Rights Wire

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

Leave a comment

Czech Republic: the refugee crisis and systematic human rights violations

By Sarah Ben-Moussa

As refugees travel to Europe in search of sanctuary, some have been crossing through the Czech Republic, which is often merely a passing point on the way to other parts of Europe, such as Germany or Sweden. The Czech Republic received over 1,350 asylum requests through November 2015, a small figure compared to Germany’s 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015. Notwithstanding this fact, refugees passing through or requesting asylum in the Czech Republic often face detention, arbitrary fines, lack of access to justice and widespread xenophobia.


On Oct. 22, 2015, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, criticized the Czech Republic for systematic violations of the human rights of refugees attempting to cross through the Czech Republic on their way to Germany.

Refugees face detention for up to 90 days, and are sometimes fined 250 CZK (10 USD) to finance their own detention, he said. Refugees have also reportedly been strip-searched on a regular basis and any money on their persons has been confiscated. In the first nine months of 2015, over 7,000 refugees were detained by the Czech government, most for 90 daya.

Conditions in detention centers, particularly in the Bela-Jezova center, are “worse than a prison”, according to the Czech Justice Minister, Robert Pelikán. Anna Sabatova, the Czech Ombudsman, reiterated this criticism, and warned that children risked being traumatized while in detention by the constant presence of armed guards, who often degraded refugees in front of their children. Moreover, the Czech Ombudsman has noted that the treatment of children in these centers violates the U.N. Convention on the Rights of a Child, to which the Czech Republic is a party. The Committee on the Rights of the Child itself has also criticized the detention of children and minors based on the migration status of their parents as a violation of international law, which the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights also emphasized in its statement.

Legal reprieve is often also hard to obtain. Although the High Commissioner noted that there have been refugees who have challenged their detention and prevailed, he said that many were not in a position to seek judicial remedy, due to lack of information about their right to free legal aid and the restricted access of civil-society groups in some detention facilities. In November 2015, refugees in one detention center went on a hunger strike in protest of the long detention times and the possibility of being repatriated to their home country.

Furthermore, Czech President Miloš Zeman has repeatedly made xenophobic comments against refugees, contributing to a toxic atmosphere in a country where 70 percent of the population opposes the arrivals of refugees, according to a 2015 poll. President Zeman has gone on record warning against the influx of refugees, arguing that refugees will bring Sharia law with them, endangering Czech society. “The beauty of our women will be hidden, as they’ll be forced to wear burkas,” Zeman said. He was quick to add, “Though I can think of some for whom this would be an improvement.”

In December 2015, Zeman called the refugee influx an “organized invasion” of Europe, and called on refugees to stay in their home countries to fight the Islamic State. And in January 2015, Zeman said that it is “practically impossible” to integrate Muslims into European society, and that the surge of refugees was planned and coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt in an effort to gain control of Europe. These comments have spurred violence against refugees in the Czech Republic, drawing condemnation from the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.


In response to international criticism, Czech Interior Minister Milan Chovanec stated that he disagrees with the U.N. that Czech policies violate human rights law. He added that conditions have been improving and said that the High Commissioner was welcome to come to the Czech Republic and examine the situation.

The President’s office, however, was much more defensive, responding to the U.N. criticism via Facebook, and posting that the “verbal attack” by the OHCHR was not the first, and was part of an “intensifying” campaign against the Czech Republic. The spokesman for his office later added that the President stands by his opinion and will not change his mind due to pressure abroad.

It should be noted, however, that the President does not hold a large amount of policy power, and instead functions as a ceremonial head of state. Although they do not use the same inflammatory rhetoric, the center-left government of the Czech Republic still remains the only state currently detaining refugees and migrants for such long periods of time. They also faced criticism from human rights advocates and Jewish groups in 2015 for numbering refugees as they arrived off of trains, a practice with deep historical ties to the Second World War. They quickly abandoned the practice after the backlash.


The Czech Republic has been defiant in its stance on refugees, denying any human rights violations. The lengthy detention of refugees and the dehumanizing treatment they face serves no legitimate purpose but to degrade refugees and create an additional obstacle in their already difficult journey to safety. As Europe braces for more refugees in 2016, the question is if the Czech Republic will continue adhering to its policies that fly in the face of international law and human rights standards, or seek a new, rights-based way forward.

