Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Rescuing refugees ‘a moral imperative’ not a crime

April 15, 2021

Pip Cook in Geneva Solutions of 30 March 2021 published a good overview of the vexing issue of saving refugees in Europe [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/12/luventa10-sea-rescue-group-gets-ai-germanys-human-rights-award/]

MSF worked in collaboration with Sea-Watch on board the Sea-Watch 4 until February 2021, providing medical care and supporting with humanitarian assistance for rescued people. (Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)

As countries across Europe adopt increasingly tough migration policies, NGOs are being prosecuted for acts of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We speak to Stephen Cornish, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland, and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist and author who was imprisoned in Australia’s offshore asylum system for six years, about the threat this growing hostility poses to Europe’s democracies.

On 4 March 2021, Italian prosecutors charged dozens of people from humanitarian organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children with colluding with people smugglers while carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. After an investigation spanning nearly four years, crew members, mission heads and legal representatives who saved thousands of people from drowning at sea are facing years in prison, sending shockwaves through the humanitarian community. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/04/new-amnesty-report-on-human-rights-defenders-helping-migrants/

It’s hard to imagine how saving a life can become a criminalised activity,” says Stephen Cornish, director of MSF Suisse, speaking to Geneva Solutions. The organisation, which denies the accusations, estimates that its six humanitarian ships helped save more than 81,000 lives at sea. “It would be like criminalising the fire department for going to put out a fire.”

The investigation is one of dozens brought against NGOs running search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean since 2016, when a handful of humanitarian organisations including MSF and SOS Mediteranee launched vessels in response to a rise in the number of people attempting the perilous journey from countries such as Libya and Turkey to claim asylum in Europe. Over the past few years, these vessels have been frequently detained by authorities or trapped at sea for weeks at a time, refused entry to ports where they can safely disembark. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/18/international-migrants-day-the-story-of-the-ocean-viking/]

Hostility towards rescue agencies has grown since the height of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, says Cornish, when over one million people – the majority of whom were refugees fleeing the war in Syria – fled to Europe by sea over the course of the year, mainly arriving in Greece and Italy. The EU’s failure to share responsibility for the dramatic rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe left countries such as Greece and Italy overwhelmed, Cornish says: “People initially responded with charity and welcome, but then the failure was at a government level not to share the responsibility, and to repopulate people across different states.”

As anti-refugee politics became increasingly mainstream across Europe, countries began to tighten their borders and scrabble for ways to reduce ‘irregular’ migration into the bloc. Last week marked five years since the introduction of the EU-Turkey Deal – a key pillar of these efforts. The agreement called on Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the EU in exchange for financial assistance and the promise of the eventual creation of legal resettlement pathways to Europe.

Five years on, Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, with the EU accused of outsourcing its migration management and turning a blind eye to the poor living conditions facing many refugees in the country. The agreement is also widely viewed as creating the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Greek islands, which became a final destination for thousands of asylum seekers trapped in overcrowded camps waiting for their applications to be processed.

The inhumane conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands are well documented, with reports of squalid facilities, violence, abuse and a lack of basic amenities commonplace. At times, there have been 40,000 people living in camps designed for a few thousand. As well as Syria, the majority of people are fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one in four are children. The horrific fire that engulfed the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp on Lesvos in 2020, leaving 13,000 people without shelter, became a tragic symbol of Europe’s failed migration policy.

MSF has been operational on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios for many years, although it ceased operations inside Moria citing mass deportation and potential refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees. It no longer accepts EU funding in opposition to the policy.

“[The impact of the EU Turkey Deal] has been horrendous,” says Cornish. “There are still 15,000 people trapped in limbo, in no man’s land in Greece with no way forward and no way back, and suffering at the hands of supposed democracies.”

We see suicides, we see self-harm in children, we see long term PTSD and people with no hope, no ability to move forward or backward, trapped in punishment,” he says. “We put people in hell holes, and then when hell breaks loose, we pretend like we don’t see it.”

The deal has recently been extended until 2022, when the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum is expected to come into force. The New Pact focuses on fast-tracking screening and asylum processes at Europe’s external borders and includes a system of “mandatory solidarity” by which member states do not have to commit to resettling refugees but can instead fund repatriation. It has been widely criticised by humanitarian organisations for repeating the mistakes of the EU-Turkey Deal and failing to improve the situation for asylum seekers and refugees.

“Everything we’ve seen that failed in the US and failed in Australia, and is failing in Greece and Italy, we’d like to now make more semi-permanent policy,” says Cornish of the New Pact, which is currently being negotiated by member states and in the European Parliament. “As we harden these policies, all we do is push people into the hands of traffickers. We push them to take riskier routes and have higher death tolls and greater suffering.”

