(Beirut) – Qatar’s emir signed into law in September 2018 the Gulf region’s first law setting out procedures and requirements for people to seek asylum in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.
The law demonstrates Qatar’s commitment to refugee rights and serves as an example for the region. But it falls short of Qatar’s international obligations, particularly with regard to its restrictions on freedom of movement and expression.
“Qatar’s asylum law is a huge step forward in a region made up of wealthy states that have historically shut their doors to refugees,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But Qatar should go further and amend the law so that it fully aligns with its obligations under international human rights and refugee law.”
Qatar passed Law No. 11/2018 on Organizing Political Asylum on September 4, 2018, alongside two other laws regulating residency in the country. One abolished exit permits for most migrant workers, and the other allows people for the first time to apply for permanent residency. Both point to Qatar’s increased respect for international standards, but, as with the new asylum law, neither fully aligns with international human rights law.
Article 1 of Qatar’s new asylum law refers to a refugee as “a political asylee,” which it defines as “any person outside his country of nationality or habitual residency if he is not a citizen, who is unable or unwilling to return to this country due to a justified fear of execution or bodily punishment, torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, or persecution, on account of his ethnicity, religion, or affiliation with a specific social group, or due to his political beliefs.”
Article 15 prohibits returning a refugee to “his country of origin or to another country in which he fears he will be in danger or subject to persecution.”
Article 9 grants recognized refugees the right to obtain a travel document, to work or receive unemployment benefits, to worship, and to seek litigation. Recognized refugees are also entitled to government health care, education, and housing.
Although article 9 gives refugees the right to freedom of movement, article 10 requires refugees to seek approval if they want to move from their government-assigned place of residence, unlike other lawful permanent residents.
Article 11 prohibits asylum seekers and recognized refugees from engaging in political activity while residing in Qatar and says the interior minister can deport them to a country of their choosing if they do.
Both of these provisions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty Qatar recently joined. The ICCPR guarantees the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association for all. It also grants everyone lawfully within a territory the right “to liberty of movement and freedom to choose a residence.”
Further, while the law makes explicit that no one should be returned to a place where they have a justifiable fear of execution, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment, it requires a link to a particular ethnicity, religion, or a specific social group or political belief, unlike international law. Qatar has ratified the UN Convention against Torture, which prohibits the forced return of anyone who would face a real risk of torture without exception. The asylum law should be amended to make clear that return to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment is prohibited in all cases.
Article 6 says the interior minister can grant a person petitioning for asylum three months of temporary residency, subject to renewal, until a final decision is made. The law does not make clear, however, whether the holder of a temporary residency permit is allowed to work or is eligible for the same social benefits as permanent residency permit holders. Qatar should extend these benefits to temporary residency permit holders.
Article 7 stipulates that the interior minister will decide on an asylum petition within three months of receiving a recommendation from the Committee for Political Asylee Affairs, but that no response will constitute a rejection of the petition. Three months is a short time frame, particularly since the default is rejection of the claim. Unless the applicant has failed to appear for asylum proceedings, the law should require implicit rejections for failure to determine the applicant’s status.
Article 8 allows a rejected asylum petitioner to appeal to the prime minister but does not permit an appeal before a court or judicial tribunal for a full examination of both facts and points of law. The law also does not require the governing bodies to make known the justifications for rejection. The law should be amended to include reference to fair and complete procedures for examining asylum petitions, including non-adversarial and confidential interviews, and the right to appeal a rejected claim to a court or tribunal.
The new law comes during an ongoing diplomatic crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt against Qatar. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain ordered all their nationals to leave Qatar and ordered the eviction of all Qatari nationals from their territory. Bahrain and the UAE also threatened to punish their own citizens for “expressing sympathy” for Qatar online. Some Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini nationals affected by the diplomatic crisis have chosen to remain in Qatar for family or work reasons or because they fear persecution in their home countries, they have told Human Rights Watch.
Qatar should seal its commitment to refugee rights by acceding to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Human Rights Watch said.
“We hope this law is not only used to protect people affected by the diplomatic crisis, but that it will more broadly grant anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution a safe home in the country,” Fakih said. “Qatar should be actively working to make the promise of protection in the legislation a reality through prompt and effective implementation.”