Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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Fighting forced labor in Europe

By Miriam Quarticelli

Despite common (mis-)conceptions, forced labor is one of the most urgent issues affecting Europe in recent years. Although forced labor is often seen as a problem in developing countries, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 880,000 women, men and children are victims of forced labor in the European Union. In 2012, an outrageous number of 20.9 million women, men and children were trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived, meaning that around three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide are victims of forced labor, according to the ILO.


Forced labor is defined by the ILO as workers who are “coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” Fifty-eight percent of victims of forced labor in the EU are women, according to the ILO. Data also shows that domestic work, agriculture, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, cleaning, food manufacturing and processing and textiles and clothing are the main sectors employing victims of forced labor. Often, forced labor is accompanied by other forms of labor abuse and exploitation. Victims are coerced or forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. They face physical, sexual and psychological abuse in the workplace and are unable to leave due to threats of violence, confinement, outstanding debt or other consequences. For example, a report by Human Rights Watch documented how some migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom were coerced to work through low payments, physical and psychological abuse and the withholding of travel documents such as passports. “In London they just locked me at home … I ate after they finished, the leftovers … When I ran away I was sleeping in the park because I didn’t know anybody here … I felt like a beggar,” one domestic worker told HRW.

In Europe, forced labor is also associated with human trafficking and illegal cross-border migration, as irregular migrants are often vulnerable to forced labor. In some instances, migrants may agree to be trafficked, placing their trust in worker recruitment agencies, only to find themselves with no way to return home and forced to work in sub-standard conditions or in a position they had not agreed to. Migrants from inside the EU (Bulgaria, Poland and Romania) and from outside the EU (China, Morocco and Turkey) are often affected. However, migrants are not the only source of forced labor.

In fact, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on forced labor in nine European countries documented that many people affected by forced labor are EU citizens. Despite this, EU governments continue to view and tackle forced labor as an immigration, human trafficking and border-control issue. European governments focus mostly on immigration regulation rather than ensuring protections in the workplace because it is easier to believe that tougher border controls will lead to a decrease in forced labor. This narrow conception of how to fight forced labor overlooks how many individuals may be trapped in conditions of forced labor within their own countries or in countries where they are present legally.


At the international level, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) establishes that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) prohibit slavery, servitude and forced labor, and guarantees the freedom of movement and the right to determine where to work. This means that all workers have the right to work in favorable conditions which include fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, rest, reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Furthermore, laws created within the framework of the ILO are of crucial importance, including the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and the Domestic Workers Convention of 2011, which establishes the rights of domestic workers, including standards for minimum age of employment, protection against abuses and violence, adequate salary and working conditions. At the European level, Article 5 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits slavery and forced labor. These treaties place an obligation on states to protect people from rights violations. In fact, according to Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), member states must guarantee the right to move freely within the EU and to be protected from discrimination on the ground of their nationality in labor situations. Moreover, Article 15 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights allows every EU citizen the right to seek employment and to work in any EU Member State without being exploited.


Despite international laws and regulations seeking to eliminate forced labor, many labor rights violations still exist in Europe and most responses to forced labor are ad hoc rather than systematic. For example, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have set up programs to assist victims of forced labor who are also migrants or undocumented workers. While this is beneficial for irregular migrants, such initiatives are less likely to reach and aid EU migrants or citizens who have experienced forced labor. Moreover, once a case of forced labor is identified, there is a high burden of proof for legal action. With this in mind, the practice of pursuing several legal routes at the same time (e.g. employment and criminal cases) may offer the best option for those who have experienced forced labor.

To better prevent forced labor, EU states should work to raise awareness about the indicators of forced labor within government agencies, labor inspectors and civil society. They should also reinforce labor market regulations and associate these regulations with inspection and enforcement powers. Furthermore, it is essential to combat human trafficking and to implement stronger immigration laws to protect migrants who are vulnerable to forced labor. Finally, EU states should sign onto a legally-binding treaty on forced labor, which should include updated standards on preventing forced labor and compensating victims.

