European Union

 

  • Citizens' Security Law under reform, Rule of Law in Spain at stake

    Commissioner Didier Reynders
    European Commission
    Rue de la Loi 200 / Wetstraat 200, 1040 Brussels
    Cc: Vice President Vera Jourová, Commissioner Helena Dalli

     

    Objectif: Citizens’ Security Law under reform, the right to freedom of peaceful

    assembly and expression, rule of law in Spain at stake

    Honourable Mr Reynders,

    This letter is sent on behalf of No Somos Delito, a broad coalition of more than one hundred associations and social movements belonging to a significant segment of the Spanish civil society, together with Defender a quien Defiende, European Civic Forum, CIVICUS and Civil Society Europe.

    In 2015, a very restrictive law, the Organic Law on the Protection of Citizen Security(2015/4, commonly known as Gag Law), was adopted in Spain. This Law has strained freedom of assembly and expression, including targeting journalists covering police actions during public gatherings, with negative repercussions on the Rule of Law. The Law is currently in the process of reform.

    We are writing to call on the European Commission to implement its mandate of ensuring the Rule of Law is upheld in a key moment for the guarantee of fundamental freedoms and Rule of Law in Spain by:

    • Meeting relevant Spanish CSOs that have been working to mitigate the negative impact of the Law on fundamental rights and the Rule of Law;
    • Expressing publicly with a statement on the Law reiterating the analysis of the 2021 rule of law report on Spain, calling for impact assessment and engagement of civil society in the reform process and for ensuring the reform will address concerns raised;
    • Engaging in dialogue with the Spanish Government to ensure the guarantee of fundamental freedoms and Rule of Law in Spain.

    Already in 2015, several UN Special Rapporteurs denounced that this Law represents a threat to fundamental rights and should be rejected[1]. More recently, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe issued an opinion pointing at the disproportionate and arbitrary nature of the restrictions on fundamental freedoms imposed by this Law[2]The European Commission 2021 rule of law report on Spain also stated with regards to the Law that if a "norm leads to abuses in practice, this norm should be changed, circumscribed, or accompanied by additional safeguards" and called for an in-depth assessment of its impact on fundamental rights[3].

    After many years of pressure by civil society and human rights groups, finally, the Government started a process of reform of this Law. However, the reform in its current form does not overcome the repressive nature of the Law as it does not address the more detrimental articles concerning the right to freedom of assembly, expression, and information, as well as other human rights.

    • The draft reform does not put in place measures to guarantee the right to freedom of information with regards to the recording of images or video of police officers on duty, which is crucial to ensure police accountability. The sanction for recording police images and personal data "that could endanger the safety of the agents" is not eliminated but qualified. The recording will still be sanctioned when "it entails a certain danger", and it will be the police to decide on this possibility (art. 36.23, serious offence, fine of 601 to 30.000€). This provision has been applied against journalists covering the actions of the law enforcement forces during public demonstrations.
    • The draft reform fails to withdraw the 'presumption of the veracity of police officers (art. 52) from the Law, which continues to allow police arbitrariness and to violate the right to a fair trial(Art.6 ECHR) and the right to an effective remedy (Art. 13 ECHR).
    • The draft reform does not withdraw the most applied offences in the repression of protest, namely "Disobedience" (Art. 36.6) and "Disrespect" (art. 37.4). As pointed out by the Commission of Venice in March 2021, the vague terms allow police arbitrariness and undermine legal certainty[4],putting at risk the Rule of Law.
    • The draft reform fails to guarantee the principle of non-discrimination in the regulation of identifications (art. 16), searches (art. 18) and frisks (art. 20). It does not prohibit ethnic and racial profiling, nor does it implement effective mechanisms for its prevention, as recommended by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Spain in 2018[5]. Specific measures should also be taken to guarantee the rights of the LGTBIQ+ community. Such measures would contribute to implementing the EU Anti-racism action plan principles and the LGBTIQ Equality strategy.
    • The draft reform also fails to establish mechanisms of control to ensure police accountability, such as proper identification of police officers and to ban the use of rubber bullets as an anti-riot material. This weapon does not allow compliance with international human rights standards because of its lack of precision and traceability[6]. Rubber bullets have been used against journalists while performing their professional duties in public demonstrations[7], which constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of information as sentenced by the European Court of Human Rights[8].

    The Citizens' Security Law reform process is a crucial opportunity to strengthen the Rule of Law and protect civic space in Spain. However, without the inclusion of these provisions, the repressive nature of the Citizens' Security Law will remain unaffected and continue to have a negative impact on rights and freedoms. For this reason, we call on your institution to support civil society to protect the Rule of Law in Spain.

    Yours sincerely,
    No Somos Delito (Spain)
    Defender a quien Defiende (Spain)
    European Civic Forum (Europe) 
    Civil Society Europe (Europe)
    CIVICUS (Global)

    The civic space in Spain is rated as 'Narrowed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.


    1- For more information, see

    https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15597&LangID=E.

    2- For more information, see https://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-AD(2021)004-e.

    3- European Commission,  Rule of Law Report Country Chapter on the rule of law situation in Spain, 2021.

    4- Opinion by The Venice Commission (22 March 2021)

    5- See: https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/39/69/Add.2

    6- Novact and Irídia (2021), Stop Balas de Goma. Report - Executive summary.

    7- For more information, see: https://www.eldiario.es/catalunya/jueza-no-identifica-policia-disparo-bala-goma-periodista-protestas-sentencia-proces-archiva-caso_1_6752210.html

    8- Najafli c. Azerbaijan (oct.), no. 2594/07, ECHR 2012

     

     

     

  • Denmark: ‘There is a focus on protecting borders rather than people’s rights’

    Charlotte SlenteCIVICUS speaks withCharlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), about recent immigration policy changes and the rights of refugees in Denmark. The DRC is an international humanitarian organisation that supports international refugees and internally displaced persons by providing protection and life-saving assistance. 

    Why has the Danish government recently decided to revoke temporary residence permits of Syrian refugees, and what have been the consequences of this policy?

    The 2015 introduction of a temporary subsidiary protection status with fewer rights – mainly granted to certain groups of Syrian refugees – is the reason behind the possibility to revoke asylum status for these Syrian nationals. This specific status comes with an amendment of the Danish Aliens Act in which the cessation clauses of the Refugee Convention no longer apply to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, meaning that changes in the home country no longer need to be sustainable – and it is possible to revoke asylum status even if the situation in the home country remains serious, fragile and unpredictable.

    The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) disagrees – along the lines of the recommendations from United Nations Refugee Agency – with the decision by the Danish authorities to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to be returned. The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can safely return. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and severe human rights abuse of the civilian population.

    We are also concerned because many of the Syrians who now have their residence permits revoked or have their application for asylum in Denmark rejected will not leave voluntarily due to the risks involved, and will consequently be placed in limbo at return centres. Given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Syrian and Danish authorities regarding forced returns, it is not possible for the Danish authorities actually to return Syrians. They can of course return once the conditions in Syria make it safe for them. But as long as the situation in Syria is not conducive for returns, we believe it is pointless to remove people from the life they have built in Denmark.

    It is important to note that not all Syrian refugees in Denmark are affected by this policy. The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten of 21 November 2021 estimated that some 34,000 Syrians have received residency in Denmark since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. Of those, 4,600 received ‘temporary protection status’ on the basis of section 7.3 of the Aliens Act. From this group, approximately 1,250 Syrian nationals are from the Damascus or Rif-Dimashq areas and hence in danger of having their residence permit revoked. 