Sarah Ben-Moussa 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: Lukas Krasa/Creative Commons

Leave a comment

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


Human rights defender training in South Africa helps empower LGBTI refugees

By Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman

When we began our human rights defender training in South Africa by asking participants to give examples of discrimination they faced as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) refugees, we didn’t expect many people to share. What we heard, however, was an outpouring of tragic events. Participants openly discussed how their partner or friend had been killed and how they had lost their livelihood and homes because of their sexual identity. Some even bore the scars of recent physical assault. We were there to work together to overcome this endemic abuse, and were inspired by their courage because, even in the face of such tragedy, they chose to empower themselves and others.


Student Hailey Flynn works with a small group of trainees.

A few stories come to mind as we remember the dozens of stories of tragedy and resilience. One participant discussed how she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by her landlord who would threaten to evict her if she didn’t comply with his demands. However, this individual took matters into her own hands and decided to go to the police in order to put a stop to the abuse she was facing. Her efforts to end the abuse paid off and the police finally arrested the landlord. However, many of the other participants did not have such triumphant conclusions to their stories; all of the participants still endure ongoing abuse as a result of their sexual orientation, gender identity and nationality.

Facing persecution in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, many LGBTI refugees have fled to South Africa in search of a safe haven. Since South Africa’s constitution and domestic laws are liberal and progressive, they believed that these legal protections would provide them with safety from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and ethnic origin. Rather than finding a safe, supportive environment, however, these individuals continue to face discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and their nationality.

In spite of the overwhelming challenges in South Africa, including physical assault, difficulty in finding housing and work, harassment from both private and public actors, and from living in a foreign country, many LGBTI refugees wanted to empower themselves by learning how they could advocate for their rights and the rights of others in the LGBTI refugee community. In November 2014, the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic partnered with People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP), a South African non-profit organization that advocates for refugees and asylum seekers, to conduct a 3-day human rights defender training for LGBTI refugees in Cape Town, South Africa. Supervised by Clinic Director, Professor Chi Mgbako, five students developed a training manual that defined the human rights violations that the South African LGBTI refugee community faces and identified the relevant international, regional and domestic mechanisms to redress these human rights abuses. The manual also includes instructions on how to submit shadow reports or complaints to the relevant human rights mechanisms.


Student Takahisa Juba discusses human rights mechanisms during the training.

This training enabled the participants to garner practical knowledge about the human rights framework and to understand how to effectively fight for their own rights as well as the rights of their fellow LGBTI refugees. Since all of the trainees had personally experienced human rights violations, these injustices motivated them to participate in the training and work to ensure rights for all. The advocacy skills that the training focused on not only empowered them to fight for their own rights, but also encouraged them to defend the rights of other survivors of human rights abuses.

It was an energy-filled three days of training and the participants’ enthusiasm was overwhelming. The first day kicked off with an overview of the human rights legal framework. Then, we dove into the relevant rights that protect LGBTI refugees specifically and covered what international, regional and domestic laws enumerate those rights. To test their knowledge on the material, quizzes and interactive activities were included throughout the training. Participation in these games not only reinforced the trainees’ comprehension of the material, but also fostered a competitive and enthusiastic atmosphere.

Despite having rights, these participants knew all too well that many people and institutions often fail to hold perpetrators responsible for human rights violations. As a result, documentation of abuses and demanding accountability are crucial to redressing human rights abuses. A significant portion of the training was dedicated to reconciling what rights LGBTI refugees actually have with the reality of how to enforce those rights when they are violated. We explained how various human rights monitoring mechanisms—including the Human Rights Committee, African Commission, South African Commission on Human Rights, Committee Against Torture, Human Rights Council (the Universal Periodic Review Process and Special Procedures), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the South African Human Rights Commission—can be used to enforce the relevant rights and how each of these mechanisms can be used most effectively. Showing that there are available remedies and methods of accountability gave the participants the tools to change their circumstances and empower themselves. We also devoted a session on fact-finding through interviewing and non-interviewing methods, which is an essential skill-set for documenting abuses and seeking accountability.


Student Urooj Rahman gives a presentation as part of the human rights defender training.

