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EU states cooperating informally to deny refugees asylum rights – report | Refugees

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Informal cooperation between states has prevented thousands of women, men and children from seeking protection in Europe this year, according to a report released by nine human rights organisations.

The Protecting Rights at Borders (Prab) initiative has recorded 2,162 cases of “pushbacks” at different borders in Italy, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Hungary carried out on the basis of bilateral agreements between countries, which resulted in them circumventing their responsibilities and pushing unwanted groups back outside the EU.

The report comes as Greece was also singled out for criticism on Wednesday with Europe’s top human rights watchdog urging a halt to the practice of pushing back migrants at the land and sea borders it shares with Turkey.

In a damning letter, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, said it was incumbent on Athens’ centre-right government to properly investigate the pushbacks. “I am deeply concerned that, two and a half years later, allegations of pushbacks persist,” she wrote, referring to an initial visit in which the issue had been raised.

“The way in which these operations are reportedly carried out would clearly be incompatible with Greece’s human rights obligations,” she said.

A group of migrants in Ayvalık, Turkey, after allegedly being pushed back by a Greek patrol.
A group of migrants in Ayvalık, Turkey, in April after allegedly being pushed back by a Greek patrol. Turkish officials claimed migrants were taken to the maritime border before being put in a dinghy and Ankara alerted. Photograph: Erdem Şahin/EPA

The commissioner said that, all too often, the official reaction of Greek authorities was to simply dismiss the charges, despite what she described as “the overwhelming body of evidence that has been presented in recent years”.

But issuing its strongest rebuttal yet, Athens responded by insisting that the police and coastguards were instructed to act “in full compliance” with Greece’s international obligations both at sea and along the border with Turkey at the Evros River (also known as Maritsa or Meriç), where Greek officials work closely with Frontex, the European border agency.

Alleged incidents of ill-treatment were not only investigated but punished, the Greek ministers of migration, civil protection and shipping claimed in a joint letter rejecting the accusations. “Greek officers continuously perform their duties against the backdrop of an unfavourable environment of intended misleading information, emanating in most cases from the smugglers’ networks,” they wrote, adding that the claims were aimed at both “harming their reputation and demoralising them”.

Last week, a Guardian analysis revealed EU member states illegally pushed back at least 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders during the pandemic, methods being linked to the death of more than 2,000 people.

Prab, which includes the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Italy’s Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) and Diaconia Valdese (DV), the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and others, said that “over a third of pushbacks were accompanied by rights violations (denial of access to asylum procedure, physical abuse and assault, theft, extortion and destruction of property), at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials”.

According to the testimonies collected by Prab, people attempting to cross or having just crossed the border between Italy and France also often report “rights violations by French law enforcement officials. After being intercepted by French border police along the coastal border, asylum seekers are detained for the night at the police border station, denied their right to apply for asylum, receive insufficient food and water, and are not provided with interpretation or medical assistance.” The next day they are returned to Italy.

Prab has also documented the return of asylum seekers and migrants across Italy’s north-eastern land border with Slovenia, described as “one of the most visible occurrences of pushbacks in the EU”, due to a flawed agreement signed between Italy and Slovenia in 1996, when the two countries agreed on the return to a third country of nationals entering Italy irregularly.

In July 2020, during a parliamentary hearing in Rome, an Italian representative of the interior ministry confirmed that pushbacks were happening “without any sort of formal administrative procedure … even when the intention of requesting international protection was manifested”.

In January, the court of Rome declared more than 700 pushbacks perpetrated by Italian police in Slovenia illegal.

Refugees and migrants reporting pushbacks to Serbia complained of poor treatment of different types, while every other incident from Romania alleged violence. In two cases from Hungary, refugees testified that they had been bitten by border patrol dogs.

An injured migrant shows wounds he said were caused by Hungarian police, 28 January 2020.
An injured migrant shows wounds he said were caused by Hungarian police in January last year. Photograph: Marko Đurica/Reuters

Interviewees reported being slapped, kicked, beaten by police using batons, and punched on their backs, hands and legs.

In 2021, more than a third of people pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia claimed they were physically abused, while 62% alleged theft, extortion or destruction of their personal belongings. Denial of access to asylum was reported by 23% of those interviewed.

Prab said that “chain pushbacks through different EU member states are occurring entirely outside of formally established mechanisms and aim to circumvent their obligations under European and international human rights law”.

Since the beginning of the year, 22 people reported experiencing pushbacks from Serbia to North Macedonia and from North Macedonia to Greece. Field reports and data from key informants gathered by the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (Myla) show that as many as “4,000 persons may have experienced pushbacks to Greece during the first three months of 2021”.

Destruction of personal documents is also commonly recorded. There were testimonies from a group of migrants from Morocco who said they were beaten and forced into the Evros River on the Greek-Turkish border.

“It is extremely worrying to see that so many people experience pushbacks and border violence,” said Charlotte Slente, the DRC secretary general. “It goes without saying that states must stop the violence and these illegal practices, and perpetrators must be held accountable.

“To avoid the continuation of such illegal practices, DRC and its partner organisations strongly recommend that an independent border-monitoring mechanism is set up to ensure that rights violations are monitored and that effective investigations into evidence submitted by civil society actors are conducted.”

Prab said its report was “the tip of the iceberg”, as many rights violations were likely to go unreported.

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Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International

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German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.

The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.

“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.

In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.

On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.

Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.

Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.



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Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development

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Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.

The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.

Doreen Kajuju Kimathi
Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, who now volunteers for a widows’ support group. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.

“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”

Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.

While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.

For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.

But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.

The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.

Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization.
Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization. Photograph: Courtesy of CTWOO

The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.

Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.

Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa logo
Grassroots groups are emerging to build awareness of widows’ rights. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.

“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.

Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.

But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.

“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.

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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech

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Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.

The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.

The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.

Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.

The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

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