “covered aliens,” a definition the CDC adopted after receiving information from DHS (the CDC Order states “DHS has informed CDC . . .”). DHS apparently informed CDC that the noncitizens who are traveling from Canada or Mexico who must be held in Ports of Entry or Border Patrol stations are people, according to the CDC Order, “who do not have proper travel documents…whose entry is otherwise contrary to law…and who are apprehended near the border seeking to unlawfully enter the United States.” This definition includes a wide range of noncitizens and fails to specifically address the subcategory of noncitizens who may apply for asylum subject to 8 USC Sec. 1158, which states, “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.” The definition also fails to acknowledge Custom and Border Protection’s obligation, as a part of implementing this Section of US law, under 8 C.F.R. 235.3(b)(4), to register any claims of fear expressed by a non-citizen and refer him or her to a credible fear interview.

The CDC’s determination that “covered aliens” should not be allowed entry to the United States is based on information provided by DHS, that “many of the aliens covered by this order may lack homes or other places where they can self-isolate,” as stated in the Order, as well as detailed concerns regarding the presence of COVID-19 in Canada and Mexico; and the inadvisability of holding covered aliens in Ports of Entry or Border Patrol stations where medical care is limited and mandated social distancing and related public health precautions will be difficult to achieve.

We do not dispute the lack of medical care at Border Patrol stations and the crowded conditions in which migrants and asylum seekers are often held for lengthy periods of time. However, the CDC may not be aware of research completed in 2019 by the US Immigration Policy Center, finding that 91.9 percent of asylum seekers have family or close friends in the United States. That means that many of them could likely be released to those friends and family members after a period of quarantine or other measures as necessary for public health and with appropriate safeguards to ensure their appearance for asylum proceedings. These findings are in keeping with our own extensive interviews with asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border in recent years.

The CDC may also be unaware that CBP is not required to hold migrants and asylum seekers in border detention facilities for long periods of time in crowded, unhygienic conditions. Indeed, CBP’s own standards suggest that adult noncitizens should not be held in these facilities for more than 72 hours. Most unaccompanied children must by law be transferred within 72 hours (though that limit is often ignored). Whether to release migrants and asylum seekers is a matter of prosecutorial discretion, and CBP has the authority to directly and swiftly release such persons, including after a period of quarantine and under possible conditions of supervision, if appropriate.

Even in times of emergency, governments remain obliged to protect refugees from return to a threat of persecution, exposure to torture or inhuman and degrading conditions, or threats to life and physical security. Contrary to the DHS Order, travel by refugees fleeing threats to their life and safety constitutes essential travel, as it can mean the difference between life or death.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, released guidance on March 16, 2020 calling for border measures relating to COVID-19 to be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. Any “blanket measure” to preclude the admission of refugees and asylum seekers would not meet this standard, according to UNHCR.

The CDC and DHS Orders constitute such inappropriate “blanket measures.” Under the Orders, the United States is failing to provide asylum seekers with legal protections designed to ensure they are not returned to a threat of persecution, and CBP agents have been authorized to “expeditiously expel” to Mexico or to their country of origin migrants encountered between ports of entry, including unaccompanied children. Human Rights Watch has previously witnessed and documented CBP agents performing illegal “turnbacks of migrants exercising their right to seek asylum, including unaccompanied children. Human Rights Watch has also found agents have failed to refer for interviews with asylum officers people who have expressed a fear of return to their country of origin, and instead, rapidly deported them to potential danger. Giving CBP agents even greater power to unilaterally and summarily decide claims under the travel restrictions will very likely risk further wrongful return of people who may be refugees. To cite just one example of the serious consequences that can ensue from such “expeditious” expulsions, Human Rights Watch reported this year on some 200 cases of people killed, raped, or otherwise abused after the United States returned them to El Salvador.

Since we believe the CDC has issued its order in reliance on insufficient or incorrect information provided by DHS, that DHS has issued its Order based upon similarly insufficient information, and that neither adequately considered binding law, we recommend that both agencies revise their policies to allow them to comport with US and international law. We urge the CDC to amend its order relating to the entry of non-citizens to the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for the entry of asylum seekers; and we urge DHS to amend its order to define individuals who have been identified as expressing fear and requiring referral to a credible fear interview as persons engaged in “essential travel.”

We understand and appreciate the seriousness of the situation that your agencies are engaged in addressing, and that rational, evidence-based public health measures are warranted given the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, returning refugees to persecution or other grave threats constitutes a serious human rights violation that is not permitted under international law even in times of emergency. And in light of the information we have shared above, we believe you can protect the health of immigrants and the public at large without turning away asylum seekers. 

Please be in touch with Bill Frelick, refugee policy director, Human Rights Watch at frelicb@hrw.org should you have any questions regarding this letter or our recommendations. We have also enclosed a recent press release issued by our organization on related issues faced by people covered by the Migration Protection Protocols.

Sincerely yours,

Alison Leal Parker
Managing Director

Enc. Human Rights Watch press release on MPP program and COVID-19

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A member of medical staff wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, checks the body temperature of travellers arriving from India at the eastern border with Nepal in Kakarvitta, March 14, 2020. 

© 2020 Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images

In a welcome decision, hundreds of Nepalis who work in India and were crowded at the border trying to go back home will now be supported by Indian authorities. Nepal will support Indians stranded there. But others scattered across the Gulf states, Malaysia, and elsewhere, are also in desperate circumstances.

Nepal’s government faces huge challenges to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its response should not be denying citizens the right to come home. Nepal’s government closed its borders and stopped international flights on March 22. Some Nepalis working abroad are now stuck, as their jobs are lost and countries go into lockdown.

Human Rights Watch has spoken to stranded workers at Darchula, on Nepal’s western border with India, where around 500 people are pleading to be allowed back in. “We’ve been sleeping in the roads,” said 41-year-old Dilendra Singh Mahata. “It’s cold at night. We’re really hungry. If that disease doesn’t kill us, this will. We’re willing to quarantine, but we want to come home.”

On March 30, three men resorted to swimming across the Mahakali river, and were promptly arrested.

Others are stranded elsewhere. A group of Nepali men who worked as taxi drivers in the United Arab Emirates told Human Rights Watch they have no money and are taking turns to share a bed, or even sleeping in parks, after they lost their jobs. “We’re really stressed because we can’t go home. We have run out of food. I don’t know what to do,” one of the men said. “We’ve been talking to the embassy, but they are not willing to meet us.”

Nepali authorities have made little provision for returning citizens because they have few facilities to quarantine them. Imposing restrictions without addressing the needs of citizens entitled to return home denies them their basic rights. Such restrictions are also less likely to be effective, if they force people to live in crowded conditions, or evade controls instead of cooperating with quarantine requirements.

The Nepali government should act immediately so that its citizens can come home. It should also work with other governments to ensure the protection of its citizens abroad.

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

Families arriving at Malakassa detention site, in Greece, on March 14. 

© 2020 Private

(Athens) – Greek authorities are arbitrarily detaining nearly 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers in unacceptable conditions, and denying them the right to lodge asylum claims, in two recently established detention sites on mainland Greece, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities claim they are holding the new arrivals, including children, persons with disabilities, older people, and pregnant women, in quarantine due to COVID-19, but the absence of even basic health precautions is likely to help the virus spread.

“If the government is serious about preventing COVID-19 transmission and illness among migrants and asylum seekers, it needs to scale up testing, provide more tents, and give people enough toilets, water, and soap, and put in place prevention interventions,” said Belkis Wille, senior Crisis and Conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing people, some of whom are at high risk of severe disease or death, to live in dirty and unsanitary conditions, cramped together in close quarters, is a recipe for spreading the virus, not to mention is degrading and inhumane.”

Governments can lawfully impose a quarantine to separate people who may have been exposed to or are showing symptoms of an infectious disease. A lawful quarantine should be necessary and fit to serve the purpose of protecting public health. It should be imposed in a non-arbitrary and nondiscriminatory manner.

Greece, however, is detaining migrants because of their immigration status and not providing them with appropriate health protections as expressed in the International Health Regulations or current World Health Organization guidance.

Women, men, and children are being detained in unsanitary and cramped conditions, regardless of whether the country they have arrived from is considered high COVID-19 risk, with no indication that they will be released if found to be virus-free. The authorities do not appear to have tested the detainees for the virus, besides taking their temperature upon arrival. Nor will they be released after the 14-day WHO-recommended isolation period.