While the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has decreased dramatically since 2015, migration has continued to be a highly politicised issue across Europe. Countries have adopted increasingly hostile policies which humanitarian organisations say fail to address flaws in existing systems, to the detriment of the people these systems were initially created to help.

Last week, the UK announced an overhaul of its asylum policy, which was met with outrage from humanitarian actors. Under the new plans, migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by routes deemed illegal will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, creating a two-tier system which has been criticised as a violation of international law and eroding the right to asylum.

UK home secretary Priti Patel argues that current European policies “play into the hands of people smugglers”, however human rights and migration experts argue that, while governments fail to expand safe and legal routes, it is inhumane and unjust to punish asylum seekers for resorting to irregular routes when the only other option is an interminable wait in one of Europe’s refugee camps.

“Since a number of years [ago], we have made it almost impossible to be able to flee and request asylum from a conflict zone,” says Cornish. “We put all of these hurdles in place to make it impossible to be able to declare asylum and come [to Europe], and then we criminalise anybody jumping the line because we say they’re not following the procedures.”

Lessons from Australia. It has also been reported that asylum seekers in the UK could be shipped overseas while their asylum claim is pending – a policy that echoes Australia’s offshore processing asylum policy, instituted twice from 2001 to 2008 and 2012 to present.

Under the policy, asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Australia by boat were immediately sent to offshore processing centres on the pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. The detention camps – which held over 2000 people at a time – have been widely condemned for systemic abuses and human rights violations. Although over 85 per cent of people sent to Nauru and Manus were recognised as refugees, the majority were left there for years awaiting resettlement.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island for six years after attempting to reach Australia by boat in 2013, experienced the horror of Australia’s inhumane asylum policy first-hand. He spoke to Geneva Solutions ahead of the FIFDH event he took part in alongside Stephen Cornish.

“The dangerous side is that Australia is introducing this policy to countries in Europe, especially the UK,” says Boochani, who continued his work as a journalist writing for publications such as the Guardian from Manus. “Australia became a model for many of these countries. And for many years, we were warning about this, we were talking about it, but no one heard us.” [See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/55687980-7bdc-11e9-8427-f3aebfb2928e]

This policy damaged the political culture in Australia [and] the democracy in Australia,” says Boochani. “It damaged the principles in Australia and damaged morality in Australia. I think if the UK followed this policy, you cannot say that [you’ve] just damaged the refugees, you’ve damaged your principles, your democracy, your system, your morality, and your political culture too.

MSF’s Cornish shares Boochani’s concern that Europe’s asylum policies are damaging the democracy and social fabric of countries, partly fuelling the rise in far-right politics that has gained traction across the continent in recent years.

There have also been reports of mounting deportations and systemic violent pushbacks at Europe’s external land borders by the EU border agency Frontex. At sea, NGOs have also collected evidence of refugees being intercepted and illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greek waters. International human rights and refugee law requires states to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection from refoulement even if they enter irregularly. The increasingly frequent pushbacks have prompted calls by the UN Refugee Agency for an urgent investigation.

Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal,” said UNHCR’s assistant commissioner for protection Gillian Triggs in a statement…

https://genevasolutions.news/peace-humanitarian/cornish-it-s-hard-to-imagine-how-saving-a-life-can-become-a-criminalised-activity

Euro-Med Monitor’s report of November 2020 shows progress in some areas

December 3, 2020

On Thursday, 3 December 2020 Scoop carries the recent report by the Euro- Med Monitor which shows actions in a number of countries covered by the NGO

Hungary

The European Commission issued a new notice/ procedure against Hungary in which it considers Hungary’s new laws against refugees and asylum seekers illegal and violates the European Union laws for asylum seekers. The Hungarian government closed its transit areas and approved a new law prohibiting asylum seekers from entering the country. Under the new law, asylum seekers must first submit “a declaration of intent” at the embassies of Hungary in Serbia or Ukraine, and if they were approved by the National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing (formerly the Office of Immigration), asylum seekers can then enter the territory of Hungary to formally submit an asylum application.

During a lobbying and advocacy campaign extending for more than three years, Euro-Med Monitor has worked with partner international organizations to pressure the EU governments to accommodate more asylum seekers and distribute the burden among them. Euro-Med Monitor called on the EU to search for the best mechanisms to redistribute refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary in a fair manner between the EU member states, pressure the Hungarian government to take full responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers in its custody, and put an end to violations of their basic rights.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/07/good-example-of-authoritarian-abuse-of-covid-19-emergency-hungary/

Croatia

The EU Ombudsman announced on 10 November that an investigation has been opened into the possible complicity of the EU’s Executive in mismanaging funds allocated for overseeing the conduct of the Croatian border officers accused of participating in violence against asylum seekers, including shootings of refugees.

