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

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan departs after speaking about upcoming changes to the Flores ruling at a news conference at the Reagan Building in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
(Washington, DC, August 21, 2019) – A Trump administration final regulation announced today could result in severe harm to migrant children who may be held in immigration detention indefinitely in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. The rule seeks to replace the longstanding Flores court settlement that imposed detention standards and time limits.
“The detention of children can lead to trauma, suicidal feelings, and exposure to dangerously inadequate medical care,” said Clara Long, acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “No amount of time in detention is safe for children and prolonged detention is particularly harmful.”
The core principle and requirement of the Flores Agreement is that migrant children taken into detention should be released as “expeditiously” as possible. The new rule provides instead for the indefinite detention of children with their parents in federal immigration facilities pending resolution of their immigration proceedings. In doing so, it seeks to reverse a ruling under the Flores settlement that children not be held for more than 20 days in facilities not licensed for childcare.
During a press conference Wednesday morning, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said average stays in 2014 and 2015 for families in detention leading up to that ruling was 50 days.
But many families were held for longer than that during 2014 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch research from the time. Their prolonged detention took a severe psychological toll on them. Other studies of detained immigrant children have also found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and psychologists agree that “even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.”
“The US government claims family detention is needed to ensure families show up to court,” Long said. “But the government has done nothing to expand community-based case management programs that led the vast majority of people released from immigration detention to show up to court. The government should be dramatically scaling up those programs, not looking for ways to ramp up the abusive detention of children.”
Human Rights Watch submitted comments on the Flores regulation when they were proposed last fall, recommending that the administration withdraw the rule and instead dedicate their efforts to advancing policies that safeguard the health, safety, and best interests of children and their families, not least through robust, good-faith compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement.
Legal advocates have already filed a notice that they will challenge the rule in court. If not stopped by a judge, the new rule will take effect in 60 days.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Lauren Alder Reid 
Assistant Director
Office of Policy
Executive Office for Immigration Review
5107 Leesburg Pike, Suite 2616
Falls Church, VA 22041

August 15, 2019

RE: EOIR Docket No. 19-0504

Dear Ms. Reid:

We are writing to state Human Rights Watch’s opposition to the joint interim final rule, Asylum Eligibility and Procedural Modifications (EOIR Docket No. 19-0504), published by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security in the Federal Register on July 16, 2019.

Human Rights Watch is a non-profit, non-governmental human rights organization that investigates allegations of human rights violations in more than 90 countries around the world, including in the United States, and advocates for laws and policies that ensure respect for those rights.

The interim final rule would seriously undermine the right to seek asylum provided for in international law and would leave Central Americans who would otherwise qualify as refugees without effective protection. The interim final rule is also inconsistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act and should be rescinded.

The regulation would potentially return asylum seekers to third countries that are not safe.

Under existing US law, in conformity with international law and practice, US immigration authorities may return an asylum seeker to a third country that has a formal readmission agreement with the United States and where the asylum seeker would not be persecuted and would have access to a full and fair asylum procedure.

The US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement is the only such agreement that the US government has concluded and implemented with a third country. It states that both parties to the agreement are “determined to safeguard for each refugee status claimant eligible to pursue a refugee status claim who comes within their jurisdiction, access to a full and fair refugee status determination procedure as a means to guarantee that the protections of the [Refugee] Convention, [its] Protocol, and the Torture Convention are effectively afforded.”

If a country is unwilling to agree formally to that guarantee of “a full and fair refugee status determination procedure” to an asylum seeker transferred to it from the United States or unable to provide such protections in practice, the United States should not consider that third country as safe.

As INA 208(a)(2)(A) indicates, a formal agreement, while necessary, is not sufficient to guarantee safety. Even if a country—such as Guatemala—were to agree to examine claims of transferred asylum seekers, the United States would still be required by the terms of the statute to make its own assessment of the capacity and willingness of that state to afford the transferee a full and fair refugee status determination. 

The US has the capacity to fairly and efficiently adjudicate asylum claims and the rule risks transferring this responsibility to countries with less capacity, jeopardizing the rights of asylum seekers. For example, Guatemala is one of the major source countries for asylum seekers to the United States, the fourth highest nationality in 2017.[1] Guatemala lacks the institutional capacity to examine the refugee claims of potentially tens of thousands of people who could be returned if the United States sent back to Guatemala all asylum seekers who had passed through Guatemala en route to the United States. On August 2, 2019, the New York Times reported that Guatemala’s institute responsible for examining asylum claims had a staff of eight that processed 262 cases in 2018, 20 of which were approved, with 234 cases still pending at the time of the report.[2]

With respect to Mexico, the background to the interim final rule, at page 38, provides statistics showing a recent dramatic increase in the number of asylum claims. The Mexican government received 8,789 asylum applications in 2016 but 29,623 applications in 2018. The background note on the rule says “Mexico [is] on track to receive more than 50,000 asylum applications by the end of 2019 if that quarterly pace continues.” What the background to the interim rule does not say is whether the staffing of COMAR, Mexico’s agency responsible for examining asylum claims, has kept pace. Multiple reports, summarized by the New York Times, show that COMAR is not adequately staffed and that its staff is not adequately trained to adjudicate the increased caseload.[3] In addition, asylum seekers encounter physical dangers while waiting for claims to be processed there (or in the United States, under the Migration Protection Protocols).[4]  A recent Washington Post report documents kidnappings and other abuses suffered by Central American asylum seekers in Mexico.[5]

We also take issue with the statement on pages 17-18 of the notice of the interim final rule that it is “consistent with the purpose of the statutory firm-resettlement bar (8 U.S.C. 1158(b)(2)(A)(vi)).” A refugee who is firmly resettled is one who has sought and been offered permanent protection by a third state, not a person who might theoretically have been able to lodge an asylum claim that the receiving state might have had the will and capacity to fully and fairly examine. That Congress expressly made firm resettlement a bar to asylum admissibility clearly shows its intent that anything short of a guarantee of permanent protection or other durable solution for refugees in or by a third country would not be sufficient to consider that country safe and to render an asylum claim from a third country national arriving from that country inadmissible. This is consistent with international standards on effective protection required in the context of a safe third country transfer.  UNHCR states, “Where she or he is entitled to protection, a right of legal stay and a timely durable solution are also required.”[6]