Instead, they face continued immigration detention, even though Greece most likely cannot readmit them to Turkey as a transit country or return them to their countries of origin in the foreseeable future. In such circumstances, there is no legal justification for their prolonged detention.

On March 25 and 26, Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed four men who said they had been held in the Malakassa detention site since March 14. Each of them said the roughly 450 detainees with them had severely limited access to water, electricity, hygiene products, clothing, and blankets. They said that detainees were sleeping in cramped tents with up to ten people, often from different families. Two of the men, who had young children, said they didn’t have enough milk and diapers for their kids. They said the authorities had not taken any measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The four men and a lawyer at the Legal Centre Lesvos all said that the police guarding the sites were not allowing anyone inside to leave, except for medical emergencies.

On March 26, the Greek parliament ratified a March 1, 2020 government decree suspending access to asylum for 30 days for people who irregularly entered the country. The March 1 decision, taken before any measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak in Greece, calls for new arrivals to be immediately deported “where possible, to their countries of origin” or transit countries, such as Turkey, without registering them. Greece’s decree made no reference to preventing coronavirus infection but rather was a reaction to Turkey’s announcement that it would open its EU borders to migrants and asylum seekers who wanted to leave.

Since then, however, no deportations have occurred because Turkey has refused to accept any deportees from Greece. Instead, following the decision, Greek authorities rounded up at least 1,974 people who arrived in Greece as of March 1, and transferred them to two recently established detention sites outside of the town of Serres, 350 kilometers north of Athens, and on a plot of military-owned land outside the town of Malakassa, 20 kilometers north of Athens. Other new arrivals continue to be detained in ports and at arrival sites.

On March 14, a Greek naval vessel transferred 436 migrants, including women, men, and children, to the detention site in Malakassa. The government has continued to transfer groups of new arrivals there, according to people being held inside. On March 20, authorities transferred at least another 603 people by vessel from Lesbos and other Greek islands to the detention site in Serres. According to aid workers monitoring the transfers and the people inside, police are guarding both sites. On March 17, the government justified the transfers by stating it was part of its response to the COVID-19 virus.

The lawyer at the Legal Centre Lesvos who has been in contact with some of the people since their arrival in Lesbos and Chios, and their transfer to Malakassa and Serres, said the police gave the people she spoke to a 3-day detention order in early March, pending deportation. Right before transporting them from Lesbos to the mainland on March 14, police gave them a deportation order for their “immediate readmission to Turkey.” Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of both documents.

According to the lawyer, the Greek government has openly said that it wishes to deport these individuals without giving them an opportunity to lodge their asylum claims. It is unclear what the government will do after the 30-day suspension period ends. The asylum service is closed until at least April 10 due to COVID-19, so will likely not provide further information in the near future.

The Unions of Police Personnel of Athens, North-East Attica, and Western Attica said in a March 26 statement that hygiene measures in Malakassa were “non-existent,” adding that in the face of COVID-19, the situation was “mathematically evolving into a slow fire bomb as basic sanitary protections are lacking (toilets, cleanliness, masks, gloves, number of people residing in tents, etc.).”

Human Rights Watch tried to reach three people who were reportedly being held in Serres, but the facility has no electricity and their phones were switched off. Researchers interviewed a man detained in Malakassa who said he had spoken with a friend upon her arrival in Serres, and another lawyer who had spoken with three others upon their arrival at Serres. According to this man and the lawyer, the conditions in the facility were as crowded and unsanitary as the conditions in Malakassa.

Similarly, the Union of Police Personnel of Serres stated on March 23 that the detention site was “completely inappropriate” and would “create conditions of suffocation for the inhabitants there.” Detainees were housed 10 to a tent that had the capacity for five, the union said, adding that they did not think the tents could withstand extreme weather. The weather in Serres is currently cold, with temperatures dropping to 4 degrees Celsius at night.

The tent of one of the men Human Rights Watch interviewed in Malakasa detention site, Greece.

© 2020

Greece should not extend its March 1 decision to suspend access to asylum for 30 days for people who irregularly entered the country, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that all measures it undertakes to combat COVID-19 are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.

EU member states have deployed their national border guards through Frontex to work within the operational command of Greek border-control authorities and are engaged in apprehending would-be asylum seekers. EU member states should suspend any participation in Frontex operations that fail to adhere to binding international human rights standards.

The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece in line with EU and international law and press the Greek authorities to ensure that new arrivals are not detained arbitrarily. It should tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum.

The European Commission should specifically monitor the situation faced by asylum seekers in the Malakassa and Serres facilities and raise with the Greek authorities concerns on the denial of access to asylum, inadequate conditions, lack of access to legal support, and the risks that those people face arbitrary detention and refoulement. It should also open legal proceedings against Greece if the authorities fail to effectively resume access to asylum and fail to meet binding EU standards on reception conditions for people seeking international protection.

Migrant women, men, and children should be housed in facilities with adequate security, sanitation, and hygienic conditions and should be allowed to apply for asylum. Any healthcare needs should be promptly addressed.

“International human rights bodies and health experts have been calling globally for authorities to reduce the number of people in detention to limit the spread of the virus,” Wille said. “Inexplicably, Greece seems to be doing the opposite and putting people at grave risk.”

Detention Conditions in Malakassa

Three men from Syria and one from Iraq that Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone said police were detaining them in the Malakassa closed camp, which was divided into three sections. They were all being held in the same section and said police were detaining 450 people there, including unrelated women, men, and children in the same tents, and were holding another 921 people in the other two sections as of March 26, based on food distribution lists that they saw. One man who was in touch with someone in the other sections said the people there arrived after their section had been transferred from Rhodes, Kos, Symi, and Kastelorizo.

All four men said that when they arrived in Malakassa, their temperature was taken, but they did not have any further medical checkups. They added that for the first four days they were there, authorities did not provide them with any hygiene products but that, after people protested, police gave them one to two soap bars and one to two shampoo bottles for each tent, which houses between eight and ten people. The men said those supplies have been used but the authorities have not provided any more. The detainees do not have access to hand sanitizer, or other forms of hygiene protection.

The interviewees said that their section of the camp has 20 showers and 30 toilets, which do not flush. The group of toilets only have about 20 rolls of toilet paper per day that run out quickly. The water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities are not in line with the United Nations guidelines to prevent gender-based violence in displacement settings, which call for hygienic, gender-separated toilets and bathing facilities with working locks, adequate lighting, and privacy. The interviewees said they got their drinking water from sinks next to the showers, but that water generally ran out after an hour of use and would only return after four to five hours.

Malakassa detention site, Greece. 

© 2020 Private

They described their tents as about five by five meters and said authorities gave each person one blanket and a thin mat. The men said that the blankets were not enough given the low temperature. The weather in Malakassa is currently cold, with temperatures dropping to 8 degrees Celsius at night. The men all said they had begged the police for clothes because most families have only the clothes they had arrived in Greece in. One added that some families had to use the blankets they were given to make clothing and he shared a photograph of a toddler in a pair of trousers made from a blanket. They said authorities refused to give them more blankets.

“We know there are some older people in the group who are at least 65, who are already frail from the perilous journey, sleeping outside, and the stress of being detained and transferred to different locations. Holding them in these conditions, in the same clothing and underwear they have been in for almost a month now only makes it more likely they might get sick,” the lawyer from Legal Centre Lesvos said.

Older people tend to have less body fat, less efficient circulation, and a slower metabolism. For older people hypothermia can set in around 17 degrees Celsius. COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying health conditions. Older people and people with reduced mobility specifically need access to additional blankets and heating.

Another man said that a friend of his, living in Greece, came to the camp with clothing for his family but the police refused to allow the friend to hand him the items or approach the detention site fence. The third man said, “We are washing our babies’ clothing and putting it back onto them when it is still wet because we have no change of clothes for them.”

The interviewees said there is no electricity in the tents in Malakassa, only a set of sockets near the showers for people to charge their phones. All four men said they were running out of internet credit and that the police were not allowing their friends outside the camp to come to the camp to provide them more.