    So far around 850 have had their cases examined at the Immigration Service and some 280 have had their residency revoked. About half of the roughly 200 cases that have been considered by the Refugees Appeals have been confirmed and the other half have had their residency prolonged. So, approximately 100 Syrians have had their residency finally revoked and are supposed to go to the return centres.

    We don’t know how many are actually at the centres as of now, but we believe it is only a handful. People are not detained at these centres. And as Denmark doesn’t maintain any cooperation with the Syrian authorities it cannot return these people by force as the situation is now.

    How has this policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Denmark?

    The increased focus on temporariness over sustainable, long-term solutions for refugees has a negative impact on refugee protection and hinders good integration. We know from our work with refugees in Denmark that the temporariness and the fear of losing their stay in Denmark have affected many of them: not just Syrians who risk having their residency revoked, but also other groups of refugees who fear that their permits might suddenly be revoked too.

    This is not a new phenomenon. Over the years, we’ve seen many political actions aimed at making it more difficult for refugees to get a foothold in Danish society.

    Among them were the introduction of the so-called temporary protection status in 2015 and the changes in legislation made in 2019, which increasingly emphasised temporariness. This has had a concrete impact on the motivation for refugees to integrate into Danish society, as they are constantly being told that they should only expect to stay in Denmark temporarily. This is neither a dignified way to treat refugees who have fled conflict and human rights violations in their home countries, nor a very productive way of treating them, as it hampers integration efforts.

    Additionally, these efforts have an impact on how other parts of society view refugees and integration. For example, the private sector is less likely to invest in and hire refugees, as they do not know if the resources put into these individuals will be lost if they lose their residency soon after employment.

    However, most refugees end up staying in Denmark for many years and even for generations, because the circumstances in their home countries remain difficult and the reasons they fled, such as personal persecution, haven’t changed. That is why DRC calls for more long-term solutions for refugees in Denmark.

    Over the past decades, Denmark’s position on immigration has shifted dramatically. Why has this happened?

    Over the past years, Denmark has received international attention for introducing restrictive measures for refugees and asylum seekers. The current government seems to rely on the assumption that the asylum system is broken and that one way to ‘fix’ it is by preventing asylum seekers coming here.

    However, the reality is one of lack of international solidarity in the global protection system, which means that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in global south countries. Countries local to conflict zones host 73 per cent of the world’s refugees. Overall, 86 per cent of all displaced people – internally displaced people and refugees combined – are hosted by low-income countries.

    Still, Denmark and other European countries would like poorer countries to take an even greater responsibility. This can potentially have a negative impact on international cooperation on refugees. If a country such as Denmark fails to shoulder its share, there is a real risk that refugee-hosting states will follow suit, undermining the global protection of refugees with potentially devastating consequences.

    One point worth noting is the discrepancy between what Denmark does internationally and domestically. Denmark has a very strong system of development assistance, one of the best in the world. It is rights-based, needs-based and holistic, with a significant emphasis on the role of civil society. Additionally, it is very positive that there is broad consensus across the political spectrum in Denmark that we should continue to be a strong donor, partner and contributor, and continue to provide support to marginalised people such as refugees and displaced persons in the regions of origin. This is something to be proud of.

    However, while Denmark remains one of the world’s leading donors in the area of humanitarian and development assistance relative to the country’s size and economy, and a rather progressive voice when it comes to refugee rights in the regions of origin, domestically it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

    One concrete example of this concerns the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Along with other western countries, Denmark has been very keen on ensuring that the principles – more solidarity, more funding and more self-reliance – are being implemented in many host countries, while being criticised for trying to pay its way out of its own responsibility to live up to the same principles. So, three years after the international community agreed on the GCR, a lack of political will and leadership is challenging the achievement of more equitable and predictable responses to forced displacement.

    Through the GCR the international community promised better responsibility sharing and durable solutions. Yet three years on, a few generous host countries continue to shoulder the greatest responsibility, while richer nations are providing neither protection for refugees nor sufficient economic support.

    Do you think the attitude of the Danish government points to a broader European pattern?

    We are seeing many European countries take steps away from ensuring protection and upholding the values that the European Union (EU) was built upon. It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to refugees’ rights across Europe. It seems what EU member states have primarily been able to agree upon is protecting borders rather protecting asylum seekers.

    We have seen systematic pushbacks at the EU’s external borders over many years, combined with measures aimed at deterring arrivals of asylum seekers in the EU, including cooperation with non-EU countries that risks violating the principle of non-refoulement and does not uphold fundamental human rights and dignity.

    EU member states have illegally prevented several thousand women, men and children from seeking protection at border crossings, for instance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia and Serbia in 2021. This involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedures, physical abuse and assault and theft at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials. It’s a telling example of how the extreme is being normalised.

    The current situation at the border with Belarus follows the same trend of focusing on protecting borders rather than people’s rights. DRC is very concerned about the current humanitarian situation at the EU’s external borders, where people are denied access to fundamental rights and protection. The situation is unacceptable, illegal and dangerous. Among the people who remain trapped in the border areas are vulnerable groups such as families with children, pregnant women and older people, many of whom have fled war and conflict in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

    While the situation calls for a calm and measured reaction, the EU and its member states at the external borders are responding with panicked proposals for emergency measures that curtail rights and safeguards of those seeking protection. Rather than limiting safeguards, the EU Commission should ensure that member states at its external borders treat people seeking protection with dignity, in accordance with international and European law. Disregard of international obligations by other states does not exempt EU member states from their responsibility. Describing a few thousand people as a threat to the EU and its 450 million inhabitants is unsettling and disproportionate. The situation must not set a precedent for managing future situations at the EU’s external borders.

    Another example, where Denmark sadly is leading the way, is the ambition of outsourcing asylum processing to another country. The idea to externalise asylum and refugee protection is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity. Similar models, such as the offshore approach implemented in Australia, have been characterised by detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to healthcare and lack of access to legal assistance, creating zones of exemption where right violations are likely to occur.

    At the same time, Denmark is sending an extremely problematic signal to our neighbouring countries in the EU and not least to the – often poorer – countries in the world that take by far the greatest responsibility for the world’s refugees. The continued willingness of neighbouring countries in areas plagued by conflict to host millions of refugees is not something to take for granted. If a rich country such as Denmark is not willing to take responsibility, there is significant risk that countries hosting far larger number of refugees will also opt out and give up on global efforts to find joint and sustainable solutions.

    What we can hope for, though, is that Denmark can inspire other countries to follow suit and live up to the UN recommendation of providing at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income to official development assistance – something that Denmark has done since 1978. And we hope that other countries will also follow the example of Denmark when it comes to providing long-term and predictable funding for development and humanitarian assistance, in order to ensure better, more holistic and more sustainable development and solutions across the globe.

    How has civil society in Denmark responded, both to the immediate issue and to the evident wave of hostility towards migrants and refugees from politicians and the public?

    First and foremost, we believe that it is important that refugees and exiles know there are people and organisations who are concerned about their situation, who sympathise with them and try to help them in the ways that are possible. DRC and others in civil society have been very vocal in the public debate, writing opinion pieces and letters to office holders, meeting with decision-makers, creating campaigns and organising demonstrations to protest against this development.

