(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.

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    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.

     

    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)

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    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • Refugee resettlement hits 10-year low

    Some 50,000 to 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution will start a new life and be on track for a new passport in 2018, but it will be the fewest number of refugees resettled globally any year since 2007, UN figures show.

     

    The drop is mainly due to President Donald Trump’s administration slashing the US quota. The United States took in 68 percent of the 770,000 refugees permanently resettled in the last 10 years, according to the UN – an average of about 51,000 per year. But, this calendar year, fewer than 10,000 had made the journey to the United States by the end of July.

     

    Developing regions host 85 percent of the world’s refugees, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

     

    Read more »

    So, your country isn't keen to resettle refugees. Are you?

    US refugee resettlement system reels from Trump ban

     

    With one month to go in the 2017-2018 US financial year, government statistics suggest the United States will have taken in its lowest number of refugees since 1977. A State Department list shows 19,899 arrivals, and non-profit Refugee Council USA predicts a total of 22,000 by the end of September, the fiscal year-end. This number is less than half the reduced ceiling of 45,000 admissions announced by the Trump administration in September 2017. (A UNHCR official explained that the discrepancy between UN and US figures is because the United States also takes cases not referred through the UN refugee agency.)

     

    Even with the limits imposed by the Trump administration, the United States will still take in more refugees than any other country. After a temporary increase around the Syrian crisis in 2016, other countries are barely matching their own 10-year averages, and none seem ready to start closing the gap left by US cuts.

     

     

    Overall, some 126,000 refugees were given a route to permanent residency and citizenship in a new country in 2016, with Australia, Britain, Canada, and Norway taking in more than ever before. That now looks like a record that will not be surpassed for years.

     

    European centrist politicians are reluctant to offer more help to refugees in this political climate for “fear of the populist movements”, explained Pål Nesse, senior advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We have to step up and do more,” he said, speaking particularly about Europe, while also pointing out that South American, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries could provide more resettlement places.

     

     

    Nesse said the failure of rich countries to share the burden weakened their “legitimacy” in talks with developing countries, which “are hosting so many”. Without demonstrating initiative, Western countries cannot counter the accusation of trying to “export the problem”, he added.

     

    Read more »

    Is resettlement for 10 percent of refugees a pipe dream?

     

    Refugee resettlement refers to permanent residency and eventual citizenship granted to refugees, usually in the United States, Canada, Australia or other developed economies in Europe. Typically, a family of resettled refugees will have already left their country of origin and found asylum in a neighbouring country. From there, particularly vulnerable or deserving cases can be recommended by UNHCR and put forward as candidates to potential host countries.

     

    There are other paths to citizenship for refugees: Tanzania, for example, has granted citizenship to tens of thousands of long-term refugees from neighbouring Burundi. Germany may, eventually, grant citizenship to some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees it has taken in since 2015.

     

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    The United States is set to take in its lowest number since 1977
    Refugee resettlement hits 10-year low
  • Europe sends Afghans back to danger

    In a cafe in Kabul, Mohammad Elham’s eyes dart back and forth between a steaming cup of tea and the front entrance: the months since his return to Afghanistan have been spent in a state of constant fear.

    Elham left Afghanistan on a cold night in 2010, he says, after the Taliban killed his wife and two children. Last year, he returned to the country he fled — this time, in handcuffs, one of a surging number of Afghan deportees ousted from Europe.

    “It was hurtful and humiliating,” Elham said of his journey from Germany, where his asylum application was rejected, to Afghanistan, where he says his presence may again jeopardise his family’s safety.

    As European countries tighten borders and asylum policies, the number of Afghan asylum seekers pushed out of Europe has soared. But returnees like Elham are being forced back to a volatile country, where conflict has uprooted more than one million people over the last two years and civilian casualties are at near-record levels.

    With war, a stagnant economy, and chronic instability continuing to drive people out in droves, refugee advocates warn that Afghanistan faces a revolving cycle of migration that will see more Afghans continue to flee even while others are forced back.

    Recognition rates drop

    Even European countries seen as relatively sympathetic to refugees are now turning their backs on Afghan asylum seekers.

    Germany, Sweden and Finland all saw asylum recognition rates for Afghans plummet in 2017. Germany granted asylum to less than half of Afghan applicants during the first nine months of 2017, according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles; it had accepted almost three quarters of asylum claims in 2015.

    Together, European countries returned almost 10,000 rejected Afghan asylum seekers in 2016 — almost triple the number in the previous year.

    At the same time, civilian casualties in Afghanistan have climbed, part of a deepening instability that has seen the resurgent Taliban, a growing so-called Islamic State-aligned militancy, and other armed groups wrestle with the internationally backed government for control of the country. More than 8,000 civilians were killed or injured in conflict through the first nine months of last year, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan.

    The bloody conflict has stretched across Afghanistan: from Kabul, where dozens were killed in an attack on a Shia Muslim cultural centre in late December, to provinces like eastern Nangarhar, where a bomb blast at a funeral reportedly killed at least 15 on the eve of 2018.

    The scale of the bloodshed hasn’t stopped the rise in European deportations, says Abdul Ghafoor, director of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation, which works with deported asylum seekers in Kabul.

    “Why they would decide to send someone back into the danger is beyond understanding,” Ghafoor told IRIN.

    A controversial agreement between the European Union and the Afghan government paved the way for the near-unlimited deportation of rejected Afghan asylum seekers.

    Negotiated in 2016, the agreement allows for the EU to put failed asylum seekers, including “non-voluntary returnees”, on flights back to Afghanistan. Rights groups claimed heavily aid-dependent Afghanistan was pressured to sign off on the deal — an arrangement one called “a new low” for the EU.

    “No part of the country can be considered safe,” Amnesty International said in an October report, which called on European governments to suspend deportations of Afghan asylum seekers.

    European governments have seen the carnage firsthand: in May, a massive truck bomb struck near the German embassy in the heart of Kabul, killing more than 150 civilians.

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    Security forces outside German embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan
    Kern Hendricks/IRIN
    The May 2017 bomb near the German embassy in Kabul was one of the deadliest terror attacks to take place in the capital. In 2016, Germany deported more than 3,400 failed Afghan asylum seekers — more than one third of the EU’s total returns for Afghans.

    An International Organization for Migration (IOM) programme helps people who have returned to Afghanistan voluntarily — although rights groups point out that many returnees are faced with little choice. This aid includes linking returnees to family networks, transportation to home provinces and short-term shelter in Kabul. But returning is hard.

    “A lot of individuals invest a lot in going to Europe and if it’s a family, the cost is so high that it is likely they have sold and invested everything they have into making that journey,” said Masood Ahmadi, a programme manager with the IOM in Kabul. “Coming back to nothing can be a very difficult thing.”

    Meanwhile, there are bigger mass returns of Afghans from neighbouring countries: more than half a million Afghans returned from Pakistan and Iran last year, according to UN agencies.

    Combined with the frequent displacement of people already living in the country, Afghanistan finds itself trying to reintegrate massive numbers in the middle of a war.

    “Returns have… come to dominate Afghan migration patterns at one of the most insecure and unstable times in its recent history,” the Migration Policy Institute stated in a November report.

    But even as deportations and returns surge, many Afghans are still looking for the exits.

