🔎 Refugees; EU relocation scheme
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, today urged EU Member States to promptly relocate all asylum-seekers eligible under the EU’s emergency relocation scheme and for it to continue beyond the two years originally planned.
“Although the relocation scheme has only partially met what was originally foreseen to be achieved, with 29,144 asylum-seekers relocated so far, it has proven to be of vital importance. It has helped ease the humanitarian situation in Greece, relieved some pressure from Italy, and improved the lives of many seeking protection. We hope this important gesture of solidarity can continue beyond the 26 September deadline,” said Pascale Moreau, Director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau.
“Until the Dublin reform is adopted and a more permanent model put in place, the need for such responsibility-sharing mechanisms remains acute,” she said. “UNHCR commends the efforts already undertaken by both the European Commission and States. However, solidarity must continue and expand. States should continue to pledge as long as there are eligible candidates,” said Moreau.
Under current conditions, only asylum-seekers of nationalities with an average recognition rate of 75 per cent or higher at the EU level are considered eligible for relocation. UNHCR has previously called for a review of this criteria and for the threshold to be lowered. In a continuation of the scheme, this would allow for more people likely to be in need of international protection to be included.
Swift relocation, including fast registration and transfer of candidates, is particularly crucial for unaccompanied and separated children, who sometimes still are in poor living and security conditions in Greece and Italy.
In September 2015, EU Member States agreed to a two-year plan to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers in total, including 106,000 from Greece and Italy, to other European countries to ease the pressure on frontline States.
Up to 22 September 2017, 47,905 places were formally pledged by States, with 20,066 asylum-seekers relocated from Greece and 9,078 from Italy. UNHCR will continue providing support for relocation from Greece and Italy.
UNHCR reiterates its call for a robust asylum system that ensures access to territory and efficient asylum procedures and which is capable of properly allocating responsibility for asylum-seekers among EU Member States, also in exceptional circumstances.
Published on UNHCR on September 26, 2017
Key words: Refugees; Lebanon; Syria
Many refugees in Arsal, a border town in northeast Lebanon recently cleared of armed groups, face pressure to return to Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Some have already returned to Syria because of the harsh conditions in Arsal. A recent Human Rights Watch visit to Arsal found widespread lack of legal residency, restrictions on freedom of movement, and fear of seemingly random arrests during army raids. Lebanese authorities should prioritize restoring services and protecting civilians there, following the military campaigns and negotiated agreements that pushed the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants out of the area.
“Conditions in Arsal have gotten so bad that many refugees have decided to go back into a war zone,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanese authorities have a difficult job maintaining security in Arsal, but now that ISIS and al-Nusra have been pushed out, it is essential to improve services and protect civilians.”
Syrians who left Arsal for Idlib told Human Rights Watch by phone that they went back to Syria because of the situation in Arsal, including army raids on refugee settlements, a widespread lack of legal status, fear of arrest and detention, restrictions on their movement, and limited access to education and health care. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence of direct forced returns, but all of those interviewed said they left under pressure, not voluntarily.
Lebanon should ensure that refugees can regularize their legal status and have freedom of movement and access to humanitarian aid, Human Rights Watch said. Security measures should respect the rights of civilians in Arsal.
Arsal currently hosts an estimated 60,000 Syrians alongside a population of 38,000 Lebanese, according to the municipality. The Lebanese army has maintained tight control over Arsal since the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra attacked the town in 2014, and has restricted access to the town since then. While the army quickly regained control of the town, fighters from the Islamic State and al-Nusra remained in areas around Arsal until recent campaigns by the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ended in negotiated deals, under which armed men and their families as well as unaffiliated civilians returned to Syria.
Almost 10,000 Syrians have returned from Arsal since June, according to the municipality, largely under agreements negotiated by Hezbollah. Human Rights Watch entered Arsal in September, with permission from the Lebanese authorities, to interview Syrians and assess conditions first-hand. Human Rights Watch spoke with 19 refugees inside Arsal and by phone with five Syrians who returned to Syria.
“When we left [Arsal], we were forced to go,” said a doctor who returned to Idlib. “It wasn’t our place. We would always be persecuted there. Our fate was either arrest, or death, or permanently living in anxiety. This is why most people left, because of the persecution.”
Syrians said that the widespread lack of legal residency was a factor in the decision of many to return to Syria. Nine of the 19 said they did not have legal status, and that men in particular feared arrest by the General Security Organization when trying to renew their residency. Without residency, Syrians face restrictions on movement for fear of arrest, affecting their access to work, health care, and birth and marriage registration. Aid groups estimate that between 70 to 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal status.