    We believe that it means something to see people fighting for their rights and dignity. But more concrete day-to-day support is also of great importance. DRC has some 6,500 volunteers throughout Denmark. These are people who for instance help refugee children with their homework. They welcome refugee families into the local community and help people with job applications and reading and understanding official information. They invite them to dinner – and teach them the dos and don’ts of Danish society. They explain the Danish sense of humour. They speak Danish with them to help them develop language skills. They teach them how to ride a bike. They act as the extended family and network that many refugee families have had to leave behind or have scattered around the world.

    This has immense importance for refugees. It’s our experience that a helping hand can mean the world. Both in a very real way, if volunteers or friendly neighbours help them get a job or stop by with some extra food, and in a broader sense, by showing that there are people who do sympathise, care about them and are willing to open their arms and help them get settled.

    We have also observed that when the debate becomes more polarised and stricter policies are introduced, more people volunteer and show their support for refugees in other ways. As the number of asylum seekers soared back in 2015-2016, the number of people willing to give a helping hand and donate to our work also increased. This goes to show that there is sympathy among the Danish public, which the DRC believes is very important.

    Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Danish Refugee Council through itswebsite or itsFacebook orInstagram pages, and follow@DRC_dk and@CharlotteSlente on Twitter.

     

  • HUNGARY: ‘Trans people are having our rights being taken away’

     

    A new law in Hungary, passed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevents trans people from legally changing their gender. CIVICUS speaks to Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Vice-President of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, a Hungarian organisation that advocates for trans people’s rights. Founded as a grassroots initiative in 2011, Transvanilla is the only organisation registered in Hungary with an exclusive focus on transgender rights and gender non-conforming issues. It drives advocacy on gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare at the national level. It also monitors discrimination and violence based on gender expression and gender identity and facilitates community gatherings and other events to raise the visibility of transgender issues and transgender people in Hungary.

    Krisztina Kolos Orban

    What has been the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary over the past few years?

    In 2012, ILGA Europe ranked Hungary ninth among 49 European countries regarding the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but in 2019 we had regressed to 19th and in 2020 we have further dropped down to 27th. This past year Hungary’s rating has declined the most, and there are various reasons. In 2012 things looked pretty good on paper, but since then new measures were introduced as the human rights landscape has changed. Hungary has not moved forward or followed international recommendations. The other factor has been the huge backlash that we have experienced over the past couple of years. Previously this government had not taken rights away from people, although it had certainly tried, and we knew that it was not LGBTQI+-friendly. But now we are having our rights being taken away. 

    If we focus on transgender rights, gender identity is a specific ground mentioned in our legislation on both anti-discrimination and hate crimes, which appears to be rather good. But this only exists on paper, as no hate crimes based on gender identity have been taken to court thus far. Similarly, there have been very few cases focused on anti-discrimination because the law is not being implemented. There is no national action plan to combat discrimination based on gender identity.

    Therefore, transgender rights were never guaranteed by law. When it comes to legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare there were no laws or national guidelines. However, practices had improved. Since 2003, transgender people have been able to change their birth certificates, gender markers and first names based on a mental health diagnosis; no other medical intervention was required. Back then this was amazing. The government promised to create legislation but failed to do so. Until now, no government even addressed the issue. As a result, no legislation backed these administrative procedures, which were not even published on the government's website. But for the time being things were okay because the practice was reliable and procedures were rather trans-friendly. Those who provided the required documentation were able to change their birth certificates and it was relatively easy and fast. But the fact that the practice was not protected by legislation was not a minor detail. We see it now that the practice has become illegal. It has been a huge step backwards. 

    In 2020, new regulations that only recognise the sex assigned at birth and prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender and obtaining new documentation were passed by parliament by a 133 to 57 vote margin. They are contained in article 33 of an omnibus bill that was introduced on 31 March and approved on 19 May. Article 33 contradicts not just international and European human rights standards but also previous rulings by the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which has previously made it clear that changing your name and gender marker is a fundamental right for trans people. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report in 2016 and another in 2018 that stated that the authorities need to enact proper legislation because this is a fundamental right.

    This law change fits into the fight against gender led by the Christian Democratic party, which is part of the governing coalition. This party has already banned gender studies and has argued that there is no such thing as gender, as in the Hungarian language there are not even separate words for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. But in the past year, it has resorted to using the word ‘gender’ in English so as to be able to attack gender as a concept. So this is part of a larger attack against so-called ‘gender ideology’. The protection of what the new law calls ‘sex at birth’ is a part of this. For the past six years we have worked to come up with legislation on these issues, and initially we thought the authorities wanted to tackle it as well, but after a while it became obvious to us that our initiatives were being blocked along the way. 

    It is difficult to engage with the authorities. We don’t get much information from them. We cannot get to those with decision-making authority; we can only talk to low-ranking officials, who are obviously afraid to give us information. There is no public discussion and civil society is not involved. We were not consulted regarding these specific changes to the Registry Act. The proposal came from the government, and specifically from the Christian members of the government coalition, and was supported by civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote so-called ‘family values’. Timing also raised a lot of questions. Why was it so important to address this issue in the middle of a pandemic? Why now, and why in this way?

    What are the main restrictions that the Hungarian LGBTQI+ community experiences on their freedoms to organise, speak up and protest?

    In Hungary there is an NGO law that requires CSOs to register if they receive foreign funding, if their income is above a certain amount. The threshold is relatively low, so many CSOs, including us, must register. There is a list of foreign-funded CSOs that is published and publicly available. It is no secret that we seek foreign funding because we cannot access funds in Hungary. The government refers to CSOs, and particularly to those that criticise the government, as ‘enemies’ of the Hungarian people. This has obviously affected LGBTQI+ organisations too. 

    This is not just rhetoric. In practice, the government does not consult with CSOs that are independent or that they don’t like, including us. Instructions to marginalise these organisations come from the top levels of government, and while some lower-level officials might want to try to engage with us, they are not allowed to do so. How can CSOs conduct advocacy or engage with the authorities if public officials are banned from any contact with us?

    Additionally, most media are controlled by the government, and the rest tend to have a neoliberal perspective, which usually makes them difficult to access for organisations that do not follow their agenda, like Transvanilla.

    Our freedom to conduct our legitimate activities is also being challenged. Last year, for instance, there were several attacks against events organised around Pride month. A speed-dating event for pansexual people that had been organised by Transvanilla was interrupted by far-right activists. We couldn’t continue the event and the police didn't protect us. Far-right activists video-recorded participants for over an hour and we were not allowed to close the door. They were obviously acting illegally but the police took no action against them. In other instances, venues were ruined or damaged by far-rights activists. This was a new development – in the past, our events had received police protection when such things happened. 

    Year after year there have also been attempts to ban Pride events, but the courts have declared that these events cannot be banned. It’s a constant fight. The authorities have fenced off Pride routes on the pretence of protecting marchers, but this was obviously an attempt to restrict their movement.

    How did the LGBTQI+ community react when the new law was passed?

    It was a traumatic event because it was a clear attack against us. This amendment only affected trans and intersex people who would like to change their gender markers and trans people who don’t want to change their gender markers but would still like to change their name, which is no longer possible in Hungary. But the whole community now feels like second-class citizens, like outcasts who the government does not respect. 

    Personally, as a non-binary person, it had a huge effect on me, because I was already far from being recognised in my documents and now I am a lot further away from that. Many of my friends who were in the process of changing their legal gender recognition are in a limbo.  At least a hundred applicants’ cases had already been suspended in the past two and a half years, as requests were not being evaluated. Those people have now lost all hopes. They are frustrated and devastated. 

