Loan Torondel, 21, worked with L’Auberge des Migrants in Calais for two years, helping to provide legal information and support and humanitarian assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in northern France.

© 2018 Loan Torondel
(Paris) – An appeals court’s confirmation of the defamation conviction of an aid worker on June 24, 2019 for an ironic tweet sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The case was a serious escalation in harassment and intimidation of aid workers in France

The Court of Appeal in Douai, northern France, found Loan Torondel, the aid worker, guilty of defamation for a tweet he published in early January 2018 and sentenced him to pay a 1,500 euro fine (about US$1,700), which it suspended, and ordered him to pay damages and court costs. It was the first defamation case against an aid worker in France for criticizing the French government’s actions against migrants. Torondel told Human Rights Watch that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation, France’s court of last resort.

“This decision against Loan Torondel is a worrying precedent and a blow to freedom of expression,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “It resonates as a pernicious intimidation against staff or volunteers for organizations that speak out against police abuses against migrants.”

In January 2018, while working for the Auberge des Migrants, which provides crucial assistance to migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, Torondel published a tweet criticizing abusive police practices toward migrants. This tweet, with a photo showing two police officers standing over a young man seated in a field, imagined that the young man was protesting against the confiscation of his sleeping bag in the middle of winter and that the officer replied: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir,” an allusion to a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave in late December 2017.

Torondel was prosecuted following a complaint by one of the police officers and was sentenced by the first instance by a court in Boulogne-sur-Mer on September 25.

Torondel worked with Human Rights Watch earlier in 2019, and the organization is about to resume the collaboration to research police practices during identity checks in France.

A volunteer operating in Calais, Tom Ciotkowski, was also prosecuted, for “insult and violence” after filming French police officers who were impeding a food distribution to migrants and asylum seekers by volunteers in Calais. But he was acquitted on June 20 by the Boulogne-sur-Mer court. 

Torondel's conviction and Ciotkowski’s prosecution expand on what aid workers have regularly described as harassment by the French police to hinder or prevent aid workers and volunteers supporting migrants and asylum seekers from carrying out their work in Calais.

The aid workers have reported repeated fines for minor infractions and parking violations, excessive use of identity checks, and temporary confiscations of mobile phones to look through or delete their content. In some cases, aid workers have reported being improperly sprayed with tear gas or pushed or insulted by police officers. 

Human Rights Watch, the French Defender of Rights, UN observers, and four associations in Calais reported abusive practices by the police in Calais, both against migrants and asylum seekers and against aid workers. Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the criminalization and harassment of people defending refugee and migrant rights in northern France. 

Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a “chilling effect” that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have called for the abolition of such laws.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has said that countries should take particular care to ensure that defamation laws – civil or criminal – “should never be used to prevent criticism of government” and “should reflect the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens.”

“Obstructing assistance to migrants and bringing legal proceedings that criminalize the denunciation of abuses is a shameful tactic to deter solidarity,” Jeannerod said. “France should not go down this dangerous path, which reduces the working space of both aid workers and government critics.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Two Syrians walk along a fence near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016. Syrians who arrived in Turkey since late 2017 have been unable to register for temporary protection and receive basic services.

© 2016 Umit Bektas/Reuters
(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities in Istanbul and nine provinces on or near the Syrian border have stopped registering all but a handful of recently arrived Syrian asylum seekers. The suspension is leading to unlawful deportations, coerced returns to Syria, and the denial of health care and education.

The European Commission has recently praised Turkey’s asylum system and plans to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 migration deal which includes support for refugees in Turkey. European Union institutions and governments have stayed publicly silent on the suspension and other refugee abuses committed by Turkey, suggesting their primary concern is to halt the movement of asylum seekers and migrants from Turkey to the EU.

“While the EU supports Turkey to deter asylum seekers from reaching Europe, it’s turning a blind eye to Turkey’s latest steps to block and discourage people fleeing Syria,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. “But forcing Syrians who manage to get past Turkey’s border guards to live in legal limbo only risks driving them underground and onward to the EU.”

Syrian refugees queue for food aid in Gaziantep, Turkey on May 20, 2016. Turkey’s suspension of Syrian refugee registration blocks them from receiving such aid.

© 2016 Kyodo/ AP Images
The suspension of registration is Turkey’s latest effort to deny new asylum seekers protection. Over the past three years, Turkey has sealed off its border with Syria, while Turkish border guards continue to carry out mass summary pushbacks and to kill and injure Syrians as they try to cross.

Between early 2011 and the end of May 2018, Turkey had registered almost 3.6 million Syrians, making it the world’s largest refugee hosting country. That generosity does not absolve it, or its international partners, of the duty to help newly arrived asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrians in Turkey’s Hatay province about their attempts to register for a temporary protection permit in Hatay, Gaziantep, and Istanbul provinces. A permit protects Syrians from arrest and the risk of deportation. It also entitles them to get health care and education, to work, and to seek social assistance, including the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net for the most vulnerable Syrians.

Syrians said Turkish police deported them in groups of up to 20 people for not having a permit and that hospitals and schools refused to take them in without permits. Some said they returned to Syria so they, or their relatives, could get urgent medical care. Others said they decided to return to Syria because only some family members had been able to register. All said, they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and severely restricted their movement to avoid the police.

Turkey is bound by the international customary law rule of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone in any manner whatsoever to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. This includes asylum seekers, who are entitled to have their claims fairly adjudicated and not be summarily returned to places where they fear harm. Turkey may not coerce people into returning to places where they face harm by denying them legal status or access to essential services.

On October 30, 2017, the Hatay governor’s office said that to discourage smugglers from helping Syrians enter Turkey through Hatay, the province would no longer register newly arriving Syrians for temporary protection permits. In early February 2018, Turkey’s Interior Ministry said Istanbul province would also no longer register Syrians.

Eight other provinces on or near the Syrian border have also suspended registration for newly arriving Syrians since late 2017 or early 2018, according to three agencies working closely with Syrian refugees, as well as a European Commission official and a Turkish public official who previously worked on migration issues. The provinces are Adana, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Mardin, Mersin, Osmaniye, and Şanlıurfa.

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© 2018 DigitalGlobe and © 2018 Human Rights Watch

Since late August 2015, only registered Syrians who obtain a special travel permit have been allowed to travel within Turkey. In practice, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers enter Turkey irregularly through the few remaining gaps in Turkey’s border wall in Hatay province. Blocked from registering there, they are unable to lawfully leave Hatay province and travel to other provinces where registration has not been closed. This forces them to live illegally in Hatay province, or to use smugglers to reach other parts of Turkey, risking arrest and deportation.

According to three confidential sources, Turkey has rejected proposals for a new system that would allow Syrians arriving in Hatay, and to a far lesser extent in other border provinces, to register in other parts of Turkey where fewer refugees live.

Refugee agencies told Human Rights Watch that Turkey’s strict controls on international and local refugee agencies prevent them from finding and helping unregistered Syrians. This lack of aid agency monitoring means that there are no statistics or estimates on the numbers of Syrians denied registration, deported, or refused urgently needed services.

In response to a June 13 letter presenting the Human Rights Watch findings, the migration authorities in Ankara denied that any of the country’s 81 provinces, including Hatay and Istanbul, had suspended registration of Syrians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Human Rights Watch that as of mid-May, the authorities had reassured them that registration of Syrians was ongoing, including in Hatay and Istanbul. Other aid agencies that support refugees say that the authorities in the 10 provinces have only continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension, and to register urgent medical cases referred from Syria and babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey. Two refugee aid agencies also said that in some cases they have managed to convince the authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye provinces to register particularly vulnerable unregistered Syrians.