    Data from the European Union shows that more than 38,000 Afghan citizens made new asylum claims in EU countries in the first 11 months of 2017. And in a recent survey of Afghan returnees from Europe by REACH, which researches humanitarian issues, most respondents said they planned on making another attempt at returning to Europe — as soon as they find the money.

    “[European countries] pool in all these resources to send Afghans back,” said Ghafoor. “But in my experience, many of these Afghans leave again, because there is nothing but threats and insecurity for them here.”

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    Hands around a cup of tea at a Kabul cafe
    Kern Hendricks/IRIN
    Mohammad Elham drinks tea in a cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan. Germany deported Elham in early 2017 after rejecting his asylum request. The 36-year-old says he fears for his life because of his previous work with Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.

    Elham, however, says he’s tired of running from one country to the next.

    But there’s little for him in Kabul, where he leads a discreet existence — Elham is not his real name. Few people know he is in Afghanistan, yet he says the Taliban have gotten wind of his return. His family in the provinces recently received a threatening letter.

    “I can’t go home. I can’t stay here. I can’t go back,” Elham said. “I really don’t know what to do with myself.”

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    Europe sends Afghans back to danger
  • How a fingerprint can change an asylum seeker’s life

    When Anas Obeid was deported from Germany and landed at Milan’s Malpensa airport, the wound in his leg was still bleeding.

     

    German police had woken him up at 4 that morning, 22 September, in the refugee accommodation centre where he was staying in the northern Bavarian town of Bamberg. They put him in the back of a van with metal grates in the windows, and drove him two hours to the airport in Munich.

     

    The blood had soaked through his trousers during the ride, as German police discovered during a pre-flight security check. They called the airport doctor who insisted Anas was not fit for travel and should instead be in a hospital.

     

    “Let him get treatment in Italy,” Anas remembers the officer overseeing his deportation saying before they put him on the plane.

     

    Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, had not committed a crime so much as run afoul of a regulation he did not even know existed before arriving in Europe in December 2015. Under a European Union law known as the Dublin Regulation, he should have applied for asylum in the first country he arrived and was registered in. But Anas had waited to request refuge, and now he was being sent back to Italy, where he had landed after being rescued from an over-packed, wooden fishing boat off the coast of Libya along with 500 other people and taken to the island of Lampedusa.

     

    Already injured from his time in Syria, instead of being taken to a hospital when he disembarked in 2015, Anas was taken for interrogation. The Italian police inspector questioning him wanted to know where he had come from and who he had met and interacted with from the time he left Syria until he reached Italy.

     

    “I gave them everything; all the names I remembered, telephone numbers. Everything. They told me, ‘You’re a terrorist’,” said Anas. “I told them that I wasn’t, and they told me to give them my fingerprint to make sure. This fingerprint ruined my life.”

     

    “Dublined”

     

    Since 2014, more than 600,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy. Many – like Anas – have fled wars and brutal dictatorships, but even those who make the crossing out of economic desperation often claim asylum once reaching Europe – even if many of their claims will ultimately be rejected.

     

    The EU asylum process is governed by the Dublin Regulation, which requires people to apply for protection in the first country they enter. But many don’t want to remain in Italy or other southern European countries, such as Greece, where most asylum seekers arrive.

     

    Social support systems in these countries are weak compared to northern Europe and there are high levels of unemployment even among citizens. New arrivals also often have connections elsewhere – family and friends who came before them – that encourage them to move on.

     

    But once someone is registered as having arrived in one country, and their fingerprint is taken, they cannot apply for asylum anywhere else – barring a few exceptions. Their fingerprint is entered into a database that is searchable by police throughout the EU.

     

    If they apply for asylum in another country, their fingerprint will come up, their claim doesn’t have to be considered and they can face deportation back to the country where they were first registered. Those who are sent back are referred to as having been “Dublined”.

     

    As political attitudes in Europe have shifted against asylum seekers and refugees, the number of deportation requests under Dublin has skyrocketed – particularly to Italy. People are separated from friends and sometimes family in communities where they have started to build new lives.

     

    Back in Italy, they face a cold reception. Even vulnerable cases – like Anas – are often left without support in a country where they never intended to stay. 

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    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Anas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee

    Forced from Syria

     

    Anas’ journey to Europe began in 2014 on a staircase outside of his family’s home in eastern Ghouta, an opposition-held suburb of Damascus that has been under siege since 2013.

     

    “I was going out to get some things. When I stepped on the stairs, I saw the sniper right in front of me,” Anas recalled. “I was on the stairs, and the sniper was shooting at me.”

     

    Two of the sniper’s bullets entered Anas’ right shoulder just above the collarbone; two more punctured his chest, narrowly missing his heart; several struck his left arm; and two hit his right leg.

     

    Miraculously, all of the bullets exited his body without critically injuring him, except for the two in his leg. Those exploded into shards that ripped through his muscle and flesh and lodged in his femur.

     

    There was no anaesthesia for Anas’ first surgery in eastern Ghouta, and there were no trained doctors either. In a video he showed me on his mobile phone, Anas lies on a gurney on his side under a surgical sheet with his right leg exposed. There’s a long incision from just below his hip to the top of his knee.

     

    The camera pans from the bloody, open wound to Anas’ contorted face and then to a friend – a carpenter by trade – standing over him wearing scrubs and holding surgical instruments. The friend raises his hands slightly, as if giving a small shrug, and smiles sheepishly as the camera settles on his face and the video ends.  

     

    “I had four operations in Syria after I was injured,” Anas said. Despite the best efforts of the amateur doctors in eastern Ghouta, his leg became infected and swollen. “Every morning there would be puss on my bed. Not blood. Yellow puss. The smell was terrible. I told [my family] I had to leave.”

     

    “Go sleep in the street”

     

    Anas escaped from eastern Ghouta through an underground tunnel and crossed the border into Lebanon – all the time walking with crutches on his injured leg. From Lebanon, he flew on his brother’s passport to Algeria, crossed the desert into southern Tunisia and entered Libya.

     

    Along the way, he stopped for months at a time to have more operations when the infection in his leg became inflamed. After nine months in Libya, he found a smuggler who put him on a boat to cross the sea, and landed in Lampedusa.

     

    “I was injured and bleeding,” Anas said. “I just wanted to get treatment and apply for refugee status.”

     

    After the police took his fingerprint and released him from the interrogation, Anas began asking other refugees about where he should go for medical help. The answer he received was Sweden. A marathon of ferries and trains ensued before he finally reached Stockholm: “I arrived in the capital and collapsed on the ground.”

     

    He was taken in an ambulance to the hospital where he stayed for a week. While there, two Swedish police officers came and asked if he wanted to apply for asylum. When they took his fingerprint, it came up in the EURODAC database that is used to keep track of asylum seekers and people who cross Europe’s borders irregularly.

     

    Nine months later – after being passed from hospital to hospital because of an antibiotic resistant MRSA infection in his leg – Anas was told that he’d be sent back to Italy.

     

    Instead of waiting for deportation, he absconded and made his way to Germany. He entered on 10 November, 2016, and started another round of hospitals and surgeries until he was deported, despite having a letter from a doctor saying that his medical state was so severe he should remain in Germany for treatment.

     

    When Anas arrived at the airport in Milan, the police took his fingerprints again and a picture and gave him some paperwork before telling him he could leave.