The four men in Malakassa said there is a general practitioner sitting in an ambulance outside the detention site for several hours a day providing basic medical care. In some cases, pregnant women have not been able to access appropriate prenatal care or care during labor and delivery. One of the men, the husband of a pregnant woman in Malakassa, told Human Rights Watch that she suffered considerable abdominal pain over the last month and that after arriving in Malakassa, the general practitioner agreed to approve a visit for her to a local health center. Authorities at first refused to let her husband join her, he said, but finally agreed after making the couple wait all night and forcing him to be transported to and from the hospital in handcuffs under police escort. The doctors at the hospital only spoke Greek. The man explained, and he said:

We still have no idea what her condition is or what the medicine was that they gave her. They gave us some papers that the police confiscated when we got back. I am begging them every day to give them back, so I can send a photo to a friend who could translate for us. They keep refusing though, and I have no idea why.

On the evening of March 25, according to the men in Malakassa, another pregnant woman inside the site went into labor but police refused to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital for two and a half hours, only calling for one after her water broke and people were banging on the fence to alert the police. One man shared three videos with Human Rights Watch of the scenes, in which you can see the police on the other side of the fence watching the woman in labor but apparently taking no action.

The fence surrounding Malakassa detention site, north of Athens, Greece.

© 2020 Private

International standards on detention of asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees state: “As a general rule, pregnant women and nursing mothers, who both have special needs, should not be detained,” and alternative measures should be sought. International guidelines on detention of women also call for “gender-specific health care,” and for providing pregnant and lactating women with appropriate health and dietary support. Emergency obstetric and newborn care should be accessible in humanitarian crises, in line with international standards.

The lawyer said she knew of at least five unaccompanied children held in Malakassa, all of whom were sleeping in tents with other families, not in separate facilities. As far as she was aware, there were no special services for them.

One of the interviewed men said that he had seen at least four people in Malakassa with physical disabilities said there were no accessible hygiene facilities available for them.

The four men in Malakassa said that while authorities were giving them enough food, they were providing the same meals to everyone, without any special provisions beyond one bottle of 250ml bottle of milk per day for babies, which one man, a father of two toddlers, said was not sufficient. Authorities were giving those with babies four diapers a day which was not enough, he said.

International Law Obligations

Greece has the right to control its borders and manage crossings into the country but is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which guarantees the right to seek asylum. Denying people access to asylum is illegal under EU law. It may also violate the fundamental principle of nonrefoulement, the prohibition on returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to face persecution or serious violations of their rights.

Arbitrary detention is prohibited under international and European human rights law as well in Greek law. While irregular migrants may be detained for limited periods of time pending lawful removal, decisions on removal have to be made following individualized determinations, and not blanket application of policy. On March 13, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that people who arrived in Greece in March should have the right to apply for asylum, should not be returned without an individual decision, and that Greece should respect the principle of nonrefoulement.

Immigration detention is a non-punitive, administrative deprivation of liberty that is only lawful if it is necessary and proportionate to carry out a legitimate aim. Those in immigration detention awaiting deportation can only be held if the deportation can be executed within a reasonable time, otherwise the legitimacy of their detention evaporates.

As travel bans due to COVID-19 increasingly prevent forced returns and courts limit their activities, the reason that thousands of people across the EU and other European states may be held in detention – to execute a deportation order – is no longer justified. The EU Returns Directive allows detention pending deportation for up to 18 months, but stipulates that if “a reasonable prospect of removal no longer exists … detention ceases to be justified and the person concerned shall be released immediately.”

Under international human rights law, everyone, including people in custody, has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” States have an obligation to ensure that medical care for those in their custody is at least equivalent to that available to the general population and must not limit equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative care. Measures to prevent the spread of diseases in confinement should be based on the best science available and be proportionate and limited in scope and duration, with every effort made to safeguard mental well-being of detainees.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, international human rights law requires that restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency be lawful, necessary, and proportionate as well as nondiscriminatory.

In a statement of principles on the treatment of prisoners and detainees amid the COVID-19 crisis, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a body of the Council of Europe, asked authorities to use alternatives to detention “and refrain, to the maximum extent possible, from detaining migrants.” On March 25, its sister body, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture urged all states to reduce populations in detention centers and refugee camps “to the lowest possible level.” The same day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said governments should “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 “rampaging through such … extremely vulnerable populations.” On March 26, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović echoed the call to release detainees from immigration detention to the extent possible.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Maldivian flag flies at Jumhooree Maidan, or Independence Square, in Male, Maldives. 

© 2007 (WT-shared) Jpatokal/Wikipedia

The global spread of infectious diseases is inevitable in an age of international travel, globalization, and shared economies. Even a small island nation offers no protection, as the Maldives has discovered with the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to Maldives health authorities, as of March 27 there were five active cases of COVID-19, two of them tourists and one a Maldivian returning from England. Because of limited testing the number could be higher. Although its economy is heavily dependent on tourism, the Maldives has decided to take the precaution of ending visas on arrival for foreign visitors.

But the Maldives faces another big challenge. The other two cases of COVID-19 reported were migrant workers. There are about 100,000 migrant workers in the Maldives, mostly from Bangladesh, making up roughly 25 percent of the islands’ total population. This population is vulnerable to seeing a much larger number of cases because they live in congested shared quarters and do work that does not make it possible to practice strict social distancing.

Although employers in the Maldives are legally obligated to provide all migrant workers with health insurance, coverage is often minimal and many are not informed they have insurance at all. Employers also illegally confiscate workers’ papers, making it difficult for them to obtain health care. As a result, migrants are frequently forced to pay more than citizens for medical services. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable.

On March 11, the government established a dedicated COVID-19 clinic for migrant workers on Hulhumale island, near the capital, Malé, which does not require them to show work permits or other documentation. This is welcome, but with thousands of workers scattered throughout the Maldive islands, many cannot afford to travel to this clinic.

Working with the World Health Organization, the Maldives government has taken important steps to establish isolation and quarantine facilities and prepare hospitals for testing and treatment. The Maldives has not ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families – they should do so immediately and abide by its provisions in the meantime. Most urgently, the Maldives government should ensure migrant workers have the right to visit clinics and hospitals without fear of arrest or deportation.

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

Women in the Ponte Galeria immigration detention center near Rome, Italy May 6, 2017.

© 2020 Reuters/Steve Scherer
(Brussels) – People in immigration detention in European countries pending deportation should be given alternatives to detention amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

“While entire societies learn to live under lockdown, we shouldn’t forget about people locked up because they have the wrong papers,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities across Europe should take measures to protect the health and rights of detainees and staff in immigration detention centers, including by releasing people and finding alternatives to detention.”

The European Commission should work with relevant United Nations authorities to provide clear guidance on release, alternatives to detention, and how European Union member states can ensure adequate and safe shelter to people once released. The Council of Europe’s (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights should monitor practices in CoE member states, which include all EU countries, and develop more detailed guidelines if needed.

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions such as immigration detention centers. These institutions have often been found to provide inadequate health care even under normal circumstances. In many detention centers, overcrowding, shared bathrooms, and poor hygiene make it virtually impossible to implement basic measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

As travel bans increasingly prevent forced returns and courts limit their activities, the reason that thousands of people across the EU and other European states may be held in detention – imminent deportation – is no longer justified. The EU Returns Directive allows detention pending deportation for up to 18 months, but stipulates that if “a reasonable prospect of removal no longer exists…detention ceases to be justified and the person concerned shall be released immediately.”

The Greek government has, since March 1, implemented a policy of detaining asylum seekers arriving at its borders and at the same time has suspended access to the asylum procedure.

Thousands are currently held in prisons and detention centers throughout Greece, with unknown standards of hygiene or protection. Since mid-March, the government has transferred at least 1,300 new arrivals from the islands into detention sites on the mainland.

According to testimonies gathered remotely by Human Rights Watch, people in detention sites in Malakassa and Serres are amassed in tents with little to no hygiene products. As of March 17, camps on the five Aegean islands have been on lockdown, trapping around 37,500 people in severely overcrowded centers where conditions of healthcare, shelter, and water and sanitation are abysmal.

The Italian government has adopted increasingly restrictive measures to protect the general public amid the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe, including a measure to reduce overcrowding in criminal justice prisons. However, authorities have not yet adopted clear, transparent measures to address the situation of people detained because of their immigration status. An estimated 381 people are detained in immigration detention pending deportation even though most countries have banned flights from Italy. On March 12, the national defender of the rights of detained people called on the government to consider release; judges have issued individual release orders on the grounds that deportation was not possible.