In early 2018, the authorities in Hatay opened a new registration center in Antakya. Representatives of three aid agencies and two Turkish security personnel working in Antakya said the center is exclusively for unregistered Syrians to request help to return to Syria, while registered Syrians can request help to return at other migration authority-run centers.

Turkey does not allow any independent monitoring of whether unregistered Syrians signing up for return are in fact returning voluntarily or whether they are effectively being coerced. In contrast, Turkey does allow independent monitoring of some registered Syrians’ decision to return to Syria.

Turkey should protect the basic rights of all newly arriving Syrians, regardless of registration status, and register those denied registration since late 2017. The European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should support Turkey to register and protect Syrians and press Turkey to allow all agencies working for refugees to freely assist and help protect all Syrians, including all unregistered Syrians.

“Unregistered Syrians in Turkey may be conveniently out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind,” Simpson said. “EU states and the commission should speak up and support all Syrians in Turkey, not just those who got in before Turkey started driving them underground.”

Asylum Seeker Registration

The first Syrian refugees fled to Turkey in early 2011 and in the subsequent three-and-a-half years, Turkey adopted an ad hoc approach to their registration, without conferring a clear legal status with related rights. Although Turkey ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the country maintains a geographical limitation that excludes anyone not originally from a European country from full refugee recognition. That means it does not fully grant asylum to people fleeing violence or persecution in Syria and any other non-European country.

In 2013, Turkey adopted its own legal framework on the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. In October 2014, Turkey also adopted a regulation under which it grants Syrians temporary protection. As of June 28, 2018, Turkey said it had registered 3,562,523 people under the regulation. Registered Syrians are entitled to assistance. Even though the regulation says Syrians who fail to register will not be deported to Syria and will only face an “administrative fine,” Human Rights Watch found that unregistered Syrians have been deported for not having temporary protection permits.

The Hatay governor’s office and the interior minister said registration has been suspended for newly arriving Syrians in Hatay and Istanbul. Refugee aid agencies and Syrians in Hatay’s main city, Antakya, told Human Rights Watch that police carried out mass arrests of Syrians in November and early December, just after registration was suspended.

Five sources told Human Rights Watch that since late 2017 and early 2018, migration authorities in eight other border provinces followed suit and turned away all newly arriving Syrians seeking registration.

As of June 28, seven of the provinces that suspended registration were in the top 10 provinces hosting Syrians: Adana, Gaziantep, Hatay, Istanbul, Kilis, Mersin, and Şanlıurfa. Together they were sheltering 2,422,804 registered Syrians, or 68 percent of the total in Turkey. The other three – Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, and Osmaniye – were sheltering 235,549, or just under seven percent.

Aid agencies say that, in practice, the authorities in affected provinces continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension and to register people with urgent medical needs referred from Syria. They also continued to register babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey, an estimated 306 each day. Agencies with first-hand knowledge of the suspension of registration in the 10 provinces say the registration of these Syrians may explain the claim authorities made to Human Rights Watch that eight of the provinces on or near the border registered a total of 116,059 Syrians between November 1 and June 20.

One refugee aid agency with close knowledge of registration procedures in all of Turkey’s provinces told Human Rights Watch that in a few exceptional cases, authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye province have registered children in urgent need of medical care, together with one caregiver. Another refugee assistance agency that sometimes deals with unregistered Syrians said that between late 2017 and late April 2018, it had convinced the Hatay authorities to register a few dozen newly arrived Syrians on an exceptional basis because they had specific needs, but that even then it was a “headache” to get them through police checkpoints to registration offices. Agencies estimate that as of mid-May, the total number of such vulnerable cases of unregistered Syrians whom the authorities have registered on an exceptional basis was in the low hundreds.

Turkey’s travel permit system for registered Syrians prohibits unregistered Syrians from traveling from border provinces to register elsewhere. Seven Syrians told Human Rights Watch they paid smugglers to drive them from Antakya, in Hatay province, to Istanbul to register. But security officials at migration authority offices in Istanbul told them registration had been suspended for newly arriving Syrians.

UNHCR and some diplomats in Turkey told Human Rights Watch they have been encouraging Turkey’s Directorate General for Migration Management to adopt a referral system under which authorities in Hatay, or other border provinces where Syrians first arrive, would pre-register Syrians and then refer them to other provinces where fewer Syrians live to register. Some EU member states have proposed that if such a system were to be adopted, the EU should help support job-creation for Syrians and Turkish citizens in the provinces to which Syrians are referred. But all attempts to convince Turkey to set up a referral system have failed.

Consequences of Suspended Registration

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrian asylum seekers in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, and the first city most Syrians reach after being smuggled across the closed Turkish border. They said the authorities in Antakya, the nearby town of Reyhanli, and in Gaziantep province had refused to register them during the first few months of 2018. They also described how not having a temporary protection permit – or “kimlik,” as it is popularly called (a Turkish shorthand for identification card) – had affected them. Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interviews, gave assurances of anonymity, and obtained interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.

All said they were turned away from registration offices at least twice. Only three said they managed to register after brokers bribed registration officials between US$300 and $500.

Most said officials simply said “no more kimliks here” or “no one gets a kimlik” and told them to leave. Two said they also tried to register in Gaziantep in April, but that saw a sign on the office that said “no kimliks.”

Four said that only some members of their family had been registered, leaving the rest in legal limbo and that as a result, the entire family was contemplating returning to Syria. One man said his sick wife was given permission to enter Turkey for emergency medical treatment in Antakya, and was allowed to register there, together with their newborn baby. When he and their five other children, aged 6 to 14, managed to enter Turkey and tried to register in Antakya, they were turned away.

Three Syrians said that Turkish police had previously summarily deported them to Syria for not having a temporary protection permit. One, a 22-year-old man from Aleppo governorate, said he entered Turkey in early April and was refused registration in Antakya. In early May, he said, police stopped him at about 8 a.m. near the Antakya bus station and asked for his permit. When he said he tried to register, but had been turned away, the police drove him to a local police station, recorded his personal details, and then drove him and about 20 other unregistered Syrians to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported them. He said 15 of the 20 told him they had been caught without temporary protection permits in Istanbul and the other five said they had just entered Turkey a few days earlier and were arrested after arriving at a smuggler’s house in Antakya. A few days later, he managed to return to Turkey with smugglers.

Another former deportee, a 28-year-old man from Idlib, said he and his brother entered Turkey together in January and were denied registration in Antakya. He said his brother traveled with a smuggler to Istanbul to find work there, but Turkish police arrested him on May 17 and the next day, took him to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported him.

On May 22, Human Rights Watch spoke to a 31-year-old man from Hama who said the authorities in Antakya had arrested his brother a few hours earlier, were holding him in the new center for unregistered Syrians to sign up to return to Syria, and said they were about to deport him. Human Rights Watch alerted UNHCR, which intervened and prevented the deportation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four Syrians at the newly established center for unregistered Syrians who wish to sign up for return to Syria. They decided to go back because their relatives had been denied urgent medical care, or because some family members who arrived after registration was suspended could not register.

Two Syrians said they heard from other Syrians in Antakya about many cases in which the wives of men who had been deported told Turkish authorities they planned to go back to Syria because they and their children could not survive alone in Turkey.