     

    “I asked them where I should go. I was bleeding. Really, there was blood everywhere on my pants,” said Anas. “They said, ‘Go sleep in the street’. I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t sleep in a hotel. Where was I supposed to sleep?”

     

    Evading deportation

     

    In a 2016 report, Human Rights Watch called the forcible transfer of asylum seekers back to their first country of arrival “inefficient and inhumane.” But, that hasn’t stopped the requests from piling up, especially as government policies have become increasingly harsh in the face of a right-wing backlash against migration.

     

    In 2015, Italy received around 25,000 incoming transfer requests. In 2016, the number jumped to almost 65,000.

     

    The majority of transfers, however, never end up being carried out. Despite the 65,000 requests, only 4,061 people were sent back to Italy in 2016. Many people abscond before authorities can act and the transfers are expensive and logistically complicated to organise.

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    Exterior shot of a guardrail with the word Baobab painted on.
    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    A volunteer run camp called the Baobab Experience in Rome

    Those who evade deportation either move to another European country and try to apply for asylum again – despite the fact they’ll face the same result – or they try to fade into communities of undocumented people and avoid appearing on the official radar.

     

    A cold reception

     

    For people who are sent back, the indifference of the police officers who greeted Anas when he arrived in Milan is not at all uncommon.

     

    “The situation in Italy is just really random,” said Camilla Hagen, a senior legal advisor for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC). “You can be lucky and you can get to a centre immediately… but you can also have all these other kinds of situation where you get no assistance or a little bit of assistance.”

     

    In a project with the Swiss Refugee Council, the DRC spent a year monitoring reception conditions for Dublin returnees in Italy, especially focusing on vulnerable cases.

     

    The report on the project concluded: “It cannot be guaranteed that families and persons with specific reception needs who are being transferred to Italy under the Dublin III Regulation are being received adequately and in respect of their basic human rights.”

     

    Once back in Italy, people can either continue their asylum process, if they started one before they left, or apply for the first time and enter the reception system for new arrivals, which provides housing up to six months after they receive a final answer to their claim.

     

    But, they are largely left on their own to take care of themselves while figuring out what options exist and how to access Italy’s limited services.

     

    Trying again

     

    Even after they are sent back, many asylum seekers don’t want to stay in Italy. I met Bassam, a 24-year-old Palestinian refugee from Gaza – who asked I use only his first name – at a volunteer run camp called the Baobab Experience in Rome.

     

    Baobab has been around since 2003 and has morphed along with the changing dynamics of the migration crisis over the years. It was housed in a building until a police eviction in December 2015. Now, the camp is a collection of tents in an isolated parking lot behind Tiburtina train station on the outskirts of the city.

     

    On a brisk mid-October morning, Bassam and I stood outside the tent where he had spent the night. He had been sent back from France the day before and arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. “They just left me on the street,” he said of the police who registered his return. “I don’t know anything about Rome. They just told me to leave.”

     

    After arriving from Libya in December 2016, Bassam spent four months in Italy. “They don’t put us in good places,” he said, referring to the reception centre he had been assigned to when he first arrived. “They don’t provide education… Italy is no good.”

     

    Poor living conditions and services in reception centres is one of the main reasons people end up in Baobab, according to Roberto Viviani, president of the association that manages the camp. Once here, many decide to try to make it to northern Europe where they’ve heard conditions are better. Viviani sometimes sees them again in the camp once they’ve been sent back.

     

    “Psychologically, they are devastated,” he said. “Imagine a nine-month trip, escaping from dictatorship, passing through the human trafficking in Sudan, arrived in Libya, tortured, sexual torture, psychological torture, passing the Mediterranean Sea, survived the Mediterranean Sea, arrived in Italy, arrived to the other states of northern Europe... You think that you have paid your bill to destiny and then you are sent back.” 

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    Eric Reidy/IRIN
    Roberto Viviani, president of the association that manages the Baobab camp

    Despite the trauma of being deported and left on the street, Bassam was undeterred. “I want to go back to France today,” he said. “I don’t want to stay in Italy.” His plan was to get his bearings, take a train to the north and cross the border again.

     

    Less than 72 hours later, I received a message. He had made it back to France.

     

    Rethinking Dublin?

     

    The Dublin rules have long been criticised by migration advocates and governments alike. Between 2014 and 2016, Italy stopped fingerprinting every new arrival, and for a period of time, Germany and Sweden effectively suspended Dublin procedures for people escaping the Syrian war.

     

    There is broad consensus that the protocol does not equitably distribute the responsibility of processing asylum requests among the EU’s 28 member states and that it has failed to prevent people from moving to their preferred destinations after landing in Europe.  

     

    What it does do is push people towards becoming undocumented and increases the psychological stress of their long and arduous journeys. It also extends the length of time it takes for refugees to receive protection, and only then in a country where they didn’t want to stay.

     

    In November, the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to overhaul the Dublin Regulation. At the foundation of the reform is a more equitable distribution of responsibility for asylum seekers among EU member states.

     

    Importantly, it would do away with the requirement for people to apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive and allow them to choose between four member states as their destination to live, unless they could prove a strong family connection in another country where they would want to go.

     

    Yet it is far from certain that the proposed changes will pass into law anytime soon. A number of eastern European countries, including Hungary and Poland, with right-wing governments, strongly oppose the reforms and will likely stonewall progress in the next step of the legislative process.

     

    In the meantime, tens of thousands of asylum seekers – like Anas – are having years of their lives shaped by a single fingerprint.

     

    Losing time

     

    Anas eventually found a hospital in Bologna, three hours south of Milan, to treat his leg. That’s where I met him one afternoon in late October. I arrived as he was just awaking from a morphine induced slumber. We talked for close to three hours. As the late afternoon sunshine outside faded to night, Anas’ despair increased.

     

    Initially when a doctor in Germany told him he wanted to amputate his leg, Anas walked out of the hospital and found somewhere else that would treat him. Now, amputation sounds like a relief.

     

    Despite having made it so far and crossed so many borders to try to save his leg – and maybe also his life – Anas feels like he hasn’t made it anywhere at all. “I’ve lost two years of my life between Sweden and Germany,” he said. “My only crime was that I gave my fingerprints.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An applicant is fingerprinted and the results are registered in the Eurodac system. CREDIT: Peter de Ruiter/UNHCR)

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    How a fingerprint can change an asylum seeker’s life
    Third in a four-part special <a href="#more">series</a> exploring the impact of Italy’s migration, integration, and settlement policies
  • Women refugees at risk of sexual assault in Berlin shelters

    A six-month IRIN investigation into Berlin shelters reveals that female refugees in Germany have grossly inadequate protection from sexual and gender-based violence. Minimum standards are not legally binding and rarely enforced or monitored, while dozens of women interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment, a lack of support, and reported living in fear of being assaulted.

     

    One night last year, Sally Abazeed, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria, was desperate to get out of the stuffy, crowded shelter where she was staying in Berlin. So, when a security guard asked if she wanted to accompany him to get a kebab, she accepted. “Someone to protect me,” she thought. But on the way to the shop, the man started flirting: “Tell the LaGeSo [Regional Office for Health and Social Affairs] you’re going to move in with me,” he said, grabbing her hand and kissing it. For days afterwards, he pestered Sally for her phone number.

