Armed conflicts, civilians debased by both terrorist groups and dictatorial governments, a worrying repression of dissent and waves of populism and racism experiencing a staggering rise, are in the words of Gianni Ruffini, director of Amnesty International Italia, an indication that the world is moving backwards as far as human rights are concerned.
Amnesty International’s most recent report for 2016-2017 describes the United Nations and Europe’s failure to find a solution for the global refugee crisis and identifies a series of events that have undermined the very foundations of the concept of human dignity, disregarding all rules established by international humanitarian law. In the wars in Syria and Yemen we have seen hospitals bombed and the refugees who survived these bombings, the violence and human traffickers, rejected at EU borders. Many governments have asked their citizens to give up some of their civil liberties, their participation and their privacy, when not specifically repressing dissent in the name of security and the war on terror.
The situation in Europe
In Europe, 2016 was the year in which populist movements made inroads, exploiting precisely these feelings of insecurity as well as riding the wave of the economic crisis. Politicians, the European Union, the media, but above all foreign citizens and in particular Muslims were targeted with a consequent weakening of the rule of law, especially in countries such as Poland and Hungary where these movements came to power.
Following the arrival of a million migrants and refugees in 2015, EU member states decided to reduce their number the following year and at the end of December there were 358,000 people who had crossed Europe’s borders. The most drastic fall in numbers occurred on the Greek islands, with figures falling from 854,000 to 173,000 people, almost entirely because of the agreement on immigration control signed between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand the number of people who died at sea increased to 5,000 according to the International Organisation for Migrants, compared to the 3,700 who died in 2015.
Turkey was offered 6 billion euros to keep watch over its coasts and take back asylum seekers who landed in Greece, in exchange for a guarantee – impossible to offer – that those “welcomed” would receive protection with standards equal to those applied in Europe.
In spite of the fall in arrival numbers, the situation experienced by the roughly 12,000 asylum seekers blocked on the Greek coasts is still serious due to the appalling living conditions in the improvised refugee centres and many attacks by numerous local groups linked to the extreme right.
In addition to the agreement with Ankara, which has turned out to be fragile, Europe has chosen to stop people from arriving by also closing the Balkans route, and Macedonia has been persuaded to close its borders.
All these factors have decreed the failure of the European Union’s relocation programme that had been adopted by the heads of state of member countries in September 2015, with the objective of distributing immigration responsibilities. Even the idea of a hotspot approach was abandoned. It was a plan that envisaged the creation of registration centres in Italy and Greece at points of arrival where people could register so that their transfer to other EU countries or their deportation could be assessed. Effectively these two Mediterranean countries were left alone to address the migratory phenomenon, while the incentive to repatriate as many migrants as possible had become a key element in European foreign policy. This drove the EU to also sign an agreement with Afghanistan, the Joint Way Forward, in order to cooperate on the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers.
Even countries that in the past had been more generous have reduced the number of refugees they were prepared to accept; Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have also introduced regulations to also restrict or delay family reunification procedures. The countries closer to the EU’s borders are those that have implemented the most drastic measures. Austria has now passed a law authorising the government to declare a state of emergency in the event of massive arrivals of asylum seekers, while Hungary has decided to build a fence along its border with Serbia in addition to activating a series of measures that have caused violent rejection of refugees and illegal detentions. In France, the clearing of the makeshift refugee camp in Calais has become another symbol of an overall disastrous immigration system.
Terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany – and now England too – have changed the security paradigm and reopened the debate concerning the boundaries between central power and people’s rights. Resorting to a state of emergency has become easier; Hungary paved the way passing a law that allows severe restrictions to be placed on freedom of movement and assembly in addition to the freezing of assets with no judicial oversight. Bulgaria is following the same path and last December after the Nice attack even France extended the state of emergency for the fifth time as well as reintroducing house searches without a warrant as well as new ways of forbidding protests for security reasons.
In Slovakia and Poland measures previously considered exceptional such as the extension of precautionary detention for those suspected of terrorism have now been incorporated into normal criminal law. Hundreds of people have been prosecuted, in particular in France, for justifying terrorism in comments published on social networks.
Amnesty reports on examples of discrimination in Europe against migrants, and in particular Muslims, by the police due to new anti-terrorism powers but also during normal operations involving public order. Initiatives aimed at fighting extremism of Islamic origin have ended up isolating Muslim communities and restricting freedom of speech Bulgaria and Switzerland have, for example, passed laws forbidding the use of the full veil in public and in France many coastal municipalities tried to forbid use of the “burkini” last summer.
In Germany attacks on refugee camps for asylum seekers have increased and in United Kingdom hate crimes rose by 14% in the three months that followed the Brexit referendum.
Italy and the failure of the hotspot approach
During 2016, 181,000 people arrived in Italy after crossing the Mediterranean. At least 4,500 died at sea. Most of these migrants had left from Libya and were rescued by the Coast Guard, the Italian Navy, merchant ships or vessels belonging to NGOs.
The number of unaccompanied minors, 25,700, doubled compared to 2015.
In applying the European hotspot approach to identify and separate refugees from alleged illegal migrants, there were often reports of an excessive use of force, arbitrary detention and collective deportations. The citizens of countries with which Italy has negotiated repatriation agreements have continued to be forcibly returned to their countries of origin, raising fears – according to reports by Amnesty International – that they were not allowed adequate access to asylum procedures without an assessment of potential risks. Last August 24th a group of 40 Sudanese citizens were repatriated in spite of the fact that the group included people who suffered violence in Darfur and risked further abuse in their country of origin.
The relocation of asylum seekers in Italy met with opposition from a number of local administrations and residents. Protests were organised in various cities and were joined by extreme right-wing groups such as the Northern League. Since the relocation programme was never really implemented at a European level, fewer than 3,000 people, compared to the envisaged 40,000, left Italy for another EU country.