On March 23, 130 Italian civil society organizations called on the government to apply alternatives to detention for everyone in immigration detention centers and so-called hotspots and for a progressive closure of the centers, citing the difficulty of protecting the health of detainees and staff.

France has not taken any nationwide measures to protect the health of approximately 340 people in immigration detention centers across the country. A number of detention centers stand empty because individual judges have ordered detainees released on health grounds and because they cannot be deported. Since their deportation orders are not rescinded, theoretically anyone released can be re-detained seven days later if they are still on French territory. France’s principal human rights authorities said recently that immigration detention is “today, a measure that poses great health risks while lacking in justification given the lack of possibility of expulsion.”

Some EU and neighboring countries have taken positive steps. On March 18, immigration authorities in Spain said they would start releasing people from detention following a case by case assessment, including the possibility of carrying out a deportation. Federal authorities in Belgium released an estimated 300 people on March 19 because detention conditions did not allow them to enforce safe social distancing measures. While Germany does not appear to have adopted a national policy, the federal interior minister has said there would be fewer deportations in the foreseeable future and several detention centers stand empty. Last week, authorities in the United Kingdom released some 300 people in response to a legal challenge brought by Detention Action and lawyers, who said that detention made the people they represent vulnerable to infection.

Under international human rights law, everyone, including people in custody, has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” States have an obligation to ensure that medical care for those in their custody is at least equivalent to that available to the general population and must not limit equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative care. Measures to prevent the spread of diseases in confinement should be based on the best science available, be proportionate and limited in scope and duration, with every effort made to safeguard mental wellbeing of detainees.

In a statement of principles on the treatment of prisoners and detainees amid the COVID-19 crisis, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a body of the CoE, asked authorities to use alternatives to detention “and refrain, to the maximum extent possible, from detaining migrants.” On March 25, its sister body, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture urged all states to reduce populations in detention centers and refugee camps “to the lowest possible level.” The same day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said governments should “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 “rampaging through such…extremely vulnerable populations.” On March 26, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović echoed the call to release detainees from immigration detention to the extent possible.

The European Commission should develop guidelines for EU member states on protecting the health of people detained in immigration detention centers. These guidelines should include recommendations to member states to release individuals whose deportation within a reasonable time frame is no longer possible, and if necessary to prioritize those who may face a heightened risk if they contract the virus in detention, such as older people and people with disabilities. Guidelines should outline measures authorities should take to protect public health, including screening and imposition of quarantines, self-isolation requirements, or other measures for people released from immigration detention, as long as these measures are necessary and proportionate.

No one should be made homeless or otherwise destitute as a result of release from detention, Human Rights Watch said. PICUM, a network of organizations that defend the rights of undocumented migrants, recommends that states mobilize hotels, unused buildings, and sports halls if necessary to provide safe, adequate shelter that allows for social distancing.

“Everyone deserves the right to health and to protection from unnecessary suffering,” Sunderland said. “That’s why authorities need to be looking at alternatives to immigration detention right now.”
 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

New arrivals since March 1 on the Aegean island of Lesbos sleep outdoors behind a chapel in the village of Klio, where authorities are guarding them.

© 2020 Grigoris Siamidis

(Athens) – Greek authorities have denied at least 625 people who arrived on the island of Lesbos between March 1 and 18, 2020 the right to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities are detaining 189 new arrivals on the island of Lesbos in unacceptable conditions. The other 436 were transported to a closed center in Malakassa, north of Athens, in conditions that are as yet unknown. On March 1, the Greek government suspended access to asylum for 30 days for people irregularly entering the country.

“For up to two weeks, the authorities have been holding women, men, and children – many of them fleeing war and persecution – in the open in cold temperatures, denying their right to seek asylum and preventing them from getting the humanitarian and legal assistance they need and are entitled to,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greece may be facing challenges on many fronts, from the coronavirus to a surge in arrivals, but it does not mean it can suspend fundamental rights or humane treatment.”

Among 100 new migrants arrived on the island of Lesbos since March 1, are a girl using a wheelchair and a boy unable to walk without support, sheltering in two public transport buses, with portable toilets at Mytilene Harbor.

© 2020 Grigoris Siamidis

The authorities have been holding the migrants and asylum seekers in three locations in northern Lesbos and at Mytilene harbor, and have prevented journalists from speaking with them. The March 1 decision calls for immediately deporting new arrivals “where possible, to their countries of origin” or to transit countries, such as Turkey, without registering them.

On March 17 the government, ostensibly as part of its response to the COVID-19 virus, announced that they are planning to transfer those detained and others who arrived on the islands after March 1 to closed facilities on Greece’s mainland. On March 14, a Greek naval vessel transferred 436 migrants to a closed camp in Malakassa, north of Athens, pending their return to Turkey, local media reported.

On February 27, the Turkish government announced that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkish territory to reach the European Union. As thousands began congregating on Turkey’s border with Greece seeking to enter the EU, Greece’s National Security Council announced the March 1 decision. Aid workers at two organizations on Lesbos confirmed that the authorities have not allowed anyone who has arrived since March 1 to apply for asylum. The authorities plan to transfer the new arrivals on Lesbos by boat to the mainland on March 20, local media reported. In addition to the 189 new arrivals on Lesbos, asylum seekers have also arrived on other Aegean Islands like Chios, Leros, Samos, Kos, and Kea.

Migrants newly arrived since March on the island of Lesbos, shelter in two tents without access to hygiene or sanitation facilities, guarded over by police and the Greek Coast Guard in the garden of a chapel in Agios Dimitrios.

© 2020 Grigoris Siamidis

Since their arrival the Greek Coast Guard and police have restricted the movement of new migrants and kept guard over them in de facto detention in inhumane conditions. Five witnesses and an aid worker said that a group of 42 people, including at least 15 children, arrived by boat to Lesbos on March 5 in an area called Aghios Dimitrios. As of March 19, the Greek Coast Guard and police were still detaining them there, in the garden of a nearby chapel. One witness saw the group as they arrived on the beach, “They were cold and wet, standing together by the road, frightened and holding onto their children,” he said. Witnesses said that authorities provided the new arrivals with two large tents, but that there was not enough room for the whole group to sleep inside. The witnesses did not see any toilets, showers, or even access to running water. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and the authorities appeared to be providing them with food, water, and blankets. The aid worker said that as far as she knew, the migrants did not have access to medical screening or any other medical assistance.

The witnesses described seeing the arrival of two other groups, who were also given this limited assistance. Two saw a group of 24 arrive by boat near the town of Molyvos on March 12. Three witnesses and the aid worker said that on March 13, another 24 people including at least three children, also arrived by boat in Cape Korakas, near the village of Klio. They saw the new arrivals camped behind a small chapel in the village, where the Coast Guard and police were still guarding them as of March 19.

The witnesses said that on the various days they visited the areas, they saw the Greek Coast Guard and police guarding the area, preventing the migrants from moving elsewhere. The witnesses said most of the migrants appeared to be Afghan or Syrian. With the exception of some interviews with the first group on March 5, the police prevented journalists from interviewing the migrants, the witnesses said.

Four witnesses and an aid worker said that a group of 99 migrants, including a girl using a wheelchair and a boy who was unable to walk without support, arrived in other areas of the island and are being held at Mytilene Harbor. The witnesses saw them living in two public transport buses, with minimal hygiene facilities. One witness saw an older man asking a police officer if he could go to a hospital, but did not know if the request was granted. Two lawyers who had obtained information about the groups at Mytilene Harbor and in the north said they understood that one person was on dialysis, some women were pregnant, and there were several unaccompanied children.

New arrivals since March 1 on the Aegean island of Lesbos, being held in a chapel’s garden in Aghios Dimitrios, have no access to hygiene and sanitation facilities and have to bathe in the cold sea.

© 2020 Grigoris Siamidis

Greece has the right to control its borders and manage crossings into the country but is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which guarantees the right to seek asylum. Denying people access to asylum is inhumane and illegal. It may violate the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, the prohibition on returning refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to face persecution or serious violations of their rights.

Arbitrary detention is prohibited under international and European human rights law as well as in Greek law. While irregular migrants may be detained for limited periods pending lawful removal, decisions on removal have to be made following individualized determinations, and not blanket application of policy. On March 13, the EU commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that people who arrived in Greece in March should have the right to apply for asylum and should not be returned without an individual decision and that Greece should respect the principle of non-refoulement.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, international human rights law requires any restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency to be lawful, necessary, and proportionate as well as nondiscriminatory.

