(Moscow, February 1, 2012) - The Ukrainian authorities should immediately stop police harassment and threats against Somali asylum seekers held at the Zhuravychi Migrant Accommodation Centre, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter sent to the Ukrainian authorities, Human Rights Watch also called for the immediate release of all Somali asylum seekers who are being held in administrative detention pending deportation.
According to information from representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ukraine, 125 Somali nationals are being held at the Zhuravychi Migrant Accommodation Centre (MAC) in the Volyn region in northwestern Ukraine. Around 80 have told UNHCR they want to apply for asylum in Ukraine, but have not been allowed to do so, and some have been on hunger strike in response.
“Somali nationals who flee from violence and persecution in their own country are already extremely vulnerable,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They come to Ukraine seeking protection. The Ukrainian authorities know they can’t deport Somalis, so keeping them locked up for months, with almost no chance of asylum, is extremely abusive.”
Fifty-eight Somali detainees went on hunger strike in early January to protest against the Ukrainian authorities having prevented them from lodging asylum claims or not having processed their claims fairly. They are also protesting against their arbitrary detention; since Ukraine cannot, without violating its international obligations, deport them back to Somalia where they would risk torture and mistreatment, their detention pending deportation is arbitrary.
The Somalis are among tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants in Ukraine, many of whom are attempting to eventually cross the border to the European Union.
On January 30, the situation at the Zhuravychi MAC deteriorated. One of the hunger strikers held at the center told Human Rights Watch that in the afternoon a group of approximately 21 police officers, masked and armed with batons and tear gas, came to the center. The police officers searched detainees’ rooms and confiscated some of their personal belongings.
He also told Human Rights Watch that the police officers hit some of the hunger strikers with batons and kicked them:
“They beat some of the boys and kicked them with heavy boots. They were shouting the whole time, but we could not understand them because they spoke Russian. Only two guys in our group speak Russian so they translated for us. The police officers were threatening to kill us if we don’t go to the dining room and start eating. About 10 people got so scared that they ran to the dining hall and started eating. The police are still around today and we are all very scared.”
Ill-treatment of any detainees is strictly prohibited and a violation of Ukraine’s international legal obligations. To target detainees who choose to manifest their right to protest by way of a hunger strike is also prohibited, and the Ukrainian authorities have previously been found responsible for torture under European human rights law by forcibly feeding detainees in the absence of any medical necessity (in the case of Nevmerzhitsky v Ukraine). Human Rights Watch called on the Ukrainian authorities to investigate the police conduct at the center on January 30 and to hold to account anyone involved in and responsibile for abusing and threatening the detainees.
A Human Rights Watch report from December, 2010, “Buffeted in the Borderland: The Treatment of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Ukraine”,documented that migration detention in Ukraine is often arbitrary and detainees do not enjoy reliable access to a judge or other authority, or access to legal representation to challenge their detention. The report also documented how asylum applications from detainees are frequently not processed, how many claims are rejected as manifestly unfounded, and how a migrant or asylum seeker may be detained without any individual assessment of such necessity.
Somali nationals are very rarely granted asylum status in Ukraine (when the Human Rights Watch report was released in 2010, only two Somalis were known to have been granted refugee status.) And they appear to face a vicious cycle of repeat detention while in Ukraine.
Ukrainian law provides that migrants and asylum seekers may only be detained for a maximum of 12 months. However, the law does not prohibit the authorities from re-arresting migrants as soon as they have been released and detaining them again for the maximum period allowed. When released, migrants are usually provided with certificates saying that they are on their way to their embassy and are given five days to reach it. However, since there is no Somali embassy in Ukraine, Somalis have nowhere to go. It is a common practice for Somali migrants to be re-arrested after the five days have expired and detained again.
Human Rights Watch spoke with three members of the group of hunger strikers who are being held at the Zhuravychi MAC. They said the majority of the group had been repeatedly arrested and detained over the past year or more. They also said that some members of the group were at different stages of appealing rejections of their asylum applications by the State Migration Service. Others had been detained before they had been allowed to lodge their appeals or said that no action had been taken on claims filed while in detention, leading them to believe that the authorities had not actually accepted their applications for asylum or their appeals.
A 21-year-old Somali detainee told Human Rights Watch that he wanted to appeal the State Migration Service’s rejection of his asylum application as manifestly unfounded or abusive, but that days later the police arrested and detained him on suspicion of being unlawfully in Ukraine, and that he was not able to appeal the rejection of his claim. He was then transferred to the Zhuravychi MAC for a 12-month administrative detention sentence.
“We came here to save our lives, not be treated like criminals” he told Human Rights Watch. “There is a war in my country. But here we have no medical assistance, we can’t rent a flat, we can’t even go outside because we get arrested. We escaped from one prison only to come to another one.”
In the letter sent to the Ukrainian authorities, Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of all Somali asylum seekers who are being held in administrative detention pending deportation and urged the government to utilize a new law on complementary protection by providing this protection to Somalis who do not qualify for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention but who cannot be returned to Somalia because of ongoing armed conflict and generalized violence in that country.
“Ukrainian authorities should do what they can to improve the country’s flawed asylum system and close existing gaps in protection,” Williamson said. “Taking immediate steps to stop abuse in detention and facilitate adequate solutions for Somali migrants, asylum seekers and refugees would be a step in the right direction.”