On May 19, Euro-Med Monitor addressed the Croatian government and concerned parties in the EU to immediately put an end to all illegal and discriminatory practices against asylum seekers and to conduct an independent investigation into violations committed by the Croatian police against refugees.

Spain

On 30 November, the Spanish authorities have cleared and dismantled dock camp in Gran Canaria, which was used to accommodate thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in very adverse conditions since last August.

On November 26, Euro-Med Monitor issued an urgent appeal to the Spanish authorities to end the overcrowding conditions in refugee camps in the Canary Islands, to deal with unsanitary conditions, to increase alternative reception centers, to transfer asylum seekers to the Spanish mainland in a quicker manner, and to establish fair asylum procedures for migrants and asylum seekers.

The Palestinian Territories

The EU called on the Israeli government to halt its policy of home demolitions in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), including demolishing housing units funded by the EU. This comes amid the high rate of demolitions this year.

In lobbying and advocacy campaigns that spanned over years, Euro-Med Monitor representatives met with members of the European Parliament and launched an intensive correspondence campaign revealing the high number of demolitions against projects funded by the EU in the Palestinian territories. Euro-Med Monitor brought the case to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), providing a number of reports and statements, and contacted the Special Rapporteur on housing to exert pressure on Israel to put an end to its violations and demolitions last September.

The Jericho Magistrate’s Court issued a decision to release Palestinian activist Nizar Banat after he was arrested for publishing a video on Facebook criticizing the resumption of relations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel.

On November 22, Euro-Med Monitor called on concerned bodies in the PA and its Public Prosecutor to immediately release Banat, and urged the PA to to review its security policies in dealing with opponents and to put an end to all violations committed against the rights guaranteed by relevant international laws and treaties.

Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates

Negotiators in the European Council and the European Parliament approved new rules on November 8 that would control the export of dual-use goods such as electronic surveillance equipment to third countries that might use these technologies to harm their own citizens and are involved in human rights violations.

During the past months, Euro-Med Monitor, in cooperation with partner organizations, addressed several European Parliament members and representatives. The Euro-Med released several reports revealing the grave human rights violations committed by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE against civilians, including the war in Yemen, enforced disappearances, and arrest campaigns against journalists and activists for opposing the regime. Euro-Med Monitor, in cooperation with its partners in the region, called on the European Union (EU) countries to stop the export of weapons and modern surveillance technologies to countries that violate human rights in the Middle East.

Europe

On November 10, members of the European Parliament called for ensuring accountability for the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) over returning migrants and asylum seekers from Greece to Turkish territorial waters. On May 6, 2020, Euro-Med Monitor addressed members of the European Parliament and the EU to impose transparency and accountability measures against Frontex practices and to establish an independent oversight committee to investigate and prevent any violations.

https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO2012/S00020/good-news-on-euro-med-monitors-joint-efforts-towards-ceasing-human-rights-violations-november-2020.htm

Criminalisation of human rights defenders in Europe denounced in UN

September 30, 2020

 

In a statement delivered on 24 September 2020 in Geneva, ISHR was joined by human rights groups and other community organisations defending the rights of migrants to draw attention to the concerning trends of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe. Responding to the opening remarks of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and building on years of work by other experts in the UN system, the groups highlighted the links between protecting the rights of migrants, and the creation of a safe environment for those who seek to protect them. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/absurd-prosecution-of-the-crew-of-the-ship-iuventa-continues-in-italy/

ISHR human rights advocate Sarah M Brooks, pointing to research conducted by Migration Policy Group (MPG), CEPS, PICUM and other partners within the frame of the ReSOMA project, noted that in the last five years – from 2014 to 2019 – at least 60 cases of criminalisation, concerning more than 170 individuals, had been documented across the European Union.

Carmine Conte, legal policy analyst at MPG, underlines that since the emergence of the ‘refugee crisis’, there has been an escalation of judicial prosecutions and investigations against volunteers, human rights defenders, crew members of boats involved in search and rescue operations, but also ordinary citizens, journalists, mayors and religious leaders helping migrants.