Greece should immediately reverse its March 1 decision to suspend access to asylum for a month for people irregularly entering the country and to deport them. The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece in line with EU and international law and press the Greek authorities to ensure that new arrivals are not detained arbitrarily. It should tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum. It should ensure that all measures it undertakes to combat COVID-19 are applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Migrant women, men, and children should be housed in facilities with adequate and hygienic conditions and allowed to apply for asylum. Any healthcare needs should be promptly addressed.

“People will continue to arrive on the Greek islands and the authorities should not keep them in the open in poor and unhygienic conditions, barred from the asylum system,” Wille said. “Such policies are abusive and illegal.”

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

Greece: End Violence Against Asylum Seekers at Border

Security Forces and Unidentified Men Abuse, Strip and Summarily Deport Thousands

(Athens) – Greek security forces and unidentified armed men at the Greece-Turkey land border have detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced them back to Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today. Top EU officials have praised Greece’s border control measures and provided support through the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX).

“The European Union is hiding behind a shield of Greek security force abuse instead of helping Greece protect asylum seekers and relocate them safely throughout the EU,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should protect people in need rather than support forces who beat, rob, strip, and dump asylum seekers and migrants back across the river.”

Greece should immediately reverse its March 1 decision to suspend for one month access to asylum for people irregularly entering the country and to deport them, where possible, to their countries of origin or transit. The Greek Parliament should investigate, and FRONTEX should monitor, any Greek security force abuse and summary deportation of asylum seekers and migrants. EU member states should urgently relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries and fairly process their asylum claims.

Between March 7 and 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 asylum seekers and migrants, 17 of whom were men and 4 women, in Turkey about how they tried to enter Greece over the land border following the Turkish government’s February 27 announcement that it would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkey to reach the European Union.

Those interviewed and thousands of others have traveled to Turkey’s Pazarkule border gate on the Greece-Turkey border and to the Evros river, which forms a natural border between Turkey and Greece, to the south of Pazarkule. Eight of the interviewees said Turkish police transported them to border villages and showed them where to cross into Greece.

In response, the Greek government reinforced its border with police, army, and special forces, which fired teargas and reportedly rubber bullets at people who approached the Pazarkule crossing. Two asylum seekers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that Greek security forces also used live fire to push people back. One of these people, interviewed in a hospital where he was getting treatment, said he was shot in the leg. According to Turkish officials, Greek security forces have shot and killed at least three asylum seekers or migrants, but Human Rights Watch has not verified this number.

All those interviewed said that within hours after they crossed in boats or waded through the river, armed men wearing various law enforcement uniforms or in civilian clothes, including all in black with balaclavas, intercepted everyone in their group. All said the men detained them in official or informal detention centers, or on the roadside, and stole their money, mobile phones, and bags before summarily pushing them back to Turkey. Seventeen described how the men assaulted them and others, including women and children, through electric shocks, beating with wooden or metal rods, prolonged beating of the soles of feet, punching, kicking, and stomping.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed five Turkish residents of border villages who described how between February 28 and March 6 they had helped care for large groups of people who returned injured and almost naked from Greece saying that Greek security forces had beaten, robbed, stripped, and deported them.

In one case, an interviewee described Greek security forces sexually assaulting his wife when they crossed the border. “They [Greek security forces] tried to search my wife and touched her breasts,” said a Syrian man who was travelling with his wife and children. “Then they tried to take off her headscarf and her trousers. When I tried to stop them, they beat me really badly with their fists, feet, a heavy plastic rod, and a metal stick. They hit my 2-year-old daughter with a heavy plastic stick on the head so that she still has a bruise.” Human Rights Watch saw a bruise underneath the girl’s hair.

In most cases, the interviewees, said that armed men stripped them down to their underwear, including some women, and forced them across the Evros river back to Turkey. Many said that they were passed between various groups, suggesting coordination between police or soldiers and the unidentified men.

In three cases, asylum seekers and migrants said they were forced back to Turkey or handed over to abusive Greek forces by people who did not speak Greek and were not wearing a Greek uniform, though they did not know where they were from. On March 3, 2020, FRONTEX agreed to deploy along the full length of the Turkey-Greece land border but how many forces have been deployed and when remains unclear. On March 13, Human Rights Watch informed FRONTEX about alleged abuse by non-Greek forces and asked about its deployments along the border. On March 16, FRONTEX replied saying that it did not have the requested information and that it would respond as soon as it did.

Some of the interviewees said they tried multiple times to enter Greece and were each time forcibly returned. Taken together, the interviewees described 38 deportation incidents involving almost 4,000 people, although some of these could be double counts.

On March 6, the Turkish President’s communication director, Fahrettin Altun, condemned reports of Greek border security stripping, beating, and deporting asylum seekers across the Evros river, but Turkey continued to transport people to the border and urge them to cross.

On March 3, senior EU officials met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the Greece-Turkey land border, praising the government for protecting the border and referring to Greece as the EU’s “shield.” In later statements, the European Commission president, Ursula van der Leyden, and EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said they had emphasized the need to respect fundamental rights, including the right to asylum.

Greece is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which recognizes the right to seek asylum and guarantees protection from refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a real risk of persecution or other serious harm.

Turkey does not meet the EU criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned, which include respect for the principle of non-refoulement. Since July 2019, Turkey has deported at least hundreds of Syrians from its cities, exposing those forcibly returned from Greece to the risk of onward refoulement to Syria.

Since 2016, Turkish border guards patrolling Turkey’s closed border with Syria have killed and injured Syrian asylum seekers and carried out mass summary pushbacks. Most have been returned to Idlib governorate, where Syrian government and Russian forces have recently carried out a new round of indiscriminate bombings, striking civilians, hospitals, and schools, forcing a million people to flee. In 2018, Turkey also summarily deported thousands of Afghans to their country.

Greece should allow people seeking protection at its borders to enter, and fairly and efficiently assess their asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece from Turkey, end summary returns to Turkey, and press the authorities to prosecute abusive officials.

FRONTEX should monitor and publicly report on Greek security force compliance with European and international human rights and refugee law, including detention standards, as well as similar compliance by its officers and those contributed by member states. Turkey should not compel anyone to cross the border irregularly into Greece.

“Without EU pressure on Greece to stop these appalling abuses, this cycle of violence will continue,” Hardman said. “But the EU should also help Greece by relocating asylum seekers to the rest of the EU and help Turkey, the world’s number one refugee hosting country, by resettling far greater numbers of refugees.”

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants in Turkey; Transports to the Border in February and March

Turkey shelters almost 3.6 million Syrians registered under a “temporary protection” regulation, which Turkish authorities say automatically applies to all Syrians seeking asylum. This reflects the UN refugee agency’s position that “the vast majority of Syrian asylum-seekers continue to … need international refugee protection” and that “states [should] not forcibly return Syrian nationals and former habitual residents of Syria.”

According to Turkey’s migration authorities, almost 115,000 asylum seekers lodged protection claims in 2018, including 70,000 Iraqis and 40,000 Afghans, while in 2019 almost 35,000 Afghans and 15,000 Iraqis lodged asylum claims. In late 2019, Turkey said it also hosted about 460,000 irregularly present people, including 200,000 Afghans, 70,000 Pakistanis, 55,000 Syrians, 12,000 Iraqis, 12,000 Palestinians, and 9,000 Iranians. It is unclear how Turkey identified these people without registering them.

Until the February 27, 2020, announcement, Turkish border authorities generally prevented foreigners from leaving Turkey irregularly at its EU land borders, reflected in the high numbers of people who resorted to entering Greece in smugglers’ boats beginning in 2015. Between January 2015 and March 12, 2020, Turkey’s coastguard reportedly intercepted 186,766 asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean Sea.

On March 5, Turkey announced that it was sending 1,000 additional police officers to the border with Greece to prevent Greece from pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey. Turkish media published photos of what the authorities said were new deployments along the Evros river.

Eight asylum seekers and migrants Human Rights Watch spoke with said that between February 28 and March 6, Turkish police or military had transported them in buses to villages on the Evros river to the south of the Pazarkule border crossing and helped them cross to Greece. They included two men taken from immigration removal centers, one of whom said the authorities threatened to kill him if he did not agree to be taken to the Greek border. Two others said police or military took them to Pazarkule. At 7 p.m. on March 8, Human Rights Watch saw hundreds of foreign nationals getting off five large white coaches without commercial logos parked next to police vehicles in Küplü village, 400 meters from the Greek border.

