Bill Frelick, director of the refugee program at Human Rights Watch, spoke at Harvard Law School at the end of October on European Union migration controls and access to asylum, at an event sponsored by the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.

The role of Human Rights Watch, he told the audience, is first to conduct objective and neutral research on human rights abuses and then to make recommendations to the interested states. Every country has certain human rights obligations that are not discretionary, and Europe has a very strong legal framework in terms of human rights, he said, but certain political choices have led to an increase in human rights violations. As an example, he pointed to the EU regulation known as Dublin II, which dictates that the member state responsible for asylum seekers is the one where they first arrive. This has placed a disproportionate burden on countries like Italy, Greece, Malta or Slovakia, which, under this regulation, end up being responsible for most asylum seekers, he said. And the response of those countries is often extralegal and may result in human rights violations. Frelick based his talk on the findings of the following four major Human Rights Watch reports he authored, which focused on human rights abuses involving EU asylum seekers:

  • Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers, Libya’s Mistreatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers”
    In 2009, Italy signed a treaty with Libya to prevent third country citizens from getting into Europe. Under both the Refugee Convention and European law, Italy has to provide some fundamental care to asylum seekers. By signing the treaty, Italy could externalize control of the coast and limit immigration without being accused of violating the Refugee Convention. Frelick’s report suggests that Libya (neither a signatory state of the Refugee Convention, nor a member of the European Union and Council) detained asylum seekers under horrific conditions before deporting them. After the Arab spring, Libya was not able to control the coasts anymore and thousands were able to get to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island which is just 190 miles away from Libya. Faced with this influx of asylum seekers, Italy has asked for the help of the European Union.
  • Stuck in a Revolving Door: Iraqis and Other Asylum Seekers and Migrants at the Greece/Turkey Entrance to the European Union”
    Turkey and Greece have a bilateral readmission agreement under which asylum seekers coming to Greece through Turkey can be sent back to Turkey and vice versa. However, Turkey accepts back only nationals of countries on the border with Turkey such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The idea is to be able to send those people back to their home countries. In addition, Turkey recognizes as refugees only European nationals, others are illegal alien to be deported under Turkish law. Greece adopts a consistent practice: the Greek police hold asylum seekers in detention and then deport them to Turkey. The report documents that in both Turkey and Greece, asylum seekers suffer inhuman and degrading treatment.
  • Buffeted in the Borderland: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Ukraine”
    Ukraine is another country bordering on the EU where asylum seekers—including those who have been sent back under an EU-readmission agreement—are sometimes beaten by police and tortured, according to the report, without being entitled to effective legal remedies under Ukrainian law.
  • The EU’s Dirty Hands:  Frontex Involvement in Ill-Treatment of Migrant Detainees in Greece”
    According to the report, the European Union’s external border enforcement agency, known as Frontex, plays a role in exposing migrants to inhuman and degrading treatment. Frontex created the European Rapid Border Intervention Team (RABIT) with the aim of helping the national police forces to protect European borders. Migrants apprehended by RABIT along Greece’s border with Turkey are sent to overcrowded detention centers, and have been held under conditions not acceptable under EU law.Additional information on these publications can be found on the Human Rights Watch website.

– Dalia Palombo