Demonstrators in London in May last year against all immigration controls
Demonstrators in London in May last year against all immigration controls

In this, the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on World Refugee Day, Amnesty International called on states to reaffirm everyone’s right to seek and to enjoy asylum free from persecution, as recognised in the words of article 14 of the UDHR.

Almost two million Iraqi refugees, fleeing murder, kidnap, torture and ill treatment, are now living in Syria and Jordan.

In the Mediterranean region, asylum-seekers and migrants continue to die in the sea in their desperate attempt to reach Europe.

These are two of the many refugee problems that confront the world today, said Amnesty.

Meanwhile, doors are being quietly closed. People fleeing Iraq now face visa restrictions as they try to enter Jordan and Syria.

Sweden, host to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in Europe, has now changed its approach and is returning refugees to very dangerous areas of their home country.

In the Mediterranean region, European Union countries such as Spain and Italy are involved with interception operations and joint migration control measures with countries in North and West Africa.

People are being sent back to the terrible situations they were desperately trying to escape.

International assistance for Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan is desperately needed; contributions to UN agencies working with refugees from Iraq are inadequate.

In May 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made a fresh appeal for increased funding for its Iraq work.

They cited a shortfall of $127 million for assistance programmes without which essential health and food assistance programmes may have to be reduced, forcing many Iraqis into further destitution and raising the likelihood of higher malnutrition rates and increased rise of child labour.

A total of 147 states are parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention) or its Protocol – the main international instruments protecting refugees.

Amnesty International calls for world governments to ensure that their actions and policies do not undermine the protection offered by the Convention and other international instruments.

Amnesty also believes that states should not only protect the rights of refugees within their jurisdiction but should also help other countries dealing with large scale refugee situations.

The organisation calls on the European Union to fully respect its obligations towards refugees, by ensuring that its border controls do not directly, or indirectly, force asylum-seekers to return to transit countries where they would be at risk of arbitrary detention, collective expulsion, and refoulement – as in the case of a number of countries in North and West Africa – even the added risk of being dumped in the desert without food or water.

Amnesty International also calls on the European Union to ensure that in the development of its common asylum system, all asylum-seekers under the jurisdiction of its member states have access to fair and satisfactory asylum procedures regardless of their country of origin or transit, and that the use of inadequate accelerated asylum procedures is ended.

Amnesty urges states to increase the use of resettlement as one of several responsibility-sharing tools to relieve the burden of receiving states and to provide refugees with a durable solution.

For many refugees, it is the only way to ensure they have access to basic rights such as education, health care and adequate housing.

For some, their illness, disability or trauma means they do not have access to adequate care in their countries of asylum.

Only nine countries have traditionally had large resettlement programmes; these have been recently joined by developing countries such as Chile, Burkina Faso and Brazil, which have started to resettle small numbers of refugees. Amnesty International calls on other states to join this list.

Finally, Amnesty urges states, in cooperation with UNHCR, to develop an effective way of sharing the responsibility for large numbers of refugees, as and when urgent situations arise.

It concludes: ‘The answer to this grievous problem cannot be to countenance human suffering and turn our backs on people in tragic circumstances.

‘It is to take more responsibility for this global problem in a global way.’

l In a new report published on Monday, Amnesty has strongly criticised the Tunisian government for failing to curb torture, extended illegal detention and unfair trials.

The report, ‘In the Name of Security: Routine Abuses in Tunisia’, shows how human rights violations are being committed in connection with the government’s security and counter-terrorism policies.

It looks at specific cases of torture, including beatings, hoodings, sleep deprivation, the use of electric shocks, insertion of bottles and other implements into the anus, and mock executions.

One person was so badly tortured that afterwards he couldn’t recognise his own mother, wife or his lawyers.

Amnesty’s report shows how, in their efforts to prevent the formation of ‘terrorist cells’, the Tunisian authorities have been responsible for arbitrary arrests and detentions breaching Tunisia’s own laws.

People have regularly been held for longer than is legal under Tunisia’s ‘garde a vue’ detention laws – with arrest records then falsified to disguise this fact.

Numerous civilians have been tried before military courts that have produced little evidence against defendants.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Programme Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said: ‘The Tunisian government has repeatedly asserted that it abides by its international human rights obligations, yet this is far from the reality.

‘It is high time that the authorities stop paying lip service to human rights and take concrete action to end abuses.

‘As a first step, the Tunisian authorities must acknowledge the disturbing allegations documented in this report, commit to investigating them and bring those responsible to justice.’

Amnesty’s report details numerous instances of torture of those held by the Tunisian authorities.

For example, Ramzi el Aifi, Ousama Abbadi and Mahdi Ben Elhaj Ali, co-defendants in the ‘Soliman’ case, all reported to their lawyers that they were punched, tied up and kicked by prison guards at Mornaguia prison on October 16 2007, apparently because they had gone on hunger strike in protest against their conditions of detention.

Abbadi sustained a serious eye injury and a deep, open leg wound and was in a wheelchair, unable to stand, when seen by his lawyer on October 20.

Ramzi el Aifi told his lawyer that he had been tied up with a rope, beaten and that a stick had been inserted into his anus.

No investigation into these abuses is known to have been initiated by the Tunisian authorities and those allegedly responsible have not faced justice.

Ramzi el Aifi and Ousama Abbadi were subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment (Abbadi’s sentence was reduced to 30 years’ imprisonment on appeal), while Mahdi Ben Elhaj Ali was sentenced to 12 years’ (reduced to eight years on appeal).

Meanwhile, another ‘Soliman’ case defendant, Mohamed Amine Dhiab, has reported that guards pushed a pen into a recent bullet wound in his back and subjected him to mock executions.

Amnesty’s report shows how many of these abuses have been committed by forces from Tunisia’s Department of State Security, who use torture virtually with impunity.

Amnesty insist that by failing to investigate allegations of torture, the Public Prosecutor and his staff as well as judges, who often lack independence, effectively help to cover up instances in which detainees are held incommunicado for prolonged periods in breach of Tunisian law.

Amnesty’s report also points out that a number of Arab and European governments and the US government have returned people they suspected of involvement in terrorism to Tunisia, where they have then suffered arbitrary arrest and detention, torture or other ill-treatment, and blatantly unfair trials.

Amnesty spokesman Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui added: ‘Instead of forcibly returning Tunisian nationals who face torture and unfair trials, foreign governments should be pressing the Tunisian government to take concrete steps to promote human rights reform.’