All of the 29 other unregistered Syrians interviewed said they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and said they heard of many cases involving the deportation of unregistered Syrians. Eight said they reduced their movements to a minimum, often staying at home for days at a time. A 17-year-old boy who said he never left his uncle’s house in Antakya out of fear of arrest said “this feels like prison.”

Three unregistered Syrians said they regularly use Syrian-owned driving services which use back roads to avoid police checkpoints or informal police stop-and-search patrols in Antakya.

Nine said they attempted to get medical treatment in clinics and hospitals in Antakya, but had been refused treatment because they were not registered. Four others said they did not even try to access medical care, because they heard others were turned away, and because they were afraid local hospitals would call the police to arrest them for not having a permit.

A 27-year-old woman from Idlib province seeking cancer treatment said two hospitals in Antakya refused to treat her because she did not have a permit.

A 34-year-old, eight months’ pregnant woman from Aleppo, with four children all born by caesarean section, said she was too afraid to go to the local hospital to ask for a checkup and prepare for her delivery, because she had been told hospitals turn away unregistered Syrians and was afraid of being arrested and returned to Syria.

Similarly, a 31-year-old woman whose entire family was refused registration in March said her husband was extremely sick with a serious lung condition, but he would not go to a hospital out of fear of being arrested and deported. She said he never left the house and lived in constant fear of being discovered.

A nongovernmental organization working with Syrians in Hatay province said that during the first few months of 2018, they heard of dozens of cases of Syrians in Antakya seeking emergency medical care, many of them pregnant women, who were turned away by hospitals because they had been denied registration.

Six Syrians interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their children were unable to go to school, because schools would only take registered Syrians.

Nowhere to Turn for Help

The Turkish authorities consider Syrians denied registration to be in the country unlawfully. Nongovernmental groups working with refugees said the government only allows them to work with lawfully present asylum seekers and refugees.

Six organizations working with refugees in Turkey’s provinces on the Syrian border – which asked to remain anonymous for the staff’s security – said Turkey strictly controls and monitors their work in various ways.

Some said they must get special permission to assess registered Syrians’ assistance needs or to visit registered Syrians’ homes, in some cases in the presence of staff from the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The agencies said the rules are applied in an ad hoc and unpredictable way, depending on the local authorities, and they are never certain of what refugee outreach activities are allowed.

As a result, they said, they found it difficult to identify Syrians blocked from registration procedures, including the most vulnerable, for example those in urgent need of medical or other care. They also said the situation in Hatay province – through which almost all newly arriving Syrians using smugglers enter the country due to continued gaps in the border wall – is particularly sensitive.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the Turkish authorities, aid agencies said they cannot proactively identify unregistered Syrian refugees. At best, they can only react if they are made aware of unregistered Syrians who are seeking help, or if they come across them by chance. They said they sometimes raise the most vulnerable of such cases with the authorities in the hope that they will allow those in urgent need to register.

One agency working in the border areas said: “It’s very simple, we can’t just reach out to registered or unregistered Syrians. We need approval for everything and we’d never get approval to help unregistered Syrians.” Another agency worker said: “We have repeatedly asked the authorities for permission to do protection outreach work, but we’ve been refused every time.”

Agencies said their extremely limited contact with unregistered Syrians means they can neither estimate how many unregistered Syrians now live in Hatay and other provinces, nor the extent to which the registration suspension has led to deportation and denial of service access. EU member states and other donors funding Syrian refugee assistance and protection projects in Turkey therefore don’t know the extent to which Turkey’s registration suspension is excluding Syrians from receiving help.

European Union Remains Silent

EU member states and the European Commission have remained publicly silent on Turkey’s registration suspension, as they have on Turkey’s long-standing abuses against Syrian asylum seekers at the border.

Turkey’s suspension of registration could drive many Syrians underground and onward to the EU, or coerce them into going back to Syria. The suspension, Turkey’s ongoing border abuses, and its recent abuses against Afghan asylum seekers means that any attempts to return Syrians from Greece to Turkey is also likely to be met with significant resistance by lawyers challenging return attempts on the grounds that Turkey is not a safe third country to which to return asylum seekers.

On April 17, the European Commission released its latest update on whether Turkey is meeting the EU’s criteria for becoming an EU member state. As part of its assessment of Turkey’s asylum system, the commission said: “There have been reports of alleged expulsions, returns and deportations of Syrian nationals, in contradiction of the non-refoulement principle,” without going into any further details or citing the sources.

In March, the European Commission promised to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 deal with Turkey. Under the deal, the EU maintains that Turkey is a safe country to which to return Syrian asylum seekers. In fact, Turkey does not meet the EU safe third country criteria.

Recommendations

Turkey should resume temporary protection registration for all newly arriving Syrians and register those denied access to registration since late 2017. If necessary, Turkey should pre-register Syrians in its provinces on the Syrian border and require Syrians to move to, and live in, other provinces with fewer Syrians. In the meantime, Turkey should instruct all medical facilities to provide emergency medical treatment to any Syrian in need, regardless of registration status. Schools should also take in Syrian children pending their registration. All Turkish public officials should refer unregistered Syrians to the nearest registration center.

Turkey should also allow all refugee agencies working with Syrians to actively work to identify unregistered Syrians, help them access registration procedures, and raise with the authorities all cases of unregistered Syrians deported to Syria or denied access to health care and education.

To help ensure protection for Syrians in Turkey, the European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should press Turkey to resume registration of all newly arriving Syrians and guarantee their access to health care and education in line with existing policies. If Turkey requires help to resume registration, they should respond generously. They should also press Turkey to allow all agencies working with refugees to freely carry out protection monitoring work throughout Turkey to identify and assist unregistered Syrians and to publicly report on any abuses, including forced return to Syria, and denial of assistance.

Finally, the European Commission should proactively seek information and publicly report on credible accounts of killings, injuries, and mass deportations by Turkish security forces at the Syrian border, including in its regular reports on Turkey’s accession process and the European Agenda on Migration.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Map of the Turkey-Syria Border.

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

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

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

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

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

Regular Mass Pushbacks at the Turkish Border

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

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

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

Describing three incidents in February, he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deportations from Antakya

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

A man from Deir al-Zour governorate said:

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

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

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

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

Shootings by Border Guards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis in Idlib governorate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU Silence

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities should conduct an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation into the deaths of Syrians in military custody and allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 4, 2017, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying four Syrians died in its custody following mass raids in Arsal, a restricted access area in northeast Lebanon where many Syrian refugees live. On July 14, Human Rights Watch received credible reports that a fifth Syrian detainee had also died in custody.

A Lebanese soldier at an army post in the hills above the Lebanese town of Arsal

© 2016 Reuters

A doctor with expertise in documenting torture reviewed photos of three of the men provided by their family lawyers to Human Rights Watch, which showed widespread bruising and cuts. He said the injuries were “consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture” and that “any statement that the deaths of these individuals were due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.” Human Rights Watch also spoke with five former detainees, who said that army personnel beat and ill-treated them and other detainees. A military officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was investigating the deaths and would publish its findings.

“While the Lebanese army’s promise to investigate these shocking deaths is a positive step, the promise will be meaningless without transparent and independent accountability for anyone found guilty of wrongdoing,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who supports the Lebanese army should support efforts to tackle such serious allegations of military abuse.”

