• The Gender Security Project

Europe Sweeps Away More Refugees, Asylum Seekers – Part I: UK, Greece

By Baher Kamal



“At a time when the people of the UK have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians, the government is choosing to act with cruelty and rip up their obligations to others fleeing war and persecution” says HRW report. Credit: UNOHCR


In what looks pretty much like an ‘operation clean sweep’ aiming at getting rid of more and more migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by shipping them far away, the process of ‘externalisation’ of millions of victims of wars, poverty, climate crisis and political persecution, is now growing fast.


In fact, in a short period of time, reports by major human rights organisations have revealed how the US and Europe, in addition to Australia, are increasingly sending migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to other countries, regardless of their human rights records.


Take the case, for example, of the United Kingdom, which plans to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, a proceeding that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has classified as a “cruelty itself.”


In a report by Yasmine Ahmed and Emilie McDonnell, the two human rights defenders said that shirking its obligations to persons seeking asylum at its shores, the UK government has on 14 April 2022 signed an agreement with Rwanda to send asylum seekers crossing the English Channel there.


“Under the new Asylum Partnership Arrangement, people arriving in the UK irregularly or who arrived irregularly since January 1, 2022 may be sent to Rwanda on a one-way ticket to have their asylum claim processed and, if recognized as refugees, to be granted refugee status there.”

Victims of ‘their’ wars

It should be noted that many of the shipped migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are victims of long wars launched by US-led coalitions with the intensive participation of the United Kingdom’s military forces.


Such is the case, for example, of the war in Afghanistan (which lasted 20 years); in Iraq and in Libya, let alone Syria (now entering its tewlveth year), and the huge Western weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to fuel their continued bombing on Yemen (so far for over seven years).


Cruel, ineffective and likely unlawful

The Human Rights Watch report said that the UK is arguing that offshoring asylum seekers to Rwanda complies with its international legal obligations.


“However, offshore processing is not only cruel and ineffective, but also very likely to be unlawful,” add Yasmine Ahmed and Emilie McDonnell.


“It creates a two-tiered refugee system that discriminates against one group based on their mode of arrival, despite refugee status being grounded solely on the threat of persecution or serious harm and international standards recognizing that asylum seekers are often compelled to cross borders irregularly to seek protection.”

UN “firmly” opposed

The deal reportedly made by the United Kingdom to send some migrants for processing and relocation to the Central African nation of Rwanda, are at odds with States’ responsibility to take care of those in need of protection, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on 14 April 2022.


In an initial response, UNHCR spelled out that it was not a party to negotiations that have taken place between London and Kigali, which it is understood were part of an economic development partnership.


According to news reports, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has said the scheme costing around $160 million, would “save countless lives” from human trafficking, and the often treacherous water crossing between southern England and the French coast, known as the English Channel, UNHCR explained.


“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs.


Triggs described the arrangements as shifting asylum responsibilities and evading international obligations that are “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.”

Rwanda’s “appalling human rights record”

Furthermore, Rwanda’s appalling human rights record is well documented, the two human rights activists went on. In 2018, Rwandan security forces shot dead at least 12 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo when they protested a cut to food rations. Extrajudicial killings

According to the Human Rights Watch’s report ”Rwanda has a known track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture, and abusive prosecutions, particularly targeting critics and dissidents.”


In fact, the UK directly raised its concerns about respect for human rights with Rwanda, and grants asylum to Rwandans who have fled the country, including four just last year.


“At a time when the people of the UK have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians, the government is choosing to act with cruelty and rip up their obligations to others fleeing war and persecution.”

Greece: Migrants stripped, robbed, and forced to Turkey

Just one week earlier, Human Rights Watch on 7 April 2022 reported from Athens that Greek security forces are employing third country nationals, men who appear to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, to push asylum seekers back at the Greece-Turkey land border.

The 29-page report “Their Faces Were Covered’: Greece’s Use of Migrants as Police Auxiliaries in Pushbacks,” found that Greek police are detaining asylum seekers at the Greece-Turkey land border at the Evros River, in many cases stripping them of most of their clothing and stealing their money, phones, and other possessions.


“They then turn the migrants over to masked men, who force them onto small boats, take them to the middle of the Evros River, and force them into the frigid water, making them wade to the riverbank on the Turkish side. None are apparently being properly registered in Greece or allowed to lodge asylum claims.”


There can be no denying that the Greek government is responsible for the illegal pushbacks at its borders, and using proxies to carry out these illegal acts does not relieve it of any liability, said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“The European Commission should urgently open legal proceedings and hold the Greek government accountable for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions.”


Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 Afghan migrants and asylum seekers, 23 of whom were pushed back from Greece to Turkey across the Evros River between September 2021 and February 2022.


The 23 men, 2 women, and a boy said they were detained by men they believed to be Greek authorities, usually for no more than 24 hours with little to no food or drinking water, and pushed back to Turkey.


“The men and boy provided first hand victim or witness accounts of Greek police or men they believed to be Greek police beating or otherwise abusing them.”

Greece uses of migrants as police auxiliaries in pushbacks

Sixteen of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the boats taking them back to Turkey were piloted by men who spoke Arabic or the South Asian languages common among migrants.


“They said most of these men wore black or commando-like uniforms and used balaclavas to cover their faces. Three people interviewed were able to talk with the men ferrying the boats. The boat pilots told them they were also migrants who were employed by the Greek police with promises of being provided with documents enabling them to travel onward.”


Pushbacks violate multiple human rights norms, including the prohibition of collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to due process in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to seek asylum under EU asylum law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the principle of non refoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Human Rights Watch noted.

Some are more “real refugees” than others

On March 1, Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, declared before the Hellenic Parliament that Ukrainians were the “real refugees,” implying that those on Greece’s border with Turkey are not.


Reacting to this, Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch, said that at a time when Greece welcomes Ukrainians as ‘real refugees,’ it conducts cruel pushbacks on Afghans and others fleeing similar war and violence.


“The double standard makes a mockery of the purported shared European values of equality, rule of law, and human dignity.”


This post first appeared on IPS News.

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