The regulation is inconsistent with the statute

Quoting from the Federal Register notice of this rule, at page 17: “Congress specified that the Attorney General “may provide by regulation for any other conditions or limitations on the consideration of an application for asylum,” so long as those limitations are “not inconsistent with this chapter.”  INA 208(d)(5)(B), 8 U.S.C. 1158(d)(5)(B).” The same notice, at page 14, says: “Congress amended section 208 of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1158, to include the asylum provisions in effect today:  Among other things, Congress designated three categories of aliens who, with limited exceptions, are ineligible to apply for asylum: (1) aliens who can be removed to a safe third country pursuant to a bilateral or multilateral agreement.”

This interim final rule is clearly inconsistent with the statute, which requires “a bilateral or multilateral agreement” with a “safe third country.”

The interim final rule contravenes the right to seek asylum and potentially would result in great harm to asylum seekers and refugees and is inconsistent with the statute.  For these reasons, Human Rights Watch expresses its opposition to the interim final regulation and urges the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to withdraw it.


Bill Frelick 
Refugee Rights Program

Nicole Austin-Hillery
Executive Director
US Program

[1] Annual Flow Report: Refugees and Asylees 2017, March 2019, Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security, Table 6a. p. 7 https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Refugees_Asylees_2017.pdf#targetText=Refugees%20and%20Asylees%3A%202017&targetText=The%20leading%20countries%20of%20nationality,admission%20to%20the%20United%20States. (accessed August 15, 2019.)
[2] “Trump Officials Argued Over Asylum Deal with Guatemala. Now Both Countries Must Make It Work,” New York Times, August 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/02/us/politics/safe-third-guatemala.html  (accessed August 15, 2019.)
[3] “A Flawed Asylum System in Mexico, Strained Further by U.S. Changes,” New York Times, August 5, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/05/world/americas/mexico-central-america-migrants-refugees-asylum-comar.html (accessed August 15, 2019.)
[4] “We Can’t Help You Here:” US Return of Asylum Seekers to Mexico. Human Rights Watch, July 2, 2019 https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/07/02/we-cant-help-you-here/us-returns-asylum-seekers-mexico#189b7f (accessed August 15, 2019.)
[5] “When they filed their asylum claim, they were told to wait in Mexico. There, they say, they were kidnapped,” Washington Post, August 10, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/when-they-filed-their-asylum-claim-they-were-told-to-wait-in-mexico-there-they-say-they-were-kidnapped/2019/08/09/6133c2d6-b95f-11e9-8e83-4e6687e99814_story.html?noredirect=on (accessed August 15, 2019.)
[6] “Legal considerations on the return of asylum-seekers and refugees from Greece to Turkey as part of the EU-Turkey Cooperation in Tackling the Migration Crisis under the safe third country and first country of asylum concept,” UNHCR, March 23, 2016 https://www.unhcr.org/56f3ec5a9.pdf (accessed August 15, 2019.)
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen, on April 23, 2019.

© AFP/Getty Images
(Addis Ababa) – Ethiopians undertaking the perilous journey by boat across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden face exploitation and torture in Yemen by a network of trafficking groups, Human Rights Watch said today. They also encounter abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia before being summarily forcibly deported back to Addis Ababa. Authorities in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have taken few if any measures to curb the violence migrants face, to put in place asylum procedures, or to check abuses perpetrated by their own security forces.

A combination of factors, including unemployment and other economic difficulties, drought, and human rights abuses have driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate over the past decade, traveling by boat over the Red Sea and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states are favored destinations because of the availability of employment. Most travel irregularly and do not have legal status once they reach Saudi Arabia.

“Many Ethiopians who hoped for a better life in Saudi Arabia face unspeakable dangers along the journey, including death at sea, torture, and all manners of abuses,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ethiopian government, with the support of its international partners, should support people who arrive back in Ethiopia with nothing but the clothes on their back and nowhere to turn for help.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa who had been deported from Saudi Arabia between December 2018 and May 2019. Human Rights Watch also interviewed humanitarian workers and diplomats working on Ethiopia migration-related issues.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates as many as 500,000 Ethiopians were in Saudi Arabia when the Saudi government began a deportation campaign in November 2017. The Saudi authorities have arrested, prosecuted, or deported foreigners who violate labor or residency laws or those who crossed the border irregularly. About 260,000 Ethiopians, an average of 10,000 per month, were deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia between May 2017 and March 2019, according to the IOM, and deportations have continued.

An August 2 Twitter update by Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said that police had arrested 3.6 million people, including 2.8 million for violations of residency rules, 557,000 for labor law violations, and 237,000 for border violations. In addition, authorities detained 61,125 people for crossing the border into Saudi Arabia illegally, 51 percent of them Ethiopians, and referred more than 895,000 people for deportation. Apart from illegal border crossing, these figures are not disaggregated by nationality.

Eleven of the 12 people interviewed who had been deported had engaged with smuggling and trafficking networks that are regionally linked across Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland state, the self-declared autonomous state of Somaliland, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Traffickers outside of Ethiopia, particularly in Yemen, often used violence or threats to extort ransom money from migrants’ family members or contacts, those interviewed told Human Rights Watch. The 12th person was working in Saudi Arabia legally but was deported after trying to help his sister when she arrived illegally.

Those interviewed described life-threatening journeys as long as 24 hours across the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to reach Yemen, in most cases in overcrowded boats, with no food or water, and prevented from moving around by armed smugglers.