Photos of the bodies of three Syrians who died in Lebanese military custody, provided to Human Rights Watch by their families' lawyers. © 2017 Private

On June 30, the Lebanese army announced it had raided two unofficial refugee camps in Arsal that day, and was met with suicide bombers, a bomb, and a grenade, resulting in the injury of seven soldiers. On July 15, the army released a statement saying that it detained 356 people following these raids. It referred 56 for prosecution and 257 to the General Security agency for lack of residency. A humanitarian organization official told Human Rights Watch that children were among those detained.

The Lebanese army regularly conducts raids on unofficial refugee camps in Lebanon, but has not responded to questions from Human Rights Watch about the purpose of these raids. The raids came amid calls from Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria and reports of an impending military operation against armed groups on the Syrian border near Arsal.

Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm reports that Syrians died during the raids themselves, but a source in Arsal said the municipality received nine bodies, not including the five men who were reported to have died in custody.

The army’s July 4 statement said that four detainees who “suffered from chronic health issues that were aggravated due to the climate condition” died before being interrogated. It identified them as Mustafa Abd el Karim Absse, 57; Khaled Hussein el-Mleis, 43; Anas Hussein el-Husseiki, 32; and Othman Merhi el-Mleis. The army did not specify where it had detained them.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a family member and a close acquaintance of two of the deceased, who said that they had no known serious health conditions. Both said that the army gave no reason for the arrests and did not notify the families of the deaths.

On July 14, Human Rights Watch received reports that a fifth Syrian detainee, Toufic al Ghawi, 23, died in detention after the army transferred him to the Elias Hrawi government hospital. A witness in Arsal who saw the body before burial said, “Toufic didn’t look human anymore. His flesh was torn apart.” Human Rights Watch has not received photographs of the body.

Additional evidence supports the allegations of abuse and torture during the arrests in Arsal and at military detention facilities. A witness in Arsal told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 34 former detainees with marks on their hands, legs, and backs, and in one case, on a former detainee’s head.

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees who said they were mistreated, physically abused, and denied food and water, along with scores of other detainees during four to five days of detention without charge before being released.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the military on July 10 to verify the number of those arrested, injured, or killed during the army raids; those still in custody; and the conditions of their detention, but has not received a response. Human Rights Watch also requested permission to enter Arsal to interview witnesses, but has not received permission. An army officer told Human Rights Watch that the army was not allowing “media organizations” to enter Arsal. Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the military and military prosecutor.

Under international law, Lebanon has an obligation to investigate deaths in custody and hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch and local human rights organizations have long documented reports of torture and ill-treatment by security services including the army. Impunity for violence is a recurring problem in Lebanon. Even when officials have initiated investigations into deaths, torture, or ill-treatment, they have often not been concluded or made public. Human Rights Watch is not aware of cases where military personnel have been held to account.

“The Lebanese public and the Syrian families of those who died in detention deserve a clear accounting of what happened to them and punishment for those found responsible,” Whitson said. “Unfortunately, Lebanese authorities have a history of opening investigations in response to public pressure, but failing to conclude them or publish the results.”

Photographic Evidence of Torture
Human Rights Watch received 28 photographs of three of the deceased men, taken at the Elias Hrawi government hospital in Zahle, from the law firm representing the families of the deceased. The lawyers said they were not able to locate Othman el-Mleis’s body. Dr. Homer Venters, director of programs at Physicians for Human Rights, who has expertise in documenting torture, reviewed the photographs and shared his report:

The photos reveal widespread physical trauma of the upper and lower extremities. The lack of defensive wounds suggests that these injuries were inflicted while the victims were restrained or otherwise incapacitated and the distribution of these injuries are consistent with inflicted trauma in the setting of physical torture. Several of the photos are consistent with lacerations caused from being suspended by the wrists. It would be reasonable to conclude that the deaths of these men is the result of in-custody violence, although the precise cause of death cannot be predicted based on the information and photographs submitted. Any statement that the deaths of these individuals was due to natural causes is inconsistent with these photographs.

Corroborating Evidence of Torture and Mistreatment of Arsal Detainees
Human Rights Watch spoke with five former detainees from Arsal who said they were detained without charge for four to five days. They said soldiers handcuffed them, hooded them with their shirts, put them on the ground in the sun, and stomped or hit anyone raising their head. “I moved my head up slightly, and immediately a soldier hit me with his boot,” one man said.

The men said soldiers then loaded them onto trucks “one over the other, as if they’re shipping potato bags,” and took them to multiple detention sites including Rayak Air Base in the Bekaa Valley and the military intelligence and military police bases in Ablah. At Rayak Air Base, they said, army personnel held more than 100 of them in one room overnight, denied them food and water, and did not allow them to use the bathroom. “They would beat whoever asked to go to the bathroom,” said a former detainee in his 60s.

They said that army personnel at Rayak beat, insulted, and threatened them and others. “They beat people, some with batons, others with the butt of a gun,” one said. “I saw one soldier on the outside poking one of the detainees from the window with a bent skewer. He beat him, then he started cutting his face…until blood came out.”

The men interviewed said they were finally transferred to General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency, who did not mistreat them and released them. The former detainees said that the army never told them why they had been detained.

One former detainee, interviewed on July 11, said: “I had to leave my son behind [in detention]. To this day, I don’t know what has happened to him.” Lebanese law limits pre-charge detention to 96 hours.

Medical Reports
Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical reports for three of the deceased, dated July 1 and 2, and prepared by a forensic doctor at the request of the general prosecutor, concluding that they had suffered heart attacks and a stroke, and that the bodies did not show marks of violence.

A lawyer representing the families said she had received permission from a Judge of Urgent Affairs for a forensic doctor to examine the bodies, conduct an autopsy, and take medical samples to ascertain the cause of death. After she took the medical samples to the Hotel Dieu hospital in Beirut for analysis, the lawyer said, Military Intelligence personnel there demanded she turn them over, by order of the Military Information Directorate. She handed them over after the general prosecutor, Samir Hammoud, instructed her to do so. Following the military’s intervention, she said that the X-ray, CT scan, and autopsy results have not been released to her or made public.

The investigation into the men’s deaths is now before the military court, the family’s lawyer said. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about the independence, impartiality, and competence of the Military Tribunal, where the majority of judges are military officers who are not required to have law degrees, and where trials take place behind closed doors.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Erbil) – Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Sunni tribal groups (known as the Hashad al-Asha'ri), within the Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi), which are under the control of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Iraqi soldiers forced the families out of their homes following the passage of a decree issued by local authorities. The families, all from Salah al-Din governorate, are being held against their will in a camp functioning as an open-air prison near Tikrit. The PMF also destroyed some of the families’ homes.

“While politicians in Baghdad are discussing reconciliation efforts in Iraq, the state’s own forces are undermining those efforts by destroying homes and forcing families into a detention camp,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These families, accused of wrongdoing by association, are in many cases themselves victims of ISIS abuses and should be protected by government forces, not targeted for retribution.”

Video

Video: Local Authorities Displace Suspected "ISIS-Families" in Iraq

Iraqi forces have forcibly displaced at least 125 families said to have familial ties to affiliates of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). 

In August 2016, the Salah al-Din governorate council passed a decree stating that anyone proven to have been complicit or affiliated with ISIS has no right to return to the governorate. The decree also orders the expulsion of immediate relatives of ISIS-members from Salah al-Din for 10 years to life, and says that they are only allowed to return if they are deemed “safe.” The decree establishes a committee to seize ISIS-affiliates’ property and suspend their, and their families,’ provision cards. Families that kill their ISIS-affiliated relatives, or hand them over to the Iraqi authorities, are exempted.

