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(Brussels) – The European Union struggled to develop an effective and principled response to the 1 million asylum seekers and migrants who reached Europe by sea during 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. Human Rights Watch highlights developments in 10 EU member states and union-wide developments on migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, and counterterrorism, a major concern during the year in light of horrific attacks in Paris.

“The disjointed beggar-thy-neighbor responses of EU governments to 1 million arrivals this year has turned a manageable challenge into a full-blown political crisis,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia division director at Human Rights Watch. “Asylum seekers and migrants in Greece and along the Western Balkans route have paid the price of a divided EU.”

Newly arrived families with children walk along the railway tracks from Serbia into Hungary, towards the Roszke collection point in Hungary where they will be taken in buses to temporary detention camps. September 8, 2015. © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Narrow national government interests too often displaced sound policy responses to the refugee crisis during the year, delaying protection and shelter for vulnerable people, although a handful of governments, including Germany and Sweden, did respond generously. EU governments reached agreement to increase resettlement of refugees from outside the Union and to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers who had reached Greece and Italy. However, only 272 asylum seekers had been relocated as of January 8, 2016, including a mere 82 of those in Greece, the external frontier state with the largest influx.

The European Commission brought enforcement action against 23 member states over their failure to respect the standards of the EU common asylum system, including Hungary, which responded to large numbers of arrivals by erecting fences and detaining and criminalizing asylum seekers crossing its border without permission.

The EU governments repeatedly sought to shift responsibility onto countries outside the EU, including through a problematic migration deal in November with Turkey, the main transit country into the EU for asylum seekers and migrants, which already hosts more than 2 million Syrians.

The identification by police of asylum seekers among those suspected of involvement in mass theft and sexual assault during the 2015 New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne and other German cities emboldened those calling for closed borders. Those responsible for the crimes should be held to account, but these shocking incidents should not serve as an excuse for regressive policies on refugees, Human Rights Watch said.

Concerns over national security in the EU also defined a year bookended by multiple attacks in Paris by armed extremists. The November Paris attacks – the deadliest in Europe in more than a decade – prompted emergency measures in France, stepped-up border checks, including inside the Schengen free-movement area, and intensified efforts to coordinate intelligence sharing.

During the year, some EU governments pointed to concerns about homegrown terrorism and the return of foreign fighters linked to the armed extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to justify expanded intrusive surveillance powers. However, there is no evidence that inadequate surveillance was a factor in the Paris attacks. Others used the November Paris attacks to justify their lack of cooperation with EU responsibility-sharing in the refugee crisis, although all of the identified Paris attackers were European citizens.

There was little sign of progress toward accountability for European complicity in Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) abuses, despite ongoing criminal investigations in Poland and the United Kingdom and a revived inquiry in Lithuania.

The killing of four people taken hostage in a kosher supermarket during the January Paris attacks and an attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen in February that left two victims dead underscored a wider and more serious problem of anti-Semitism in the EU. Hate crimes against Muslims were also a serious problem, with spikes in incidents reported in France and the UK. Roma remained subject to frequent discrimination and forced eviction in the EU.

“The last decade showed Europe that counterterrorism measures that violate rights play into the hands of those who attack us,” Ward said. “It’s vital for EU government responses to today’s threats to heed those hard-learned lessons.”

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