Britain accused of unlawfully deporting Afghan asylum seekers | World news

Britain and other European countries have been accused of breaching international law, as it emerged that the number of asylum seekers forced to return to Afghanistan has tripled at a time when civilian casualties in the country are at a record high.

According to a report by Amnesty International, unaccompanied children and Christian converts at risk of persecution, torture and death – a status that should legally guarantee asylum – have been removed from European countries.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people returned by European countries to Afghanistan nearly tripled, from 3,290 to 9,460. This corresponds to a marked fall in recognition of asylum applications, from 68% in September 2015 to 33% in December 2016, official EU statistics show.

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The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has reported that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for civilians in the country, with 11,418 people killed or injured. In the first six months of 2017 alone, UNAMA documented 5,243 civilian casualties in attacks by armed groups, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.

Amnesty’s report, Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan, further accuses European governments, including the UK, of being “determined” to return young Afghans despite being well aware of the unfolding “horrors” in the country.

It claims that in a leaked 2016 document, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed”, as well as the likelihood that “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” will increase. The report further claims that the agencies then stated in the document that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future”.

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It quotes Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s finance minister, who told the Afghan parliament that the government needed to accept the returnees in order to guarantee aid. “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying.

The Amnesty report adds: “Similarly, a confidential Afghan government source called [the policy] a ‘poisoned cup’ that Afghanistan was forced to drink in order to receive development aid. The country is highly aid-dependent, with nearly 70% of Afghanistan’s annual income dependent upon international donors.”

In 2016, the five European countries that returned the most Afghans were: Germany (3,440), Greece (1,480), Sweden (1,025), the UK (785) and Norway (760).

Between 2007 and 2015, the report notes, 2,018 young people who had sought refuge in the UK as unaccompanied child asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan. Despite Kabul being the most dangerous province for citizens, the UK Home Office’s policy guidance states that “return or relocation to Kabul is, in general, considered reasonable”.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “By rejecting the vast majority of claims for asylum by Afghans, the UK is setting a worrying precedent which risks encouraging other countries to do likewise. If the government doesn’t stop deporting Afghans, it will have blood on its hands.”

Amnesty International researchers interviewed several families who described their experiences after being forcibly returned from European countries – losing loved ones, narrowly surviving attacks on civilians and living in fear of persecution.

The researchers highlighted the case of a woman and her family who fled Afghanistan in 2015 after her husband was kidnapped, beaten and released in return for a ransom. After travelling for a month, they arrived in Norway, where the authorities “denied their asylum claim and gave them a choice between being detained before being deported or being given €10,700 to return voluntarily”.

A few months after returning to Afghanistan, the husband disappeared and was later discovered to have been killed, presumably by kidnappers.

Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said: “In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful. Wilfully blind to the evidence that violence is at a record high and no part of Afghanistan is safe, they are putting people at risk of torture, abduction, death and other horrors.”

The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”

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Migrant death toll rises after clampdown on east European borders | World news

More than 22,500 migrants have reportedly died or disappeared globally since 2014 – more than half of them perishing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to a study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

A clampdown on Europe’s eastern borders has forced migrants to choose more dangerous routes as the death toll in the Mediterranean continues to rise despite a drop in the overall number of arrivals, data compiled by the UN refugee agency shows.

“While overall numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean by the eastern route were reduced significantly in 2016 by the EU-Turkey deal, death rates have increased to 2.1 per 100 in 2017, relative to 1.2 in 2016,” reads the IOM report which is released on Monday. “Part of this rise is due to the greater proportion of migrants now taking the most dangerous route – that across the central Mediterranean – such that 1 in 49 migrants now died on this route in 2016.”

Since 2014, more deaths have been documented on this route than any other migration route in the world. In the first half of this year, the IOM said at least 3,110 migrants have died or disappeared globally, which is lower than the figure in 2016 (4,348), but the risk of dying has increased in the Mediterranean even though fewer migrants crossed into Europe.