“There were 180 people on the boat, but 25 died,” one man said. “The boat was in trouble and the waves were hitting it. It was overloaded and about to sink so the dallalas [an adaptation of the Arabic word for “middleman” or “broker”] picked some out and threw them into the sea, around 25.”

Interviewees said they were met and captured by traffickers upon arrival in Yemen. Five said the traffickers physically assaulted them to extort payments from family members or contacts in Ethiopia or Somalia. While camps where migrants were held capture were run by Yemenis, Ethiopians often carried out the abuse. In many cases, relatives said they sold assets such as homes or land to obtain the ransom money.

After paying the traffickers or escaping, the migrants eventually made their way north to the Saudi-Yemen border, crossing in rural, mountainous areas. Interviewees said Saudi border guards fired at them, killing and injuring others crossing at the same time, and that they saw dead bodies along the crossing routes. Human Rights Watch has previously documented Saudi border guards shooting and killing migrants crossing the border.

“At the border there are many bodies rotting, decomposing,” a 26-year-old man said: “It is like a graveyard.”

Six interviewees said they were apprehended by Saudi border police, while five successfully crossed the border but were later arrested. They described abusive prison conditions in several facilities in southern Saudi Arabia, including inadequate food, toilet facilities, and medical care; lack of sanitation; overcrowding; and beatings by guards.

Planes returning people deported from Saudi Arabia typically arrive in Addis Ababa either at the domestic terminal or the cargo terminal of Bole International Airport. Several humanitarian groups conduct an initial screening to identify the most vulnerable cases, with the rest left to their own devices. Aid workers in Ethiopia said that deportees often arrive with no belongings and no money for food, transportation, or shelter. Upon arrival, they are offered little assistance to help them deal with injuries or psychological trauma, or to support transportation to their home communities, in some cases hundreds of kilometers from Addis Ababa.

Human Rights Watch learned that much of the migration funding from Ethiopia’s development partners is specifically earmarked to manage migration along the routes from the Horn of Africa to Europe and to assist Ethiopians being returned from Europe, with very little left to support returnees from Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has summarily returned hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to Addis Ababa who have little to show for their journey except debts and trauma,” Horne said. “Saudi Arabia should protect migrants on its territory and under its control from traffickers, ensure there is no collusion between its agents and these criminals, and provide them with the opportunity to legally challenge their detention and deportation.”

All interviews were conducted in Amharic, Tigrayan, or Afan Oromo with translation into English. The interviewees were from the four regions of SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region), Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray. These regions have historically produced the bulk of Ethiopians migrating abroad. To protect interviewees from possible reprisals, pseudonyms are being used in place of their real names. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ethiopian and Saudi governments seeking comment on abuses described by Ethiopian migrants along the Gulf migration route, but at the time of writing neither had responded.

Migration routes between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia

© Human Rights Watch

Dangerous Boat Journey

Most of the 11 people interviewed who entered Saudi Arabia without documents described life-threatening boat journeys across the Red Sea from Djibouti, Somaliland, or Puntland to Yemen. They described severely overcrowded boats, beatings, and inadequate food or water on journeys that ranged from 4 to 24 hours. These problems were compounded by dangerous weather conditions or encounters with Saudi/Emirati-led coalition naval vessels patrolling the Yemeni coast.

“Berhanu” said that Somali smugglers beat people on his boat crossing from Puntland: “They have a setup they use where they place people in spots by weight to keep the boat balanced. If you moved, they beat you.” He said that his trip was lengthened when smugglers were forced to turn the boat around after spotting a light from a naval vessel along the Yemeni coast and wait several hours for it to pass.

Since March 26, 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a military campaign against the Houthi armed group in Yemen. As part of its campaign the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition has imposed a naval blockade on Houthi-controlled Yemeni ports, purportedly to prevent Houthi rebels from importing weapons by sea, but which has also restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians in the country, and included attacks on civilians at sea. Human Rights Watch previously documented a helicopter attack in March 2017 by coalition forces on a boat carrying Somali migrants and refugees returning from Yemen, killing at least 32 of the 145 Somali migrants and refugees on board and one Yemeni civilian. 

Exploitation and Abuses in Yemen

Once in war-torn Yemen, Ethiopian migrants said they faced kidnappings, beatings, and other abuses by traffickers trying to extort ransom money from them or their family members back home.

This is not new. Human Rights Watch, in a 2014 report, documented abuses, including torture, of migrants in detention camps in Yemen run by traffickers attempting to extort payments. In 2018, Human Rights Watch documented how Yemeni guards tortured and raped Ethiopian and other Horn of Africa migrants at a detention center in Aden and worked in collaboration with smugglers to send them back to their countries of origin. Recent interviews by Human Rights Watch indicate that the war in Yemen has not significantly affected the abuses against Ethiopians migrating through Yemen to Saudi Arabia. If anything, the conflict, which escalated in 2015, has made the journey more dangerous for migrants who cross into an area of active fighting.

Seven of the 11 irregular migrants interviewed said they faced detention and extortion by traffickers in Yemen. This occurred in many cases as soon as they reached shore, as smugglers on boats coordinated with the Yemeni traffickers. Migrants said that Yemeni smuggling and trafficking groups always included Ethiopians, often one from each of Oromo, Tigrayan, and Amhara ethnic groups, who generally were responsible for beating and torturing migrants to extort payments. Migrants were generally held in camps for days or weeks until they could provide ransom money, or escape. Ransom payments were usually made by bank transfers from relatives and contacts back in Ethiopia.

“Abebe” described his experience:

When we landed… [the traffickers] took us to a place off the road with a tent. Everyone there was armed with guns and they threw us around like garbage. The traffickers were one Yemeni and three Ethiopians – one Tigrayan, one Amhara, and one Oromo…. They started to beat us after we refused to pay, then we had to call our families…. My sister [in Ethiopia] has a house, and the traffickers called her, and they fired a bullet near me that she could hear. They sold the house and sent the money [40,000 Birr, US $1,396].