The European Fundamental Rights Agency has also spoken out on this concern. In the area of migrant search and rescue (SAR) NGOs alone, in the two years between 2018 and 2020, experienced 40 cases of criminal charges, disciplining including administrative fines, de-flagging, seizure and confiscation of ships, or their crews were otherwise were prevented from leaving or docking at port. The Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights has recently condemned Malta and Italy using COVID-19 as yet another excuse for non-rescue:

The rights of migrants cannot be fulfilled, Brooks said, without protection of fundamental freedoms for those engaged in the defence of migrants’ rights. ‘Whether it is through humanitarian assistance and search-and-rescue, legal aid or policy advocacy, exercising the right to protest and civil disobedience – including migrants’ own strikes,’ she said, ‘these are protected acts. ‘European governments must do more to protect the right to defend rights.

Lina Vosyliute, Research Fellow at CEPS, one of the leading think-tanks on the EU affairs, has described the increasing suspicion, harrasment, disciplining and criminalisation of those who help migrants  as ‘policing humanitarianism’. At the heart of the problem are so-called  ‘crimes of facilitation of irregular migration’, which Vosyliute deems ‘the most misused criminal provision against human rights defenders in Europe’. The EU Facilitation Directive falls short of the UN Migrant Smuggling protocol, since it does not require any evidence nor suspicion of ‘financial or other material gain’. Under this provision in the EU and Schengen states introduced laws that prosecute ‘any intentional assistance’ to migrants, leaving out the question of motive and, specifically, ‘material or financial benefit’ that are central to smuggling crimes.

Vosyliute concludes, ‘The vague definition of crime is counterproductive. While some prosecutors are investigating on human traffickers or migrant smugglers, who take thousands of euros from asylum seekers and migrants to board on unseaworthy dinghies, others keep policing humanitarians and human rights defenders.’  The prosecutions of Sea Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete in Italy, Team Humanity and Proem Aid volunteers in Greece, or farmer Cedric Herrou in France [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/18/interview-with-cedric-herrou-migrants-rights-defender-who-is-the-central-person-in-the-film-libre/], and many others, who helped migrants out of compassion, are used by governments to rather show a strong stance against irregular migration, than to fight the crime.

But far more simple acts of solidarity are also being met with administrative, civil and even criminal penalty. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/04/new-amnesty-report-on-human-rights-defenders-helping-migrants/]

Says Marta Gionco of PICUM, a platform representing more than 160 organisations across Europe and globally that defend undocumented migrants’ human rights: ‘In recent years,  people across Europe have been put on trial for simple acts of human kindness: giving someone a ride in their car in a mountainous area so that they won’t get hypothermia; saving someone’s life who is drowning at sea; giving someone food or shelter; providing shelter and food; or lending a cell phone’.

In response to this trend, last year more than 110 organisations signed a statement asking the European Union to revise the EU Facilitation Directive and support and defend the rights of migrant rights’ defenders across the EU.

Although the majority of documented cases end in acquittal, the financial, social and psychological impact of months, and often years, of criminal proceedings has had a clear chilling effect on their work.

When courts have determined that an individual is not guilty of a crime, state prosecutors – for example, in France – have nonetheless appealed. In the case of defender Pierre Manoni, despite a court decision finding that solidarity is constitutionally protected, prosecutors have filed four separate appeals to question his acquittal on the grounds that he acted out of compassion.  Short-term detentions are also common, with police often failing to substantiate charges. These lengthy and expensive judicial proceedings put peoples’ lives on hold risk.

When these human rights defenders are migrants themselves, the consequences of criminal proceedings are often harsher, frequently resulting in loss of residence permits and threats of deportation. For instance, in 2018 asylum seekers in Moria camp protested in Sappho square after the death of an Afghan asylum seeker.  They were violently attacked by extreme right groups. However, it was not violent attackers, but the asylum seekers themselves who were prosecuted, for the ‘occupation’ of public space.

In another case, Ahmed H – a long-term resident in Cyprus – organised a protest at Hungarian border zone. He has been accused of terrorism-related crimes, for holding a megaphone, and deprived family life for four years. Time and again, asylum seekers and migrants helping each other during the journey are prosecuted as criminals. And in some cases, when they arrive in their destination country, this ‘criminal record’ alone can preclude the access to the right of asylum.

Brooks notes that the European Union, and many EU member states, have been powerful voices at the Human Rights Council and abroad in defending and supporting human rights defenders. However, when it comes to policies at home – often driven by border management mindsets and national security rationales – those same governments are engaged in judicial harassment of defenders.

As Front Line Defenders has noted, criminalisation is only one way in which migrant rights defenders are being targeted, including within Europe. They are also subjected to physical and verbal attacks, short term detention, smear campaigns and arson attacks on their property. Their experiences are largely under-reported because, the organisation notes, human rights defenders and aid workers prioritise cooperation with the authorities; even if it’s extremely fragile, it can be beneficial to the protection of migrants.