“The central Mediterranean route, ending at Lampedusa or the main island of Sicily, accounts only for about a quarter of almost 1.5 million people who have arrived since 2014 on all routes, but for 88% of all migrant deaths in the Mediterranean,” it said.

Last month, Amnesty International criticised Italy for taking measures to keep migrants away from its shores, which it said leads “in their arbitrary detention in centres where they are at almost certain risk of torture, rape and even of being killed”. The IOM’s report also complained about smugglers in Libya and Italy increasingly using less seaworthy vessels.

Jean-Guy Vataux, head of mission in Libya for Médecins Sans Frontières, told the Guardian nearly all the people rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean have been “exposed to an alarming level of violence and exploitation: kidnap for ransom, forced labour, sexual violence and enforced prostitution, being kept in captivity or detained arbitrarily”.

According to Vataux, the majority of migrants in Libya live clandestinely “under the yoke of smugglers or – for the most unlucky – kidnapping organisations”.

He added: “Migrants going through Libya to reach Europe are facing impossible choices: getting on a boat is very risky, many die before they reach the European coast or a rescue ship. Remaining in Libya, whether in detention centres run by the administration or a criminal organisation, exposes them to unbelievable levels of violence and exploitation. There needs to be other options made available very quickly, like safe passage to other Mediterranean countries.”

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Restrictions on the eastern route meant the number of arrivals in countries such as Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia had dramatically dropped. The three countries, which are not a part of the EU border-free Schengen zone, restricted migrants’ access in late 2015.

In the first half of this year, at least seven migrants have died of hypothermia during the winter months in the western Balkans. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recently published a report warning of the dangers in the route. A mother and son who successfully crossed the Evros river – along the border between Turkey and Greece – both later died of hypothermia.

More than 120,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year – most departed from Libya bound for Italy, from Turkey bound for Greece or, more recently, from Morocco bound for Spain. About 82% of all migrants were travelling to Italy from Libya. In June, the Italian coastguard rescued about 5,000 people in one day in the Mediterranean.

The IOM report covers the period from January 2014 to the end of June and thus does not reflect the recent developments in Myanmar, where atrocities against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority has led to an exodus of thousands to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The IOM report, titled Fatal Journeys, has been compiled by the Berlin-based Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC). It is the only existing database on migrant deaths at the global level, collected through various means including official records, medical examiners and media reports.

Ann Singleton, senior research fellow at the University of Bristol’s school for policy studies, said: “For the families left behind it could make a real difference if they are able to find more information on their missing relatives. Better data on migrant fatalities can also help inform policies aimed at reducing migrant deaths.”

Global figures for the first half of 2017 show that northern Africa also had high fatalities and disappearances, with at least 225 recorded deaths. The majority of incidents occurred along routes from western Africa and the Horn of Africa towards Libya and Egypt. Sickness or violence are the main cause of death in those cases.

At least 150 deaths were also recorded in the US-Mexico border crossings since January. “Along the border, irregular migrants avoid coming into contact with authorities in well-patrolled areas and are often forced to cross natural hazards such as the desert of Arizona or the fast-running Rio Grande river,” IOM said. More people have died attempting to cross the border compared with last year despite an ease in border apprehensions of migrants.

Recent clampdowns on the Libya-Italy route have also led to the increase in attempts to reach the continent via Morocco. The IOM has said the number of people arriving in Spain by sea this year is likely to outnumber the number arriving in Greece.

Francesca Friz-Prguda, UNHCR representative in Spain, who recently visited the port cities of Tarifa and Algeciras, where refugees are arriving almost daily after crossing the strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, said Spain was underprepared and lacked an integrated national strategy. More than 14,000 migrants have arrived by sea – a 90% increase compared with last year. Arrivals in Andalusian ports have tripled.

“While this is really not an emergency situation if you compare it to Italy, there are no adequate structures and procedures in place to deal even with the current level, let alone with more arrivals,” she said.