“Tesfalem”, said that he was beaten by Yemenis and Ethiopians at a camp he believes was near the port city of Aden:

They demanded money, but I said I don’t have any. They told me to make a call, but I said I don’t have relatives. They beat me and hung me on the wall by one hand while standing on a chair, then they kicked the chair away and I was swinging by my arm. They beat me on my head with a stick and it was swollen and bled.

He escaped after three months, was detained in another camp for three months more, and finally escaped again.

“Biniam” said the men would take turns beating the captured migrants: “The [Ethiopian] who speaks your language beats you, those doing the beating were all Ethiopians. We didn’t think of fighting back against them because we were so tired, and they would kill you if you tried.”

Two people said that when they landed, the traffickers offered them the opportunity to pay immediately to travel by car to the Saudi border, thereby avoiding the detention camps. One of them, “Getachew,” said that he paid 1,500 Birr (US $52) for the car and escaped mistreatment.

Others avoided capture when they landed, but then faced the difficult 500 kilometer journey on foot with few resources while trying to avoid capture.

Dangers faced by Yemeni migrants traveling north were compounded for those who ran into areas of active fighting between Houthi forces and groups aligned with the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition. Two migrants said that their journey was delayed, one by a week, the other by two months, to avoid conflict areas. 

Migrants had no recourse to local authorities and did not report abuses or seek assistance from them. Forces aligned with the Yemeni government and the Houthis have also detained migrants in poor conditions, refused access to protection and asylum procedures, deported migrants en masse in dangerous conditions, and exposed them to abuse. In April 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that Yemeni government officials had tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in the southern port city of Aden. The detention center was later shut down.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced in May that it had initiated a program of voluntary humanitarian returns for irregular Ethiopian migrants held by Yemeni authorities at detention sites in southern Yemen. IOM said that about 5,000 migrants at three sites were held in “unsustainable conditions,” and that the flights from Aden to Ethiopia had stalled because the Saudi/Emirati-led coalition had failed to provide the flights the necessary clearances. The coalition controls Yemen’s airspace.

Saudi Arabia/Yemen border area

© Human Rights Watch

Crossing the Border; Abusive Detention inside Saudi Arabia

Migrants faced new challenges attempting to cross the Saudi-Yemen border. The people interviewed said that the crossing points used by smugglers are in rural, mountainous areas where the border separates Yemen’s Saada Governorate and Saudi Arabia’s Jizan Province. Two said that smugglers separated Ethiopians by their ethnic group and assigned different groups to cross at different border points.

Ethiopian migrants interviewed were not all able to identify the locations where they crossed. Most indicated points near the Yemeni mountain villages Souq al-Ragu and ‘Izlat Al Thabit, which they called Ragu and Al Thabit. Saudi-aligned media have regularly characterized Souq al-Ragu as a dangerous town from which drug smugglers and irregular migrants cross into Saudi Arabia.

Migrants recounted pressures to pay for the crossing by smuggling drugs into Saudi Arabia. “Abdi” said he stayed in Souq al-Ragu for 15 days and finally agreed to carry across a 25 kilogram sack of khat in exchange for 500 Saudi Riyals (US$133). Khat is a mild stimulant grown in the Ethiopian highlands and Yemen; it is popular among Yemenis and Saudis, but illegal in Saudi Arabia.

“Badessa” described Souq al-Ragu as “the crime city:”

You don’t know who is a trafficker, who is a drug person, but everybody has an angle of some sort. Even Yemenis are afraid of the place, it is run by Ethiopians. It is also a burial place; bodies are gathered of people who had been shot along the border and then they’re buried there. There is no police presence.

Four of the eleven migrants who crossed the border on foot said Saudi border guards shot at them during their crossings, sometimes after ordering them to stop and other times without warning. Some said they encountered dead bodies along the way. Six said they were apprehended by Saudi border guards or drug police at the border, while five were arrested later.

“Abebe” said that Saudi border guards shot at his group as they crossed from Izlat Al Thabit:

They fired bullets, and everyone scattered. People fleeing were shot, my friend was shot in the leg…. One person was shot in the chest and killed and [the Saudi border guards] made us carry him to a place where there was a big excavator. They didn’t let us bury him; the excavator dug a hole and they buried him.

Berhanu described the scene in the border area: “There were many dead people at the border. You could walk on the corpses. No one comes to bury them.”

Getachew added: “It is like a graveyard. There are no dogs or hyenas there to eat the bodies, just dead bodies everywhere.”

Two of the five interviewees who crossed the border without being detained said that Saudi and Ethiopian smugglers and traffickers took them to informal detention camps in southern Saudi towns and held them for ransom. “Yonas” said they took him and 14 others to a camp in the Fayfa area of Jizan Province: “They beat me daily until I called my family. They wanted 10,000 Birr ($349). My father sold his farmland and sent the 10,000 Birr, but then they told me this isn’t enough, we need 20,000 ($698). I had nothing left and decided to escape or die.” He escaped.

Following their capture, the migrants described abusive conditions in Saudi governmental detention centers and prisons, including overcrowding and inadequate food, water, and medical care. Migrants also described beatings by Saudi guards.

Nine migrants who were captured while crossing the border illegally or living in Saudi Arabia without documentation spent up to five months in detention before authorities deported them back to Ethiopia. The three others were convicted of criminal offenses that included human trafficking and drug smuggling, resulting in longer periods in detention before being deported.

The migrants identified about 10 prisons and detention centers where they were held for various periods. The most frequently cited were a center near the town of al-Dayer in Jizan Province along the border, Jizan Central Prison in Jizan city, and the Shmeisi Detention Center east of Jeddah, where migrants are processed for deportation.