‘Judicial harassment, trumped-up charges, threats and intimidation and chilling effects are not unique to countries outside of Europe’s borders. It’s time that European governments took seriously their obligations at home’, Brooks asserts.

The right to help is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that, as the UN has emphasised, ’no one is left behind’.

Says CEPS’ Vosyliute: ‘Our newest study on civic space shows that the work of human rights defenders is ever more vital. Volunteers are sewing masks and distributing soap and hand sanitizer to stop the spread of the virus among various marginalized communities, like those in Moria refugee camp. At the same time, human rights defenders are even more at risk’.

Yet, COVID-19 restrictions are also disproportionately targeting refugees and other migrants and those who assist them. ‘For instance, in France, volunteers helping those stuck in Calais Jungle, received fines for violating social distancing rules. In Greece, some NGOs could not provide psychosocial counseling in camps due prolonged quarantine imposed on refugee camps, but not on the rest of the island. Italian and Maltese governments have  prevented SAR NGOs to disembark rescued migrants for weeks’.

Civil society actors have raised concerned over worsening legal environment. For instance, the Greek authorities have advanced additional registration requirements targeting NGOs working in the area of migration, asylum and integration.

According to the NGO law experts of the Council of Europe, those regulations are incompatible with the freedom of association – ‘onerous, complex, time-consuming and costly for NGOs’ – especially given the context and dire needs among asylum seekers and migrants.

European governments and the EU should be expected to uphold their human rights obligations to create and enabling environment for human rights defenders, as outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. A recent legal analysis of the so-called ‘Stop Soros’ legal package in Hungary, conducted by law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP on behalf of ISHR and the Slovenia-based Legal-Informational Centre for NGOs (PiC), found that such an obligation exists for European governments in view of international and EU law.

At the same time, clear expectations have been set out by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose human rights watchdog, ODIHR, has called out dangers for human rights defenders in similar situations. As early as 2014, their guidelines on protection of human rights defenders alerted European states that ‘[any] legal provisions that directly or indirectly lead to the criminalisation of such [human rights] activities should be immediately amended or repealed’. More recently, the Council of Europe’s NGO Expert Council came up with Guidelines that seek to prevent the misuse of criminal law provisions against NGOs that assist migrants and uphold their rights.

‘The framework is there’, the groups conclude, ‘but Europe needs to choose to do more’.

Watch the statement here: https://youtu.be/ZHat_xPd2z8

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc45-criminalisation-defenders-europe-must-end

The Elders urge European leaders to stand firm on Israeli annexation threats

July 3, 2020

As reported in the Sri Lankan Guardian The Elders have called on European leaders to maintain their resolve against Israel’s plans to annex swathes of the West Bank, and to insist that any such moves would have negative political and economic consequences for bilateral relations.

The absence of any direct military and legal moves towards annexation on 1 July – the deadline unilaterally declared by Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu – should not be taken as grounds for complacency. Annexation of any part of the West Bank, including illegal settlement blocs, would constitute a flagrant breach of international law.
In letters to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, The Elders underscored the damage annexation would cause not only to any hopes of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to global respect for the rule of law.
Annexation “is fundamentally contrary to the long term interests of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples. [It] will not dampen future Palestinian demands for rights and self-determination, but destroying hopes in a two-state compromise will increase the risks of future violence in one of the most combustible areas in the world”, the Elders warned in their appeal to Europe’s leaders.
They called on the EU leaders to consider suspending the bloc’s Association Agreement with Israel if annexation does go ahead in any form, and recalled the UK’s historical and abiding responsibility to the region as the colonial Mandate holder in pre-1948 Palestine.
The Elders also reiterated their support for human rights defenders and civil society activists in Israel and Palestine, whose voices need to be protected and amplified at this challenging time.

http://www.slguardian.org/2020/07/the-elders-urge-european-leaders-to.html

Oak Human Rights Fellow is migrants’ rights defender Nasim Lomani

June 13, 2020

On 12 June 2020 the Oak Institute for Human Rights announced as the 2020 Oak Human Rights Fellow: Nasim Lomani, a human rights defender and migrants’ rights activist, who has been working in Greece and across the EU for over a decade.