     

    It wasn’t the first time since fleeing Damascus alone, at the age of 19, and travelling to Germany via the so-called Balkan route, that Sally had experienced unwanted advances from men. After arriving in Berlin in the summer of 2015 and being housed in a former airport called Tempelhof, she began suffering from frequent panic attacks, which left her immobilised and unable to speak. She told IRIN that male residents and security staff often took the opportunity to hug and touch her while pretending to comfort her.

     

    Sally had arrived in Germany at a time when the authorities were faced with the monumental task of accommodating and feeding thousands of newly arrived asylum seekers every day. In the scramble to convert warehouses and sports halls into emergency shelters, little thought was given to ensuring female refugees were protected from sexual and gender-based violence and harassment.

     

    Alarm bell

     

    In March 2016, a report by the Women’s Refugee Commission sounded the alarm that hastily established refugee shelters in Germany and Sweden were leaving women and girls vulnerable to “rape, assault, and other violence”. The report found that many shelters lacked separate sleeping areas or bathrooms for women and children. It also identified a lack of medical and psychosocial services to support women who had experienced gender-based violence.

     

    Subsequently, in June 2016, the German government introduced  minimum standards for the protection of women and children at refugee shelters. The guidelines include a strict code of conduct for shelter staff, as well as training in violence recognition and prevention, and the setting up of independent complaints bodies. Although the standards have been incorporated into some of the newer contracts between local authorities and shelter operators, they are not legally binding and this investigation found they are rarely enforced or monitored and have done little to improve the safety of female residents.

     

    Currently, more than 31,000 asylum seekers and refugees are living in emergency and community shelters in Berlin, waiting for more permanent housing. There are no records of how many residents are female, but in 2016 just over a third of all asylum applications in Germany were made by women.

     

    Over a six-month period, IRIN spoke to dozens of women like Sally who reported suffering from sexual harassment, unwanted touching, kissing, and being stalked while living in emergency shelters.

     

    Many social workers and volunteers working in the shelters, contacted online, also described them as unsafe for women. “One night a man managed to get into a woman’s room and demanded sex,” wrote one volunteer. The majority of shelter workers reported that they had not been taught how to handle such situations, despite the fact that appropriate training is supposed to form part of the minimum standards.

     

    Scared to go to the toilet

     

    At night, the volunteers and social workers go home, leaving behind only security guards. But many women view the guards as a threat rather than a form of protection. Even in shelters with separate rooms for women, they said they did not feel safe, since security workers and shelter managers have master keys that give them access to all the rooms. The official reason for this is fire safety, but women said the keys are used to enter rooms even when there is no immediate danger.

     

    All of the women IRIN spoke to were scared of going to the toilet at night. Zina, 49, a resident of the Tempelhof shelter said: “I often have strong pain because I do not use the toilet at night. I am frightened.” Both Zina and Sally felt intimidated by guards who made inappropriate noises or gestures when they passed them on their way to the toilets. On one occasion, a guard even followed Sally in.

     

    Other women interviewed, such as Marziye Hosseini, a 24-year-old from Afghanistan, said they lived in fear of their fellow male residents. Marziye divorced her abusive husband after arriving in Berlin and now feels she and her young daughter have no protection in the shelter where they stay in Treptow-Köpenick district. One morning, an Afghan man entered her room and attempted to rape her. She managed to fight him off and did not report the incident to the police or shelter staff.

     

    Despite the multiple accounts of sexual harassment and abuse, the Regional Office of Refugee Affairs (LAF) is confident there is no significant problem. “After countless conversations with shelter managers, I can assure you that there is no unusual occurrence [of sexualised violence] reported from emergency or community shelters,” Sascha Langenbach, LAF’s spokesman, wrote in an email. His perception is backed up by very low numbers of police reports. In all of 2016, Berlin police registered only 10 cases of “crimes against the sexual freedom of a person” involving women living in refugee shelters.

     

    But according to Claudia Kruse, a therapist at the Zentrum für Ueberleben (Centre for Survival), which provides counselling services to migrants and refugees, as well as several women’s organisations IRIN spoke to for this investigation, police statistics are an unreliable measure of the true extent of the problem.

     

    “We can assume that a very, very high number of sexually motivated attacks go unreported,” said Kruse, who added that many of the women she counsels report having been groped and harassed at the shelters.

     

    Fear leads to rape

     

    Language barriers and a lack of information prevent many women from seeking justice or treatment for sexual assaults. To report a crime to the police, a woman first has to be aware of her rights. She then has to leave the shelter and find an interpreter. For Sally, who speaks English but not German, it was a struggle to find support. “I did not know the law very well,” she said.

     

    In her case, the unsafe conditions and constant harassment at the Tempelhof shelter led her into an even more dangerous situation. Desperate to find somewhere else to stay, she asked for help via a Facebook group for secular Syrians. A man invited her to come to Hamburg to stay with a female friend of his. But when Sally arrived, he led her to his own house and raped her.

     

    When she reported the rape to the police, she was told there was not enough evidence a crime had been committed. Instead of referring her to a help group or therapist, they sent her back to Tempelhof.

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    Alicia Kassebohm/IRIN
    Sally has now moved out of the shelter, but is still affected by her experiences there

    Organisations for survivors of sexual and domestic violence have established mobile help units aimed specifically at refugees, but their reach is limited. One of them, Lara, provided counselling for 190 women between October and December 2016, of which two thirds reported suffering from sexual violence since arriving in Germany, according to Elnaz Farahbakhsh, one of Lara’s social workers. Another unit established by BIG (the Berlin initiative against violence towards women) consists of only one social worker, who, between November and December last year, spoke to 84 refugee women who had suffered from either domestic or sexual violence in the shelters.

     

    Despite the high demand for such services, there is little support to expand them or even continue funding them. The money for Lara’s mobile unit, provided by local government, runs out at the end of 2017. Access by women’s organisations to the many shelters that are run by private companies, contracted by the government, is also a problem.

     

    What is needed?

     

    Regular monitoring of the minimum standards is supposed to be carried out by the LAF, but in the case of one privately-run centre in the east Berlin district of Friedrichshain, the shelter manager was harassing female residents for six months, even attempting to pull down their headscarves, but was not removed. Only after numerous official complaints by a female doctor and a volunteer organisation did the LAF start making unannounced visits to the shelter, after which the manager resigned.

     

    Women’s organisations such as Lara and BIG argue that more women-only shelters are needed, or, even better, individual lockable housing units. In addition, there is an urgent need for women who have already been victims of sexual assault or harassment to receive psychological help. A study published by the psychiatrist Meryam Schouler-Ocak from Berliner Charité found that one in 10 refugee women in Germany have suicidal thoughts, while fewer than one in 10 have the opportunity to talk to a therapist. The study did not link the high rates of depression to specific causes such as sexual harassment, but all of the women IRIN interviewed suffered from depression and some had thought about suicide or even attempted it.

     

    By the time Sally finally received therapy from Lara’s social workers, she had already tried to kill herself three times. Today, she lives in a room in a shared flat and is taking German classes and trying to find an internship in social or care work. With the help of antidepressants and therapy she is slowly recovering, but her experiences at the shelter still live with her. “The worst for me is that I keep thinking it was my fault,” she said.

     

    Inanna Alassar contributed to this story. This investigation was supported by a Netzwerk Recherche grant.

