An Unjust "Vision" for Europe's Refugees

Human Rights Watch Commentary on the U.K.'s "New Vision" Proposal for the Establishment of Refugee Processing Centers Abroad

Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, June 17, 2003
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II. Conditions for Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Other Migrants in Proposed Locations for Processing Centers

Human Rights Watch is extremely skeptical about the U.K.'s claim that it will be able to "ensure better protection" in regions of origin or in countries hosting processing centers at the fringes of the E.U.68 It will be impossible to isolate processing centers from the overall human rights conditions, outlined below, facing asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants in the countries proposed. The laudable goal of ensuring better protection should be pursued throughout these countries, instead of in the isolated context of a U.K.-controlled processing center. Until effective protection (discussed in Part III, below) can be ensured throughout the territory of any of the proposed countries, the establishment of a processing center there should not be considered.


Albania is party to the Refugee Convention, and in 1998 passed domestic laws providing for the rights of refugees. UNHCR observes status determinations, which are run by the government's Office for Refugees. According to the U.S. State Department, government restructuring prevented the appeals procedure from functioning,69 as well as UNHCR's ability to assist the government in the creation of viable asylum system.70 Although Albania's domestic laws provide for the protection against return to an unsafe place, returns of individuals by border police (over 500 were returned in 2002)71 raised concerns about refoulement. Sometimes individuals crossing the border are detained for a few hours, not given an opportunity to apply for asylum, and then bused to the nearest border.72 This lack of access to an asylum process in Albania is illustrated by the fact that no asylum claims were recorded at the border in 2002.73 Albania hosted 363 recognized refugees at the end of 2001.74


Croatia is party to the Refugee Convention, but it has not yet adopted its draft asylum law. Instead, Croatia's aliens law governs the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Croatia hosted 67,952 refugees at the end of 2001.75 During 2002, Croatian authorities decided eighty-six individual cases and did not grant asylum to any of them.76 UNHCR publicly stated that the fact that Croatia has yet to recognize its first asylum claim was "of great concern" to the agency.77

Croatia not only faces difficulties in regularizing procedures for individuals seeking asylum in its territory, but the country remains plagued by the ineffectual and discriminatory treatment of its own nationals who have been living outside the country as refugees since the early to mid-1990s. Between 300,000 and 350,000 Serbs left their homes in Croatia during the 1991-95 war. Some ten years later, less than one third of the displaced Serbs have returned home. The most significant problem is the difficulty Serbs face in returning to their pre-war homes. Despite repeated promises, the Croatian government has been unwilling and unable to solve this problem for the vast majority of displaced Serbs. Though denial of access to housing is the biggest obstacle facing potential returnees, fear of arbitrary arrest on war-crimes charges and discrimination in employment and pension benefits also deter return.


Iran is party to the Refugee Convention.78 A government-run census in 2001 revealed that Iran hosted more refugees than any other government in the world: 2.56 million,79 of whom 2,355,000 were Afghans and 203,000 were Iraqis.80 This number likely excludes hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were deported by Iraq to Iran during the 1980s, and refugees living in Iranian towns and cities without registering with UNHCR. In addition, thousands of Iranians remain internally displaced after the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The government of Iran has grown increasingly disenchanted over the years about hosting such a large refugee population in the face of minimal international interest, financial support, or burden sharing.

Refugees living in Iran's cities are extremely vulnerable to police abuse and discriminatory treatment. In fact, some policies curtailing refugees' rights are already in place in Iran. In June 2001, restrictions on refugees' access to employment were tightened even further, so that all refugees except those with old work permits were classed as illegal workers and thereby subject to expulsion under a law known as Article 48. A new policy of fining and imprisoning the employers of undocumented workers was also introduced. Many refugees were instantly fired from their jobs, and thereby also lost their homes and all entitlement to medical care. They had absolutely no access to state social security or any other safety net. Although it was decreed that even undocumented children would be permitted to attend school, many local authorities continued to deny refugee children entrance to public schools and forcibly closed down those organized by refugees themselves.81


Morocco is party to the Refugee Convention; however, no appropriate domestic legislation on refugees has been passed.82 As a result, under current Moroccan law, all persons who enter the country unlawfully "shall be expelled."83 Although other domestic laws allow for refugees to apply for asylum at the border, many are likely pushed back from the border since UNHCR in Morocco was unaware of any refugees who had their cases referred onward by border police.84 The 2,540 refugees in Morocco who were recognized by UNHCR at the end of 200185 were denied status by the Moroccan government, and therefore their rights to employment, education, health, and freedom of movement are severely limited.86 Under domestic law, children born to refugee women in Morocco are denied the right to Moroccan nationality, in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Refugees in Morocco are subject to harassment, arbitrary detention by the police and sometimes deportation or refoulement, to potentially unsafe conditions in Algeria. 87