As the EU investigates reports of slave labor on Thai fishing vessels that supply seafood in European markets and considers a ban of imports produced by forced labor, the EU should not forget that these same types of violations are occurring within its own borders. Most recently, human rights groups and news organizations have documented forced labor in Poland, Malta and Greece. The EU must practice what is preaches and set a strong example for the elimination of forced labor and in achieving justice for victims of these abuses.

Miriam Quarticelli is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: AnaManzar08/Creative Commons

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A crisis beyond borders: the migration across the Mediterranean

By Zahava Moerdler

Europe is currently facing an international crisis. Thousands of migrants are making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the hopes of finding better living conditions, escaping persecution or giving their families a better chance at education and prosperity. However, European states remain aloof as migrants flood both Italy and Greece and are resistant to policy changes that would ensure better treatment of migrants once they reach European shores. The number of deaths has decreased this month as several European Union (EU) navies have sent more ships and efforts by private rescue groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station have increased. Yet, 46,000 migrants have reached Europe since the start of 2015, as compared to the 41,243 who migrated to Europe between January and May 2014, according to the United Nations (UN). Even with increased efforts to help migrants cross the sea, thousands are still pouring into European countries, which are unready and unwilling to help them assimilate.


With the vast influx of migrants during the height and close of colonialism, European countries endeavored to find a way to assimilate these populations. After World War II, many countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, opened their borders, often enticing foreign workers to migrate. For example, in the 1950s, Indians and Pakistanis began to immigrate to the United Kingdom and in the 1970s, so did many from Bangladesh. The European countries saw these groups as temporary “guest workers,” as did the migrants themselves. With the economic downturn in the 1970s, European countries began to close off access to foreign workers. Thus, one aspect of the current migrant dilemma resides in a historical precedent for foreign workers. However, today, many flee war-torn countries and seek better healthcare, childcare and standards of living in Europe.

It is illegal under international law for countries to return migrants who are fleeing persecution in their own countries. As a result, thousands are making the dangerous trek from war-torn North Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean and into Europe. Others are migrating to Europe to secure a better future for their families and for economic reasons. European countries are scrambling to figure out ways to help these individuals as they venture across the sea, and once they make it into Europe, to find them places to live and rebuild their lives. However, with a growing far-right in many European countries, instead of addressing the situation, many are protecting their borders from fear of terrorism threats from abroad. Countries like Britain and France are exercising “fortress policies” in which the focus remains on limiting the number of asylum applicants.


In the first four months of 2015 alone, over 1,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy, which has become “Europe’s migrant bottleneck,” is at the center of this crisis. 170,000 out of the 200,000 migrants who arrived in Europe last year came through Italy. In April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi organized an emergency EU summit due to the crisis. Because of EU budget constraints, Italy had to stop its Mare Nostrum, or search and rescue operations. Additionally, since Mare Nostrum was replaced by “Operation Triton,” the EU’s border agency, the number of deaths has greatly increased. The new operation will mean fewer boats are provided by EU countries for patrolling the Mediterranean. There will also be less search and rescue operations because of the decrease in ships and funding. Thus, a less secure Mediterranean is bound to result.

Most of the migrants taking the perilous journey into Europe in 2015 hail from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the UN refugee agency. In 2011, thousands of Tunisians arrived in Italy through the island of Lampedusa, which remains a bottleneck because of its proximity to North Africa as compared with mainland Italy. With the vast number of migrants, the end of Mare Nostrum and the cheaper and more limited Triton in place, the trip across the Mediterranean has, according to many aid organizations, put more migrant lives at risk.

But even before making the trip across the sea, migrants travel hundreds and thousands of miles, often in hostile territory, in order to reach the shores of the Mediterranean and the smugglers awaiting them there. According to a United Nations report, human trafficking from Libya was a $170 million business last year. Migrants often pack themselves into anything seaworthy—most owned by human smuggling rings—and are loaded beyond the tipping point. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, “gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, and sometimes at gunpoint. They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else.” Many migrants travel from the Horn of Africa, are often treated brutally by traffickers, and endure desert heat and even unrest in Libya, the most common departure point. On April 20, another boat sank off the Greek island of Rhodes, which is another major bottleneck into Europe from the Middle East and Asia, killing at least three people. According to one survivor, many remained trapped inside the boat as it sank because the smugglers who organized the voyage had locked the doors to the lower levels of the ship.