    (TOP PHOTO: One of three huge hangars being used to house refugees at Berlin's form Tempelhof airport. Ivor Prickett/IRIN)

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    Women refugees at risk of sexual assault in Berlin shelters
  • Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families

    Ali and Abdelarahmen, 15-year-old cousins from Syria, pause on one of their regular weekend walks through central Hamburg to take a selfie together in front of the Alster canal – one of their favourite spots in the German city.

     

    These walks are part of new routines they’ve built for themselves since arriving here as 12-year-olds in September 2014. Their selfies are not just acts of teenage expression. Ali and Abdelarahmen are among tens of thousands of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe who rely on pictures, messaging apps, and video calls to bridge the distance that separates them from their families.

     

    Such separations are becoming longer as many EU states, including Germany, take an increasingly restrictive approach to the right of refugees, guaranteed by international and EU law, to be reunited with their immediate family. The impacts of such policies are being keenly felt both by the refugees urged to integrate without the support of their loved ones and by family members left behind struggling to adapt to prolonged separations from children and spouses.

    Ali and Abdelarahmen and their families fled the violence in their Syrian hometown of Deraa for Jordan in 2012. But after two years in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, their lives felt increasingly hopeless. Abdelarahmen’s father, Mohammad, worked illegally in a parking garage to supplement the family’s monthly aid allowance. His 10-year-old sister, Sara, the eldest of three girls bookended by two boys, was starting to fall behind in school. She needed extra tuition – something the family couldn’t afford.

    Europe offered the hope of a brighter future for the children, but the costs and risks of the journey ruled out the possibility of travelling as a family. The two cousins knew of other boys who had set out as envoys for their families, making lives in Europe and then sending for parents, brothers, and sisters to join them later. As the eldest son and a standout student, Abdelarahmen was a natural choice to go ahead. He, Ali, and two other cousins set out from Jordan with a group of other Syrians in August 2014. They flew to Algeria and were driven to Tunis by a smuggler, who later abandoned them. Mohammad had to sell his wife Amal’s jewellery to finance the remainder of the boys’ journey to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. The trip cost $2,500 per boy: an eye-watering sum for a family living on a little over $250 a month.

    Policy shift

     

    Nearly three years later, Abdelarahmen is fluent in German and a big Justin Bieber fan. Living up to his academic promise, he recently started attending a German secondary school. His more reserved cousin, Ali, is passionate about football.

     

    However, the prospect of seeing their parents again is no closer. If 2015 was the year of Willkommenskultur in Germany, 2016 was the year of a hardening policy stance towards refugees. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) began issuing subsidiary protection rather than full refugee status to many asylum seekers. Subsidiary protection comes with a one-year residence permit instead of the three years granted to those with refugee status and, starting in March 2016, no right to family reunification for two years.

     

    Germany is not alone in this shift.

     

    “There is a general trend across EU member states to make family reunification more difficult, by lowering the level of rights given to subsidiary protection holders in comparison to those with refugee status,” explained Minos Mouzourakis of the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “As subsidiary protection is less regulated than refugee status under EU law, states have more leeway to restrict rights attached to it.”

     

    Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are among other countries that have applied similar measures. In the UK, unaccompanied minors with refugee status have no right to apply for family members to join them, and the government has rejected calls by campaigners to change that rule, arguing that it would create “perverse incentives” for more unaccompanied children to come to the country. Mouzourakis noted that in the case of Germany, changes in rights to family reunification have been accompanied by a steep increase in the use of subsidiary protection that has affected Syrians in particular. Less than one percent of Syrians were given subsidiary protection in 2015, compared to 42 percent the following year.

     

    Ali and Abdelarahmen cut through the legal jargon in explaining their situation. Ali received a letter five months ago saying he could stay for a year (subsidiary protection). Abdelarahmen is still waiting for a decision on his status. Complex changes to Germany’s asylum system boil down to one thing for them: more uncertainty over when they will see their families.

     

    A world apart

    alis_mum_rahaf_holds_phone_showing_photo_of_him_in_germany_now.jpg

    Sara Elizabeth Williams/IRIN
    Ali's mother, Rahaf, shows a picture of her son in Germany on her phone

    “After three years of waiting and hoping to reunify with our son, we found out that there is no reunification now,” said Ali’s mother, 34-year-old Rahaf, who lives with the rest of the family in Howwarah, a flat, featureless suburb of Irbid. “We are still hoping that next time our son will get a better residency that will allow for reunification.”

    Abdelarahmen’s father Mohammad, brother to Rahaf’s husband, is more resigned to the possibility that they will never be able to join the boys in Germany and that their sons will grow up without them. “We don’t have a country now, so we want our son to have a good country,” he said.

    Devout Sunni Muslims from conservative backgrounds, Mohammad and his wife, Amal, have little knowledge of the different culture their son is being exposed to at such a formative time in his life.

    “No one will push my son to change his religion or change his culture,” said Amal. “My son has given me an idea of what life is like in Germany. He says life is nice, that everyone encourages education – this is all I want to know.” 

    Amal’s dream for Abdelarahmen is for him to study hard and become a doctor, but she worries that with no one to supervise him, he will lose his academic focus and drop out of school. 

    amal_holds_phone_showing_photo_abdelrahman_recently_sent_via_whatsapp_from_germany.jpg

    Sara Elizabeth Williams/IRIN
    Amal holds up a recent photo of Abdelarahmen in Germany on her phone

    For his part, Abdelarahmen seems to recognise that education is his key to unlocking future opportunities in Germany. “In Daraa, it was too dangerous to go to school, and in Jordan we couldn’t afford it,” he told IRIN. “Here, there is no blood, no war. I get to walk in freedom and learn about things in biology like how an eye works.”

     

    Outside school hours, the evenings and weekends can get lonely. The boys live separately, in shared homes run by social services for young people, mostly unaccompanied minors. They miss the simple intimacies of the family home: a kitchen that doesn’t get locked overnight, getting their mother’s help with homework.

     

    “It is very hard when you don’t have your mother with you,” said Abdelarahmen. “Sometimes when I am alone, I feel so empty.”

     

    Refugee organisations argue that being separated from their families affects the ability of refugees, especially vulnerable unaccompanied minors, to integrate in their host countries. “The family reunification issue speaks to the paradox of the refugee situation,” commented Mouzourakis. “On the one hand, you have moves to make it as difficult as possible to enter Europe, and on the other hand, integration is a buzzword across the continent. We are trying to square a circle. How are unaccompanied minors meant to integrate when their parents and siblings are back home?”

     

    Understanding the system

     

    A new report, Separated Families: who stays, who goes, and why?, finds that families make the decision to send a family member ahead to Europe using irregular migration routes as a coping strategy and a last resort. They often under-estimate the amount of time refugee status determination and family reunion will take, especially as EU states implement ever more restrictive policies.

     

    “We found that people's awareness of policies affecting migration – such as who is eligible for family reunification – was relatively high, but that their understanding of how these policies worked in practice was much lower,” said researcher Megan Passey, one of the authors of the report, which was conducted by REACH on behalf of the Mixed Migration Platform, a joint-NGO initiative. 

     

    The study, which surveyed 90 Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi families left behind in five countries, found that in situations where the main earner went ahead to Europe, or where assets had been sold off to fund a journey, family members left behind often experienced financial hardships in addition to the psychological effects of prolonged separation from loved ones.