One woman from al-Shakrah village, three kilometers south of al-Shirqat, said that PMF fighters forced her and her relatives from their home on January 7, 2017, because her husband’s brother had joined ISIS. She said that the fighters “forced our whole family of 14 people out and onto the truck. They didn’t let us grab even a change of clothing.”

Two women from the village of al-Aithah said that local PMF forces destroyed hundreds of homes with explosives after they retook the area on September 21, targeting not only some of the families they thought to be affiliated with ISIS, but also some families that had fled because of the fighting. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that between September 23 and October 23, 220 homes in the village were destroyed by explosives and fire.

Before and after satellite imagesBefore and after satellite images

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

Before: © 2017 DigitalGlobe After: © 2017 DigitalGlobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

© 2017 Sami Hilali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detention
Seven people interviewed said that ISF had arrested one or more of their family members, in one case a 15-year-old boy, on suspicion of ISIS affiliation either at their homes or at a checkpoint in the area, some as early as August. Six had not heard from their relatives since and all of them said that because of the ban on phones, they were unable to make any calls to see if they were still in detention or had access to a lawyer.

One man from al-Shakrah said he had been detained by ISF at a checkpoint near Tikrit because his brother had been an ISIS member, and was beaten for a day with electric cables while guards asked him how he could have shared a home with an ISIS fighter. That night, he said, they transferred him to the Salah al-Din operations room, and then to a prison in Tikrit. A few weeks later he was taken before a judge and ordered released, after which he returned to al-Shakrah, he said. On January 7, he and his family were forced to relocate to the camp.

Another al-Shakrah villager said that on September 24, 2016, more than 15 Iraqi soldiers and PMF members who were in the village told all the men and boys ages 15 and over to gather at the local school to be screened:

I gathered there with my 15-year-old son, as we were told. A soldier called out three names of men from the village and detained them. Then about 20 fighters wearing PMF patches brought 10 more men with masked faces to us, and started pointing at people at random, while the ISF stood by and watched. The PMF took away the 14 men and one boy, my own son, whom they pointed at, loading them onto military trucks. One PMF fighter was filming the group of detainees on his phone as they waited to load the trucks, and ordered them to bark like dogs.

They brought his son back after 28 days. The family confirmed with Iraqi army officers that his son was not on a wanted list, but five days later, PMF came to the home with a masked man who said the boy was affiliated with ISIS and detained him again, the father said. The father said he has heard nothing from him since and that on January 7, local PMF members in the village came to their home and said they were an “ISIS family” and had to get onto the PMF trucks and go to the camp.

Iraqi federal authorities should make efforts to inform family members about the location of all detainees. Iraqi federal authorities should make public the number of fighters and civilians detained, including at checkpoints, screening sites, and camps during the conflict with ISIS, and the legal basis for their detention, including the charges against them. They should ensure prompt independent judicial review of detention and allow detainees access to lawyers and medical care and to communicate with their families, Human Rights Watch said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

After 25 years of vicious conflict that has cost countless lives and displaced millions of people, peace has finally broken out in south-central Somalia — at least that's what Kenya says. And the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has joined Kenya to tell the world it should now focus on helping as many refugees as possible to return home.

But I recently spoke with some of the estimated 320,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp. And it's clear that peace is the last thing some of those signing up for UNHCR's $400 repatriation cash handout are discovering.

A newly arrived Somali refugee is forced out of the queue outside a reception centre in the Ifo 2 refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, July 28, 2011

© 2011 Reuters

A number of refugees told me they had returned destitute to destroyed Somali villages without health care provision and schools, or faced danger as armed groups continue to clash in and around their villages, including towns. After doing their best to survive, they fled back to Kenya, once again as refugees.

One of them is "Amina," a 38-year-old single mother. After a decade in Dadaab, she decided to try her luck and returned in January 2015 with her five children to her village, Bula Gudud, in the Lower Juba region, hoping to rebuild her life.

She told me: "After two days back home, fighting broke out between government troops and al-Shabab [armed Islamist group]. I could hear the bullets. My children were so scared. They just ran around, trying to get out of the house." The following day, Amina fled to the closest city, Kismayo. She had no relatives there but hoped she'd find safety and work to feed her children. She found neither.

She and her family barely survived for nine months with other displaced civilians in Kismayo's appalling internally displaced persons' camps. After a man in a government uniform raped her, a common occurrence in the unprotected and aid-starved camps across the country, Amina gave up and 10 months ago begged her way back to Dadaab.

But her ordeal didn't end there. The Kenyan authorities have refused to re-register her and her children as refugees, and UNHCR has not reactivated her ration card or given her any food.

"If we send 1,000 people home under the voluntary repatriation agreement but we then register 1,000 new arrivals, we would not get the job done," a Kenyan government official in Dadaab told me

Kenya, Somalia and the UNHCR had signed an agreement in November 2013 on the "voluntary repatriation" of Somali refugees. It says that both countries and the UN would make sure that Somalis return voluntarily and safely and would get help to resettle back home. A few months later UNHCR said that "the security situation in many parts of ... Somalia [is] volatile [and] protracted ... conflict has had devastating consequences, including massive displacement, weakened community structures, gross human rights violations and the breakdown of law and order".

But Kenya has repeatedly referred to this agreement as evidence that it is time for all Somalis to go home, stressing that the UN agency should help Kenya "expedite" refugee repatriation.

Somali refugees have a collective memory of previous repeated attempts by Kenyan security forces to coerce "voluntary" returns. In late 2012, Kenyan police in Nairobi unleashed appalling abuses in an effort to enforce an illegal directive to drive tens of thousands of urban Somali refugees into the Dadaab camps and from there back to Somalia. In April 2014, Kenyan security forces, primarily police, carried out a second round of abuses against Somalis in Nairobi and then deported 359 a month later without allowing them to challenge their removal.

In May 2016, Kenya announced that "hosting refugees has to come to an end", that Somali asylum seekers would no longer automatically get refugee status and that the Department of Refugee Affairs, responsible for registering and screening individual asylum applications, would be disbanded.

So far, thankfully, the Kenyan police in Dadaab appear to have been acting properly and the refugees told us they had not been harassed or directly coerced. But they are all aware that the government intends to close the camp by the end of November. Everyone we spoke to expressed the fear that those who do not take the voluntary repatriation assistance package now will be forced back later this year with nothing.

Since mid-2015, Amina and at least another 4,000 Somali refugees have either returned to Kenya after facing conflict and hunger back home or fled to Dadaab for the first time.

But with refugee registrations now closed, Amina and the others won't get food aid. Their survival will depend on the kindness of neighbours or relatives whose own rations were slashed last year by a third because of a funding shortfall. Amina and other returnees and new arrivals will also be the first to face arrest and deportation for "illegal presence" if Kenya shuts down Dadaab in three months.

International and Kenyan law require the authorities to make sure that anyone seeking asylum in Kenya is fairly heard and, if found to need protection, gets it. As long as Kenya continues to shred its commitments, Amina and thousands of others like her will languish hungry and destitute in legal limbo and wake up every morning wondering whether they are about to be deported back to the dangers that many have repeatedly fled and still fear.

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

Asylum seekers behind a metal fence in the ‘Hangar 1’ detention center, in Röszke, Hungary. September 9, 2015.

© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The massive refugee crisis demands an unprecedented global response. At two summits on September 19 and 20, 2016, at the United Nations, world leaders should take bold steps to share responsibility for millions of people displaced by violence, repression, and persecution.