As a then 16-year-old Afghanistani, Lomani left for Greece nearly two decades ago. Upon arrival, he was arrested and charged with illegal crossing of the Greek border, ultimately serving a two-year prison sentence. During the process of appealing to the court for having his rights as a refugee abused and violated, he learned about the bureaucratic difficulties that all migrants face while trying to enter Europe. He joined a number of solidarity groups, such as the Network for Social Support to Immigrants and Refugees and the Migrants’ Social Center in Athens, where he coordinated free language classes and the Athens Anti-racist Festival. He also engaged in solidarity work that involved lawyers, human rights defenders, as well as refugees and migrants.
 Nasim Lomani

Nasim Lomani © Marios Lolos

In Greece, Lomani, founded City Plaza – Refugees Accommodation Solidarity Space in Athens – where he organized daily life for migrants, managed media communication, coordinated international volunteers, and served as the public representative to researchers, students, and academics. City Plaza, once one of the largest solidarity migrant accommodations in Athens, was an abandoned hotel in central Athens repurposed to offer migrants the right to live in dignity in the urban space with access to social, economic, and political rights. Lomani lived inside the now-closed City Plaza for the entirety of its existence. Over almost three and half years, it welcomed 3,000 people, lodging up to 400 at a time.  The story of City Plaza is known as an example of self-organization, self-management, and everyday processes to help empower refugees. In essence, it was a political statement against Europe’s use of militarized borders, repression, and systematic violation of human rights and refugees’ rights.

Lomani was also involved in organizing the largest NoBorder refugee and migrant solidarity camp to date, leading to the closure of the Pagani Detention Center on Lesvos island in 2009. 

Lomani is at increasing risk, as migration solidarity work and defending human rights in Greece, and Europe at large has been criminalized in recent years. Helping refugees and criticizing the human rights violations by authorities is now a major offense by both national and European law. In Greece, this has led to large-scale evictions of housing sites for refugees and asylum seekers and to increasing arrests and trials of activists on the ground. 

Lomani has been active in the human rights field since he was a child, so the Oak Fellowship will come as a much-needed respite.

Established in 1997 by a grant from the Oak Foundation, the Oak Institute for Human Rights hosts a Fellow each year. The fellowship offers an opportunity to spend the fall semester in residence at Colby, where they teach, conduct research, and raise awareness about important global human rights issues.

http://www.colby.edu/news/2020/06/12/migrants-rights-activist-to-be-2020-oak-human-rights-fellow/

Covid-19 a gift for authoritarians and dictators?

April 14, 2020

…..However, even in this emergency, it is necessary to maintain a very high level of attention to what is happening to democracy in this historical phase. The fight against the pandemic cannot be used as a pretext for a global attack on human rights and democracy, as is unfortunately happening in several parts of the world. We are not ‘diverting attention’. Quite the opposite. While we are doing everything we can to stop the contagion and start thinking about how to get out of the pandemic socially and economically, we also need to assess the risks for democracy and human rights at a global scale. It is essential to take care ‘now’ also of democracy and rights, because ‘later’ there is a real risk of regression, and without them our future can only be darker.

Three issues emerge among others:

First, we are witnessing the progressive “suspension” of democratic guarantees: while some measures restricting individual freedom or privacy can be justified and understood for health reasons, especially if they are temporary, others are unacceptable and very dangerous. The literal cancellation of democracy implemented by Orban can only be met by a vehement European reaction…. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/07/good-example-of-authoritarian-abuse-of-covid-19-emergency-hungary/%5D

Second, many countries, on the pretext of Covid-19, are quietly taking advantage of the lack of world public opinion reaction to restrict the space and quality of democracy and eliminate opponents and human rights defenders.….

Finally, refugees in camps, detainees in every country in the world, homeless people, who have the right to be protected and safeguarded as far as possible against the epidemic, must not be forgotten in the emergency. In this context, Europe cannot waive its leading role in the protection of human rights.

We therefore welcome the joint proposal presented last Wednesday, 25 March, by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and the European Commission to the European Council to adopt a decision on the “EU Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024“. This includes, inter alia, strengthening the EU’s leadership in promoting and protecting human rights and democracy around the world, and identifying priorities for action, maximising the EU’s role on the world stage by expanding the “human rights toolbox”.  [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/27/new-eu-action-plan-for-human-rights-and-democracy-2020-2024/]

An important move was the proposal that issues relating to the EU’s human rights policy in the world should no longer be subject to unanimity but to qualified majority voting, in order to avoid vetoes and denials by countries now in dangerous drift.

—–

https://euobserver.com/opinion/148007

Fundamental Rights Agency (Europe): human rights defenders and COVID-19; 17 April on-line

April 12, 2020

https://fra.europa.eu/en/event/2020/discussing-impact-covid-19-measures-human-rights-defenders

https://fra.europa.eu/en/news/2020/international-organisations-discuss-how-support-human-rights-defenders-during-covid

International Women’s Day 2020: Council of Europe on gender equality

March 9, 2020
Let us all rise to the challenge of making a world where gender equality is a reality

For International Women’s Day 2020, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović issued the following statement: [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/09/council-of-europes-dunja-mijatovic-presents-her-first-annual-report/]

“.. it is saddening to note that most of the challenges identified 25 years ago are still present in Europe today. In some areas progress has stalled due to persistent structural obstacles and an increasing backlash, combined with the lack of a sufficient and robust state response.

