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One year after the Moria fire: Few lessons learned as Greece expands barriers to refugees’ protection

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Women and children at the the Turkey-Greece border at Pazarkule.(file photo) © IOM/Uygar Emrah Özesen

45 NGOs and civil society groups have today released a report urging the European Union and Greek government to abandon plans to dramatically restrict the movement of people in refugee camps in Greece. With financial and technical support from the European Commission, authorities in Greece are constructing fences and concrete walls around dozens of existing camps and building closed camps in remote locations on the Aegean islands. New legislation aims to further restrict the freedom of movement of camp residents and access for NGOs, journalists, and others with critical aid delivery and monitoring roles. 

When a devastating fire destroyed Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos burned to the ground on the night of 8-9 September 2020, Greek and European officials promised they would improve reception conditions. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said there should be “no more Morias.” Yet, rather than pursuing alternatives to camps, the EU and Greece have hardened their approach. As the report shows, authorities are pursuing “harmful policies focused on deterring and containing asylum seekers and refugees,” thus “jointly implementing and deepening the status quo.” 

Within months of the fire in September 2020, Greek and EU officials agreed to the construction of  Multi-Purpose Reception and Identification Centres (MPRICs) on five Aegean islands. On the mainland, they began building walls and chain link fencing around dozens of existing camps. Camp residents and NGOs familiar with the plans have likened these facilities to prisons.

The report identifies a number of significant concerns about the plans, warning that the new structures “will impede effective identification and protection of vulnerable people; limit access to services and assistance for asylum seekers; hinder independent monitoring of conditions inside facilities; and exacerbate the harmful effects of displacement and containment on individuals’ mental health. Moreover, these policies will preclude displaced people’s integration in local communities, to their detriment and that of Greece.”

The European Commission is funding the construction projects with grants exceeding €250 million. Commissioner Johansson has defended the work, insisting that the new structures on the islands will not be closed and that people will be free to come and go. Yet the Greek authorities make no secret of their intention to restrict freedom of movement for camp residents: on 29 March 2021, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, described the new MPRICs as “closed and controlled.” He has used similar language when discussing camp facilities.

Questioning how and why EU funds are being used to restrict the freedom of movement of people seeking sanctuary, the report urges Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to urgently investigate the current construction process and intervene to protect the rights and liberties of people seeking asylum in Greece. In a list of recommendations, the report asks EU institutions and national governments, particularly the Greek authorities, the European Commission and its Task Force Migration Management, and Members of the European Parliament to:

  1. Guarantee that new arrivals to the Greek island are not detained in MPRICs by default and that restrictions on movement are based on an individual assessment and do not exceed limitations laid down in law. 
  2. Secure a firm commitment from the Greek authorities that the freedom of movement of residents of all camps will be upheld, and that access to essential services, including education (especially for children), and healthcare is guaranteed. 
  3. Guarantee that asylum seekers located at facilities in remote areas have access to city centres or nearby urban areas by facilitating transport and opportunities for engagement, thereby preventing the harmful effects of isolation and social exclusion and promoting an early start to integration. 
  4. Urgently scrutinising the use of EU funds to finance the construction of MPRICs and walls around mainland camps, and considering a moratorium on construction until the fundamental rights of residents are guaranteed. 
  5. Guarantee a timely and adequate monitoring and evaluation plan to assess conditions in the new MPRICs and walled-off camps and their impact on residents’ access to rights, material reception conditions, services, assistance, mental health, and education  (especially for children).
  6. Ensure that legislation governing NGOs’ access to reception facilities in Greece is in line with EU and international law and standards regarding the freedom of association and does not hinder the provision of adequate services and support to asylum seekers living inside reception facilities. The EU Commission should proceed without delay in assessing whether Greek legislation restricting NGO activity is compatible with EU law.
  7. Urge the Greek government to revoke the new restrictions on cash assistance to allow asylum seekers to live in independent housing, and investing in alternative accommodation to reception facilities to promote integration and social inclusion while people complete the asylum process.
  8. Urge the Greek government to introduce protocols for the operation and monitoring of all reception facilities that ensure adequate security and protection of camp residents and staff without encroaching on their rights and freedoms. 

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Human Rights

Torture, killings, lawlessness, still blight Burundi’s rights record

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A man carries water close to Bujumbura in Burundi. © UNICEF/Karel Prinsloo

The people of Burundi continue to endure serious human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity, the majority committed by those with links to the ruling party, UN-appointed independent investigators said on Thursday.

Despite a pledge by President Evariste Ndayishimiye to address the situation in the country after years of violent repression, crimes including arbitrary detention and execution, torture and intimidation, have not stopped, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated”, since President Ndayishimiye’s took office in June last year, Commission chair Doudou Diene told journalists in Geneva.

These abuses happened against a backdrop of “multiple armed attacks” by opponents of the Government since August 2020, Mr. Diene explained.

“While seeking persons allegedly involved in the armed attacks or collaborating with rebel groups, the security forces targeted mainly members from the main opposition party, the National Congress for Liberty (CNL), former members of the Tutsi-dominated Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), returnees and some of their family members. Some were executed, others disappeared or were tortured while detained arbitrarily.”

Dire situation

The Commission noted that although the level of political violence in the Great Lakes nation decreased immediately after the 2020 elections – and with the country appearing to be “on the road to normalization” – the human rights situation remains “dire”.