Eight Syrians in Arsal said that either they or an immediate family member had been arrested when trying to renew their residency, and that authorities had detained children as young as 9. One camp representative showed Human Rights Watch a list of 222 people who attempted to renew residency but whose identification cards had been held by General Security for at least a year – and as long as three years in some cases.
Syrians said that they feared arrest by the army during frequent security raids on refugee settlements in Arsal. Many said they perceived the arrests as “random,” and feared they could be arrested at any time. Several said that the mass raids in June resulting in the arrests of more than 350 Syrians, and the deaths of four Syrians in military custody amid evidence of torture, created a sense of fear and contributed to families’ decisions to return. Human Rights Watch has called on the army to release its investigation of this incident, but the army has not done so. Camp leaders said they were still unaware of the whereabouts of some of those detained.
“I’m not against the army,” one camp leader in Arsal said. “We will enter with them if they want to enter camps, we want to cooperate with the Lebanese army.”
Syrians in Idlib said they did not have clear information about conditions there before they returned. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, does not have a permanent presence in Arsal, was not involved in facilitating the returns to Syria, and for the most part did not interview Syrians before they left to assess whether their departure was voluntary. UNHCR has not issued a public assessment as to whether these returns were voluntary.
“Our stay in Arsal was in fear, living in the unknown, our departure was in fear and to the unknown, and the trip was in fear and through the unknown,” said one man who returned to Idlib. “We were asking about guarantees but no one told us what it was. … We were in psychological torment. It’s the most difficult decision to make: whether to stay in the unknown or go toward the unknown.”
Almost all of the Syrians interviewed said they would have preferred to stay in Lebanon if they had felt safe.
Syrians still in Arsal also said that they felt under pressure to leave. “The army is putting pressure, General Security is putting pressure, people are putting pressure on us, the situation here is unacceptable,” one man said. But while some said they would consider going back under an international agreement, all said they would prefer to remain in Lebanon if conditions improved, until it was safe to return to Syria.
“I want to go back home with my honor, go back to my house, not under pressure [to Idlib],” one woman said.
Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but is bound by the universally binding customary law principle of nonrefoulement not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of being persecuted, exposed to torture or other ill treatment, or to threats to their lives or freedom. Lebanon is also bound by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment not to return anyone to a country where they would be in danger of torture or ill-treatment.
Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure on them is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.
The returns to Syria follow heightened calls by Lebanese politicians for the return of refugees to Syria. In July, President Michel Aoun called for safe, not voluntary, returns. Idlib province is considered a “de-escalation zone,” based on an agreement among some of the warring parties in Kazakhstan in May, but cannot be considered safe for returns. International experience has shown that “safe zones” rarely remain safe, Human Rights Watch said.
“With ISIS and al-Nusra gone from Arsal, Lebanon should recognize that it’s not in its interest for refugees to fear interaction with security services and reassess its security policy,” Houry said. “Lebanon should ensure that Syrians are able to obtain legal residency and that security operations respect the safety and security of refugees living in Arsal.”
Published on HRW on September 20, 2017.
The report can be downloaded here.
By Jennifer Rankin
The European Union’s top court has dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, dealing a blow to the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his allies in central Europe over the bitterly contested policy of refugee quotas.
In an important victory for the EU, judges threw out a challenge against its mandatory relocation scheme, which aims to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers around the bloc.
The victory has sharpened tensions between the EU and Hungary’s combative PM, who has made opposition to EU asylum policy a core theme of his “Stop Brussels” campaign. It will also raise tensions with Poland, which lent its support to the failed legal campaign.
Budapest condemned the court ruling as “appalling and irresponsible”. The foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, said: “This decision jeopardises the security and future of all of Europe. Politics has raped European law and values.”
The European court of justice (ECJ) said it had dismissed “in their entirety the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary”, vindicating the EU decision-making process that created a scheme to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states.
The number was later amended when 54,000 “unused places” were allocated to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey in Europe. Based on the original 120,000 figure, fewer than a quarter of places have been filled. With the relocation scheme due to expire later this month, the stage is set for bruising arguments over permanent refugee quotas.
EU leaders agreed the emergency plan in September 2015, at the height of the migration crisis, as thousands of people arrived daily on Europe’s shores, many of whom were refugees from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.
Along with Hungary and Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic also voted against the scheme. Poland belatedly threw its weight behind the legal case after the conservative Law and Justice party came to power in late 2015.