An asylum seeker in northern Turkey at the Greek border on March 6 shows injuries he says Greek security forces inflicted after he had crossed the Evros River into Greece. 

© 2020 Belal Khaled

Abuse by Greek Forces in late February and early March

Between March 7 and 9, two Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 21 asylum seekers and migrants in Edirne city and near the Evros river to the south of Edirne about abuses that they had faced on the Greek side of the river. Seventeen of them were men and four were women: 7 from Afghanistan, 4 from Syria, 2 each from Morocco, Pakistan, and Senegal, and one each from Azerbaijan, Gambia, Iran, and Iraq.

Interviews were carried out privately and confidentially through male and female interpreters in the interviewees’ first language. One person spoke fluent English. They shared their accounts voluntarily, and without remuneration, and consented to Human Rights Watch collecting and publishing their accounts without using their names.

Their accounts confirm patterns that Human Rights Watch documented in similar situations in 2008 and 2018. In mid-2018, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture said it had 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.” And in November 2018, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner called on Greece to investigate allegations of Greek abuses at Turkey’s border, in light of information pointing to “an established practice.”

Interception and Detention

All of those interviewed said that armed men, and in one case a woman, in uniform or in black or other civilian clothes intercepted everyone in their group within one to 10 hours after they had crossed the Evros river. They said the men were armed with handguns, rifles, metal bars, and wood or plastic batons.

Ten of the interviewees described 19 occasions in which men they thought were police stopped them, because they were wearing blue, grey, or dark uniforms. Five interviewees described six incidents in which men they thought were soldiers stopped them, because they wore green or beige camouflage uniforms. Five others said that they were stopped by men wearing black or other civilian clothes. One person said he was stopped by four armed men and a woman in black with the German flag on their sleeves and one man in black with the Swedish flag on his sleeve and that they handed him and others over to men in black with balaclavas.

In the two other cases, asylum seekers described men in black and balaclavas speaking English and French who said they were from France, and men in camouflage uniforms who spoke what sounded like German, who abused and deported them to Turkey.

Greek authorities have said that police officers wearing dark blue uniforms work at police stations; border patrol police officers wear military camouflage uniforms. FRONTEX guards wear their national uniforms with a blue armband with the EU flag.

Interviewees said the men who stopped them in Greece arrived in police cars, pick-up trucks, white vans without windows or signs, or larger green or camouflage trucks that appeared to be military trucks. Sixteen said they were held on the roadside or in forests for between half an hour and four hours after being apprehended, while five said the armed men took them to unofficial detention centers. They described the detention locations as small houses, small compounds, and partially built houses and said they were detained there between two and five hours. In one case, a man said men wearing uniforms marked “police” held him in a metal container with about 50 other people for 18 hours without water or access to a toilet.

No one registered those interviewed, they said, and their detention appears to have been arbitrary and incommunicado.

On March 10, the New York Times reported on a detention center a few hundred meters from the border village of Poros, four kilometers east of the town of Feres, which it concluded Greek security forces had used to detain asylum seekers and migrants in early March before returning them to Turkey. On March 11, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said she would discuss the center with the Greek authorities.

Beatings and Abuse

Seventeen of those interviewed said the men detaining them physically abused them or others, including women and children. Eight said police were responsible for ill treatment, three identified soldiers, three spoke of men in black and balaclavas, and three said men in other civilian clothes mistreated them.

A Syrian man holds his 2-year-old daughter in the Turkish border village of Alibey on March 9, 2020, a day after he says Greek security forces detained and beat them both when he tried to stop them from sexually assaulting and stripping his wife.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

A 31-year-old Syrian man and 22-year-old Syrian woman from Idlib with three daughters ages 2, 4, and 6 said that they crossed to Greece on March 5, where men in camouflaged uniforms who they believed to be Greek soldiers took them and 40 others to a small compound. The man described what happened next:

They [Greek security forces] tried to search my wife and touched her breasts. Then they tried to take off her headscarf and her trousers. When I tried to stop them, they beat me really badly with their fists, feet, a heavy plastic rod and a metal stick. They hit my 2-year-old daughter with a heavy plastic stick on the head so that she still has a bruise. Then they gave my wife an electric shock on her wrist and shoulder and one of the men pointed a gun at my head. They beat many of the other men [in the group] and forced all of them to take off almost all their clothes. They took our phones, money and passports. After two hours they took us in one truck back to the river where a man in a boat in black with a balaclava went back and forth [across the river] until all of us were back in Turkey.

A 33-year-old man from Afghanistan who said he crossed to Greece on March 1 explained:

I crossed in a boat with about 60 others including families. Turkish police made sure there were no Greek police on the other side of the river. We walked for about eight hours and then the Greek police found us and took us to a half-built house. They stripped us men down to our underwear and they slapped, kicked, and beat us with wooden sticks. They didn’t show any mercy and beat some of the women and children, too. They took our phones, money, bags, and clothes and held us there for five hours. They brought other refugees to that building. When there were about 300 of us, they took us back to the river and put us on small boats back to Turkey.

A 25-year-old Syrian man with a heavily bandaged right arm said that he crossed to Greece on March 2 in a group of about 200 people and that they walked through forests and villages for two hours:

Suddenly a transit van and a pick-up truck arrived with about eight men. Four were in civilian clothes and all of them had beards. Some others were wearing a patchy camouflage with black boots and others were wearing a green uniform with beige boots. They all had big guns, that looked bigger than a Kalashnikov. They stopped us and took our bags, money, and phones. Some of us tried to hold onto our things so they punched and kicked us, including women. They threw me to the ground and one of the men stomped on my right hand about ten times. After they sent us back to Turkey, a Syrian doctor did surgery on my hand to repair a severed nerve.

A 30-year-old Pakistani man in a group of 20 described their arrival during the first week of March:

All of us have tried to cross to Greece every day for the past week. Each time the Greek police catch us and strip us of our clothes, beat us, give us electric shocks to our upper body, and steal whatever we have with us and then send us back. Each time we find locals in Turkey who give us clothes. Today, they beat two of the men in our group so badly on the soles of their feet that an ambulance in Turkey picked them up in this village and took them to a hospital.

Theft, Stripping, and Summary Deportations

Fourteen of the people interviewed described 20 incidents in which the armed men who had stopped them stripped them of their possessions, including personal identification documents, money, telephones, and bags. Seven said the police took their belongings, seven said it was men in black, five said soldiers took their belongings and one said it was men in other civilian clothes.

Eleven people described 15 incidents in which men detaining them stripped them of their clothes down to their underwear, including three who said women were also stripped, and then forced them back across the border.

A 32-year-old man from Afghanistan said Turkish police drove him and 300 others to a border village with Greece, where they crossed on February 29. He said that men in various uniforms and civilian clothes intercepted them after two hours and held them for half an hour at the side of the road:

After about 30 minutes, three big trucks arrived. The drivers and some other men on the trucks were wearing dark blue uniforms and had sticks that give electric shocks. As the men forced us on the trucks, they told all of us men to take off our clothes, except for our underwear. They beat the men who didn’t want to strip. Then they took us to the river and forced us onto inflatable boats back to Turkey.

The 21 interviewees described 38 deportation incidents involving almost 4,000 people. This includes eight groups of an average of about 50 people deported in the last two days of February and thirty groups deported in the first seven days of March, including 22 groups of an average of about 50 people, seven groups of an average of about 200 and one group of about 1,000 people.

All interviewees said that armed men walked or drove them back to the Evros river, in military trucks, pick-up trucks or in other civilian vehicles. There the armed men ordered them onto small boats controlled by men in camouflage uniforms or civilian clothes that went back and forth until they had transported the entire group back to Turkey. Some said that some of the armed men watched the Turkish side of the border with binoculars during the deportation.

Shooting Live Ammunition

Media reports say Turkish officials have accused Greek security forces of shooting and killing at least three people during the first week of March. These possibly include a Syrian man who was killed on the Greek side of the Evros river the morning of March 2.

On March 10, a lawyer with the Istanbul Bar Association’s Human Rights Center said she had petitioned the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to order Greece to allow asylum seekers to enter Greece and to stop using live fire and teargas against them, based on the reported March 2 killing.