    There is also fear because we don’t know what is next, what else is coming to us. Even though the law can be challenged, it might require many years. And even if we get rid of this law, the situation may not improve. Some people are suicidal, and many people want to leave the country. A big part of the community is just suffering silently and has no voice. While some activists have emerged from this situation and these activists are gaining visibility, the vast majority are suffering at home, alone. People were already isolated before, and it will not get any better. From now on, more people will hide their identity.

    Since 2016 there have been problems with administrative procedures, so increasing numbers of people who began to transition may look different from the sex registered in their documents. And if someone is openly and visibly transgender it becomes difficult to find a job; discrimination is part of everyday life. And now it is becoming more serious. We have seen a rise in discrimination, not just in employment but in everyday life. In Hungary you often must present your ID papers, so you have to out yourself all the time. People don’t believe you and you are questioned. For example, recently a trans person was trying to buy a house and the lawyer who was drawing up the paperwork raised questions about their ID document because it didn’t match their gender description.

    Given the restrictions on peaceful assembly imposed under the COVID-19 pandemic, what sort of lobbying and campaigning have you been able to do to stop Article 33?

    Transvanilla is very strategic: we only engage in activities that might have an impact. Therefore, we did not focus on the Hungarian context. In parliament the opposition is powerless because Fidesz, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, has two thirds of the seats and can thus win any vote. We also knew that we could not mobilise enough people – the masses would not be out on the streets because of the pandemic, so this wasn’t even an option. If this had not happened during the pandemic, other organisations might have tried to organise protests. Until the amendment was introduced, Transvanilla was not publicly highlighting the issue of legal gender recognition because we were doing silent advocacy. On 1 April, when we found out about the initiative, we called on international actors to raise their voices publicly and to engage in multilateral dialogue with our government on this issue.

    We grabbed international attention and many international voices were vocal against the proposal. In April 2020 we also turned to Hungary’s Commissioner on Fundamental Rights and we asked him to do whatever he could to stop the amendment. We of course engaged with international and national media. We launched a petition and managed to get more than 30,000 signatures. We now have another petition that is addressed to the European Union (EU) and we hope it will have an effect.

    So, we resorted to the ombudsperson, who could have intervened but didn’t, and we put international pressure on the government, which sometimes works but this time did not. The law was passed, and the day it came into effect we launched two cases at the Constitutional Court. The court could turn them down for whatever reason, but we hope that it will not. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights because he has the power to request the Constitutional Court to look into the law, and if he does, then the court must do so. Pressure is very important, and many international actors are helping, including Amnesty International Hungary, which has launched a campaign. We have 23 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all of which deal with gender recognition, and the applicants are represented by our lawyer. The government and the other parties involved were given time until June 2020 to settle these cases, and if they didn’t, the Court would move forward for a decision. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for the government was pushed to September 2020, which is not good news for us. But based on ECHR practice, we are confident that it will respect transgender rights. We will also take more cases to this court and represent people who are specifically affected by this law. We want to put pressure on the Court to make a decision as soon as possible.

    We also continue to engage with EU human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We got CSOs to sign a statement to put pressure on the European Commission (EC), which so far has been silent on this. We want to make sure that what happened in Hungary doesn’t happen in other countries, so we have created a civil society alliance to convey the message that if other governments try to do the same, they will face huge resistance. And of course, we keep trying to engage with the ministries, although we have sent them letters and have received no response. 

    How can an increasingly authoritarian government like Hungary’s be held accountable for its actions? 

    We have tried to engage directly with the government to hold it accountable, but it has not worked so far. We represent a minority group and cannot fight this government alone. But international institutions do sometimes influence the government's actions. We hope that a court decision from the ECHR or the Constitutional Court would have an effect. 

    Unfortunately, what we have seen since 2010 is that the way it is designed, the EU cannot take definitive action against a country, especially if it is not alone. And this is the case here, as Poland and Hungary always back each other. People believe that the EU lacks political will to take action. We cannot repeat often enough that the EU should cut off funding, because Hungary is living on EU money and if it cuts off funding the government would start to behave differently. But the EU refuses to do it. 

    The EU should act not only on this specific legislation but also on other, bigger issues related to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary. It should do something about its own member states, or else it should not pass comment on any non-EU country. The fact that the EC fails to mention Hungary explicitly is outrageous. When the Authorisation Act was passed in late March, giving Prime Minister Orbán extra powers to fight the pandemic, EC President Ursula von der Leyen made a statement that was clearly about Hungary, but did not mention it by name, and then Hungary was a signatory to the statement. The EC’s Commissioner for Equality was recently asked to condemn Hungary for the anti-transgender amendment and she refused to do so; instead, she decided to speak about trans rights in general. This is something that we cannot accept.

    The EU should not just speak up, but also act on Hungary and Poland. If the EC keeps refusing to address the situation on the ground, then we really don’t know where else to go. Thus far, the government has followed ECHR decisions, but it has stopped following Hungarian court decisions just this year, which is very worrying. In 2018 there was a Constitutional Court decision in the case of a transgender refugee that required parliament to enact legislation on legal gender recognition for non-Hungarian citizens, which it has not yet done.

    What support do Hungarian CSOs need from international civil society?

    It is important to attempt to unify the different movements and to act as bridge between them and I think international CSOs can play a role in this. As a trans organisation we are responsible for trans people, but trans people come in all sizes and shapes – there are migrant trans people, Roma trans people, disabled trans people – and we all have to come together. Also, while trans people are currently under attack in Hungary, we don't know which vulnerable group is next on the list, and I think international CSOs should focus on everyone. They also need to assist in raising awareness in international institutions – in Hungary, for example, international pressure is important because Orbán still sometimes cares about how Hungary is perceived. So the engagement that comes from the international community is helpful. International civil society can also assist in presenting good examples, because the better the situation is in other countries for trans people, the more shame it can bring to the Hungarian government. But if other EU countries start to follow Hungary, then the government will get away with this. Organisations like CIVICUS can bring CSOs together.

    Civic space in Hungary is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Hungary also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.
    Get in touch with theTransvanilla Transgender Association through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Transvanilla on Twitter and@transvanilla.official on Instagram.

     

     

  • Joint statement: the European Union must address reprisals against human rights defenders in India

    The joint European Union (EU)-India press release, which provides a summary of the topics discussed during the 10th EU-India human rights dialogue which took place on 15 July 2022 in New Delhi, fails to adequately address pressing issues of security and reprisals faced by human rights defenders in India, five human rights organisations said today. The organisations expressed their disappointment in the EU’s apparent failure to raise concern about the systematic attacks on civil society actors in India.

    While both parties reiterated their commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in the joint EU-India press release, there was no mention of any concrete action to be taken to ensure the ending of reprisals and persecution against human rights defenders, the release of jailed defenders and to prevent the adoption and abuse of restrictive laws, including anti-terror laws.

    The joint EU-India press release from the dialogue makes specific mention to “the importance of safeguarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors, including human rights defenders and journalists, and respecting freedom of association and peaceful assembly”. While this is an important acknowledgment, it must be backed by corresponding action to end persecution and immediately release jailed human rights defenders.

    Indian rights defenders need immediate support and an end to systematic attacks, threats and arbitrary arrests. Of the 16 defenders arrested in relation to the Bhima Koregaon case, 13 remain in jail. On 5 July 2021, 84-year-old Stan Swamy died in custody due to the lack of medical treatment. There has been no public acknowledgment of the State’s complicity in his incarceration and death. Six defenders out of these arrested for participating in the peaceful campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act remain in jail. In November 2021, Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez was arrested and remains incarcerated on spurious charges. In June 2022, Teesta Setalvad was jailed as a direct reprisal for her campaign for accountability and justice for victims of the 2002 Gujarat riot. Many other defenders, including indigenous women seeking justice, are jailed and labelled as terrorists due to their human rights work. The joint EU-India press release fails to address any of these cases, or to acknowledge the general worsening of the human rights situation in India.