Turkey, the other side of the agreement with the EU
The July 15th, 2016 attempted coup d’état sparked wide scale repression involving state employees and civil society, mainly among people accused of having links to Fethullah Gülen’s movement. In the first six months of the state of emergency, over 40,000 people with detained before their hearings and there is documented evidence of the torture of detainees linked to the coup d’état. Hundreds of media outlets and 375 NGOs have been closed by executive order and 90,000 state employees have lost their jobs. Freedom of speech is increasingly restricted and those who have expressed dissent have been threatened with violence and criminal charges. Online censorship has also increased and court-approved orders have been issued to close down websites and social network accounts.
The most serious violations of human rights have been reported in the Kurdish-majority south-east of the country, where a round the clock curfew was imposed on those living in cities and up to half a million people were obliged to abandon their homes. Armed clashes with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) continue and the government has replaced elected mayors with its own trusted administrators in 53 Kurdish municipalities. Authorities have also stopped a United Nations fact-finding mission in south-eastern Turkey and prevented many NGOs, among them Amnesty International, from providing documentary evidence of human rights violations in the country.
Throughout 2016, President Erdoğan consolidated his power, until a number of constitutional amendments aimed at guaranteeing him broader executive powers were presented in parliament in December. In foreign policy, Turkey first launched a military operation in northern Syria against Islamic State but also against the Kurdish People’s Defence Force (HPG) affiliated with the PKK, and then another operation in the Mosul areas in Iraq, where the country has a military base in Bashiqa.
Turkey has been the country that has hosted the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world and it is estimated that there are over three million foreign citizens residing there, mainly Syrians (2.75 million), as well as Iraqis and Afghans. The agreement signed last year with the European Union envisages that other refugees will be returned to Turkey but does not take into account the country’s lack of human rights guarantees. In spite of some improvements, most under-age Syrian refugees have no access to education and most of the adults are excluded from the legal employment circuit.
India, discrimination by caste
India too is showing serious problems as far as restrictions to freedom of speech are concerned. Human rights champions continue to suffer threats and oppression in spite of the thousands of people who protest publicly against discrimination. Within the context of economic growth that is to be pursued at all costs, the government has continued to ignore the rights of alienated communities. Various armed groups in central India, as well as in northern states, run rampant with extortion, kidnappings and killings, often involving government officials. It is estimated that minors are also enlisted by these organisations. Caste-based discrimination remains a daily occurrence and the dalit, on the lowest level of society, continue to suffer widespread violence. In 2015 there were 45,000 cases reported of crimes against members of registered castes.
Violence inflicted by police forces continue to be widespread in spite of the Supreme Court having established that uniformed officers must not enjoy total immunity. One year ago, a court of the Central Investigative Office sentenced 47 officers for the extrajudicial execution of ten men in 1991 in Uttar Pradesh, however, new allegations concerning more recent cases emerged during 2016. The government is trying to restrict the work of NGOs by resorting to a law on the regulation of contributions coming from abroad which complicates the possibility of receiving funding. Furthermore, people continue to risk being arrested for chanting slogans against the authorities or for having written comments on Facebook considered anti-nationalist.
The U.S. and the Unknown Trump Factor: discriminatory rhetoric becomes law
From a socio-political perspective, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president has caused fear of a misogynous and xenophobic shift due to controversial statements made during the election campaign and the first restrictive executive orders issued. The new White House rhetoric reflects a global inclination for security and discriminatory policies riding the wave of voters’ fear and insecurity. On the other hand, as the Amnesty International Report underlines, his predecessor, President Obama, left behind many failures as far as the protection of human rights are concerned, such as an increase of the CIA’s secret campaign of drone strikes and the development of a device for mass surveillance, as revealed by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
At the end of 2016, almost eight years after the former president had come to power and stated he would close Guantanamo, 59 men were still detained there, most of them without having been tried nor at times even formally charged. In the course of 2016, 48 prisoners were instead transferred and handed over to authorities in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, the United Arab Emirates, Ghana, Italy, Kuwait, Mauritania, Montenegro, Oman, Senegal and Serbia.
At least one thousand people were killed by police officers in the United States in 2016, in particular African-Americans. However, there is still not a programme aimed at the traceability of these deaths in spite of statements of intent made by the Justice Department. There have been many protests held opposing the excessive use of force by the police in Minnesota, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
As far as immigration is concerned, at least 42,000 unaccompanied minors and 56,000 people, including entire families, were stopped and arrested while crossing the southern border. These citizens are often detained, in some cases for over a year, without adequate access to medical and legal aid. A number of states have presented legislation to prevent legal refugees from living there. In September Texas announced its withdrawal from the Federal Programme for the Relocation of Refugees, allegedly for security reasons. Kansas and New Jersey followed suit.
The newly-elected president has already enacted a number of measures that are causing controversy, riding the wave of his own need to protect borders and security. Just five days after being sworn in, on January 25th, Trump signed two executive orders. The first authorising the construction of a wall along America’s southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and drug trafficking and the other against so-called sanctuary cities, cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, which, on the basis of local law or policies enacted by their administrations, protect undocumented minors and do not apply federal laws that state they must be deported.
Two days later Trump suspended for 120 days the arrival of all refugees and restricted travel for citizens coming from seven countries with an Islamic majority population; Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, to then withdraw Iraq from the list. It was a highly discriminatory executive order renamed the Muslim ban, and publicly opposed by the UNHCR and the IOM, International Organisation for Migrants, as well as by American and non-American citizens who protested at airports.
A few days ago, the Department for Homeland Security banned all electronic devices from being carried on board flights to the U.S. coming from Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. This was yet another discriminatory measure masked as a need to protect the country and has also been applied by the United Kingdom.