Al-Dayer had the worst conditions, they said, citing overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, food and water, and medical care. Yonas said:

They tied our feet with chains and they beat us while chained, sometimes you can’t get to the food because you are chained. If you get chained by the toilet it will overflow and flow under you. If you are aggressive you get chained by the toilet. If you are good [behave well], they chain you to another person and you can move around.

Abraham had a similar description:

The people there beat us. Ethnic groups [from Ethiopia] fought with each other. The toilet was overflowing. It was like a graveyard and not a place to live. Urine was everywhere and people were defecating. The smell was terrible.

Other migrants described similarly bad conditions in Jizan Central Prison. “Ibrahim” said that he was a legal migrant working in Saudi Arabia, but that he travelled to Jizan to help his sister, whom Saudi authorities had detained after she crossed from Yemen illegally. Once in Jizan, authorities suspected him of human trafficking and arrested him, put him on trial, and sentenced him to two years in prison, a sentenced he partially served in Jizan Central Prison:

Jizan prison is so very tough…. You can be sleeping with [beside] someone who has tuberculosis, and if you ask an official to move you, they don’t care. They will beat you. You can’t change clothes, you have one set and that is it, sometimes the guards will illegally bring clothes and sell to you at night.

He also complained of overcrowding: “When you want to sleep you tell people and they all jostle to make some room, then you sleep for a bit but you wake up because everyone is jostling against each other.”

Most of the migrants said food was inadequate. Yonas described the situation in al-Dayer: “When they gave food 10 people would gather and fight over it. If you don’t have energy you won’t eat. The fight is over rice and bread.”

Detainees also said medical care was inadequate and that detainees with symptoms of tuberculosis (such as cough, fever, night sweats, or weight loss) were not isolated from other prisoners. Human Rights Watch interviewed three former detainees who were being treated for tuberculosis after being deported, two of whom said they were held with other detainees despite having symptoms of active tuberculosis.

Detainees described being beaten by Saudi prison guards when they requested medical care. Abdi said:

I was beaten once with a stick in Jizan that was like a piece of rebar covered in plastic. I was sick in prison and I used to vomit. They said, ‘why do you do that when people are eating?’ and then they beat me harshly and I told him [the guard], ‘Please kill me.’ He eventually stopped.

Ibrahim said he was also beaten when he requested medical care for tuberculosis:

[Prison guards] have a rule that you aren’t supposed to knock on the door [and disturb the guards]. When I got sick in the first six months and asked to go to the clinic, they just beat me with electric wires on the bottom of my feet. I kept asking so they kept beating.

Detainees said that the other primary impetus for beatings by guards was fighting between different ethnic groups of Ethiopians in detention, largely between ethnic Oromos, Amharas, and Tigrayans. Ethnic tensions are increasingly common back in Ethiopia.

Detainees said that conditions generally improved once they were transferred to Shmeisi Detention Center, near Jeddah, where they stayed only a few days before receiving temporary travel documents from Ethiopian consular authorities and deported to Ethiopia. The migrants charged with and convicted of crimes had no opportunity to consult legal counsel.

None of the migrants said they were given the opportunity to legally challenge their deportations, and Saudi Arabia has not established an asylum system under which migrants could apply for protection from deportation where there was a risk of persecution if they were sent back. Saudi Arabia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Deportation and Future Prospects

Humanitarian workers and diplomats told Human Rights Watch that since the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s deportation campaign, large numbers of Ethiopian deportees have been transported via special flights by Saudia Airlines to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa and unloaded in a cargo area away from the main international terminal or at the domestic terminal. When Human Rights Watch visited in May, it appeared that the Saudi flights were suspended during the month of Ramadan, during which strict sunrise-to-sunset fasting is observed by Muslims. All interviewees who were deported in May said they had returned on regular Ethiopian Airlines commercial flights and disembarked at the main terminal with other passengers.

All of those deported said that they returned to Ethiopia with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and that Saudi authorities had confiscated their mobile phones and in some cases shoes and belts. “After staying in Jeddah … they had us make a line and take off our shoes,” Abraham said. “Anything that could tie like a belt we had to leave, they wouldn’t let us take it. We were barefoot when we went to the airport.”

Deportees often have critical needs for assistance, including medical care, some for gunshot wounds. One returnee recovering from tuberculosis said that he did not have enough money to buy food and was going hungry. Abdi said that when he left for Saudi Arabia he weighed 64 kilograms but returned weighing only 47 or 48 kilograms.

Aid workers and diplomats familiar with migration issues in Ethiopia said that very little international assistance is earmarked for helping deportees from Saudi Arabia for medical care and shelter or money to return and reintegrate in their home villages.

Over 8 million people are in need of food assistance in Ethiopia, a country of over 100 million. It hosts over 920,000 refugees from neighboring countries and violence along ethnic lines produced over 2.4 internally displaced people in 2018, many of whom have now been returned.

The IOM registers migrants upon arrival in Ethiopia and to facilitate their return from Saudi Arabia. Several hours after their arrival and once registered, they leave the airport and must fend for themselves. Some said they had never been to Addis before.

In 2013 and 2014, Saudi Arabia conducted an expulsion campaign similar to the one that began in November 2017. The earlier campaign expelled about 163,000 Ethiopians, according to the IOM. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report found that migrants experienced serious abuses during detention and deportation, including attacks by security forces and private citizens in Saudi Arabia, and inadequate and abusive detention conditions. Human Rights Watch has also previously documented mistreatment of Ethiopian migrants by traffickers and government detention centers in Yemen.

Aid workers and diplomats said that inadequate funding to assist returning migrants is as a result of several factors, including a focus of many of the European funders on stemming migration to and facilitating returns from Europe, along with competing priorities and the low visibility of the issue compared with migration to Europe.

During previous mass returns from Saudi Arabia, there was more funding for reintegration and more international media attention in part because there was such a large influx in a short time, aid workers said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Workers are escorted onto a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by US immigration officials at a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Mississippi, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

On Wednesday, United States immigration authorities arrested 680 people during raids on 7 food processing plants across the state of Mississippi, in what is likely the largest workplace immigration raid in the US in over a decade.

