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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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Funeral held for Roma man killed in Czech police custody

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The funeral of a Roma man killed while in Czech police custody was held over the weekend. Stanislav Tomáš died after a Czech police officer kneeled on his neck, in scenes reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in Minneapolis. Tomáš passed away 19 June, while being rushed to the hospital. The police have denied wrongdoing.

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‘Pelosi Republicans’: McCarthy Disses Cheney, Kinzinger Amid New Jan. 6 Committee Appointment

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

Though it appears the January 6 commission will move forward, the House Minority Leader did not appear to change the GOP stance on the matter when approached by reporters on Monday. 

“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).

All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”

McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.

“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?” 

Moments later, the House Minority Leader informed reporters that he has not decided whether the two anti-Trump Republicans will be punished for joining the select committee amid the House GOP’s boycott of the group.

Word of McCarthy’s latest dig traveled fast to Cheney, who abruptly panned his remarks as “pretty childish.” 

“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.

Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance. 

Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee. 

McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee. 


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REUTERS / Elizabeth Frantz

U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021

“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.” 

Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.

“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.  



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How ‘super-detector’ dogs are helping free Iraq from the terror of Isis mines | Global development

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On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.

Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.

It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.

A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.

Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.

“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”

Dog and handler between two stakes on arid ground
Branco, with his handler Naif Khalaf Qassim, can do rapid searches either side of a known mined corridor

Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.

The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.

But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.

Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.

Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.

Land mine with pressure pad on top
Isis made workers at plastics factories in Mosul produce the so-called VS500, based on an Italian landmine

Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.

This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.

The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.

Woman in uniform and dog searching burnt out cars.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, with X-Lang, wants to clear landmines so families can return and farm the land

The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.

The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.

Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.

Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people
Vian Khaider Khalaf says some of her family, as Yazidis, are still in camps for displaced people

“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”

Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”

After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.

The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.

It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.

Dogs in circular pool with rotator arm in middle
After a morning’s work the dogs can go into a custom-made pool that allows them to exercise in the heat

The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.

Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.

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