Leaders will gather in New York to discuss providing greater support to countries where refugees first land, just as many of those countries are at breaking point. There is a grave risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection, the principle of nonrefoulement – not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution and other serious threats. People are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, among others.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

This year, Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish border guards shooting and pushing back civilians who appear to be seeking asylum; Jordan refusing entry or assistance to Syrian asylum seekers at its border; Kenya declaring that it will close the world’s largest refugee camp in November and pushing Somalis to return home despite potential danger; and Pakistan and Iran harassing and deregistering Afghan refugees and coercing them to return to a country in conflict.

The UN General Assembly has convened the September 19 summit “with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach” to refugees. The final statement, already drafted, is a missed opportunity to widen the scope of protection and limits expectations for concrete, new commitments. However, it affirms refugee rights and calls for more equitable responsibility sharing. Given the scale of the refugee crisis and populist backlash in many parts of the world, this affirmation should be the basis for collective action, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit” to increase commitments for aid, refugee admissions, and opportunities for work and education for refugees. Governments are expected to make concrete pledges toward goals of doubling the number of resettlement places and other admissions, increasing aid by 30 percent, getting 1 million more refugee children in school, and granting 1 million more adult refugees the right to work. Though the participants have not been announced, 30 to 35 countries are expected to attend. Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Sweden, and Jordan will join the United States as co-facilitators.

Boost Humanitarian Aid to Countries of First Arrival
The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are in the global south, where they often face further harm, discrimination, and neglect. Human Rights Watch called on countries of first arrival like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Thailand, Kenya, Iran, and Pakistan, to commit to proposals to provide refugees with better access to work and education.

The world’s richest nations have largely failed to help countries on the front lines of the displacement crisis. As of September 9, UN aid appeals were 39 percent funded, with some of the worst-funded in Africa; the appeal for refugees from South Sudan stands at 19 percent. The regional refugee response plans for Yemen and Syria are funded at 22 and 49 percent.

Increase Numbers Resettled in Other Countries
Resettlement from countries of first arrival is a key way to help refugees rebuild their lives and to relieve host countries, but international solidarity is glaringly absent. In 2015, the UN refugee agency facilitated resettlement of 81,000 of a projected 960,000 refugees globally in need of resettlement. The agency estimated that over 1.1 million refugees would need resettlement in 2016, but projected that countries would only offer 170,000 places. Representatives of 92 countries pledged only a slight increase in resettlement places for Syrian refugees at a high-level UN meeting in March.

In the European Union, the arrival by boat in 2015 of more than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants – and more than 3,700 deaths at sea – laid bare the need for safe and legal channels for refugees to move, such as resettlement.  However, many EU countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary, are focused primarily on preventing spontaneous arrivals, outsourcing responsibility, and rolling back refugee rights.

A July 2015 European plan to resettle 22,500 refugees from other regions over two years has resettled only 8,268 refugees, according to figures from July 2016. Most EU countries underperformed, and 10 failed to resettle a single person under the plan.

End Abusive Systems, Flawed Deals
The EU struck a deal with Turkey in March to allow the return to Turkey of almost all asylum seekers on the deeply flawed grounds that Turkey is a safe country for asylum; it is on the verge of falling apart. Australia forcibly transfers all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to offshore processing centers, where they face abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect.

The EU and Australia should renounce these abusive policies. EU countries should swiftly adopt a proposed permanent resettlement framework with more ambitious goals and a clear commitment to meet them, Human Rights Watch said. They should share fairly the responsibility for asylum seekers arriving spontaneously, and help alleviate the pressure on Greece and Italy.

Governments also undermine asylum with closed camps, as in Kenya and Thailand, and by detaining asylum seekers, as do Australia, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

While by many measures the US leads in refugee resettlement and response to UN humanitarian aid appeals, it has been particularly slow and ungenerous in admitting Syrian refugees. And it has had notable blind spots, as with its border policies for Central American children and others fleeing gang violence and its use of Mexico as a buffer to keep them from reaching the US border.

The Obama Administration met its goal of admitting 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year in the face of opposition from more than half of US governors and a lack of resettlement funds from Congress, but the US has the capacity to resettle many times that number. It should commit to meeting the Leaders’ Summit goals, which would mean doubling this year’s 85,000 total refugee admissions to 170,000.

Several other countries with capacity to admit far more refugees, including Brazil, Japan, and South Korea, have fallen woefully short. Japan admitted 19 refugees in 2015, South Korea only 42 aside from North Koreans, and Brazil only 6.

Russia resettles no refugees. The Gulf States do not respond to UN resettlement appeals, though Saudi Arabia says it has suspended deportations of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who overstay visitor visas. Most Gulf states, except Kuwait, have also fallen short in their response to Syrian-refugee-related UN appeals to fund refugee needs, according to an Oxfam analysis.

“Every country has a moral responsibility to ensure the rights and dignity of people forced to flee their homes,” Roth said. “When more than 20 million people are counting on a real international effort to address their plight, lofty pronouncements are not enough.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Bulgaria bears a “big responsibility” for protecting the European Union’s external borders and should do so “in full respect” of migrants’ human rights, says Europe’s senior minister for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Bulgarian border police stand near a barbed wire fence on the Bulgarian-Turkish border on July 17, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

Speaking in the country’s capital, Sofia, Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, said Bulgaria had the EU’s support as well as his “personal commitment” as it seeks to police Europe’s outer frontiers.

But can Avramopoulos really be confident that Bulgaria will respect migrants' rights in the way he hopes? Its track record suggests not.

Take the case of 16-year-old ‘Abdullah’ from Afghanistan, who experienced Bulgaria’s “respect” first hand.

“When Bulgarian police saw us, we tried to run away,” he said. “They chased us with dogs and shot at us. There were five police. When they caught us, they started beating us. They kicked me and the others wherever they could reach. They did this for about an hour and threatened us with the dogs. They took my money and mobile.”

Abdullah (not his real name) is one of several migrants and asylum seekers who told Human Rights Watch about summary returns from Bulgaria, and violence both at its borders and inside detention centers in late 2015. These are not new problems; we also documented similar abuses in April and September 2014.

Yet Abdullah’s and hundreds of others’ similar testimonies have fallen on deaf ears at EU headquarters in Brussels. While Bulgaria has the right to protect its borders, it doesn’t have the right to summarily return people to Turkey or physically abuse them. By focusing on border protection, Avramopoulos missed the chance to press Bulgaria on violence against migrants and asylum seekers.

The commission should forcefully remind Bulgaria of EU laws and standards, and urge Bulgarian authorities to investigate these credible reports of abuses and bring them to a halt. Because ignoring Abdullah’s story won’t make the allegations go away, and resorting to violence is no way to manage the refugee crisis.

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

Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch's refugee program, monitors, investigates, and documents human rights abuses against refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons, and advocates for the rights and humanitarian needs of all categories of forcibly displaced persons around the world.

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Frelick directed Amnesty International USA's refugee program and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR), which he served for 18 years. He was the editor of USCR's annual World Refugee Survey and monthly Refugee Reports. Frelick has traveled to refugee sites throughout the world and is widely published. He taught in the Middle East from 1979-1983 and was co-coordinator of the Asian Center of Clergy and Laity Concerned from 1976-1979. Frelick has a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from Columbia University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 AP Photo/Panagiotis Balaskas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refugees protest detention conditions in a Melbourne hotel, Australia, April, 2020.

© 2020 Private

In Australia, as people grumble about closed beaches and extended isolation at home due to the coronavirus, spare a thought for those in immigration detention.