     

    “Lengthy status determination and reunification processes have placed lives on hold, both in countries of arrival and back home,” write the authors.

     

    But being granted family reunification often comes with its own difficulties. “One of the many challenges we have documented since last year is that ‘family’ for unaccompanied minors in Germany means parents, and therefore siblings fall outside of the definition,” said Karim Alwasiti, of German human rights group Pro Asyl. “In most of the cases we have seen where the parents have been granted family reunification, they have to choose to leave their other children behind. We consider it part of the practice of trying to limit family reunification and keep families apart.”

     

    Both Ali’s and Abdelarahmen’s parents seem completely unaware they would be forced to make such a choice should one of their sons become eligible for family reunion.

     

    “I have the feeling we will be in Germany soon,” said Amal.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ali (left) and Abdelarahmen (right), 15-year-old cousins from Syria, traveled to Germany as unaccompanied minors three years ago. Their families remain in Jordan. Holly Young/IRIN)

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    Hardening European policies keep refugee children apart from their families
  • Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers

    Those who thought Europe’s refugee “crisis” was over were reminded this week that tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded in Greece and the Balkans. Images of refugee tents shrouded in snow on the Greek islands have sparked outrage about the lack of adequate shelter, and scorn has been poured on the Greek government for keeping refugees in such miserable conditions. But others have pointed out that the real culprits are EU and member state policies that have closed borders and shrugged off responsibility for a more equitable distribution of the refugees arriving on Europe’s southern shores.

    Italy and Germany, along with Greece, have paid the heaviest price for the EU’s lack of solidarity. Germany has received nearly 1.2 million asylum seekers over the past two years, while Italy received 335,000 arrivals over the course of 2015 and 2016. Under increasing pressure from their electorates and with little chance of EU-wide agreement, both countries are pushing ahead with unilateral measures aimed at stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, and more rapidly returning failed asylum seekers.

    Taken in isolation such measures are unlikely to have a major impact, but in late 2015 and early 2016 we saw how the actions of one or two member states can have a knock-on effect on migration policies throughout the EU.

    Agreements with transit countries

    Sea arrivals to Italy reached a new high of 181,000 in 2016 and the pressure on the country’s reception system is immense. Italy’s new government, led by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who took office mid-December, is wasting no time acting to deter the steady stream of smugglers’ boats setting off from Libya’s coast, even in the middle of winter.

    This week, new Interior Minister Marco Minniti was dispatched to Tripoli to broker an agreement on fighting irregular migration through the country with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord. The GNA is one of three governments in Libya vying for power but Italy appears unwilling to wait for the emergence of a central government with which to negotiate. This week it also re-opened its embassy in Tripoli, the first Western country to do so in the two years, since conflict erupted between Libya’s rival factions.

    According to news reports, Minniti and al-Sarraj agreed to strengthen cooperation on fighting terrorism, irregular migration, and human trafficking. A statement issued by the interior ministry noted that the embassy would serve as “the principal coordination centre” for the joint efforts.

    The bilateral agreement, due to be formalised in Rome at the end of January, is not unprecedented. Under a “friendship” treaty that former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made with the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2008, Italian ships intercepted boats carrying migrants and returned them to Libya, where those on board faced detention and deportation. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, there was no attempt to determine whether any of the migrants qualified for international protection or were victims of trafficking. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy had violated international laws with its “push back” policy.

    While it seems unlikely Italy will renew that strategy, it’s still unclear what form its cooperation with Libya will take, besides supplying Libya’s coastguard with eight new patrol boats. Reportedly, one of the goals will be to boost controls at Libya’s southern border, where most migrants currently enter the country in smugglers’ vehicles originating mainly from Niger. But the GNA has limited authority in the south, where regional tribes control the main smuggling routes.

    migrants_in_toyota_travelling_from_the_libya-niger_border_across_the_libyan_desert_towards_sabha.jpg

    Men in the back of a truck
    Tom Wescott/IRIN
    Migrants in the back of a smugglers' pickup truck bound for Sabha in southern Libya

    The deal may nevertheless set a precedent for other member states to strike similar agreements, or for the EU to consider a migration arrangement like the one it made last year with Turkey. Malta, which is currently holding the EU presidency, has already suggested that the EU could expand on the agreement Italy has forged with Libya.

    Ramped up detentions and deportations

    The second prong of the Italian government’s hardened approach to irregular migration is to increase the rate at which it deports migrants rejected for asylum. Before heading to Tripoli, Minniti was in Tunis to discuss a repatriation agreement that could smooth the way for Italy to more easily deport Tunisian migrants, most of whom don’t qualify for asylum. Anis Amri, who committed the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December, had arrived in Italy from Tunisia in 2011. Both Italy, and later Germany, attempted to deport him, but Tunisia failed to issue the necessary travel documents.

    A week after Amri was shot dead by police near Milan, Italy’s police chief issued a directive urging officers to take “extraordinary action” to help deport more irregular migrants, “in an international context characterised by instability and threats”. Later, Minniti announced plans to open detention centres in every Italian region where migrants would be held prior to their forced return. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who stepped down in December, had given in to EU pressure to build “hotspots” to screen and fingerprint migrants, but had stopped short of detaining them. 

    In the wake of the Berlin attack, Germany is also under pressure to increase the rate at which it returns failed asylum seekers. It deported 25,000 of them in 2016 (up from 21,000 in 2015), and another 55,000 returned home voluntarily, but the figure is not enough to satisfy a public fearful of more extremist attacks and struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of newly recognised refugees.

    German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is pushing a plan that would make it easier to detain rejected asylum seekers considered a potential security threat, and to deport them from “repatriation centres” at airports. Starting in March, Germany also plans to restart returns of newly arrived asylum seekers to Greece, reversing the five-year EU-wide suspension of the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to remain in the first country where they register a claim. This couldn't come at a worse time for Greece, which is already struggling to process the asylum claims of an estimated 62,000 refugees stranded by border closures in the Balkans and the EU-Turkey agreement.

    Germany has threatened to cut foreign aid to countries that don’t cooperate in accepting back deportees. There’s also renewed talk of adding Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to Germany’s list of “safe” countries of origin. Rejected asylum applicants from “safe” countries can be fast-tracked for return, although repatriation agreements are usually necessary to actually carry out deportations.

    Despite the rhetoric from Italy and Germany, the reality is that deportations are hard to do. In a year in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government will be fighting for re-election and in which early elections in Italy are also a strong possibility, the first priority for both countries is to slow the rate of new arrivals.

    Caps on asylum seeker numbers

    Germany already saw a massive drop in arrivals in 2016 compared to 2015 (280,000 compared to 600,000), but that may not be enough to satisfy voters.

    Last year, Austria introduced a cap on the annual number of asylum seekers it would accept, a move widely criticised at the time as a contravention of international refugee law. But Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil is now proposing a system that would see caps imposed across the EU, in conjunction with the offshore processing of asylum applications in countries such as Niger and Jordan.