Romania is party to the Refugee Convention and its new asylum law entered into force in November 2000. While the law has many rights-protective aspects, including providing successful applicants with identity cards, travel documents, a right to appeal, and limits on detention at the airport, UNHCR expressed concerns that individuals at Romania's borders may not have access to the asylum procedure, particularly in certain accelerated procedures allowed under the law.88 Romania hosted 1,805 refugees at the end of 2001.89


Russia is party to the Refugee Convention. Almost yearly changes in the laws and procedures applicable to refugees have created delays in processing that have resulted in few applications actually being processed. Refugees without identity documents are vulnerable to arrest and deportation by Russian authorities.90 Given the difficulties in the procedures, UNHCR registers refugees coming from abroad; however, domestic Russian law regulates their daily lives, causing many of them to live without a secure legal status.91

Since most refugees lack a secure legal status in Russia, they are denied the right to work, to receive public assistance and non-emergency medical care. Many schools do not accept refugee children.92 Refugees struggle with the basic necessities of life, such as shelter and food, and they live under threat of arrest by the local police.93 Others suffer without sufficient police protection. In August 2001, six African asylum seekers were attacked near the office of UNHCR by a group of teenagers with broken bottles and baseball bats. One of the Africans died of his wounds several days later.94 Russian authorities also regularly apprehend, detain, and deport asylum seekers before they are able to have their claims to refugee status assessed. UNHCR had registered 17,970 refugees at the end of 2001,95 a number that was widely believed to underestimate the actual numbers of refugees living in the country without documents.96

Northern Somalia

Individuals sent to processing centers in Somalia will be in a country without an effective national government. The current Transitional National Government (TNG) has been plagued with problems. Its three-year term expires in mid-August 2003. According to UNHCR, the south remains unstable and attempts to move towards reconciliation have not improved the unpredictable security situation.97 Insecure conditions in the south impeded large-scale refugee returns and made it very difficult for UNHCR to maintain a presence there.98 However, the security situation is relatively stable in northern Somalia, and UNHCR has been able to assist Somali refugees returning to these northern areas from bordering countries.

Refugees arriving to Somalia from neighboring countries mostly live in the capital, Mogadishu. UNHCR says that these refugees "enjoy international protection and receive assistance to sustain themselves."99 However, some refugees are harassed by police and detained. Two Ethiopian refugees were arrested in April 2002 for spreading Christianity, and UNHCR intervened to secure their release.100 Somalia hosted 589 refugees at the end of 2001. 101

Refugees in Somalia faced the same difficult humanitarian conditions plaguing their Somali neighbors. Insecurity disrupted UN distributions in the country, as reported by the Secretary-General in August 2002. Above normal rainfall in northern Somalia in 2002 also spread waterborne disease, including cholera, malaria, and diarrhea.102 Somalia's nationwide malnutrition rate of 17 percent remained one of the highest in the world, 103 and only one in six children attended school in the country in 2002.104


Turkey has ratified the Refugee Convention, but has exercised its option of limiting its acceptance of convention obligations to refugees from Europe only. Turkey has presented a substantial obstacle for those seeking refuge through strict regulations requiring registration in the asylum program within ten days following arrival in the country.105 As a result of these regulations and other procedural difficulties, many refugees have been mistakenly considered "illegals."106 UNHCR reported that during 2001, fifteen refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey were forcibly returned to a country where they feared persecution either without being granted full access to a determination process, or following the grant of refugee status.107 The U.S. Committee for Refugees reported that 97 asylum seekers and three refugees had been refouled during that same year.108 Turkey hosted 7,687 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2001. 109

According to the European Commission's 2002 Regular Report on Turkey's Progress Towards Accession, in the first six months of 2002, 40,006 immigrants were apprehended in Turkey.110 As a result, Turkish border authorities arrested, detained, and deported large numbers of undocumented foreigners.111 Between November 2001 and January 2002 at the Turkish border, at least four asylum seekers were shot and killed by Turkish border police, twenty-six froze to death in remote mountain crossings, and scores were drowned.112 In July 2001, police conducted sweeps through immigrant neighborhoods that resulted in the arrest, detention, and deportation of approximately 200 Africans. The police severely mistreated some of the Africans in detention, depriving them of food, clean water, and medical assistance.113 Attempts to deport a number of these detainees to Greece failed when Greece refused re-entry and the detainees were trapped in the border zone.114 The result was the report of three deaths and allegations of three rapes. Finally, most asylum seekers and refugees living in Turkey did not receive financial assistance in 2001, leaving them destitute and disenfranchised from Turkish society.115


Political, legal, and bureaucratic disorder precluded the registration and adjudication of asylum claims in Ukraine for the last five months of the year 2001.116 The abolition and re-creation of the State Committee for Nationalities and Migration (SCNM), the agency responsible for refugees, is largely responsible for the slowed adjudication process. While a new Law on Refugees was passed in 2001, SCNM's lack of legal authority for its implementation prevented the reestablishment of workable asylum procedures for some time. As a result, UNHCR reported that only two individuals received refugee status during 2001.117 Moreover, although the recently adopted Law on Refugees extended the term of refugee status from three months to one year, the duration of protection remains limited and requires renewal. Ukraine hosted 2,983 refugees at the end of 2001,118 and acceded to the Refugee Convention in January 2002.