A Senegalese asylum seeker told Human Rights Watch that shortly after he had crossed the Evros river on the morning of March 2 with about 300 people, Greek security forces fired shots at the group and he saw two men who he thought were Syrians fall to the ground. He ran away and did not see what happened afterward.

The Bar Association lawyer also said that the Turkish prosecutor’s office had opened an investigation into the killing of a Pakistani man on March 4 at the Pazarkule border crossing. The lawyer said the Office of the Governor of Edirne Province referred to the man’s death in a March 4 news release. It said that at 11 a.m., Greek border forces at the Pazarkule crossing had used “teargas, plastic bullets and live bullets” against asylum seekers and had injured six people, one of whom died later that day.

On March 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed a hospitalized Pakistani man who said that Greek border guards shot him in the leg near the Pazarkule border crossing on March 1 while he was standing in Turkey about 200 meters from the Greek border gate. His doctor said he had been injured by a bullet that shattered inside his leg.

On March 4, a Greek government spokesperson said that Turkey had “fabricated fake news … concerning alleged injuries from Greek fire" and repeated the claim during the following days on social media. On March 5, Turkish media reported that the Turkish authorities were “preparing a case for the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of asylum seekers trying to cross from Turkey.

Turkish Villagers Providing Help

Human Rights Watch interviewed five Turkish people living in border villages near the Pazarkule border crossing on March 8 who confirmed the accounts of violence. They said that every night dozens or hundreds of men, women, and children would return after attempting to cross into Greece, often nearly naked, describing in broken Turkish that they had been beaten, robbed, stripped, and pushed back by Greek security forces. The villagers said they saw back and head injuries and a broken leg.

They also said that for many years, asylum seekers and migrants had passed through their villages, crossed to Greece and been pushed back to Turkey but that the numbers had been relatively low. They all said that the numbers pushed back had significantly increased between February 28 and March 6, after buses brought dozens or hundreds of people to the village each night.

One man in a border village said:

Every night since February 27 buses with migrants have arrived in our village. They stay in mosques and other buildings and cross the river [to Greece] in inflatable boats. In early March we sometimes heard gunshots from across the river. We saw them come back stripped and cold and beaten. Some had what looked like broken legs and one woman was limping badly. Some had bad wounds on their head. Most of them had stripes across their backs where they had been beaten. Men were stripped to their underwear. We always saw groups returning with men stripped. The majority spoke Turkish and they told us that the Greek soldiers caught them and put them in camps where they took their phones and money. This has always been happening, maybe once every month, but not like now, with so many people and every night.

A man in another village said:

Last week groups of dozens and up to 100 people arrived and went to Greece. When they returned, we saw men and women stripped down to their underwear and some men were totally naked. Some spoke Turkish and said the Greeks had pushed them back. We saw injuries across their backs, like red stripes, and they had bruises on their cheeks and split lips. We offered them food and drink and clothes. What else could we do?

Recommendations

Greece, the European Union, and Turkey should take a number of urgent steps to address the abuses at the Greece-Turkey border, Human Rights Watch said.

Greece should allow people seeking protection at Greece’s borders to enter and have their asylum claims assessed fairly and efficiently. It should also reverse its decision to summarily return asylum seekers to Turkey without registering their asylum applications. The authorities should promptly investigate in a transparent, thorough, and impartial manner whether the Greek police and border guards have committed abuses against, and collective, extrajudicial expulsions of, asylum seekers and migrants in the Evros region. The authorities should urgently investigate reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and hold those responsible to account.

Members of Greece’s parliament should urgently establish an inquiry into all allegations of collective expulsions, pushbacks, and violence on Greece’s land borders with Turkey. The Greek Parliament should exercise its oversight powers to investigate the abuses and determine whether they amount to a concerted policy.

The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece from Turkey, end all summary returns to Turkey, and press the authorities to prosecute abusive officials. It should also tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum and open legal proceedings against Greece with a view to referring the case to the European Court of Justice if Greece fails to effectively resume access to asylum.

The EU and its member states should urgently expand the numbers of Syrian refugees to be resettled from Turkey to Europe and relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries, which should process their asylum claims equitably, fairly, and humanely.

FRONTEX should monitor and publicly report on Greek security force compliance with European and international human rights and refugee law, including detention standards, as well as compliance by its own officers and those contributed by member states. It should also urgently review whether its mandate allows it to be deployed in Greece while Greece has suspended the asylum procedure for arrivals from Turkey and has said it will summarily return asylum seekers to Turkey.

Turkey should not compel anyone to cross the border irregularly into Greece.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nadia Hardman is a researcher in the Refugee and Migrants Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, monitoring and documenting human rights abuses against asylum seekers, refugees and migrant populations.

Prior to Human Rights Watch she led the International Rescue Committee’s protection program for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and was based in Mosul, Iraq with the Norwegian Refugee Council working with internally displaced persons (IDPs) between 2017 and 2018. Nadia has worked with refugee and IDP populations in Myanmar, Thailand and Palestine and was a Program Lawyer for the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute working on rule of law issues in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Egypt and Tajikistan from 2013 to 2015. She is a qualified UK lawyer with a Masters in Human Rights from University College London. Nadia speaks fluent French and Italian.

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

Greece/EU: Allow New Arrivals to Claim Asylum

New Arrivals Held on Navy Boat

(Athens) – Greece’s decision to detain more than 450 people on a naval vessel and refuse to allow them to lodge asylum claims flagrantly violates international and European law, Human Rights Watch said today. The action may amount to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

“The refusal to allow people in its custody to seek asylum and the open threat to send them back to their persecutors flies in the face of the legal obligations Greece has agreed to and the values and principles it claims to represent,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrants rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Greece should immediately reverse this draconian policy, properly receive these people in safe and decent conditions, and allow them to lodge asylum claims.”

People interdicted by the Greek Coast Guard since March 1, 2020 have been held on the ship docked in the Mytilene Harbor in Lesbos. Local authorities refused Human Rights Watch requests to enter the dock area where the women, men, and children are being detained during the day or to board the naval vessel where they stay at night. Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with one of the detainees, a Syrian asylum seeker who declined to give his real name or age for fear of retribution.

The man said that 451 people were detained, according to the food lists that he had seen, many of whom are children and women. He said that he and others had asked the Greek authorities to let them lodge asylum claims but were told that they would not be allowed to do so.

Women, men, and children inside the hull of a Greek Navy ship in Mytilene harbor, Lesbos, Greece. March 2020.

© 2020 Private

A video and photos that the Syrian man sent to Human Rights Watch show women, men, and children on the floor with blankets and mats in the hull of the navy boat.

He said that the first people were detained on the boat on March 1 but that the authorities did not allow them to recharge their mobile phones until March 7, so many were unable to communicate with relatives or others.

The Turkish government announced on February 27 that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkish territory to reach the European Union. Greece’s National Security Council announced on March 1 the “temporary suspension, for one month … of the lodging of asylum claims by all people entering the country illegally” and their “immediate deportation without registration, where possible, to their countries of origin or transit.”

Greece has the right to control its borders and to manage any crossings into the country. Nevertheless, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantee the right to seek asylum. Denying people access to asylum is inhumane and illegal. It may violate the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution, Human Rights Watch said. International, European, and Greek law prohibit arbitrary detention.

The Syrian man said that most of the detainees are Afghans, but that 118 are Arabs, including Syrians, Iraqis, and Palestinians. He said the group also included Somalis, Congolese, and others from Africa.

“They first took us to a police station and fingerprinted us,” he said. “They gave us a document in the Greek language that we can’t understand.” He was able to contact a lawyer by phone who said it was a deportation order, which required him to leave Greece within 48 hours. The man pointed out that they had already been held considerably longer than that. He said that the lawyer told him that he was not permitted to visit with him face-to-face.

“We asked many times for asylum, but they told us the Foreign Ministry has closed asylum to us,” he said.

He also said that many pregnant women and children are among the detainees, all kept in the same area, and that “the children are not receiving sufficient food and clothing.” He also said some people were too ill to eat the food: “We had only 3 toilets for 451 people until today, when they brought 5 portable toilets. There is no shower; no soap.” It is unclear whether pregnant women or new mothers would be able to get pre or post-natal or emergency obstetric medical care.

The Syrian man said that the detainees are moved from the ship to the dock during the day and back onto the ship at night.