    The targeting of defenders is well-known, and has a direct impact on their safety, their families, and the communities they represent. Vague commitments on human rights and safeguarding freedoms and defenders no longer suffice. The scale of the violence and punishment for peaceful defense of human rights in India requires a proportionate and public response and a demand for accountability for continued violations. In the face of the blatant disregard for national standards and international commitments, particularly important in light of India’s global presence and membership to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the EU must take a public stand on patterns of reprisals and individual cases.

    The joint EU-India press release also recognizes “the importance of strengthening national and international human rights mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights and the important role of national human rights institutions, civil society actors and journalists”. However, it falls short of addressing laws in India that are routinely used to target human rights defenders and the failure of the National Human Rights Commission of India to proactively intervene in cases where defenders are targeted. The use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) and their impact on the human rights defenders’ ability to work safely requires more direct and public attention. The FCRA has been used to block much needed funds, freeze bank accounts, and subject NGOs to investigations, creating a chilling effect for civil society.

    We acknowledge the EU-India human rights dialogue as an opportunity for both parties to speak on important issues of human rights. However, recognition of the work of human rights defenders and of marginalized communities in the country will be visible based on tangible outcomes, including public statements that reflect clear human rights benchmarks. Failure to do so is a missed opportunity and may serve to further embolden India to violate human rights with impunity.

    We call on the EU and member states to ensure that there is strong follow up to the dialogue and a commitment to hold India accountable for its treatment of human rights defenders in the country. The targeting of defenders through the use of national institutions, including arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment, must be strongly condemned and individual cases should be publicly raised. The EU must also support human rights defenders by observing trials and undertaking visits to defenders in prisons. Effective protection for human rights defenders requires adhering to concrete human rights standards and taking action beyond the annual human rights dialogue between parties.

    Signed

    • Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    • Front Line Defenders
    • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    Civic space in India is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. 

     

  • Journalists fight back: Media freedom is further eroded in Hungary

    By Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS & Orsolya Reich, Advocacy Officer at Civil Liberties Union for Europe

    What little media independence remains in Hungary hangs by a thread. The country is in serious democratic trouble. The big question is: does the European Union have the political will to take decisive action?

    Read on Visegrad Insight

     

  • MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Europe instrumentalises human suffering to deter migration’

    CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece with Maya Thomas-Davis, an Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Legal Centre Lesvos AMKE, a Greek civil society organisation that provides free legal information and assistance to migrants who arrive by sea to Lesvos, where the Centre is based. The Legal Centre also documents violations of migrants’ rights, advocates for safe and legal migration routes and engages in advocacy and strategic litigation to hold the Greek government, member states of the European Union (EU) and European institutions accountable for their treatment of migrants.

    Maya Thomas Davis

    Photo: Legal Centre Lesvos @Instagram

    What kind of work does the Legal Centre Lesvos do, and how have you managed under the pandemic?

    The Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) is a civil non-profit legal and political organisation based on principles of solidarity, not charity. Since August 2016, it has provided access to legal information, assistance and representation to migrants arriving by sea on the Greek island of Lesvos. LCL also works towards collective justice and structural change as part of movements resisting Europe’s border imperialism on many fronts, including through advocacy and strategic litigation. LCL was founded following the March 2016 EU-Turkey statement, an agreement of questionable legality through which the European Union turned people seeking freedom, safety and dignity into commodities and bargaining chips: agreeing to pay 6 billion euros to Erdogan’s authoritarian regime in exchange for Turkey acting as a border guard to fortress Europe. This ‘deal’ transformed the island of Lesvos into a site of indefinite imprisonment for migrants. LCL provides access to legal information and assistance in solidarity with migrants trapped here, without losing sight of the fact that migration to Europe is intimately connected with the continent’s imperialist past and present and the interests of global capitalism; that the brutal violations witnessed here are always political choices; and that the people most affected are the most important political actors in challenging and resisting this.

    LCL has an open-door policy, meaning that nobody is turned away or refused legal information or assistance because their case is not ‘strong’ enough, or is unsuitable for strategic litigation. We maintain this position because we believe that, as a bare minimum, everyone has the right to understand the legal framework they are subject to, particularly in the context of asylum law, where consequences can be a matter of life or death.

    To facilitate access to information, prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions LCL had been running regular group information sessions about asylum procedures, in multiple languages. This is certainly one aspect of our work where the pandemic has created difficulties. In Lesvos lockdown measures have been in place since March 2020, varying in degrees of intensity. Group information sessions have been impossible due to limitations on office capacity mandated by restrictions. We have managed to keep the open-door policy in place with strict appointment schedules, with many of us working from home at least some of the time, and we are trying to continue to facilitate broader access to information through other means, such as through updates in multiple languages on our website and social media.

    How did the situation of migrants and refugees evolve in 2020 as a result of the pandemic? 

    The Greek state’s unlawful suspension of the right to asylum on 1 March 2020 and its violent border fortification – with the EU praising Greece as Europe’s ‘shield’ and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, providing increased material support – coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. Although the EU has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders for many years, including through pushbacks, it seems Greek and EU officials believed the pandemic would provide the perfect cover to escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean, with complete impunity.

    Since March 2020, the official number of arrivals by sea to Greece has drastically dropped by a reported 85 per cent as compared to 2019. In the same timeframe, numerous reports and investigations have revealed a systematic practice of collective expulsions on the part of Greek authorities, carried out through a consistent modus operandi, with Frontex’s documented complicity. In every account shared with LCL by pushback survivors, Greek authorities have summarily expelled migrants from Greek territory without registering arrival or facilitating access to asylum procedures. Whether in the middle of the sea or following a landing on an Aegean island, Greek authorities forcibly transfer migrants towards Turkish waters before abandoning them at sea on motorless, unseaworthy dinghies or life rafts, with absolute disregard for whether they live or die. Despite numerous reports, statements, investigations and denunciations of this ongoing attack against migrants, pushbacks at the Aegean Sea border continue with impunity, functioning as an unofficial implementation of the EU-Turkey deal’s objectives while the Turkish border remains officially closed.

    Meanwhile in Lesvos, pandemic-related restrictions have only compounded the situation of police violence, discrimination and effective mass detention for migrants. COVID-19-related restrictions, including curfews and the requirement to carry a justification for movement, have been applied in an unjustifiably discriminatory manner. Recently, on 15 February 2021, for example, the curfew for the general population of Lesvos was lifted from 6pm to 9pm, yet for migrants living in the camp a separate regime of restrictions remains in place: people are subject to a more stringent curfew starting at 5pm and only one family member can leave the camp once a week except for medical or legal appointments. Even with written justification, permission to leave the camp is often arbitrarily denied. The police disproportionately target racialised people in checking documents and justifications for movement as well as in imposing fines.

    Meanwhile changes in the operations of the Regional Asylum Office and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Lesvos, which had been conducting remote interviews with applicants for international protection, have led to further procedural violations. These include obstacles in access to legal aid at first instance and to file appeals within deadlines due to pandemic-related movement restrictions and restricted access to EASO offices; failure to ensure the requisite confidentiality of interviews due to remote interviews via telephone or video being held in inadequate facilities; and inability to comprehensively present grounds for applications due to practical and technical disruptions of asylum interviews.