European leaders turned to an untested provision of the EU treaty to force through the decision in an attempt to get to grips with unprecedented numbers of people arriving in the EU.
ECJ judges said the European council had acted lawfully. EU institutions were on firm legal ground when they adopted measures to respond to “an emergency situation characterised by a sudden inflow of displaced persons”, the court said. The ECJ also concluded that the legality of the decision was not affected by retrospective conclusions about the policy’s effectiveness.
In a robust defence of the EU treaties, the court said: “The small number of relocations so far carried out under the contested decision can be explained by a series of factors … including, in particular, the lack of cooperation on the part of certain member states.”
Data released on Wednesday shows that 27,695 refugees have been relocated under the scheme, roughly two-thirds from Greece and a third from Italy. Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, said there was “misunderstanding” about the numbers and fewer people than anticipated were eligible for help.
He said 2,800 people in Greece were awaiting relocation and another 2,000 were expected to become eligible. According to official data, in Italy 7,200 eligible asylum seekers have arrived since the start of the year but only 4,000 have been registered, as authorities struggle to cope with arrivals.
Hungary and Poland have not relocated a single person and the Czech Republic has not made any offers for more than a year. All three countries risk being taken to court by the commission. Avramopoulos said the commission was ready to consider that last step. “The door is still open and we should convince all member states to fulfil their commitments, but we should be clear that member states have to show solidarity now.”
The court decision came as the EU executive curtly dismissed Orbán’s request for EU funds to help build a border fence. In a letter from the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, Orbán is chastised for attempting to pick and choose EU policies. “Solidarity is not an à-la-carte dish,” states the letter, first obtained by Politico.
Juncker lists the financial support Hungary has received to manage migrant flows, and the €4m Budapest lost out on by refusing to take part in the refugee relocation scheme. “Solidarity is a two-way street. There are times in which member states may expect to receive support, and times in which they, in turn, should stand ready to contribute,” he writes.
The ECJ ruling was greeted with relief in Brussels. Manfred Weber, the head of the European parliament’s largest centre-right group, tweeted: "#ECJ confirms our view on the migration scheme. We expect all EU countries to respect and implement the ruling. @EPPGroup 1/3"
There was a predictable reaction from anti-EU parties. The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: “What a surprise – EU court undermines national sovereignty once again. It should be a decision of nation states who it allows inside its borders.”
The EU has taken in more than 1.7 million people from the Middle East and Africa since 2014. However, after a mass influx in 2015, the number of arrivals has fallen steadily after actions last year that all but closed the route from Turkey to Greece and from Greece to the Balkans and northern Europe. The EU has also increased support for Libya to curb arrivals in Italy.
The ruling has no impact on the UK, which has an opt-out from this area of EU law.
Published on The Guardian on September 6, 2017.
The private security company G4S has today announced that it has suspended nine staff members from an Immigration Removal Centre following allegations of abuse and assaults against people detained.
An investigation has been launched into the allegations ahead of a BBC Panorama programme scheduled to be shown on Monday evening that is reported to include covert footage recorded at Brook House IRC near Gatwick airport. The footage is said to show officers “mocking, abusing and assaulting” people being held there.
The allegations come as Stephen Shaw, a former Prisons and Probations Ombudsman, is due to begin a follow up review on detention. In his original report, Shaw concluded that the UK detains too many people and made 64 recommendations for reform.
Stephen Shaw’s report followed a cross-party inquiry into the use of Immigration Detention carried out by the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugee and Migration. The MPs and Peers on the inquiry panel called for wholesale reform of the use of detention in the UK, including the implementation of a 28 day time limit.
Despite Government promises to implement reforms, last week’s immigration statistics show that very little has changed, and the UK remains the only country in Europe to not have a maximum time limit on detention.
Commenting on the news, Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren said:
“These allegations are extremely concerning, but depressingly predictable too. We work with many asylum seekers and refugees who have been damaged by detention and the arbitrary, unaccountable and indefinite deprivation of liberty that it involves.
“An urgent and thorough investigation into these allegations is vital, of course, but the problems of detention do not start with the misbehaviour of individuals. These are only a symptom of a much deeper rooted problem that is born of the Home Office’s obsession with deterrence, control, retribution and enforcement.
“That obsession has resulted in a detention system that detains too many people, for far too long, and at a huge expense to the taxpayer. Radical reform is now needed, starting with a 28 day time limit as called for by the ground breaking cross-party parliamentary inquiry that reported in 2015.”
Published on Refugee Council on September 1, 2017.