Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

Open letter to UNHCR

As a network of Italian organizations, groups and movements, with this public letter we intend to report and denounce the ways in which the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has been operating in these months at the southern Italian frontier, specifically in the reception center of Pozzallo, the hotspot of Lampedusa and arrival seaports as Augusta and Pozzallo, and in the European countries crossed by the so-called “Balkan route”.

As members of Italian organizations, groups and movements, we have personally participated – on a voluntary basis – in activities supporting asylum seekers along the “Balkan route” and we are in daily contact and collaboration with multiple other groups of independent European volunteers also engaged in supporting asylum seekers along the above-mentioned route.

According to many information directly or indirectly collected by volunteers and organizations in the field in all the countries involved, it constantly and clearly emerges that UNHCR is not carrying out its duties adequately.
A great number of statements and reports made by volunteers from all over Europe point to two critical issues concerning the work carrying out by UNHCR:

a) the lack of protection of the universal Right to Asylum, which can be exercised individually as enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

From November 19, the European countries along the “Balkan route” (as recommended by the European Union) have begun to clearly violate the universal Right to Asylum by closing their borders to all except those holding Syrian, Afghanistan or Iraqi citizenship (or who cannot prove to hold that citizenship). This represents a clear violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which specifically declares the prohibition of any kind of discrimination (“The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin”).

Thus on November 20 UNHCR released a problematic joint statement with IOM and UNICEF that makes explicit a ‘categorization’ of migrants (“… Those who are in need of protection, to Those be relocated to other European countries, and people who do not qualify for refugee protection”) implicitly legitimizing procedures of discrimination based on ethnic and national origin.

Since such discrimination has been put in place – seriously endangering not only the freedom of thousand of migrants but also their own life – UNHCR has “gone along” or at least passively accepted that decision with its own practices.

The Greek-Macedonian border of Idomeni is case in point, where it has been widely reported and documented that the presence of UNHCR was limited only to the “official” camp, while thousands of potential asylum seekers remained for days or even weeks abandoned to themselves a few meters away. The latter received only the support of independent volunteers, who nonetheless could not handle by themselves a situation that, for migrants blocked at the border, was indeed an extremely critical and dramatic one.

The recent news from Idomeni report further UNHCR complicity in legitimizing the above-mentioned practices of discrimination and refusal of entry, as UNHCR members have “invited” all migrants blocked and stranded in Idomeni (who, we underscore once again, are all potential asylum seekers) to return to Athens, as reported by UNHCR itself in its December 4 offical statement. These migrants were forcefully bought back to Athens by bus on December 9 (and we remain very concerned about what might happen if they refused to apply for asylum in Greece).

It is not enough that the UNHCR expressed its “concerns”, as done in the two official statements, since these “concerns” are not coherent with the actual work of UNHCR along the “Balkan route” and in Idomeni in particular. Our considerations are confirmed by the UNHCR statement of December 4, which reads: “Free daily buses back to Athens are available for refugees and migrants who have not been allowed to cross. There they can stay in reception centers and receive food, shelter and legal counseling by UNHCR staff and partner organizations. Others, particularly those of refugees with specific needs, such as women headed families, are staying in free apartments run by Praksis, a UNHCR partner NGO, as they await official relocation elsewhere in Europe”. Such a statement actually makes explicit that it will be almost impossible for those migrants arbitrarily labeled by European countries as “economic migrants” to apply for political asylum unless they present “special needs”.

We recall again that the Geneva Convention (article 33) forbids expulsion or return to the frontiers: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” and that UNHCR in its official statement on January 30, 2015, reiterated the 2008 recommendation not to send asylum seekers back to Greece.

b) Insufficient presence of UNHCR members “in the field” or lack thereof (especially in areas presenting more risks for asylum seekers).

As for point a) the conduct of UNHCR has been witnessed by great number of volunteers and independent associations working on the field. It has been reported several times and in several places that members are not present at all or are present in very small numbers at the landing sites and at the borders.

In particular, several reports from Lesvos and other Greek islands where asylum seekers have been landing testify the almost complete absence of UNHCR staff directly involved in relief operations for asylum seekers arriving on rubber boats from Turkey. Also in this setting, rescue operations have been carried out (and continue to be carried out) almost exclusively by independent volunteers and organizations. Further, a number of volunteers working in Lesvos complain a “passive” presence of UNHCR members on several occasions, during the landings and the rescue operations (e.g. on Lesvos island some UNHCR operators said to volunteers that they were present only to do “research” and “monitoring “).

Also at other border points the work of UNHCR was not been carried out adequately, in terms of both quality and quantity, and has been often marginal compared to the great commitment of independent volunteers and organizations. Furthermore, in some cases UNHCR has not taken a clear and effective position against decisions that have been taken by the governments of European countries crossed by the “Balkan Route” and that have clearly violated the rights and the dignity of asylum seekers.

As far as Southern Italy is concerned, and particularly Lampedusa, Pozzallo and Augusta, UNHCR – although present – has been simply watching in complete silence and passivity the work of the Italian authorities, who have been imposing – as it is happening along the “Balkan route” – the division between “refugees” and “economic migrants”. The violation of the Human Rights of many of them has thus been carried forth by rejecting them, by forcing them to become irregular clandestine and/or by imprisoning them in CIE detention centers, indeed legitimizing also in this case discrimination based on ethnic and national origin.

The above-mentioned practices are in contrast with the role and mission of UNHCR as an independent agency, as defined by UNHCR itself: “UNHCR is the main organization in the world committed to save lives, to protect the rights of millions of refugees, displaced and stateless people, and to build a better future for them. (…) The UNHCR’s mandate is to lead and coordinate, worldwide, the protection of refugees and the actions necessary to ensure their well-being. The Agency works to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to asylum and to be greeted in safety in another country.”

Based on the above, we thus solicit clarifications on the past and present conduct of UNHCR, and we demand that UNHCR immediately puts in place all necessary actions in order to effectively ensure compliance with the rights of migrants and the universal Right to Asylum.

For further information and to support the appeal:
[email protected]
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