    As for the sanitary situation, the state has systematically failed to evacuate individuals at risk from overcrowded, unsanitary camps in Lesvos, where distancing measures are impossible. Like the previous Moria camp, which burned down in September 2020, the new reception and identification centre in Mavrovouni/Karatepe – widely known as ‘Moria 2.0’ – is not fit for human habitation. As if conditions of inadequate shelter, healthcare, privacy, food, electricity, running water, hot showers, toilets and other hygiene facilities were not bad enough, since 1926 and until its hasty transformation into a camp in September 2020, the site of Moria 2.0 had been a military firing range, and the Greek government has admitted that a high concentration of lead has been found in samples taken from the site. Lead poisoning causes organ damage, cancer and developmental harm in foetuses and children. There is no level of lead exposure known to be without harmful effects. In such conditions, the Greek state’s failure to transfer people who are disproportionately exposed to danger and death in the inhumane conditions of Moria 2.0 to appropriate living conditions amounts to an attack on migrants’ lives.

    Which would you say are main rights violations that migrants and refugees face in Lesvos?

    That hundreds of people have been, and continue to be, forcibly transferred then abandoned in the middle of the sea by Greek authorities without means to call for rescue, on unseaworthy, motorless dinghies and life rafts, constitutes a spectacular form of state violence against migrants. Beyond rights violations, LCL’s position is that the constituent elements of the consistent modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean, along with the widespread and systematic nature of this attack, amount to crimes against humanity. The practice of systematic pushbacks with impunity reveals the extent to which fortress Europe treats migrants’ lives as disposable, in a manner that has historically accompanied the commission of atrocity crimes.

    The same disregard for migrants’ lives is inherent in the conditions in camps and detention centres people are forced to endure in Lesvos, which are violations of the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment and torture, the rights to liberty and security, to private and family life, to effective remedy, to freedom from discrimination and to life. It is inherent in people being forced to wait in limbo for years, cut off from family, friends, community and purpose, without being able to move forwards or backwards. It is inherent in the EU increasingly prioritising and funding mass effective detention of migrants, through ‘hotspot’ systems, accelerated border procedures, forcible deportations, border militarisation and border externalisation through deals of questionable legality with third countries and by making aid and other financial packages conditional on border fortification.

    While the violence of pushbacks in the Aegean is scandalous and should be treated as such, it is by no means an aberration from the logic of Europe’s border regime, which instrumentalises human suffering for the purpose of deterring migration, at any cost. Even if due process and reception standards mandated by the Common European Asylum System were complied with in Lesvos, many people would still be excluded, and the system would remain violent and fundamentally insufficient to secure the conditions of human flourishing that everyone deserves. For this reason, while the LCL will continue to document, denounce and seek redress for the systematic rights violations in Lesvos, we are conscious that we must simultaneously organise for systemic change: Europe’s human rights framework cannot fail people it was never designed to protect.

    What is your position regarding refugee protests over living conditions in camps and blockages of asylum requests?

    LCL has always acted and organised in solidarity with migrant-led resistance. Over the years this has taken many forms, including protests, hunger strikes, collective publications, assemblies and occupations. The state has responded with attempts to collectively punish organised resistance by migrants in Lesvos. A case in point is that of the Moria 35 a few years ago. But there are many more recent examples of this. Of course, such resistance can be understood as an exercise of human rights such as the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and as a legal organisation, this is always one way of viewing and supporting this kind of action. However, in Lesvos – where rights are systematically violated with complete impunity, where conditions of misery are deliberately imposed, where the situation always seems to get progressively worse just when it already seemed as bad as could be imagined – organised resistance is also in many ways often the only remaining option.

    What kind of support would you need from international civil society to continue doing your work?

    Over the past year, the Greek state brought in new legislation on the registration of civil society organisations, introducing onerous, complex registration and certification requirements that present unnecessary, disproportionate barriers for organisations working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. This will certainly make the work of LCL harder as, of course, it is designed to. The Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe has already expressed its concerns on these new requirements, and further challenges to these measures would be a welcome form of support from international civil society.

    In general, international support and solidarity is needed in the struggle against the increasingly hostile environment for migrants and those working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. Far-right disinformation campaigns making allegations of criminality against migrants and migrant solidarity organisations are increasingly reflected in Greek state practice, such as in the Greek police’s identification of four human rights and migrant solidarity groups in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation; the Greek state’s systematic prosecution of migrants for facilitation of illegal entry/exit; its perverse decision to prosecute the father of a six-year-old child who tragically drowned in a shipwreck near Samos in November 2020 for endangering his son’s life; and its decision to bring criminal charges against a woman who set herself on fire in desperation in Moria 2.0 in February 2021. Such measures to frame migrants and those who act in solidarity with them as criminals and threats to the nation is a deliberate and effective tactic to obscure the fact that it is states that possess the monopoly on violence and to distract from their systematic violations of migrants’ rights. 

    More broadly, it is clear from the legislative proposals contained in the ‘new’ EU migration and asylum pact that the EU will attempt to roll out the model that has been tested in the laboratory of Lesvos and the other Greek ‘hotspot’ islands, across Europe’s external borders – including detention on arrival; accelerated border procedures in detention based on nationality and asylum recognition rates; deportation sponsorship as a form of ‘solidarity’ between member states; and expanded use of migrants’ personal and biometric data. A new ‘controlled’ camp is set to be constructed in Lesvos this year, in a location that is a known forest fire danger zone and is intentionally remote. Internationalist solidarity will always be our best weapon to organise resistance from below to all these measures.

    Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Legal Centre Lesvos through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@lesboslegal on Twitter and@legalcentrelesvos on Instagram

     

  • MIGRATION: ‘The spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with more violence’

    CIVICUS speaks with Maddalena Avon, project coordinator at the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) about the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe under the pandemic and the ways in which civil society is responding to increasing border pushbacks from hostile European governments.

    CPS is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes non-violence and social change through education, research, advocacy, campaigning and activism. Founded in 1996, it works in three areas: asylum, integration and human security; peace education and non-violence affirmation; and combating inequalities. CPS is an active member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent network of CSOs based mostly in the Balkans and Greece, monitoring human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocating to stop the violence against people on the move.

    Maddalena Avon

    What have been the key trends in migration in Europe, and specifically in the Balkans, under the pandemic?

    The landscape of asylum access has changed drastically since pandemic restrictions came into force. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) had already reported on asylum as an eroded set of rights, but due process for international protection claims has been further challenged in recent months under the health emergency.

    Firstly, persistent pushbacks from borders continue to deny people access to claim international protection, with states performing collective expulsion. Secondly, government decisions to pause or close asylum offices with no effective alternative or remedy have placed refugees and other migrants in an effective limbo and at risk of pushback. Accordingly, the development of COVID-19 measures has allowed countries such as Croatia, Greece and Hungary to further restrict internationally mandated access to protection.

    In the midst of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, the European Union (EU) launched its Joint Action Plan for Human Rights. However, the intention of this communication exhibits acute divergence from the reality on the ground. Most notably, violations of fundamental rights continue by EU member states and non-EU countries that have various EU agreements on migration, asylum and border security, alongside funded camp systems. Rather than assisting vulnerable communities in this precarious period, policy and guidance have allowed the strengthening of borders across a majority of member states to erode further the rights to asylum, due process and humane treatment.

