Why you should care
Nations are increasingly violating international law and returning refugees to war zones.
“I’m not fine at all. I’m dying in Libya.” Muhammad Hafees sent me the message from a Libyan detention center on May 26 during Islam’s fasting month of Ramadan. After fleeing Sudan’s war-torn region of Darfur, the 26-year-old came to Libya two years ago to cross the Mediterranean, despite the conflict that has torn the country apart since 2011.
Having scratched together just enough money from relatives, Hafees boarded a rickety boat from the coastal Libyan city of Sabratha on Nov. 22, 2018, with 111 others, all of whom were escaping conflicts and poverty back home. But the Libyan “coast guard” — a band of militias that the European Union has co-opted, trained and paid to prevent migrants from reaching Europe — intercepted the boat and dragged everyone back to detention centers, where reports of trafficking, rape, torture and other horrors are rife. That’s where Hafees was languishing the last time I spoke to him, on June 1. He hasn’t been active on WhatsApp since.
Hafees is one of tens of thousands of refugees who are victims of a fundamental shift in the international community’s approach toward them. Since the birth of nation states, each country has had the sovereign right to choose who to let into their territory and who to keep out. At the same time, most nations have since the United Nations’ 1951 Convention on Refugees broadly adhered to a key international law enshrined in that statute. Called the principle of “non-refoulement,” it bars countries from returning asylum-seekers who have entered their territory back to places where their life or safety is threatened.
When the largest and wealthiest nations get away with breaking international human-rights laws, then other countries wonder, why can’t we?
Jeff Crisp, Oxford University
But the shift in the approach of America and Europe to refugees over the past two years is now exploding into a broader global abandoning of that norm. The U.S. is denying a record 70 percent of asylum requests, according to research by Syracuse University. Europe is in effect trying to skirt the non-refoulement norm, say rights groups and independent analysts, through a series of bilateral agreements with countries such as Turkey and Libya aimed at ensuring refugees don’t reach European shores in the first place. Now, more and more countries — in South Asia, the Middle East and even Latin America — that have traditionally embraced refugees fleeing violence are following the West’s example by also sending them back to some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots.
“It’s called a ripple effect,” says Jeff Crisp, a research associate at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. “When the largest and wealthiest nations get away with breaking international human-rights laws, then other countries wonder, why can’t we?”
Look no further than the Rohingya refugee crisis. India — which has hosted victims of persecution from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Europe and Bangladesh in earlier decades — is treating its 40,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees as illegal aliens. Since last year, the country’s Hindu nationalist government has been deporting hundreds of families back to Myanmar, which in 2017 carried out what some have called an extermination campaign against them. Neighboring Bangladesh had won praise when it took in 900,000 Rohingya refugees two years ago. But in November 2017, it signed an agreement with Myanmar to send those refugees back. The agreement stipulates that returns will be “voluntary,” but the Rohingya have made clear they won’t go back unless they are granted citizenship and equal rights, which Myanmar refuses to do.
“I think there will be increased efforts by Bangladesh and India to push these [Rohingya] people back, but none of them want to return,” says Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C. “The persecution of Rohingya is still going on.”
In early 2017, Jordan — which hosts more than 600,000 Syrians — was sending about 400 refugees a month back to their war-torn land. Over the past year, Turkey has sent back more than 250,000 Syrian refugees to the last rebel-held stronghold in Idlib, where civilians are bearing the brunt of a regime onslaught. Those deportations are a central criticism of the EU’s 2016 agreement with Ankara, a deal that keeps refugees in Turkey from reaching Europe.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the top global agency for refugees, has publicly articulated concerns over the actions of the EU, Turkey, India, Bangladesh and Arab nations. Experts fear these repeated violations may cause the rule of non-refoulement to lose all its significance in the future.
Although 50 countries haven’t signed the 1951 U.N. law or associated 1967 protocol, the rule of non-refoulement is widely recognized even by most nations that haven’t ratified the global treaties. But now, even signatories are violating the law or looking for ways to skirt it. Countries in Central and South America — with historically warm reception policies — are stepping up deportations. In April 2018, Trinidad and Tobago sent 80 Venezuelans back to their devastated homeland. And just last August, Peru did the same when it returned 40 Venezuelans for allegedly being part of criminal gangs or for not having legal papers.
Then there is Hafees: The EU is treating Libya as a “safe country” when it’s really a war zone, critics say. And by paying the Libyan coast guard, the EU claims that it can’t be accused of refoulement since European vessels aren’t returning migrant boats.
Turkey and Bangladesh also claim they’re sending people back voluntarily, while India and Jordan are citing “national security” concerns to throw out asylum seekers, without clear evidence of how an entire community — as opposed to specific individuals — represents a threat.
Meanwhile, Lebanon is denying 1.5 million Syrian refugees the right to build proper homes. These policies are rooted in a fear that the mostly Sunni Muslim Syrians could disrupt Lebanon’s delicate sectarian makeup if they remain in the country. Last year, the Lebanese government organized the “voluntary” return of 110,000 Syrians, even though a Washington Post investigation showed many of them were subsequently arrested, forced to inform on relatives and in some cases tortured by the Syrian regime.
Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, explains that refugees are often not fully told about the reality of the conditions back home when they’re repatriated in an organized manner. There’s a second fear, especially for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “Many Syrians believed they would be dumped over the border if they didn’t return as part of an organized scheme,” says Frelick.
Deportations — from country after country — are likely to increase, say analysts. In Turkey, 3 million Syrians are subjected to temporary protection — a legal status denying them permanent settlement — so large-scale repatriation remains a lingering threat. Just three months ago, Lebanon summarily expelled 16 Syrians to Damascus after forcing them to sign deportation orders.
Europe is exploring ways to do the same. In April, Germany stopped processing the asylum claims of all 17,411 Syrians living with temporary protection. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has clashed with Chancellor Angela Merkel over her decision to welcome refugees in 2015, said processing would resume after reassessing Syria’s security situation.
Rights groups worry that the German Ministry will adopt new guidelines to deport refugees despite the risk of retribution. After all, if Libya qualifies as “safe,” then just about anywhere does.