“The police have acted correctly,” he said, “but they do nothing to help us and tell us nothing to inform us of our situation.”

He said a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross had made one visit, but he had not seen anyone from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The man’s relatives, asylum seekers in the Moria camp on Lesbos, requested that Human Rights Watch meet with him and other family members on the boat or on the dock. Human Rights Watch went to the dock to request permission to talk with them but was refused entry. A letter to the police directorate of Lesbos and to the headquarters of the Hellenic Police on March 6, as well as follow-up emails to the police director of Lesbos and two in-person visits to his office on March 7 and 8 yielded no information about the detentions.

The Greek government should immediately reverse the decision to suspend access to asylum for people who crossed the border irregularly and to allow anyone in need of international protection to apply for asylum. The European Commission should urgently stress that the decision to suspend access to asylum is not in line with EU and international law and press the Greek authorities to ensure that no one is detained arbitrarily and guarantee the right to apply for asylum.

“The refusal to allow Human Rights Watch to meet with these detainees appears to be an attempt by Greek authorities to shroud their negligence and denial of basic rights,” Frelick said. “If any of these people are summarily and forcibly returned without respecting their right to seek asylum, Greece would be committing a grave violation of their fundamental right not to be threatened with persecution, torture, or death.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Greek soldiers guard the Kastanies border gate at the Greek-Turkish border, February 29, 2020.

© 2020 AP/Giannis Papanikos

How has the situation on Lesbos changed since your last visit?

When I was here in 2016, I couldn’t imagine things being worse. We saw a lawless situation in Moria refugee camp. There were around 6,000 people in the camp, which has capacity for 3,000. Now it’s more than 20,000 people. What’s shocking is that this is part of the European Union. This is an island where Europeans vacation, and a short distance away on this same beautiful island is what is called a “hot spot,” a horrible hellhole, the Moria camp, where refugees are being penned in.

What kind of stories were you hearing from migrants and refugees?

I interviewed a young man today. He tried to board a boat for mainland Greece but wasn’t able to. As he walked back to the camp, he encountered vigilante mobs. He sought shelter in a café, but the café owner started hitting him with a chair, so he went outside, and there the mob beat him with sticks and metal bars. He said the only thing that saved him was that the mob saw another refugee and decided to chase him instead. While this was happening, he saw police passing by and doing nothing.

He found a friend who took him to the hospital. After being treated, he couldn’t get back to the camp because the road was blocked by thugs. The police at the hospital took him back to the Moria camp by, of all things, putting him in handcuffs and in their squad car. The police told the mob barricading the road they were going to deport him. The mob let them through. Then the police took him back to the camp, uncuffed him, and let him go. It was the only way the police could get through the mob.

But police aren’t always so friendly, right?

At the harbor area, police are showing up in force with riot gear and batons. But when thugs set up roadblocks and threaten or assault refugees and humanitarian workers, they turn timid.

Video

Police Interaction with Family of Asylum Seekers in Lesbos, Greece

Police Interaction with Family of Asylum Seekers in Lesbos, Greece

I witnessed a mother and father with five children heading toward the port. A policeman stopped them, shouting, “Go back to Moria.” The mother, holding a child’s hand in one hand, used her other hand to point to her knee, telling the policeman she couldn’t walk back. He said, “I don’t care. Go back.” The police started pushing them. A few minutes later, I saw a policewoman push the children down the street and out of sight, and the parents weren’t with them. It appeared as if they were separating a family.

Can nongovernmental organizations help?

Mobs have attacked NGO facilities and attacked their vehicles with bats. Some NGOs suspended operations and even evacuated volunteers back to Athens, but after a day or two a number of the NGOs have returned and are doing their best to provide services, often with reduced staffs

Where are people from?

There are some Syrians here, but many of the refugees and migrants at Moria appear to be from Afghanistan, but with asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, and other places as well. Part of the cynicism of what [President] Erdogan of Turkey did was that he only opened Turkey’s border in the west and north to Greece and Bulgaria. He kept the border to Syria closed. You have desperate people in Idlib. They’re trapped, their lives are in great danger, they need to be able to flee into Turkey. Any moral high ground that Erdogan could take by pointing a finger at Greece for pushing back refugees is lost because Turkey is pushing Syrians back into Syria where their lives are threatened.

What has the EU said about this?

The leaders of the EU came to Greece a few days ago and they praised the country, calling it “Europe’s shield” for what it’s doing. This is appalling. It is a spectacular failure to uphold EU values and human values.

What needs to be done?

The immediate thing is to protect refugees and migrants and the NGO workers who provide services to them, to allow new arrivals to seek asylum, and to provide decent reception conditions. This needs to be addressed not just by Greece, but by the EU and wider international community as well.

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cynical move to open his western EU borders to allow refugees and migrants to leave - while keeping his southern border to Syria shut to asylum seekers desperate to escape the onslaught there - poses an enormous challenge to Greece and the European Union.

Greece has responded with brutality and disregard for fundamental refugee rights. Disturbingly, this approach has won unworthy praise from EU leaders, touting Greece as Europe’s shield, while they ignore both the suffering of those at the EU’s borders, and the urgency of desperate Syrians fleeing the indiscriminate Syrian-Russian bombing near Turkey’s border.

There are, however, humane and workable alternatives that uphold shared values.

The draconian measures announced by Greece include barring the lodging of asylum claims for anyone crossing the border irregularly for the next month, and its intention to push back migrant and asylum seekers attempting to enter Greece irregularly. Greece is automatically imposing severe criminal penalties for people caught crossing the border (some apparently have already been sentenced after summary trials), and says, where possible, it will immediately deport anyone entering Greece irregularly to their country of origin without registering them.

All countries, including Greece, have the right to control their borders. They have the right to deport people who do not have valid claims for protection or other valid claims. They even have the right to suspend individual asylum procedures. But all countries, including Greece, have obligations and responsibilities as well.

Anyone facing criminal penalties has a right to a fair trial. Criminal penalties must be proportional to the offense committed, and crossing a border irregularly is not an offense worthy of the three to four-year sentences Greece has started handing out. No country is permitted to return refugees to face persecution or severe harm. And, if the numbers seeking asylum overwhelm the system (although there is no evidence so far that the numbers are unmanageable), a country is required to provide at least temporary protection until the person’s refugee status is determined.

Images of people massed at borders can seem frightening, exacerbated by broader fears of pandemics and insecurity as well as - in this case - widely-held beliefs that Turkey has manipulated migration to advance its political objectives. Such concerns should not be dismissed, but policymakers have a responsibility to allay public fears, not pander to them, to ensure that their responses are grounded in respect for human rights, and to respect the dignity of those being used as political pawns.

Here on the island of Lesbos, I have been witnessing the crowds of frightened and frustrated refugees confronted by cordons of riot-geared police, and talking to humanitarian workers who have suspended their work after being attacked by thugs wielding wooden bats. The main problem at this moment is chaos and disorder, and corollary, reactive measures that are abusive and disproportionate.

In 2001, the European Commission issued a Temporary Protection Directive that could be activated in the event of emergencies that create larger numbers of asylum seekers. It established common standards and operating principles predicated on the idea that time and resources shouldn’t be wasted on processing individual asylum claims during refugee emergencies but should rather be devoted to providing quick and efficient protection to everyone fleeing that situation, regardless of status.

When migration and asylum claims spiked in 2015, the EU chose not to invoke the Temporary Protection Directive. The numbers of arrivals today are far lower than 2015. But there is a different kind of emergency today – the threat to shared values and norms posed by the response of the Greek authorities and endorsed by its EU partners. This includes the brutal pushbacks on the Greek border, the fresh allegations of the Coast Guard shooting at rubber rafts on the waters, flagrant disregard for due process, and the abandonment of sacrosanct refugee protection principles.

The Temporary Protection Directive is by no means the only option. But what is desperately needed now is an agreed system that can quickly and effectively meet both the concerns of Greece and other states on border security and the needs of those desperately in need of international protection.

Collective response is required. No country should be overwhelmed while others have the capacity to help. So far, however, EU member states have shown little willingness to help each other. Sending more Frontex border guards to the external frontiers is not what’s needed. What’s required is an equitable, burden-sharing arrangement among EU member states, increased support to Greece - and Turkey, which hosts almost four million refugees - and the preservation of the right to asylum.

The test the EU faces is real, but it is not about numbers - it is about which values will prevail.

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