With new knowledge and tools in hand, the participants concluded the training by envisioning a brighter future. Trainees broke into several groups and designed strategic plans to hold the South African government accountable for protecting LGBTI refugee rights. These plans laid out a framework for addressing specific rights violations through engaging a particular human rights monitoring mechanism. Moreover, they paved a path forward for participants to continue to fight for their own rights and for those of their fellow LGBTI refugees.

The trainees left feeling empowered and optimistic, as they were now better aware of their rights and how to protect them. The training also made us realize the importance of human rights work and having the tools to advocate for and with marginalized members of society. It was a moving experience for us to see that the knowledge we shared allowed many of the trainees to feel invigorated to advocate for the LGBTI refugee community. We feel fortunate to have had this opportunity to work with these courageous participants who have had the resilience to stand up for the rights they deserve. Our hope is that our training imparted useful information for their advocacy work, which will allow them to live safer, better lives. We are hopeful that the trainees will utilize the vast amount of information they learned and demand that their guaranteed rights under South African, regional and international law are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Hailey Flynn, Takahisa Juba and Urooj Rahman are a 2L student, alumnus and 3L student, respectively. They participated in the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic.

Leave a comment

On refugee rights in Thailand and the dangers of forced or coerced returns to Burma

By Zach Hudson

In my current work at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, I am focusing on issues of forced displacement—in particular, refugees forcibly displaced in response to conflict. I’m interested in Thailand as a focus area in part because it hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Most of the refugees in Thailand are residents of nine different camps in four provinces along the border with Burma [Myanmar]. The populations residing in these camps are mostly Burmese ethnic minorities who have fled various waves of the conflict in Burma. Many have lived in the camps for almost two decades, while many others have actually been born and grown up entirely within the walls of the camp.

Following a coup in Thailand in May 2014, the new military government in Thailand suggested that refugees living in camps along the Thai/Burma border would soon be returned home as Burma stabilizes following peace processes. Activists have reported that when they and various other international actors reacted strongly by criticizing this announcement, the Thai authorities then clarified that any action taken would not be immediate, but would reflect conditions on the ground in Burma.

Many reports have suggested that conditions in Burma are still not conducive to the return of camp residents. While the peace process is ongoing, there are still many areas in Burma where armed conflict between government forces and non-state actors continues unabated. Even where conflict has ceased, there are continual risks of violence against ethnic minorities. Returning refugees would also face the threat of persistent anti-personnel landmines located in many areas along the border. Furthermore, in many cases, the land that once belonged to these refugees is now mined—making it dangerous to access and often worthless in value as a place to rebuild a home or grow food. Even large areas of non-mined land that once belonged to these refugees have now been confiscated by the Myanmar government. Finally, the provision of social services in the areas of return are often non-existent or limited as convergence of government services/regulation schemes and the former informal service provision structures that existed during the conflict are slowly integrated.

Article 33 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugee, and its application through the convention’s 1967 Protocol, prohibits expulsion or return of refugees—called refoulement— “in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” While Thailand has not joined this convention, many would argue that non-refoulement is a principle of customary international law by which Thailand is nevertheless bound. In fact, non-refoulement has often been cited as an example of jus cogens—a fundamental, overriding principle of international law from which no derogation is ever permitted.

Thailand’s indication that it may begin involuntary repatriation of camp residents back to Burma should not be taken lightly. In the past, Thai authorities have forcibly removed other communities of non-nationals living in the country—many of whom had been born in, or lived in, Thai camps for decades previous to sudden overnight expulsion.

Even if current refugees of the camps living along the Thai/Burma border are not technically forcibly removed, there are other ways by which Thai authorities are coercing these populations into a constructive return. International donor funding is beginning to shift from camp support to efforts directly within Burma as the peace process unfolds. Many NGOs presently operating from Thailand are now also adding offices or even relocating to Yangon or other areas within Burma. As this shift takes place, funding and support activities for the camps shrink. Thailand is not then supplementing this lost funding or programming, and simultaneously is not allowing camp residents to work or find other ways to support themselves. In fact, frequently the camps are essentially closed to both in and out movement. The result of this stranglehold effect is that refugees are for all intents and purposes being forced to involuntarily repatriate.

At the Center, we are excited to explore many of these issues over the coming months as we learn more about the situation in Thailand and Burma and how various international human rights frameworks might apply in the refugee context.

Zach Hudson is the Crowley Fellow in International Human Rights at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.