Violence against women as a serious human rights violation remains a bitter reality for too many women in all Council of Europe member states. Notwithstanding the recent movements against sexual violence, huge challenges still lie along the path towards obtaining justice for women victims who have the courage to speak out. They may even face disbelief and stigmatisation by the very people who should be providing them with assistance and protection. With the rising popularity of social media platforms, sexist hate speech has acquired a worrying dimension, providing a new breeding ground for violence against women. Furthermore, the backlash against women’s rights, upheld by ultra-conservative movements, is particularly disturbing as it endangers the progress towards gender equality that has been achieved so far. This has a particularly negative impact on girls’ and women’s autonomous and informed decision-making about their bodies, health and sexuality and hinders their access to affordable, safe and good-quality reproductive health services. We have to remain vigilant to prevent any such rolling back of women’s rights. Special attention should also be given to the protection and promotion of the rights of girls and women who may experience multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination, such as women living in poverty, rural women, migrant women, Roma women, women with disabilities and LBTI women.

This dark picture is, however, brightened by the image of thousands of women of all ages and backgrounds who, regardless of the attacks, the threats and the harassment they may face, stand up against violence and for the full realisation of gender equality. Vigilance against stagnation and retrogression in women’s rights is ensured by their mobilisation as they peacefully demonstrate throughout Europe. I firmly stand by them and salute their courage and determination. In this respect, I reiterate the essential role played in the upholding of women’s rights by women human rights defenders, who are often at the core of such mobilisation. Not only do they provide assistance and shelter to victims of gender-based violence and combat discrimination against women, they also constantly monitor the situation, while holding authorities accountable for fulfilling their human rights obligations.

However, the fight for the realisation of women’s rights also relies on each of us. I invite society as a whole, from youth to the elderly, women and men, all acting together, to speak up against violence and discrimination. We all have a key role to play as agents of change.

Whilst I perceive society’s mobilisation as vital, we should not forget that citizens’ initiatives cannot in themselves remedy the continuous lack of a strong and official response by state authorities to the challenges currently affecting the full enjoyment of women’s rights. Council of Europe member states have the primary obligation to effectively uphold women’s rights. Against this background, I urge member states to support this civic mobilisation by taking concrete action. To this end they should: firstly, ensure the ratification and full and effective implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention); secondly, promote gender equality and combat sexism in all spheres of life; and thirdly, provide an enabling environment for all women human rights defenders by removing all obstacles to their work. We should all strongly advocate for the full realisation of women’s rights and rise to the challenge of making a world where gender equality is a reality. Fighting for women’s rights is fighting for everybody’s human rights and benefits society as a whole.

https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/let-us-all-rise-to-the-challenge-of-making-a-world-where-gender-equality-is-a-reality

Turkey defies European Court on Kavala and undergoes UPR review

January 29, 2020
FILE - A journalist stands in front of a poster featuring jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala, during a press conference given by his lawyers, in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2018.
A journalist stands in front of a poster featuring jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala, during a press conference given by his lawyers, in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 31, 2018.

Kavala and 15 other civil society activists are accused of supporting anti-government protests in 2013 against then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now president. The protest action came to be known as the Gezi movement, named after an Istanbul park where the unrest started. Prosecutors are calling for life imprisonment without parole. The ECHR condemned the case, calling for an end to Kavala’s more than two years in prison and describing it as “arbitrary” and “politically motivated.”

The Istanbul court ruled Tuesday the ECHR decision was provisional because Ankara was appealing the verdict and that Kavala should remain in jail. The court’s decision is flawed because the European Court ruling was clear in its call for Kavala’s immediate release,” said Emma Sinclair Webb, Turkey researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

We saw multiple signs of how unfair this trial is,” said Webb, speaking after attending Tuesday’s court hearing. “The lawyers for Kavala raised many objections to the way witness evidence is used in this case. The court turns a deaf ear to all objections. It’s a shocking indication that once again, Turkey’s judiciary seems to be under heavy pressure of the executive.”