So, what is Europe doing about all this? The United Nations envoy for international migration, Peter Sutherland, told the Security Council that the first step towards addressing the crisis must be a resolution to immediately save lives. On May 18, EU ministers, in response to the crisis, approved an air and sea mission that would destroy the vessels human traffickers are using to smuggle migrants across the sea. The mission’s first phase will be an intelligence gathering operation and the United Kingdom is expected to offer drone and surveillance support. As the mission progresses, vessels suspected of harboring migrants will be boarded and searched and either seized or disposed of in Libyan territory. The EU’s foreign policy chief claims the operation could be launched as early as June 25. The mission will be launched from Italy, one of the major bottlenecks into Europe. There is anticipation that the plan will be brought before the UN due to concern over militarization and Libyan concerns over sovereignty. Additionally, Russian officials have expressed concerns about the mission, which leaves approval in the UN uncertain. Rights groups also warn about the impact of militarization on migrants who could be placed in far greater peril.

Meanwhile, European countries continue to militarize their borders and to maintain policies of inaction as a form of deterrence for future migrants. Although funds for Operation Triton have increased threefold, most Europe countries are reluctant to see the crisis in the Mediterranean as a humanitarian crisis, which would require search and rescue efforts as well as a willingness by European states to resettle and even welcome refugees. For example, the United Kingdom has donated substantial funds but has been unwilling and has made no commitment towards taking in any refugees. On June 2, French police evacuated a migrant camp in Paris and then bulldozed the tents located there. Police undertook this operation as a way of controlling the ever-growing population of migrants moving into France. 380 individuals from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan were told to pack their belongings and loaded onto a bus before their camp was destroyed. This was not the first time a European state destroyed a migrant camp—in May, authorities in Rome evacuated a camp that had been around for almost two decades.

Many of the refugees migrating to Europe are asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. Yet, the EU has had difficulty coordinating and reconciling its asylum policy for years, especially since there are 28 member states with their own police force and judiciary. There are more detailed joint rules brought in with the Common European Asylum System, but there has been little practice in putting those rules into action. The major principle for handling asylum claims in the EU is the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that responsibility for processing claims lies with the member state who played the largest part in the applicant’s entry into the EU. By and large, that is the first country the migrant entered, which today means Italy and Greece. Thus, large numbers of applicants and migrants currently reside in Italy and Greece awaiting word on their petitions. Sometimes, migrants have families elsewhere with whom they want to be reunited, and so the principle member state would be that country where the family resides. As a result, there is significant tension across Europe because states like Greece and Italy are inundated with applications, since they are the first point of entry. Germany and Finland are the only two states who have stopped sending migrants back to the original point of entry, whether it be Italy or Greece. Additionally, countries like Germany and France have opposed EU plans to spread 40,000 migrants across member states in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the influx on Italy and Greece.

The net result is a rather dark picture of Europe today. While thousands are attempting incredibly dangerous trips through deserts, war, hostility, and across the Mediterranean, Europe remains as cold and aloof as ever. With no clear resolution in sight and no adjustment for asylum or immigration policy, migrants who do make it to Europe are stuck at their point of entry. With Europe’s Eurodac system, a database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints, mobility becomes even less likely. Unless Europe can adopt a proper policy for acceptance, assimilation and resettlement, thousands will continue to remain stuck in Greece and Italy, causing problems not only for the migrants seeking to start a new life, but also the economic, social and political situation in Greece and Italy. Hopefully, the EU can provide greater support beyond the bare bones of Operation Triton, since the influx of migrants and refugees does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Sarah Tzinieris/Creative Commons

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The rise of Syriza: human rights in the wake of devastating austerity

By Chris Beall

Late on Jan. 25, standing before the University of Athens Propylaea, Alexis Tsipras greeted a crowd of chanting and flag-waving supporters. His party, Syriza—Greece’s “Coalition of the Radical Left”—had just won 149/300 seats in the Hellenic Parliament: a political victory fueled by the party’s platform of hope and relief from harsh austerity measures.