    In the past, Merkel has dismissed the idea of setting an upper limit on asylum claims, despite pressure to do so from the Christian Social Unity (CSU) party, which forms part of her coalition government. But now Merkel’s own Christian Democrat (CDU) party is proposing annual targets for numbers of asylum seekers based on the humanitarian situation in conflict zones around the world, and on Germany’s ability to absorb newcomers. The proposal stops short of setting a figure for 2017, but it suggests that Germany may now be more receptive to the Austrian plan, which will be presented at a meeting of Central European nations in February.

    2016 saw border closures and the EU-Turkey deal make it a lot harder to get into Europe, but 2017 promises to be a year in which the doors close even further on those seeking refuge and asylum.

    (TOP PHOTO: MSF vessel, Dignity 1, rescued 937 people in five different operations during one day in June 2016. Fernando Calero/MSF)

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    Italy and Germany step up measures to deter asylum seekers
  • Afghans in Germany face rejection and deportation

    Since arriving in Germany last August and two months later being transferred by authorities to the small town of Altenberg in the east of the country, Rohullah Qaderi, a 24-year-old former TV producer and reporter from northern Afghanistan, has done his best to integrate.

    It wasn’t easy in an area where many local residents were unprepared and unwilling to accept newcomers, but he joined an initiative aimed at helping newly arrived asylum seekers adjust to their new lives and managed to acquire an impressive command of German. He made a positive impression on locals involved in the initiative who described him as bright and highly motivated up until this August at least. That was when his asylum application was rejected, just two weeks after his refugee status determination interview.

    “I never expected [the decision] to be negative. I had been so motivated and had stopped thinking about the threats [back home]. Once I read the answer, they all came up in my mind. I can barely sleep and can’t concentrate,” Qaderi told IRIN.

    “Absurd” calculations of risk

    Qaderi was among 94,000 Afghans who arrived in Germany in 2015 during what has become known in Germany as the “long summer of migration”. By the end of the year, Germany had received 890,000 migrants and asylum seekers. Afghans made up the second largest non-European nationality after Syrians but, unlike the Syrians, their chances of securing refugee status and being able to remain in Germany were far from certain. In 2015, 27 percent of Afghans were rejected for asylum, according to Eurostat. During the first three quarters of 2016, that figure climbed to 46 percent.

    The rise in the number of rejections of Afghan asylum cases in Germany has coincided with a similar rise in rejection rates in many other EU countries. Meanwhile, the conflict in Afghanistan has worsened significantly over the past 18 months, with 11,000 civilians killed or injured in 2015 and another 8,397 between January and September this year, according to the UN.

    In its rejection letter to Qaderi, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) noted that the probability of becoming a victim of Afghanistan’s internal armed conflict was estimated at 0.074 percent, based on a “risk ratio calculation” that draws on population figures and casualties from Afghanistan’s conflict in 2014 -- not high enough to justify receiving asylum in Germany.

    Bernd Mesovic, deputy CEO at Pro Asyl, a Frankfurt-based NGO that supports the rights of refugees, suggested that the risk ratio calculation was “absurd” and did not draw on reliable, up-to-date data from regions under the de facto control of the Taliban to paint a realistic picture of the current security threats in Afghanistan. He said the increasing numbers of Afghans rejected for asylum in Europe was aimed at creating the impression with the public that “a majority of Afghans are not in need of protection”.

    “Safe and orderly return”

    Qaderi is appealing the decision. He complains that the interviewer did not give him enough opportunity to present his individual case. He told IRIN that in January 2015, he was approached by presumed fundamentalists who wanted him to use his access as a reporter to facilitate an attack on the local governor of a town in northern Afghanistan. When he refused, he was beaten and both he and his family were threatened with death. Ten days later he narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt and decided it was time to leave. After reaching Turkey via Iran, he took the eastern Balkan route through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In both Bulgaria and the Czech Republic he was arrested and held in custody for more than a month.

    “Homeland is like a mother,” he said of Afghanistan. “No one would voluntarily leave their mother behind.”

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    Kaveh Rostamkhani/IRIN
    Rohollah Qaderi takes part in an activity organised by a local initiative that supports asylum seekers in Altenberg

    Being rejected for asylum does not automatically mean deportation. Afghanistan, like many countries, has refused to accept its nationals returned from Europe unless they agreed to leave voluntarily, meaning that people like Qaderi have been allowed to remain in Germany with a tolerated status known as ‘Duldung’, which limits their right to work or access social services. But in September, the print edition of Der Spiegel magazine reported that Germany was about to finalise a bilateral agreement with Afghanistan that would allow it to return Afghans, in some cases forcibly.

    And earlier this month, the European Union and the government of Afghanistan signed the “Joint Way Forward on Migration Issues” – an agreement on the “safe and orderly return” of Afghan nationals “irregularly” residing in the EU after being rejected for asylum. It was signed just ahead of a conference in Brussels at which donors pledged financial development aid for Afghanistan.

    Speaking at the donors’ conference, German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier remarked: “I hope that the just-signed readmission agreement with Afghanistan comes into practice effectively.”

    However, the EU’s foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini denied any connection between the readmission treaty and the promise of $15.2 billion in development aid (more than a third of it from EU countries) to Afghanistan over the next four years.

    Qaderi is not convinced. “Is it an agreement or a trade-off?” he asked.

    “The Afghan government is corrupt,” he added. “If development aid had been used to build any structures benefiting the Afghan people so far, they would not risk their lives to reach safety in Europe.”

    In a statement, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) denounced the readmission agreement as “shameful” and noted that: “sugar-coating the deal by recklessly stating that returns will be safe will not make them so”.

    Mesovic of Pro Asyl described the deal as a tool to deter more Afghan people from migrating to the EU and pointed out that even some Afghan officials were reluctant to sign it, including the minister for refugees and repatriations, Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi. “Though in the end they seem to have accepted all of the EU’s terms.”

    Qaderi said that forcibly returning people who have risked their lives reaching Europe could result in some of them joining the ranks of fundamentalists out of desperation.

    His appeal is scheduled to be heard on 16 December at the Administrative Court in Dresden. With the help of a lawyer, he hopes to have a fair hearing with enough time to thoroughly explain his case. But if his rejection is upheld, he says: “I won’t return voluntarily. If they forcibly deport me, I may cease to exist.”

    “If I survive, I will certainly escape [Afghanistan] again, as I don’t want to be butchered by Islamists.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Afghan refugee, Rohullah Qaderi is appealing against the decision to reject his asylum application. Kaveh Rostamkhani/IRIN)

    kr/ks/bp

    Afghans in Germany face rejection and deportation
    Part of an in-depth series on Afghanistan's migration crisis
  • Roma fear paying the price of Germany’s “safe countries” policy

    In late April, the German authorities notified Hidayet* and his wife and daughter that their asylum applications had been rejected. They were given one week to leave the country, their home for the past two years.

     

    Three weeks later, German police raided the family’s residence in Hamburg. Nobody was home. With the help of a network of activists and supporters, the family had gone into hiding.

     

    Hidayet and his wife are Roma – a dispersed ethnic minority group that has long faced segregation and discrimination in the Western Balkans. Their families originate from Kosovo, but the couple lived in Serbia before seeking asylum in Germany. Hidayet fears that if he is caught and deported to Kosovo, he will be targeted and attacked.

     

    “I cannot return to Kosovo because in the time of [the Balkan] war, I was recruited to the Serbian military,” Hidayet told IRIN, adding that since he is Muslim and his wife is Christian they are not accepted either by Serbian or Kosovar society.