While documentation issued to those legally recognized as refugees affords some protections to those whose claims have been adjudicated and accepted, unrecognized refugees remain subject to police abuse.119 Reports of arbitrary detention for extensive document checks and vehicle inspections, as well as the targeting of dark-skinned individuals and those suspected of anti-government demonstrations,120 further contribute to the inadequate protection status afforded to refugees in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been under E.U. pressure to intercept undocumented migrants, among them asylum seekers and refugees, coming from countries such as Afghanistan, India, China, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Iraq,121 who cross over Ukraine's Carpathian mountains in an effort to reach western Europe. Those intercepted are placed in the Pavshino detention center or in a nearby railroad station, located approximately 500 miles southwest of Kiev. As documented by two western journalists, conditions in the two centers are appalling. Ukrainian authorities spend approximately one dollar a day to feed each detainee a bowl of buckwheat porridge and a small slice of bread twice a day.122 Detainees live in overcrowded conditions, without heat, hot water or showers. 123 They use the same buckets of water to drink and wash. 124 No doctor visits them and the only lavatories are in a filthy outhouse. 125 Several men alleged that they were beaten by the guards.126 A Chinese man who was interviewed by a western journalist waited until his guard turned away, then made fists, swung them at his stomach and pointed to the guard.127

68 Blair-Simitis Correspondence at para. (1) (ii).

69 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002, Albania, March 31, 2003.

70 UNHCR Global Report 2002, p. 358.

71 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Albania, June 2003.

72 See International Catholic Migration Commission, Services for Asylum Seekers, available at

73 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Albania, June 2003.

74 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook, 2001, p. 27.

75 Ibid.

76 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Croatia, June 2003.

77 UNHCR, Global Report 2002, p. 370.

78 Iran ratified the Refugee Convention on July 28, 1976.

79 See UNHCR, Global Report 2001, p. 284.

80 See U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002, p. 167. In January 2003, the government of Iran announced that 470,000 Afghans returned home in the previous ten months, still leaving almost 2.1 million refugees in total in Iran. See "470,000 Afghans have returned home from Iran," Agence France-Presse, January 26, 2003.

81 These school closures violated Articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. Res. 44/25, 44 U.N. GAOR, Supp. No. 49, U.N. Doc. A/44/49, 1989, entered into force September 2, 1990.

82 UNHCR, Global Report 2002, p. 277.

83 Ordinance Relating to Immigration, Article 12, November 15, 1934.

84 See Channe Lindstrom, "Report on the Situation of Refugees in Morocco," October 2002, p. 12.

85 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

86 See United States State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Morocco, February 23, 2001.

87 See Channe Lindstrom, "Report on the Situation of Refugees in Morocco," October 2002, p. 12.
UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

88 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Romania, June 2003.

89 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

90 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Russia, June 2003.

91 Svetlana, Gannushkina, "Legal Space of Refugees in Russia," Human Rights Center, Moscow, 1995 (available at

92 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Russia, June 2003.

93 See Yeo-sang Yoon, "Situation and Protection of North Korean Refugees in Russia," Korea Political Development Research Center, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

94 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, p. 345.

95 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

96 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Russia, June 2003.

97 UNHCR Global Appeal 2002, p. 86.

98 UNHCR Global Report, 2002, p.178.

99 UNHCR Global Appeal 2002, p. 88.

100 UNHCR Mid-Year Progress Report 2002, p. 91.

101 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

102 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey, Somalia, June 2003.

103 Ibid.

104 UNHCR, Global Report, 2002, p. 178.

105 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002, Turkey, March 31, 2003, available at

106 Ibid.

107 Ibid.

108 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002 Country Report: Turkey, available at

109 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

110 European Commission, 2002 Regular Report on Turkey's Progress Towards Accession, October 9, 2002, available at

111 Id.

112 See U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002, p. 251; Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, The Right To Seek Asylum and the Condition of Refugees (Reports from November 2001 - January 2002); "Asylum Debate: Children Die in Snow on Route to the West," The Guardian, May 31, 2002.

113 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002 Country Report: Turkey, available at

114 Ibid.

115 Ibid.

116 U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002 Country Report: Ukraine, available at

117 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2002, Ukraine, March 31, 2003, available at

118 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2001, p. 28.

119 Ibid.

120 Ibid.

121 Peter Baker, "Road to Freedom Ends in Grim Camp," Toronto Star, October 13, 2002.

122 Mark Franchetti, "Migrants Held in Hell of EU's Eastern Front," The Times, October 20, 2002.

123 Ibid.

124 Ibid.

125 Ibid.

126 Peter Baker, "Road to Freedom Ends in Grim Camp," Toronto Star, October 13, 2002.

127 Ibid.

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