Like many dangerous, demanding, and dirty low-wage industries, the meat industry in the US relies heavily on immigrant labor, and immigration enforcement authorities have routinely carried out high-profile, mass arrests of workers in meat and poultry plants.

A May 2008 raid on a slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa had been the largest workplace raid until now. And in April 2018, immigration authorities arrested nearly 100 workers at a cattle slaughtering and processing plant near Morristown, Tennessee.

I spoke with some of the workers arrested in Morristown, as well as their families and community members, for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on workers’ rights in US meat and poultry plants. The interviews made clear that workplace raids like these tear apart families and communities, which must continue to cope with their traumatic effects long after immigration officials are gone.

Wednesday’s raid will affect immigrants around the country who work each day to prepare the meat Americans consume. Many of the meat and poultry plant workers who spoke with Human Rights Watch were afraid of employer retaliation, regardless of their immigration status. They said that fear of immigration enforcement as a tool of retaliation prevents many immigrant workers from reporting workplace abuses.

“We don’t work with our real names, so we are afraid,” said an undocumented worker from a chicken plant in North Carolina. “We don’t have the right to speak up.” The fact that Wednesday’s raid in Mississippi included a plant that recently settled a class action employment discrimination lawsuit for USD$3.75 million may confirm this fear for many workers.

The US government cannot adequately protect the safety of workers in plants like those raided this week unless its immigration policies ensure immigrant workers are able to speak up without fear of reprisal.

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


Video: Attacks on Civilians in Border Area in Colombia

Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said. 

(Bogotá) – Armed groups have committed egregious abuses against Colombian and Venezuelan civilians as they fight for control in Catatumbo, northeastern Colombia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 64-page report, “The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia,” documents killings, disappearances, sexual violence, recruitment of children as soldiers, and forced displacement by the National Liberation Army (ELN), Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and a group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Armed groups use threats to gain control, including against community leaders and human rights defenders, some of whom have been killed. Venezuelans who fled the humanitarian emergency in their country are among the victims.

“As armed groups fight for the void left by the FARC in Catatumbo, hundreds of civilians have been caught in the conflict,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans who are fleeing the humanitarian emergency in their own country are being caught in this nexus of war and desperate flight.”

Graffiti on the wall of a brothel in Convención in the Catatumbo region, where most women working were Venezuelan exiles. The EPL (Popular Liberation Army) is one of the armed groups operating in the area.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Violence and abuses have increased in Catatumbo since the FARC demobilized in 2017 as part of its peace accord with the government. The Colombian government is falling short on its human rights obligations to protect civilians from abuses and to provide victims with redress. 

In April 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including abuse victims, their relatives, community leaders, church representatives, human rights officials, local authorities, justice officials, and members of humanitarian and human rights organizations working in the area. Interviews were conducted in Catatumbo, as well as some in Cúcuta, the capital of North Santander province, and some by telephone.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed official reports and statistics, publications by nongovernmental and international organizations, and written testimony given to government officials by almost 500 victims of abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict. The total number of cases is most likely higher than that recorded by government authorities, given victims’ fear of retaliation by armed groups for exposing abuses, or Venezuelan victims’ fear of deportation.

“Those who are part of the conflict do not suffer what we, as the people in the countryside …, suffer,” said a teacher in a rural school who lost his foot when a landmine exploded just meters from the school grounds. “We are the ones paying for a conflict that they started.”

Limited immigration controls and better-paying jobs attract Venezuelans to the Catatumbo borderlands. At least 25,000 Venezuelans live in Catatumbo, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Desperate and often undocumented Venezuelans have been among those forcibly displaced and killed, and Venezuelan children have been recruited as soldiers.

In Catatumbo, more than 40,000 people have been displaced from their homes since 2017 – the majority during 2018 – according to government statistics. Some have been forcibly displaced. People have fled after armed groups threatened them for allegedly cooperating with competing armed groups or the government. People have also fled after being threatened for refusing to join an armed group.

OCHA reported that 109 people it considered civilians were killed by armed groups in 2018 alone. Armed groups have killed nine human rights defenders and community leaders, according to investigations by Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“Community leaders play a fundamental role to give voice to abuse victims and help reinstate the rule of law in remote areas of Colombia,” Vivanco said. “The Colombian government should increase its efforts to protect them and ensure that those responsible for these murders are held to account.”

Armed groups have been implicated in kidnappings and disappearances, as well as rape and other sexual violence.

Children as young as 12 have been forced to join an armed group after members threaten to kill them or their families, or they join for money. Human Rights Watch reviewed testimony in a dozen cases in which families fled after an armed group threatened or attempted to recruit a child.

Armed groups are also reportedly planting antipersonnel landmines in rural areas of Catatumbo, where the FARC had also previously used landmines. Four people have died and 65 have been injured by antipersonnel landmines in Catatumbo since 2017.

Colombian authorities have thus far failed to ensure justice for abuses committed by armed groups. As of April 2019, there were over 770 cases related to murders that occurred in Catatumbo since 2017. There have been convictions in 61 cases. Only two armed group members have been charged with murder, according to the Attorney General’s Office. The office has not charged anyone for threats, recruitment of children as soldiers, or enforced disappearances, which, under Colombian law, may be committed by both state and private actors. Two armed group members have been charged for forced displacement, but no one has been convicted; 480 cases remain pending.

Assistance to the displaced, provided for under Colombian law, has been slow and insufficient, said humanitarian workers in the region. Hundreds of people have lived in temporary shelters improvised by communities. Some shelters lacked furniture or running water. Authorities have also failed to adequately address risks to human rights identified by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.

In October 2018, the Colombian government created a Rapid Deployment Force to increase the number of military officers in Catatumbo by 5,600. Residents, human rights officials, and humanitarian workers have reported abusive behavior by soldiers directed at civilians, including accusing them of being complicit with guerrilla groups and questioning them at military checkpoints, exposing them to retaliation by armed groups. In April 2019, a soldier killed a demobilized FARC member.