    According to a recent report by the BVMN, in March and April 2020 Slovenia saw a decrease in the number of irregular border crossings compared to the first two months of 2021 and the same period in 2019, and this was reflected in the much lower number of people detained at police stations due to irregular border crossings. The trend of collective expulsions to Croatia, however, remained consistently high. In early 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions, Slovenia continued to systematically deny asylum rights and used its readmission agreement with Croatia – which allows it to hand people over to the Croatian police if there is proof that they illegally crossed the border within the last 48 hours – to deport large numbers of people, although the readmission agreement does not apply if the person has asked for asylum or is a potential asylum seeker. It has continued to do so despite full knowledge of the high risk of torture and further illegal pushback to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    In Croatia, as elsewhere, the pandemic has changed many things, but some aspects, such as its pushback regime, have unfortunately stayed the same. The only difference is that these violent collective expulsions now attract less attention, as all eyes are on the pandemic and human rights monitors have not been allowed in the field due to health restrictions. Pushbacks and violence at borders have persisted: in one case out of the hundreds documented by the BVMN, a group including a severely injured person and a minor was beaten with batons by Croatian officers, who also burnt their clothes, and the group was pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    A relatively new development in pushback practices is the tagging of groups with orange spray paint, as reported by No Name Kitchen, a grassroots organisation and member of the BVMN that provides direct assistance to people on the move in border towns along the Balkan Route. Chain pushbacks from Slovenia via Croatia, with migrants being sent back the same way they came, have also continued.

    Reports of increased brutality during pushbacks are worrying due to the increased autonomy that state authorities have gained under the pandemic. Pushbacks are illegal and the spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with even more violence.

    How are the CPS and the BVMN responding to these trends?

    The value of the work done by the BVMN lies in the interconnection of a variety of methods: field work, including trustful contact with people in border areas, testimony collection and advocacy work with clear demands being presented to institutions to hold them accountable for certain actions. Legal work is also essential, when people who have survived human rights violations want to seek justice. Each of the BVMN’s partners has its own strength in one or more of these working methods, and our collective strength is to combine all of them with a comprehensive approach.

    Within the network, CPS conducts research that feeds into our awareness-raising and advocacy efforts on access to the asylum system, protection of refugees’ human rights, illegal conduct of the police, the criminalisation of solidarity and integration, with a focus on employment and education.

    On integration, two of our big successes has been the Danube Compass, a web tool including all information relevant to the integration of refugees and migrants into Croatian society, and our non-formal education programme for asylum seekers, Let’s Talk about Society, which introduces our new community members to Croatian society and institutions, informs them of their rights and encourages their active participation in society.

    Within the network, CPS is a strong legal actor, as we have so far filed 12 criminal complaints against unknown perpetrators in police uniforms. Through strategic litigation, we prevented an extradition and succeeded in filing two lawsuits against the Republic of Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of our advocacy, several EU and international institutions, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, started questioning and condemning the practices of the Croatian authorities.

    As a consequence of our public exposure of illegal practices towards refugees, we experienced a lot of pressure, and were banned from entering and working in asylum centres. This made our work more difficult but has not compromised our autonomy.

    Do you see any progress in holding Frontex, the European border agency, accountable for its failure to protect human rights?

    Frontex has faced severe allegations of human rights violations coming from different actors and institutions, and civil society has come together around multiple campaigns and actions on the matter, including #DefundFrontex. Supported by 22 CSOs and networks, including the BVMN, this campaign calls for the agency to be defunded and its budget redirected towards building a government-led and funded European civil sea rescue programme.

    The main challenge is that Frontex operates in a grey legal zone and is perceived to have no responsibility for its actions – responsibility always lies with the member state in which Frontex operates. The agency’s rules are made in a way that allows for it to be largely unaccountable. However, we are seeing small steps towards a change in that regard, for example with the active engagement of the European Ombudsman.

    How can civil society put pressure on the EU so that its commitment to human rights extends to migrants and refugees, and how can it encourage member states to respect their rights?

    One of the ways that BVMN members found to bring together multiple strengths and be louder on key demands is the building of transborder networks. We believe that the active involvement of civil society in each border area, country and village can make a real difference on the public’s influence. Being loud on the rights of refugees and migrants is extremely important. It’s also important to connect a variety of struggles that are highly interconnected and take place across borders, such as struggles on climate change and women’s rights.

    Civic space in Croatia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Peace Studies through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CMSZagreb on Twitter.
    Get in touch with the Border Violence Monitoring Network through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@Border_Violence on Twitter. 

     

  • POLAND: ‘right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society’

    Krzysztof SmiszekCIVICUS speaks with Krzysztof Śmiszek, a member of the Polish Parliament and chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, the first of its kind in Poland, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights and activist responses to the anti-rights backlash.

    Before entering politics in 2019, Krzysztof had been an activist for almost 20 years. He is also a member of Justice and Human Rights Committee, the European Union Committee and the Polish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of theCouncil of Europe.

    What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland?

    The situation for the LGBTQI+ community is really hard and complicated. In the last six years there wasn’t any progress at the legislative level so there are plenty of issues that remain unsolved, such as same-sex marriage, special legal procedures for the recognition of trans people’s identities and the prosecution of homophobic speech and hate crimes. 

    In 2015 the reins of Poland were taken over by a right-wing government and, in my opinion, the government is now using racism, xenophobia and homophobia to divide society. Since 2015 we have witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic speech as well as intolerant actions aimed at the LGBTQI+ community. The current government is not going to pass any legislation to make the lives of LGBTQI+ people easier.

    I believe that the LGBTQI+ community has become a scapegoat: it is them that the government blames for any problem. A few years ago, it was refugees who played this part, and now they are also being targeted once again. The government also used to blame women’s rights organisations for everything, and now the LGBTQI+ community is being accused of the worse. 

    These are very hard times for the LGBTQI+ community in Poland, because whenever you tune in public TV, read the newspaper, or navigate government websites, you see it being used as a scapegoat. We are witnessing more and more hate crimes and incidents around Poland. Last year we had presidential election and the current president campaigned on an extremely ideological homophobic platform, and he won, which means that politicians and the government now believe that homophobic and transphobic discourse brings popularity. 

    Are there any reasons for optimism in such a bleak context?

    There surely are, because right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society. After six years of witnessing hate speech, people who normally would not have been interested in LGBTQI+ issues have started to care. Civil society is much more progressive and open than the politicians in power. As an activist I see a huge energy that goes beyond the big cities in Poland: there are formal and informal initiatives springing up everywhere.

    Although we are going through hard times, the strong civil society reaction against the government’s intolerance and homophobic discourse and agenda makes me feel optimistic. This year we had around 20 Pride events throughout the country. There is positive mobilisation within society, compared to the situation 20 years ago, when I first became an activist.

    So the situation is more complex than you would think: while Poland does have its homophobic side, with organisations fuelled with a lot of money coming from the right wing, there is also a big movement supporting LGBTQI+ organisations and activists with money, time, energy and solidarity.

    LGBTQI+ activism is using a wide range of tactics, from perfectly designed social media awareness campaigns including short movies about the normal lives of rainbow families to building connections with potential allies, even unlikely ones. A while ago an organisation working against homophobia allied with progressive Catholics, which was really smart because Poland is still regarded as a majority Catholic country. It was very wise to involve someone considered as ‘the enemy’ in the movement. There are also ongoing collaborations with politicians. 