     

    “I have only one wish: to stay in some place where we could be safe, and this for now is Germany,” he said.

     

    More asylum seekers = more “safe countries”

     

    Germany carried out a total of 20,888 deportations in 2015. About three quarters of those were to Western Balkan countries, more than three times the number in 2014. The pace of forced returns has further increased in the first four months of this year, following an amendment to Germany’s refugee legislation last October that added Kosovo, as well as Albania and Montenegro, to a list of “Safe Countries of Origin”. Germany’s “Safe countries” list already included all the other Western Balkan nations outside the EU: Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

    western_balkans_map_2.png

    Six Western Balkan nations feature on Germany's "Safe Countries of Origin" list

    Designating the Western Balkans as “Safe Countries of Origin” was part of a strategy to address a huge increase in asylum applications in Germany, particularly in the latter half of 2015 when asylum seekers fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere poured into the country.

     

    The German Constitution defines “Safe Countries” as those where in general “neither political persecution nor inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment exists”. Asylum seekers from those countries are channelled into a fast-track process, which critics argue gives them little opportunity to refute the default presumption that, due to their nationality, their claims must be unfounded.

     

    Minorities aren’t protected

     

    Nizaqete Bislimi, a lawyer and activist, says the legislation means that minorities from the Balkans in need of protection aren’t getting it.

     

    “They started to divide the refugees into good refugees and bad refugees,” Bislimi told IRIN, adding that Germany’s refugee laws favour asylum seekers from the Middle East and discriminate against those from the Balkans.

     

    Bislimi, who is Roma herself and was born in Kosovo, has lived in Germany since 1993. She has many friends and clients who have been deported or face the threat of deportation.

     

    Amnesty International’s latest global report found that Roma people in Serbia face discrimination, racial segregation, and limited access to employment, while Roma in Kosovo “suffer institutional discrimination, including in access to social and economic rights”.

     

    According to Professor Albert Scherr, a sociologist at Freiburg University of Education who has done extensive research on Roma communities in Germany and in Eastern Europe, Roma people in former-Yugoslavian countries face not just discrimination and poverty, but open aggression.

     

    “They have no chance at all to live a normal life, to find a job, to send their children to school, to get medical care,” Scherr told IRIN. “It’s an overwhelming situation of discrimination, which does not allow a reasonable life. That's why they come here.”

     

    Past and present

     

    On 3 June in Berlin, a group of protesters demonstrating against Germany’s “Safe Countries” policy marched past the Reichstag building and convened next to the memorial commemorating Roma and Sinti Holocaust victims.

     

    Among them was 15-year-old Victoria Zenkulovic Veselovic, a Serb Roma who arrived in Germany with her mother and brother in 2011. Their asylum applications were rejected and they were assigned a tenuous legal status known as Duldung – which means that deportation is temporarily suspended. Veselovic told IRIN she is afraid to go back to Serbia.

    victoriazenkulovic.jpg

    Yermi Brenner/IRIN
    Victoria Zenkulovic Veselovic, a Roma from Serbia, with her mother at the protest in Berlin

    "I hope I stay here because I don't have a future in Serbia,” Veselovic said. “If we go there, I will face discrimination and attacks."

     

    In 2015, Roma people accounted for around 30 percent of all asylum applications from Western Balkan countries, according to estimates from the Ministry of the Interior, but very few were recognised as refugees. Last year, less than one percent of all asylum seekers from the Western Balkans were granted protection status in Germany.

    What is persecution?

     

    German authorities have emphasised that the “Safe Countries” classification does not mean that asylum applications by individuals from these countries are always rejected. Tobias Plate, a spokesman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior told IRIN that each asylum application is reviewed individually, and applicants have the opportunity to describe their situation and provide any evidence to back up their claim. “This applies, without exception, to all asylum applicants from safe countries of origin, including members of the Roma ethnic group,” he said.

     

    Plate said the German government was aware of discrimination against minorities in Western Balkan countries, but added that this did not necessarily amount to persecution, which would be grounds for asylum.

     

    “There are no facts that justify the assumption that the situation in the Western Balkan countries forces the Roma ethnic group and other groups of persons to leave,” he said.

     

    But a spokesman with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Germany, Martin Rentsch, said the social, economic, and cultural disadvantages experienced by Roma people in some Western Balkan societies can be considered a form of persecution under the 1951 Refugee Convention. He added that Germany has been upholding its obligation to review every application individually.

     

    The “Safe Countries of Origin” policy appears to be having the desired deterrence effect. In recent months, there has been a steady decline in the number of Western Balkan citizens coming to Germany and applying for asylum.

     

    *Not his real name

     

    yb/ks/ag

    Roma fear paying the price of Germany’s “safe countries” policy
    Asylum seekers say they are being fast-tracked for deportation back to danger
  • Putin declines World Humanitarian Summit invitation as Russia cries foul

    Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be attending the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul and Russia is refusing to be bound by the results of a process it says failed to include its views.

    A Russian statement, obtained by IRIN, says any outcomes of the summit would not be legitimate grounds to change the UN’s emergency aid setup.

    In the strongly-worded statement circulated to member states of the UN last week but not previously reported in the media, Russia says "with great disappointment" it has concluded that the World Humanitarian Summit has left the views of UN member states "on the sidewalk" in "alarming circumstances".

    Summit spokesman Herve Verhoosel told IRIN in an emailed response that the conference was always designed to be more inclusive than just a meeting of states: "This is the result of three years of consultations, which have repeatedly stressed inclusiveness."

    Verhoosel said Russia had been involved in two regional consultations and had had numerous opportunities to put its points across. Member states “have a great opportunity to come together to effect change”, along with other stakeholders, he said, adding that outcomes can be discussed by member states at the UN’s formal processes later this year.

    Summit organisers had better news yesterday when they were able to announce that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will attend. Merkel is the first leader of a G7 country to confirm so far. While the leaders of Central African Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Netherlands, and Niger, among others, have been confirmed, dozens more have yet to be publicly announced.

    The Russian mission to the UN told IRIN via email that Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations Vladimir Artamonov will lead the summit delegation, which will also include officials from the ministry of foreign affairs. (In diplomatic terms, sending a deputy minister to attend a high-profile summit signals very limited enthusiasm.)

    Russia also said it will not feel bound by the so-called “core commitments” devised by the summit organisers, which it said implied “far-reaching obligations”. The five core commitments are: reducing and preventing conflict, upholding humanitarian law, making sure fewer people are “left behind”, reducing risk as well as bigger and better financing. Verhoosel said the core commitments were based “on issues raised by thousands of people” and are “anchored in existing inter-governmental and legal frameworks”.

    The Russian statement says the way the preparations have wrapped up and given “preference to some stakeholders at the expense of others” are “absolutely inadmissible”.

    The format of events at the summit would diminish the role of the governments “deemed to play a decisive role in conduct of the humanitarian assistance”, the statement continues. Last week emergency medical agency MSF decided to pull out of the summit, partly because powerful governments, including Russia, were not being held to account for the harm caused to civilians in today’s conflicts.

    The two-day summit, due to start in Istanbul on 23 May, will assemble 6,000 people from governments, aid agencies, affected communities, civil society and the private sector. 

    bp/ag

    EXCLUSIVE: Russia slams World Humanitarian Summit

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