To comply with its obligations under international and Colombian law, the Colombian government should put in place human rights-respecting strategies for the military and police to protect civilians. It should provide further support to prosecutors investigating abuses by armed groups and seek international support to aid people who have been displaced. It should also carry out a comprehensive assessment of the number of Venezuelans living in Catatumbo and their needs, and ensure that all Venezuelans can work legally in Colombia, including in safer parts of the country.

“The government’s efforts to increase its presence in Catatumbo through deploying the military needs to go hand-in-hand with broader efforts – like support for criminal investigations and humanitarian assistance – to protect the rights of farmers and Venezuelan exiles there,” Vivanco said.

For selected cases documented by Human Rights Watch, see below.

Beatriz (pseudonym) was raped in mid-2017. That day, she was at her job as a cook for agricultural laborers. Her husband was working on the same farm. At around 5 p.m., a group of uniformed men, their faces hidden under balaclavas, arrived, shouting why “the fuck” hadn’t the couple left since they had been “warned.” They asked if anyone else was on the farm. Beatriz’s husband said no, to protect the other workers.

The guerrillas sent men to look. Four, who had the ELN logo on their clothes, stayed. Two of them sexually assaulted Beatriz as the others made her husband watch. Beatriz lost consciousness and woke up two hours later in her husband’s arms. They fled to a nearby city, and, she said, only reported the incident several months later because of the shame and psychological trauma.

Dalila (pseudonym) lived between two mountain ridges where armed groups operate. The groups often fight among themselves, she reported to authorities, and the walls of her house are full of holes from the shootouts. One afternoon in early 2018, three men arrived at her house. They were armed and wearing uniforms, but Dalila said she did not know to which group they belonged. They told her they were going to take her oldest children, who were 17 and 14. Dalila said she told them they would have to kill her first. The men said she had a few hours to leave. She sent her two sons to another municipality where her sister lived. Dalila went back to sell her animals and fled to a nearby city. 

Alejandro Rodríguez (pseudonym), 34, is a primary teacher at a rural school in Catatumbo. Around 1 p.m. on February 5, 2019, Rodríguez went to look for a soccer ball that a student had kicked off school grounds, about 15 meters from where the students were playing. Rodríguez stepped on something that exploded, likely a landmine. Neighbors helped him get to the nearest town, several hours away. He lost his foot.

When we interviewed him in April, he said that nobody from the government had visited the area in the two months after the incident to see if there were other landmines near the school. He said he had moved to an urban area to receive medical treatment. In his rural community, he had heard shots nearly every day and children feared going to school, Rodríguez said.

Henry Pérez Ramírez, a 46-year-old community leader, went to check his crops early in the morning on January 26, 2016, and did not return, said his wife, Elibeth Murcia Castro. A man later told her that days before he had overheard Pérez Ramírez speaking on the phone with a FARC member. The FARC member had asked him questions about where the Colombian armed forces were operating and had requested a meeting on January 26.

Murcia Castro said Pérez Ramírez had previously received threats from the FARC member. She and her family desperately looked for him, and she filed complaints with judicial authorities and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, but his whereabouts remain unknown. “What I want the most is to find him,” she told us. “And not be like this, with this uncertainty, not knowing if he’s alive or if he’s dead.”

Enrique Pérez (pseudonym), 14, arrived with his mother in Catatumbo in February 2019. They left Trujillo state in Venezuela because, he said, his parents could no longer feed the family adequately. Some days, they only had one meal, and sometimes it was every other day. He had been a student in Venezuela but dropped out to work in the coca fields, under the blazing sun. At times, Venezuelans work only for a plate of food, he said. He said that he works alongside Colombian and Venezuelan children as young as 8, and that he would love to go back to school but must work.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2019 US Customs and Border Protection via AP, File

Over the course of this summer, the American people -- across party lines -- have shown that they reject the hate and dehumanization of immigrants that appears to have motivated last weekend's mass shooting in El Paso. Many are outraged over the cruel neglect of children in custody along the border -- child abuse as immigration policy -- and this has spurred Congress to exercise some much-needed oversight.

But the test is whether legislators will use the power of the purse to make a real difference for children by keeping families together and shifting the focus away from detention.

With senators and representatives home for the August recess, the American people have a pivotal opportunity to demand change now.

In mid-June, we interviewed children detained at the US Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, as monitors for the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires the government to release children from detention as promptly as possible and to hold children in safe and sanitary conditions when they are detained.