Tuesday’s court hearing was marred by chaos, with Kavala’s lawyers challenging the judge’s decision to hear some witnesses without their presence, prompting the lawyers to walk out of the room. Ankara strongly rejects the ECHR verdict, maintaining that the judiciary is independent. But observers note the case has strong political undertones. Three months ahead of Kavala’s prosecution, Erdogan accused him of “financing terrorists” and that Kavala was a representative for “that famous Jew [George Soros,] who tries to divide and tear up nations.” Erdogan did not elaborate on the comments about George Soros, who is an international philanthropist. Erdogan’s allegations against Kavala resemble the prosecution case against the jailed activist. Kavala is a pivotal figure in Turkey, using his wealth to help develop the country’s fledgling civil society after a 1980 military coup.

“Osman Kavala is very prominent within the civil society in this country,” said Sinan Gokcen, Turkey representative of Swedish-based Civil Rights Defenders. “He is not a man of antagonism; he is a man of preaching dialogue, a man of building bridges.”….

With the U.N. having few tools to sanction Turkey, the European Union is seen as offering the best hope by human rights advocates of applying pressure on Ankara. Turkey’s EU membership bid is already frozen, in part due to human rights concerns. But Ankara is seeking to extend a customs union, along with visa-free travel for its citizens with the EU. “It’s time all European countries should be speaking out very loud and clear on cases like this [Kavala],” said Sinclair-Webb. But even high-profile cases like Kavala’s have seen Brussels offer only muted criticism of Ankara. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Istanbul Friday for talks with Erdogan saw little criticism of Turkey’s human rights record. Instead, discussions focused on Ankara’s recent deployment of soldiers to Libya and the upholding of an EU-Turkish agreement controlling migrants entering Europe. “There are many issues to talk about with Turkey,” said Sinclair Webb. “Syria, Libya, Turkey, hosting so many refugees from Syria, and this often takes priority over Turkey’s domestic human rights crisis. This means there isn’t sufficient clarity on cases like this. What we are seeing is Turkey defying Europe’s human rights court.” Some analysts suggest Brussels could yet be lobbying behind the scenes for Kavala’s release, tying Ankara’s calls for extra financial assistance for refugees to gestures on human rights.

Pakistan: Release Manzoor Pashteen and his fellow human rights defenders immediately

HRW urges UN to address human rights violations in Turkey

https://www.voanews.com/europe/turkish-court-defies-europe-leaves-philanthropist-behind-bars

International Migrants Day: the story of the Ocean Viking

December 18, 2019

THE Ocean Viking, a refugee rescue ship operated jointly by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), saved the lives of 60 people from a watery grave in the Mediterranean last week. The European Union — having ignored the refugees’ initial distress calls as they attempted to escape war-torn Libya in an unseaworthy boat on the evening of November 28 — refused to provide the Ocean Viking with a port of safety. It wasn’t until Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando called on Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte to end the five-day standoff on Twitter that the ship was allowed to dock.,,,

SOS Mediterranee and MSF originally began operating refugee rescue missions in the central Mediterranean onboard the Aquarius. But after a series of legal threats from EU member states, the charities were forced to abandon it.

In 2016-7 when we started operations, we were celebrated as heroes. The Aquarius rescued nearly 30,000 people,” Starke says. “But then in June 2018, the escalations started. We were the first ship to be refused access to harbours in Italy. We had to bring the rescued all the way from Italy to Valencia. That was the first really significant standoff, which by now has become the norm.”..

In November 2018, while the Aquarius was docked in Marseilles, the Panamanian government — under pressure from Italy — withdrew its flag from the ship. ….

“We tried Switzerland, Germany and France. These would have been robust flags — meaning that if there was political pressure then they would not give in so easily to the Italian government. But none of the governments granted them to us” and we had to give up.

It’s maritime law to rescue people in distress at sea. All we do is follow existing laws. And according to those laws, a rescue is only completed once the rescued have reached land: once they’re put in a port of safety. At the moment, it is European countries that have the nearest port of safety to our rescues and the only countries that can be considered safe. The fact is our work is hampered by European governments.

Despite abiding by refugee and maritime law, it is often the Ocean Viking’s crew (and the entire civil refugee rescue fleet in general) that are portrayed as the criminals or as human traffickers. “All we do is save people’s lives. We are human-rights defenders. However, if you talk to to some politicians, if you read some newspapers, if you read some of the nasty emails we receive, they say we smuggle people. They say we’re criminals.

Despite the EU’s willingness to allow refugees escaping Libya to die crossing the world’s deadliest border and the demonisation of those trying to prevent that, Starke says that he is optimistic. “I’m optimistic the situation will change, simply because it has to change.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/15/european-governments-should-stop-treating-solidarity-and-compassion-as-a-crime/

https://www.un.org/en/observances/migrants-day

https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/w/it-shouldnt-be-civil-society-versus-european-governments