    All the while the government spreads hate, younger generations, people between 18 and 29 years old, are increasingly normalising LGBTQI+ rights and actively and fully supporting the LGBTQI+ agenda. Of course, this does not mean that all young people are gay-friendly: as everyone else, they are divided between openness to European values and the intolerance of the radical right wing.

    What is the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, what are its goals and priorities, and what work does it do?

    The Intergroup on LGBTI Rights includes members of different parties represented in Parliament who meet and discuss about LGBTQI+ issues. When I organise the group meetings, I perceive the interest of civil society: they want to participate and have contact with politicians. As an activist and now a politician, I view this as the wisest way to ensure progress on our agenda because having activists put pressure on politicians is something that actually works.

    One of our priorities is making Parliament a safe place for the LGBTQI+ community. We believe that Parliament belongs to voters, and as LGBTQI+ people are voters, they have the full right to be present in Parliament and have contact with politicians.

    The main challenge the Intergroup faces is to listen to the worries of the LGBTQI+ community and translate them into legislative proposals. And whenever there is a practical problem with the administration or related to action by public authorities, we are informed by representatives of the LGBTQI+ community and try to shed light on the issue with the help of the media. Politicians and parliamentarians have the power to bring media attention to specific issues.

    As for our tactics, we organise press conferences and invite government representatives, we collaborate with the European Union and the European Parliament, where there’s also an LGBTQI+ group, we keep in touch with international partners and we try to make international audiences aware of what is going on in Poland. For example, when facing proposals to declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland, we brought it to the attention of the European Council and showed it proof that the Polish authorities were discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. This is something that as politicians we are able to do.

    Is that why you decided to enter politics? Having had experience as both an activist and a legislator, do you think you have been able to tackle the same problem from different angles?

    As an activist I was the one knocking on politicians’ doors and it was their choice to be open to my arguments or not. After doing this for 20 years I thought ‘enough is enough’ and decided that I should now be the one opening doors for LGBTQI+ activists. That was my motivation to get into Parliament, along with the fact that I just did not agree with what was going on in Poland in terms of respect for fundamental human rights, under attack by right-wing politicians.

    I belong to The Left, a centre-left political coalition that was founded to compete in the 2019 parliamentary election. Many of my friends who were also elected to Parliament are now recruiting people from civil society. As a result, now there are feminists who used to work at feminist civil society organisations, people who were involved in ecological movements and people like me, coming from the LGBTQI+ movement, who are playing a role in political institutions. All of us are tired of being just activists, and are now translating our experiences into the language of Parliament.

    Civic space in Poland is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@K_Smiszek onTwitter. 

     

  • TURKEY: ‘Civilian refugees should not be used as political bargaining chips’

    Bassam AlahmadCIVICUS speaks with Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), about the Turkish plan to return one million refugees to Syria.

    STJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to documenting human rights violations to contribute to the prospects for justice, as well as training human rights activists and building capacity in areas including digital security and civic engagement.

    Why is the Turkish government making plans to return a million Syrian refugees to Syria?

    We do not know the exact reason behind the plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions of Syria. But there are several possible reasons we can think of. First, Turkey will hold general elections next year, and every time elections approach, the ruling Justice and Development Party will try to draw attention outside Turkey in any way possible – by attacking other nations, creating problems with neighbouring countries or groups of people – to hide domestic failures.

    Second, the decision may be part of a wider strategy by the Turkish government concerning its engagement with northeast and northwest Syria, which aims to decrease the presence of Kurds and other populations who it doesn’t view as ‘Turkey’s allies’ – people that Turkey does not like having at its borders. To achieve this, Turkey will make claims that these populations are ‘terrorists’.

    The decision announced to return a million Syrians from Turkey back to Syria therefore hits two birds with one stone. It would allow the Turkish government to show its domestic opposition that it is tackling the ‘problem’ while also using Syrians against Syrians in the northeast and northwest parts of Syria.

    To sum up, there is no specific reason we know of, but we can assume that demographic engineering in northeast and northwest Syria and Turkey’s domestic politics are all at play.

    How has this announcement impacted on Syrian refugees in Turkey?

    This policy has really affected Syrian refugees in Turkey. Every single day there is at least one case of assault against a Syrian person – sometimes more. Incidents of racism and cases of deportation and violence at the border, and even of murder, have been verified. Hundreds of organisations and media outlets have verified racist attacks against Syrians.

    Why are these attacks happening? Because the Turkish government is telling people that it has already spent too much on Syrians, and Turkish citizens are resenting it. The Turkish government is also telling people that it has freed areas in Syria from terrorists and they are now safe for return, so Turkish citizens are increasingly putting pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Turkish public opinion turning against Syrians makes them vulnerable to racism and deportation.

    The discourse that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is disseminating is affecting Syrian refugees very negatively. And the problem is that it is not true. The United Nations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Amnesty International and many others have all said that Syria is not safe.

    How do you assess Turkey’s immigration policy?

    Many countries and organisations say that Turkey should be thanked for its treatment of Syrian refugees; however, Turkey’s 2016 agreement with the European Union was a really bad one, because as a result Syrian refugees were trapped or detained in Turkey so that the Turkish government could receive money for hosting them.

    Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political game pieces ever since. Following this agreement, in which Europeans agreed to pay money to Turkey to keep Syrians from advancing through Greece and further into Europe, there have been multiple instances of disagreements between Europe and Turkey leading to threats against refugees.

    This is not good. You can’t keep using civilian refugees as political bargaining chips, using them against Turkey, or against the Kurds in northeast and northwest Syria, or against the Americans in northeast Syria. But the 2016 agreement gave the Turkey government leverage to use refugees as a political card, and they have used it. And by the way, Turkey is not the only country using refugees this way, and Syrian refugees are not the only refugees who have been used. Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees have had similar experiences, but this is especially true for Syrian refugees.

    Do you think the attitude of the Turkish government points to a broader European pattern?

    Of course, the Turkish refugee policy has a lot in common with refugee policies around the world. I do not want to say that all European governments treat refugees the same way as the Turkish government, but occasionally there are similarities.

    In particular, we all saw how European governments treated Ukrainian refugees – this was good. But they don’t treat Syrian refugees the same way. European countries gave Turkey money to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, while they opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.

    We do not want to paint all the Turkish and European politicians and policies with the same brush, but there are patterns of racist refugee policies and racist attacks against refugees that are important to recognise.

    How has Syrian civil society responded to the announcement by the Turkish government?

    Unfortunately, the civil society response has not been unified. Many Syrian CSOs that do not have employees or offices in Turkey have published reports about this plan; however, Syrian CSOs in Turkey have not been able to speak out, for a number of reasons. In some cases, organisations are politically aligned with Turkey and welcome these policies. But many others want to speak out against these policies – the racism, the deportations, the military actions against Syrians within Syria – but they are unable to for security reasons.

    In other words, some people don’t want to speak up because they are essentially in agreement with Turkish policies, while others would want to but cannot because it is dangerous, as they are in Turkey, where speaking out may result in deportation or arrest. There are also some Turkish organisations that address these issues, but many do not have the interests of Syrian refugees in mind.

    It is key for Turkish organisations to speak out and insist that Syria is not safe for refugees to return. There has been limited discussion about Turkey’s rights violations against Syrians, and this should not be the case. Both domestic and international civil society should speak out against violations occurring in Turkey and committed by Turkey.

    Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Syrians for Truth and Justice through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@STJ_SYRIA_ENG and@BassamAlahmed on Twitter.

     

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