We found dirty, hungry, sick, scared children held far longer than the 72-hour limit imposed by law, with some children detained for weeks or more. We had participated in Flores monitoring visits at controversial detention centers in the past. But nothing prepared us for what we saw, heard, and smelled in Clint. As lawyers, as mothers, as Americans, we had to speak out.
Since then, the evidence of child abuse in US Customs and Border Protection facilities has become indisputable. A government watchdog within the Department of Homeland Security issued a damning report about the prolonged detention, overcrowding and mistreatment of children and families in Border Patrol custody. NBC News obtained nearly 30 incident reports documenting alleged abuse, sexual assault, and mistreatment of detained children in Yuma, Arizona. Agents themselves confirmed the filthy, overcrowded conditions to the New York Times.
This cruelty is occurring even though release is an entirely viable option.
Almost all children and families seeking asylum show up in court when given appropriate support. Data from recent years show that pairing asylum-seeking families with a lawyer or a social worker virtually guarantees that they will attend immigration court hearings 99% of the time when represented by counsel, and 99% of the time when paired with a social worker under what was the ICE Family Case Management Program, a support system for non-detained asylum seeking families, primarily Central American mothers and children.
Recently, Congress held six hearings about children in cages and ongoing family separations. The hearings are an important start. Under public scrutiny, Customs and Border Protection reduced the number of children in its custody from more than 2,500 in mid-June, many held for weeks, to under 350 as of July 17.
Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified on July 18 that children are now in Border Patrol custody "an average of fewer than 35 hours." While the administration has not released data to substantiate the claim, this suggests it is responding to attention on its illegal conduct.
Congress now needs to do more to ensure that refugee children are safe and free with their families. The American people must demand those changes in August.
In late June, House Democratic leaders pushed through a Senate Department of Homeland Security supplemental spending bill with nearly $2 billion to expand detention, but without sufficient funds to expedite the release of children or offer them alternatives to detention.
Writing a blank check to expand detention space does not solve child abuse at the border. If members of Congress are serious about protecting children, they will change their approach for the coming year's Department of Homeland Security budget and pass legislation in September setting standards of care for children in custody.
First, Congress should direct immigration agencies to make release of asylum seekers, rather than detention, the norm. Instead, the administration abruptly terminated the ICE Family Case Management Program in June 2017, despite Congressional funding, demonstrated cost-savings, and high compliance rates. Congress should mandate its reinstatement.
Even asylum-seeking families without legal representation or access to the ICE Family Case Management Program overwhelmingly attend their hearings: 81.6% for the initial hearings and 76% for all their hearings, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
It cost $38 a day for a family to participate in the ICE Family Case Management Program, according to the Women's Refugee Commission, an advocacy group, compared with $319 a day per bed at a family detention center or $775 a day per child detained at the secure for-profit facility in Homestead, Florida.
Second, Congress should ensure that appropriately trained and licensed professionals are making child welfare decisions -- not border agents.
The US has an important responsibility to protect children. In rare circumstances family separation is appropriate -- such as when a family member poses an imminent risk of harm to a child or being apart is truly in a child's best interests. But right now border agents without specialized training in child welfare are routinely separating children from any non-parent, such as aunts and grandmothers (they say to protect these children from trafficking), and are still separating children from parents, inflicting long-term trauma on children as young as toddlers.
Congress should not allow border agencies to wave the false flag of child protection over their routine practices of harm.
For all Americans who are bearing witness to the abuses against immigrant children and families, do not stop. Your vigils, marches, phone calls, letters, and emails to your representatives are making a difference. And now you can do more. With senators and representatives back home for the recess, visit their home offices. Make sure your representatives know that their constituents want action as well as oversight.
Organize rallies in your hometowns to amplify children's lived experiences and invite your representatives to join you in speaking out. If they don't, mobilize your district to hold them accountable. Congress has the power to stop funding cruelty at the border when it returns to D.C. in September.



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

Rescued migrants sit on a coast some 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, July 25, 2019. The U.N. refugee agency and the International Rescue Committee say up to 150 may have perished at sea off the coast of Libya.

© 2019 AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed

After a year of disputes and ad hoc solutions to resolve stand-offs that have stranded people on rescue ships for weeks off European coasts, there finally appears to be progress towards a European Union-coordinated approach to receiving migrants arriving by sea. But the tragic deaths of at least 150 people in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast today underscores the need for EU governments to do much more.

At a meeting of EU interior and foreign ministers, convened by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week, 14 EU countries endorsed “in principle” a France-Germany proposal for a “temporary solidarity mechanism” for swift disembarkation at the closest safe port and relocation of people rescued in the Mediterranean. Eight countries – Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxemburg, and Portugal – said they intended to move forward with a new system. With many details lacking about implementation of such a mechanism, a follow up meeting announced for September in Malta will hopefully provide more clarity.

Building consensus will not be easy. France, Germany, and others say only certain asylum seekers should be relocated, while those not in need of international protection should remain in the country where they are disembarked. Italy – whose interior minister Matteo Salvini pointedly refused to participate in the meeting and dismissed its outcome – and Malta argue everyone should be relocated. Resolving this will require decisions on how to fairly carry out any preliminary assessments upon disembarkation and how to genuinely share responsibility among EU countries for people arriving irregularly.

Participants at the Paris meeting also addressed the dire situation in Libya, reportedly endorsing a call to Libyan authorities to “put an end to their policy of systematic detention” of refugees and migrants. Macron emphasized that appeal in his public remarks. This is vital, as is the stated commitment to increase and accelerate resettlement in EU countries of refugees evacuated out of Libya.

In the same breath, however, EU governments – including France – continue to insist on supporting the Libyan Coast Guard and demanding all ship captains obey its instructions. If EU governments are serious about taking a rights-respecting course, they should swiftly enact policies supporting European rescue at sea, safe disembarkation, and protection upon arrival at EU ports, and ensure that no one should be returned to Libya, given the serious risks to their lives and rights.

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

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

© 2019 Hazem Ahmed/AP Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

Detention of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Northern Greece

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

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

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

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

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

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

We urge the Committee to:

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

Collective Expulsions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We urge the Committee to:

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

Asylum Seekers Trapped on the Aegean Islands

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

Under a containment policy in place since the March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, Greek authorities confine asylum seekers on the Aegean islands until their asylum claims are adjudicated, a process that can take months or even years. Members of vulnerable groups—including pregnant women, older people, unaccompanied children, single parents with children, victims of torture or sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities—and people eligible to be reunited with family members already in the EU are supposed to be exempt from the policy, but delays in vulnerability assessment procedure and the lack of accommodation on the mainland mean thousands of eligible individuals and families remain trapped on the island for months.

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

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

Human Rights Watch research has found hotspot facilities to be severely overcrowded most of the time, with significant shortages of basic shelter and unsanitary, unhygienic conditions. People with disabilities were often unable to access basic services, such as water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. Long lines for poor quality food, mismanagement, and lack of information contribute to a chaotic and volatile atmosphere.[19]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[21] Ibid.

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

© 2019 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weberson Santiago/VEJA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clint border patrol station, Texas, June 2019.

© 2019 Warren Binford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli, file

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am