While the election results marked a momentous occasion for Greece and arguably for human rights generally, Tsipras recognized that the night also resembled an important juncture regarding the future of Europe. In thanking supporters across the continent for their solidarity and confidence, Tsipras declared, “All of Europe, all of the world is listening to us. We give the assurance that we will continue this struggle with the same pathos, the same confidence.”


The confidence cited by Tsipras is far from universally shared. As soon as the election was over, many European politicians began firing off tweets deriding its results, and digging in their heels for upcoming negotiations. This, against the backdrop of the Athens Stock Exchange’s spectacular 30 percent sell off since early December, when it became clear that the incumbent New Democracy party’s failure to form a government would result in snap elections and pave the way for Syriza’s parliamentary ascent. Not exactly a vote of confidence from Europe’s power brokers, nor from the capital markets.

However, this all deserves some unpacking. On one hand, let’s talk perspective: while radical in name, Syriza isn’t exactly talking about abolishing private property or seizing the means of production. Indeed, the party’s continual assurances that they seek to work alongside their creditors to renegotiate the terms of their debt hardly amounts to storming the proverbial Winter Palace.

But on the other hand, we might also ask ourselves what is to be gained in any attempt to explain away Greece’s election results in terms of high profile twitter feeds and/or falling financial indices. Really, such reactions are obvious. These sorts of indicators reflect little more than the familiar moods and sentiments of just one narrow segment of the European social fabric: the slim beneficiaries under the Troika’s—Greece’s creditor super committee made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—status quo policies.

This is not to say that these reactions should be overlooked. These people will in effect pull the strings of any further European Union (EU)-Greek bailout package. But after half a decade of setting policies with the sole aim of protecting their own—to hell with the social costs—it should not surprise anybody that these same people view Syriza, or any change whatsoever, as a threat to their own privileged interests.

Which is all to make the basic point that the dominant discourse in Europe today is but one narrative of the post-2009 Eurozone experience. For the first time in the crisis, the rise of Syriza reveals that this mainstream narrative has approached its natural limits—that other counter-narratives, like them or not, have a legitimate space in the marketplace of ideas.


This shift in narrative should be greeted with both applause and skepticism for those interested in the state of human rights in Greece and the region more generally.

The structural adjustment policies forcibly attached to each Greek bailout package—immensely burdensome loans financed by deep and scathing cuts to Greek society—have resulted in a genuine humanitarian and human rights crisis, evidenced by a long list of ugly developments. First, there are the obligatory economic numbers, such as the country’s unemployment rate, which has averaged about 26 percent over the last four years. Youth unemployment, after rising above 60 percent in early 2013, has averaged roughly 56 percent during this same period. The real wages of working Greeks have plummeted nearly 28 percent since their peak in 2010, a direct result of Troika efforts to devalue labor costs and make the nation a more competitive trading partner. Naturally, such policies have weighed heavily on the Greek middle class, which has both shrunk and as a whole become poorer under austerity. The result has been an exacerbation of social inequality, both inside of Greece and across the Eurozone. While the Greeks suffer, the continent’s largest economies watch their own exports skyrocket, disproportionately benefiting from Europe’s weakened currency.

But if these kinds of statistics fail to give a human face to the crisis, consider some more direct measures: Suicide rates in the country have steadily skyrocketed since the start of the recession. In June 2011 alone, the number of reported suicides jumped by approximately 36 percent. The country has also witnessed dangerously high child malnutrition, and many families are no longer vaccinating their children due solely to cost pressures. Adoption rates too have soared to unprecedented levels during the crisis, with some desperate families turning to informal adoption channels, or outright child abandonment.