The national poll was held after the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to stand for a controversial third term in 2015 sparked major protests and mass displacement, and ultimately the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry by the Human Rights Council, in 2016.

The political climate today is “highly intolerant of dissent”, the Commissioners maintained in their fifth and final report to the Human Rights Council, highlighting how members of opposition parties – notably the CNL – have been targeted, in particular since June 2021.

Imbonerakure impunity

Many security officers and others linked to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, continued to go unpunished for their crimes, they added, pointing to agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), police officers – including from the Mobile Rapid Intervention Groups (GMIR) – and the Imbonerakure youth-league, whose brutality has been documented in previous Commission of Inquiry reports.

Individuals belonging to these groups are “the main perpetrators of those violations, some of which could amount to crimes against humanity”, the Commission of Inquiry report said. “They continue to enjoy widespread impunity for their actions, as has been the case since 2015.”

Justice reforms lacking

Highlighting the lack of promised structural reforms to promote accountability in the country, Commissioner Françoise Hampson said that the “rule of law in Burundi continues to erode, despite the stated intention of President Ndayishimiye to restore it”.

In common with the Commission’s previous findings, Ms. Hampson noted how testimonies gathered for its latest report pointed to an organized campaign “against those elements of the civilian population that were seen as or thought to be hostile to the government in power” – a potential crime against humanity. “Some of the violations that this year’s report detail, seem to be a continuation of that policy,” she added.

In Burundi, the judicial system could not be relied upon “to curb or remedy human rights violations”, Ms. Hampson continued, warning that the newly elected Government “has only been strengthening its control over the judiciary”.

For the past five years, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has documented, monitored and reported alleged human rights violations in Burundi.

It has conducted more than 1,770 interviews, including remotely, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, as well as Burundi.

The Commission is scheduled to present its report to the Human Rights Council on 23 September, 2021.

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Human Rights

COVID crises highlight strengths of democratic systems

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The UN Secretary-General, on Wednesday, urged the world to “learn from the lessons of the past 18 months, to strengthen democratic resilience in the face of future crises.” 

In his message for the International Day of Democracy, António Guterres explained in the wake of COVID-19, this meant identifying good governance practices that can counter all kinds of emergencies, whether public health, environmental or financial. 

“It means addressing the egregious global injustices laid bare by the crisis, from pervasive gender inequalities and inadequate health systems to unequal access to vaccines, education, the internet and online services,” he said.  

For the UN chief, along with the human toll carried by those most deprived, “these persistent historical inequalities are themselves threats to democracy.” 

Participation of all 

The Secretary-General argues that strengthening democracy also means embracing participation in decision-making, including peaceful protests, and giving a voice to people and communities that have traditionally been excluded. 

“The silencing of women, religious and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, human rights defenders and journalists is an impediment to creating healthy societies,” Mr. Guterres said. 

For him, “democracy simply cannot survive, let alone flourish, in the absence of civic space.” 

Emergency powers 

In his message, António Guterres also stresses the importance of phasing out emergency powers and legal measures by governments, which in some cases have become repressive and contravene human rights law.  

He explains that some States and security sector institutions rely on emergency powers because they offer shortcuts, but cautions that, with time, “such powers can seep into legal frameworks and become permanent, undermining the rule of law and consuming the fundamental freedoms and human rights that serve as a bedrock for democracy.” 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary-General warned that “every crisis poses a threat to democracy, because the rights of the people, in particular those most vulnerable, are all too quickly ignored.” 

It is for that reason that protection of rights in times of crisis is a key element of his Call to Action for Human Rights, issued in February of last year. 

As the world starts to look beyond the pandemic, Mr. Guterres called on the international community to “commit to safeguarding the principles of equality, participation and solidarity”, so that it can better weather the storm of future crises.

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Human Rights

Gender equality ‘champion’ Sima Sami Bahous to lead UN Women

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UN Secretary-General António Guterres today announced the appointment of Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan as Executive Director of UN-Women. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Secretary-General António Guterres described Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan, as “a champion for women and girls”, announcing on Monday her appointment to lead the UN’s gender equality and empowerment entity, UN Women. 

The UN chief said she would also champion gender equality and youth empowerment, as well as being a “keen advocate for quality education, poverty alleviation and inclusive governance”. 

Ms. Bahous brings to the job more than 35 years of leadership experience at the grassroots, national, regional and international level. 

She has expertise in advancing women’s empowerment and rights, addressing discrimination and violence, and promoting sustainable socio-economic development, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN chief said in a statement

The news came following consultations with Member States and the Executive Board of UN Women

Rich experience 

Most recently, Ms. Bahous served as Jordan’s UN ambassador in New York.   

Prior to that, she was the Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) from 2012 to 2016 and Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the Social Development Sector at the League of Arab States, from 2008 to 2012. 

The new UN Women chief has also served in two ministerial posts in Jordan as President of the Higher Media Council from 2005 to 2008 and as Adviser to King Abdullah II from 2003 to 2005.   

She has also worked for UN Children’s Fund UNICEF, and with a number of UN and civil society organizations, as well as teaching development and communication studies at different universities in her native Jordan.  

She is fluent in Arabic and English, and proficient in French. 

Tribute to outgoing head 

The UN chief said he was “deeply grateful” to outgoing Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, for the “commitment and dedicated service” she exhibited as head of UN Women. 

He also extended his appreciation to the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, who will continue to serve as Acting Executive Director until Ms. Bahous is in post. 

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