In recent weeks, I’ve received anxious messages from a 32-year-old Sri Lankan refugee, detained in a Melbourne hotel for nine months. After more than six years in Papua New Guinea, authorities transferred him and dozens of others to Australia for medical treatment. The Home Affairs Department has declared some hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane as “alternative places of detention” for “low risk” refugees and asylum seekers.

They are under 24-hour guard, confined largely to their rooms, sharing the bedroom and bathroom with a roommate. A joint letter by some 1,200 healthcare professionals says these hotels represent “a very high-risk environment” for the coronavirus to be transmitted.

“We’re constantly worried,” the Sri Lankan refugee told me. “We see Australians returning from abroad protesting the conditions of their quarantine in hotels for 14 days. At least for them it will end in 14 days. We don’t know when it will end for us.”

Like many Australians, they check the news nonstop for the latest virus updates. But these men have already been confined for months: they can’t stockpile food or toilet paper, and they have no control over who walks in the door. In March, a guard working at a Brisbane hotel used as a makeshift detention center tested positive for the virus, adding to their fears.

For the 1,400 people held in Australian immigration detention facilities, COVID-19 poses a higher risk because they live in close proximity to each other, prohibiting the social distancing that helps prevent the virus’ spread. On March 25, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture urged governments to “review the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps with a view to reducing their populations to the lowest possible level” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

Authorities in Belgium and the United Kingdom have released hundreds from immigration detention; Spain has said it will also do so. In the United States, some judges have ordered the release of people from immigration detention because of underlying health conditions or the risk of transmission. The Australian government should do the same, finding alternatives to immigration detention, especially for people with underlying health conditions, older people, and those who pose minimal security risks.

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

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

© 2020 Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Ariana Sawyer/Human Rights Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Syrian refugees in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in a city in southern Lebanon, on March 17, 2020, after Lebanon urged people to stay at home for two weeks to stem a novel coronavirus outbreak.  

© 2020 Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP via Getty Images
 

(Beirut) – At least 21 Lebanese municipalities have introduced discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese residents as part of their efforts to combat COVID-19, undermining the country’s public health response, Human Rights Watch said today. Syrian refugees have also raised concerns about their ability to get health care and the lack of information on how to protect themselves against infection.

Since early March 2020, at least eight municipalities, citing COVID-19 concerns, implemented curfews that restrict the movement of Syrian refugees to certain times. The municipalities introduced these measures before the government called for a nationwide curfew, and the restrictions on Syrians exceed those that the government has imposed on the general population.

“There is no evidence that extra curfews for Syrian refugees will help limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The coronavirus does not discriminate, and limiting the spread and impact of COVID-19 in Lebanon requires ensuring that everyone is able to access testing and treatment centers.”

As of April 1, the Lebanese Health Ministry had registered 479 COVID-19 cases, including 14 deaths, with no confirmed COVID-19 cases among Syrian refugees. On March 15, President Michel Aoun announced a “medical state of emergency,” and the government ordered all non-essential public and private institutions to close except those meeting vital needs, such as bakeries, pharmacies, supermarkets, and banks.

The government announced that it would immediately suspend travel from countries with serious COVID-19 outbreaks, and included Syria in those countries, then closed all air, land, and sea borders on March 18. Prime Minister Hassan Diab on March 21 called on residents to observe a “self-imposed curfew,” and instructed security forces to step up measures to ensure that residents remain at home. The government stepped up the measures on March 26 and announced a curfew – with limited exceptions – between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.

In contrast, on March 18, the Brital municipality in Baalbek announced that to “prevent the aggravation and spread of COVID-19,” Syrians are only allowed to move around the municipality between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., and then only to perform “necessary” tasks, such as going to a pharmacy or supermarket. The municipality memorandum said the municipal police would enforce these measures, and that Syrians caught violating them may face “legal measures” and that their identity documentation may be confiscated. Such measures risk the virus spreading if Syrians are too scared to seek medical help after 1 p.m.

The Kfarhabou municipality in northern Lebanon announced on March 16 measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, including a curfew on Syrian refugees between 3 p.m. and 7 a.m. On March 19, another northern Lebanon municipality, Darbaashtar, “prohibited” Syrians from leaving their homes or receiving visitors – without any exceptions. In all three cases, the only restrictions on other Lebanese residents were general restrictions on movement except for emergencies.  

At least 18 municipalities in the Bekaa valley – where nearly a third of all Syrian refugees in Lebanon live – have mandated restrictions other than curfews that only target the refugee population In Bar Elias, for example, refugees must appoint someone to procure and provide for the basic needs of their informal tented settlement and coordinate such movements with the municipality.

Discriminatory measures against refugees are not new. No fewer than 330 municipalities had imposed curfews on Syrians as of January 2020. Human Rights Watch has criticized these measures for contravening Lebanon’s international human rights obligations and Lebanese domestic law.

International human rights law requires authorities to address the health needs of refugees and, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, any restrictions on basic rights for reasons of public health or national emergency must be lawful and nondiscriminatory as well as necessary and proportionate.

The Lebanese government should communicate clearly to Syrian refugees that they can get medical help without penalty if they experience COVID-19-like symptoms, even if they lack legal residence or other documentation, Human Rights Watch said.

The government should also prioritize information sharing with the Syrian refugee population. In focus group discussions conducted on March 5 and 6 with Syrian refugees in Bekaa and Tripoli, Oxfam found that “knowledge and awareness in refugee communities in both Bekaa and Tripoli on the virus, how it spreads and what are the preventive measures that should be taken, seemed minimal.” Oxfam also found that the costs associated with access to health care was a major concern. Syrian refugees expressed fear of further discrimination and stigmatization if they contracted COVID-19. They cited this fear as a deterrent from seeking medical care, even if they experienced symptoms.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said that the responsibility for refugee health care should be shared by the Lebanese government and by United Nations agencies, but criticized the international community for being slow to react to the COVID-19 crisis. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that it was already conducting awareness campaigns and distributing hygiene materials.

UNHCR subsidizes the costs of basic medical care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 is currently free at the Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH) in Beirut for authorized individuals following a call to and screening by the Health Ministry’s hotline. The Health Minister also announced on March 30 that nine additional public hospitals across the country have been equipped to receive coronavirus patients. UNHCR has stated that it would cover the costs of testing and treatment for COVID-19 for Syrian refugees in any treatment center, but only after the Health Ministry’s screening and recommendation. It is not clear what documentation hospitals will require from refugees. Further, although information that UNHCR provided to refugees on COVID-19 states that the Lebanese Red Cross may be available to transport the most severe cases to treatment centers, it is unclear on what basis the severity will be assessed or if this measure will be enough for Syrian refugees to access the hospitals, an essential corollary of the obligation to provide accessible health care. Syrians without legal residency risk detention at checkpoints throughout the country.

In a recent survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council, 81 percent of refugees “lacked knowledge” that they should immediately call the Health Ministry hotline if they develop symptoms of the virus or if they want to report a suspected case.

“Lebanon has a duty to ensure the health of Syrian and Lebanese residents alike, and it won’t be successful against COVID-19 unless it ensures everyone has access to information, testing, and treatment,” Hardman said. “But the international community should not leave Lebanon to shoulder the crisis on its own and should urgently step up their assistance efforts.”

Coercive Environment for Syrian Refugees

Due to restrictive Lebanese residency policies, only 22 percent of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country, leaving the vast majority to live under the radar, subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and harassment. Their lack of legal status means they cannot move freely through the ubiquitous checkpoints that predate COVID19, have difficulty getting services such as health care or education, and find it difficult to register births, deaths, and marriages.

Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council made several decisions in 2019 that increased pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including the summary deportation of those who enter Lebanon irregularly, the demolition of refugee shelters, and a crackdown on Syrians working without authorization. On August 26, 2019, General Security – the agency responsible for the entry and exit of foreigners – said it had deported 2,731 people to Syria since May 21, placing them at risk of arbitrary detention and torture.

Lebanon’s Obligations

Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires it to take steps to achieve “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Governments also have an obligation to protect the right to seek, receive, and impart information necessary to promote and protect rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” It is required to ensure the protection of these right to everyone in its territory, without discrimination.

Lebanon has also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. While countries may under certain circumstances restrict movement, such limits must be enacted in law and necessary “to protect national security, public order, public health, or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.” Restrictions on movement must be proportionate in judging the areas concerned, the duration, the number of people affected, and the impact on their lives, in comparison with the aim to be achieved.  

Restrictions on rights, including freedom of movement and the right to health, cannot be imposed on a discriminatory basis, including by nationality. This fundamental principle applies even during emergencies. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Dear Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,

As authorities around the world struggle to cope with the spread of COVID-19, it is crucial that States act to protect the most vulnerable, including refugee populations.

We, the 50 undersigned organizations, have welcomed the Bangladesh government’s efforts to host the Rohingya refugees who were forced to flee atrocities perpetrated by the Myanmar Army. We also commend the Bangladesh Government for working closely with the humanitarian community on COVID-19 preparedness and response in Cox’s Bazar District, including efforts to establish isolation and treatment facilities.

Now we write to urge you to lift ongoing mobile internet restrictions and halt the construction of barbed wire fencing around the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District. These measures threaten the safety and well-being of the refugees as well as Bangladesh host communities and aid workers, in light of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to Bangladesh, unrestricted access to information via mobile and internet communications is crucial for slowing the transmission of the disease and saving the lives of refugees, humanitarian workers, and the general population of Bangladesh. Lifting restrictions will not only enable community health workers to quickly share and receive the most reliable and up-to-date guidance during this evolving pandemic, but will also help in coordination with community leaders. We urge you to ensure refugees, local communities, and aid workers alike can freely access mobile and internet communications, in the interest of protecting human rights and public health.

Since September 2019, Bangladesh authorities have prevented Rohingya refugees from obtaining SIM Cards and directed telecommunications operators to restrict internet coverage in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District. According to Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder in Cox’s Bazar, authorities have confiscated more than 12,000 SIM Cards from refugees since September and refugees report that in some instances authorities have prohibited the use of mobile phones altogether.

These restrictions should be lifted in light of the government’s recommendation to those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms to contact the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, hotline. Without a phone or SIM Card, abiding by this instruction is impossible. Furthermore, without access to mobile and internet communications, aid workers and others will be forced to deliver critical health information in person, heightening their risk of exposure to COVID-19 and slowing the effectiveness of the response.

Access to information is an essential component of an effective public health response to a pandemic. On March 19, experts from the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called on all governments to “ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that, “[e]specially at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds.”

In addition to providing access to information, there is a critical need for the government to take extra precautions to ensure the safety and well-being of the refugees. On March 24, Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder told media that in response to the spread of COVID-19, “All activities will be suspended in every camp. . . . However, emergency services with respect to food, health, and medicine will continue as usual.” The Bangladesh government should ensure that protective measures, including provision of sufficient personal protective equipment, are available for the aid workers and volunteers providing these essential services in accordance with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's "Interim Guidance" on COVID-19 response operations in humanitarian settings.

During this time, the Government of Bangladesh should work in close collaboration with international humanitarian organizations and Rohingya-led groups to disseminate accurate and timely information on COVID-19 and mitigate the risk of the virus spreading into the camps and in adjacent host communities.

The government should further balance travel restrictions to ensure that additional humanitarian health workers can safely enter the country and camps without facing undue bureaucratic impediments.

We also write to share our concern regarding the construction of barbed-wire fencing around refugee camps. On September 26, 2019, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal announced plans to construct barbed-wire fencing and guard towers around Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District. Various statements by government officials have made it clear that the purpose of the fencing is not to protect the Rohingya, but rather to confine them. The Bangladesh Home Minister told journalists the reason for building the fencing was to “ensure that the Rohingya do not leave the camp and join our community.” Construction on the fencing began in November 2019.

This construction is motivated by concerns arising prior to the global outbreak of COVID-19, but now risks not only harming refugees but impeding the response to the pandemic. The Bangladesh government’s construction of fencing to enclose the Rohingya refugee camps has created heightened distress, fear, and mistrust among Rohingya refugees, posing greater risks to public health and needless obstructions to humanitarian access as it will become harder for refugees to enter and exit the camp for services.

In constructing barbed-wire fencing to confine Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh risks mirroring the behavior of Myanmar authorities, who presently confine more than 125,000 Rohingya to more than 20 internment camps in five townships of Rakhine State. Instead, Bangladesh should ensure proper access to health care with ease of mobility. This is particularly crucial for those most vulnerable in the refugee camps, including those living with disabilities, older people, and children.

Rohingya refugees remain vulnerable as they depend on humanitarian assistance. It is critical to maintain humanitarian access to the camps at this time. It is equally important to prepare the Rohingya community—men, women, and youth—to be capacitated to support their community at this time. Rohingya community volunteers will be the first responders in this crisis and must be equipped with personal protective equipment and trained accordingly on health and hygiene promotion.

We urge you and your government to uphold the rights of Rohingya refugees to health, freedom of expression and access to information, and freedom of movement. We also call on the Bangladesh Government to ensure non-discrimination between refugees and citizens in accessing timely COVID-19 testing and treatment.

We strongly believe these protections will also benefit overall public health in Bangladesh.

We thank you for your attention to these issues, and we offer our assistance and support to protect the lives and well-being of all those within the territory of Bangladesh, including Rohingya refugees.

CC:

Minister of Disaster Management and Relief Enamur Rahman
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder

Signatories:

  1. ARTICLE 19
  2. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
  3. Action Corps
  4. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma)
  5. Amnesty International
  6. Arakan Rohingya National Organisation
  7. Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network
  8. Association Rohingya Thailand
  9. Beyond Borders Malaysia
  10. British Rohingya Community UK
  11. Burma Campaign UK
  12. Burma Human Rights Network
  13. Burma Task Force
  14. Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan
  15. Burmese Rohingya Community in Denmark
  16. Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
  17. Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization
  18. Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative
  19. Emgage Action
  20. European Rohingya Council
  21. FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights
  22. Fortify Rights
  23. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  24. Global Justice Center
  25. Human Rights Watch
  26. Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, Binghamton University
  27. International Campaign for the Rohingya
  28. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
  29. Justice For All
  30. Justice4Rohingya UK
  31. Kaladan Press Network
  32. Karen Women's Organization
  33. Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability
  34. People Empowerment Foundation
  35. Pusat KOMAS, Malaysia
  36. Queensland Rohingya Community
  37. Refugees International
  38. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
  39. Rohingya Action Ireland
  40. Rohingya Association of Canada
  41. Rohingya Global Youth Movement
  42. Rohingya Human Rights Network
  43. Rohingya Peace Network Thailand
  44. Rohingya Refugee Network
  45. Rohingya Today
  46. Save Rohingya Worldwide
  47. Society for Threatened Peoples Germany
  48. U.S. Campaign for Burma
  49. Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
  50. WITNESS
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am