Foremost, we should welcome Syriza’s blow to the neoliberal discourse that has so narrowly managed this crisis for the past half-decade or so. The bailouts thrust upon Greece have been fueled by an unchecked and assumption-driven economic logic, which has absolutely failed to correspond to Greece’s reality. Put another way: the inherent limits of starvation, poverty, loss of hope and human dignity are all variables that have a hard time fitting into even the most sophisticated of economic models. Yet, the Troika’s unadulterated hubris in ignoring this reality has, perhaps more than anything, fostered Syriza’s rise to political power. By pushing austerity in the absence of any societal pressure meters or safety valves, a pipe has finally burst in the Hellenic Parliament. This is because, in times of humanitarian crisis, there is no such thing as ceteris paribus.

Clearly, the situation in Greece amounts to a public health nightmare and rampant violations of the right to work and health. Any ability to give voice to these tragedies, to bring them into the forefront of Eurozone policymaking and establish their place alongside the dominant discourse, is a healthy development.

Likewise, the measures proposed in Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme to address Greece’s reality through a more rights-based approach merit praise. Far from some radical Marxist agenda, the program looks to basic Keynesian economic policy and a “European New Deal” to steer Greece out of its depression. By temporarily halting the nation’s suffocating debt-service payments in order to dramatically reinvest in the Greek population, the program wisely attempts to exit the crisis through stimulus and economic growth, rather than austerity’s violent fiscal savings program. The platform also resembles an important ideological shift in values among Greek voters, which could serve a bellwether for European values more broadly. Among its four central tenets, the Thessaloniki Programme places “confronting the humanitarian crisis” at the top of the list. Whatever terms and promises might be eroded in forward negotiations between Greece and its creditors, Syriza will be pressured domestically to respect this ideological turn.

There are other positive byproducts of the Greek election results. While the dramatic rise of Syriza has been a result of the party’s popular economic platform, the new government’s social policies will also allow specific advances in human rights that would have never been politically feasible, were it not for the crisis. As reported by IRIN, perhaps those who stand the most to gain under Syriza are the region’s traditionally marginalized migrants and refugees, who will welcome Syriza’s open-door immigration policies.


And yet, we should caution ourselves: What happens if Syriza fails?

Tsipras was absolutely correct in his victory speech, to note that all of Europe is watching. Perhaps those watching closest are Europe’s ultra-right or openly fascist political parties, who have their own dark narrative to contribute toward the economic crisis. It’s no small development that Golden Dawn—Greece’s xenophobic and literal neo-nazi party—won 6.3 percent of the popular vote, coming in at a parliamentary third place while a good chunk of the party sits in jail on charges linked to murder and organized crime. Similar movements all across Europe—and especially France’s rising National Front—are paying attention to Syriza. They rightly conceive of themselves as next in line to the ideological throne.

The human rights implications of this potential development are obvious. The ultra-nationalism at the heart of these movements poses a very real threat to all of Europe’s immigrant and minority populations. Taking advantage of Greece’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, Golden Dawn has openly called for the forcible deportation of all migrants, and has routinely used physical violence to intimidate both minorities and members of other political parties. They’ve also displayed stark jingoistic rhetoric when it comes to Greece’s immediate neighbors. If these violent mobs were to be given the state’s official police power, or Greece’s military, the consequences could be devastating. Less dramatically, any grant of legitimacy toward such a movement would mark a point of no return to the peace and international cooperation upon which the EU is premised.

And so this brings us back to the constraints Syriza faces, and the past hubris displayed by the Troika. It will be mathematically impossible for Syriza to both keep its election promises, and prevent Greece from leaving the Eurozone, if the nation’s creditors do not give the country some breathing room. It is decision time. The choice is entirely the Troika’s, and so far, it hasn’t been a good start. But as unpopular as loan forgiveness and delayed payments may be in Berlin, the Troika needs to remind itself that if Syriza fails, there are alternative counter-narratives waiting their turn on the sidelines.

If a commitment to Keynesian economics and basic human rights proves too radically leftist for the Eurozone to stomach, then the continent could soon find itself dealing with full-blown Eurosceptics and the radical right. That’s the real choice here. Let’s hope the Troika realizes that.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons