(Brussels) - The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has resumed the practice of arbitrarily detaining migrants and asylum seekers. The detentions are ostensibly to secure their testimony as witnesses in criminal proceedings against people suspected of smuggling migrants.

Male detainees pressed against a window at the back of Gazi Baba detention facility, which witnesses say is the only window in the male section of the facility.  

Emina Ćerimović, January 21, 2015.

According to local nongovernmental organizations in Macedonia, the Macedonian Ombudsman’s Office, and an international agency, as well as local media reports, Macedonian authorities are holding dozens of people, the majority of them from Iran and Morocco, in the Reception Center for Foreigners, a detention facility in Skopje. The center is known as Gazi Baba, after the municipality where it is located. Detainees have not been informed of the legal basis of their detention or how long they will be detained, nor do they have access to interpreters or to legal proceedings to contest the lawfulness of the detention, these sources reported.

“It is sad to see that Macedonia is again locking up asylum seekers and migrants without any opportunity to challenge their detention,” said Emina Ćerimović, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Macedonia is violating the law and should stop putting potential witnesses behind bars once and for all.”

Open-ended detention, without any justification or meaningful ability to challenge the detention, constitutes arbitrary detention in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said. Detention for the purpose of securing witnesses in criminal proceedings is also unlawful under national law and should end.

Earlier in 2015, Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers in Gazi Baba, including children, to ensure their availability to testify in criminal proceedings against people suspected of migrant smuggling. Human Rights Watch found that police guards inside Gazi Baba routinely ill-treated the detainees, including through physical and verbal abuse, and that conditions in the center were inhuman and degrading. Some of the women detainees experienced gender-based violence by guards. None of those detained had access to legal proceedings to challenge their detention.

In July, following intervention by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, local organizations, and international groups, Macedonian authorities stopped detaining migrants and asylum seekers, and allowed them to travel through the country instead.

Since November 18, however, Macedonia has employed the discriminatory practice of screening asylum seekers and migrants at their border by their nationality, regardless of any claims for protection they might have. It has allowed only those who could prove their citizenship from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq to enter the country or to lodge asylum claims. Others were blocked and left stranded at the border with Greece. Other Western Balkan countries, including EU member states Slovenia and Croatia, have imposed similar restrictions.

According to local organizations and the Macedonian Ombudsman Office, the people detained in Gazi Baba were apprehended for allegedly trying to cross the border irregularly with the help of a smuggler, after they were denied entry on the basis of their nationality. It is not clear how many people are detained.

On December 17, up to 55 men and women were in Gazi Baba, the majority from Iran and Morocco. On December 19, 13 were released and transferred to the asylum reception center upon filing an asylum claim. The Macedonian Ombudsman’s Office visited Gazi Baba on the week of December 14. A representative told Human Rights Watch that they found that detainees were held in dirty rooms without access to adequate beds, mattresses, or pillows, and were not given sufficient food.

Detainees have access to lawyers from the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), the group told Human Rights Watch. However, lawyers from MYLA are allowed only to inform and counsel detainees on the asylum procedure, not to contest their detention.

The Macedonian Interior Ministry did not respond to a December 11 inquiry from Human Rights Watch on why Macedonia is not allowing people of certain nationalities to enter the country and the legal basis for and conditions of the detention of migrants and asylum seekers in Gazi Baba.

Prolonged administrative custody without justification or the possibility of meaningful review violates the prohibition on arbitrary detention in article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Systematic detention in Gazi Baba for the purpose of securing witnesses in criminal proceedings is not prescribed in national law.

Segregation based on nationality and summary rejection of claims without individual determination run counter to the right to seek asylum set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the principle of non-discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights; and the right to asylum under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

“Macedonia, as an aspiring member of the European Union, should immediately stop detaining migrants and asylum seekers without any lawful justification,” Ćerimović said. “The European Union should push Skopje to end its discriminatory border practices and ensure that people are treated humanely and that their right to seek asylum is respected.”