“It’s a myth to assume that people arriving here are all economic migrants, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most refugee-producing regions in the world, so even statistically there’s a likelihood that these mixed flows are refugees travelling,” she said. “A lot of media have not dealt with the issue in a very responsible way, talking about avalanches and storms, flood, and God knows what – there’s a clearly a perception which doesn’t seem to sufficiently understand that first there are many refugee-producing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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Southern Europe swelters as heatwave sparks wildfires and closes tourist sites | World news

A heatwave is rolling across southern Europe, fuelling wildfires, exacerbating droughts in Italy and Spain and leading the Greek authorities to close some of the most popular tourist sites.

Blazes have broken out across southern Italy and Sicily, where the temperatures have climbed above 40C this week.

Wildfires near the Calampiso seaside resort west of Palermo, the Sicilian capital, forced the evacuation by boat of more than 700 tourists on Wednesday night.

About 10 people were taken to hospital for smoke inhalation but there were no reports of serious injuries. The resort will remain closed until the weekend.

“The fire didn’t enter the village and everyone was evacuated. It is safer now,” said Anna Maria Como, from the mayoral office of the nearby town of San Vito Lo Capo. By Thursday morning, the fires were under control.

About 23 wildfires raged in southern Italy on Wednesday, including on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius near Naples.

Smoke has been billowing across Naples and nearby areas for days, raising fears that the volcano was erupting. Tourists have been advised to stay away from the area.

People shelter from the sun in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City.



People shelter from the sun in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City. Photograph: Giorgio Onorati/EPA

Italy’s environment minister said a man had been arrested on suspicion of arson. “If someone set fire to Vesuvius, I want to see them in jail for 15 years,” Gian Luca Galletti was quoted as saying in Italian media.

He added that a decision would be made in the next few hours about whether to send the army to the affected areas.

The World Wildlife Fund said thousands of people, animals and a nature reserve were at risk around the volcano. “The situation is extreme, so extraordinary action needs to be taken,” it said.

Two big fires also broke out in an area north of Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano, in the Sicilian city of Catania.

High temperatures compounded by strong winds enabled the fires to spread after months of below-average rainfall. Farm animals perished while several farms and more than 150 hectares of pine forest were destroyed in a blaze in Sicily this month.

Drought in the northern agricultural provinces of Parma and Piacenza prompted the government last week to declare states of emergency, which will free up extra funds to tackle the crisis.

Opposition politicians called for a similar response to the wildfires. Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, wrote on his blog: “£Vesuviusisburning” and called for a national state of emergency to be declared.

Italy continued to swelter on Thursday, with the highest temperatures of 36C (97F) forecast in Rome and Florence.

A tourist takes a selfie in front of the Parthenon temple in Athens. All Greek archaeological sites will shut during the hottest hours of the day this week.



A tourist takes a selfie in front of the Parthenon temple in Athens. All Greek archaeological sites will shut during the hottest hours of the day this week. Photograph: AP

In Greece, the heatwave led the culture ministry to close popular archaeological sites around the country, including the Acropolis in Athens, on Wednesday.

The ministry said all archaeological sites had been closed between 1pm and 5pm, adding the measures would be enacted when the mercury hit 39C. On those days, Greece’s main archaeological attractions will be open from 8am to 1pm and then from 5pm to 8pm.

Culture ministry employees guarding the Acropolis have long complained that the site lacks sufficient medical equipment and staff in the event of an emergency. Greece is experiencing a bumper tourist season with record numbers visiting the country and stopping off in Athens before vacationing on the isles.

To cope with the rising temperature municipal authorities in Athens also opened air-conditioned “friendship clubs” for the elderly and infirm. The organisations were being kept open from 8am until 8pm, said Stamatia Leontopoulou a municipal employee.

“A lot of older people who can’t afford to keep their homes cool and are vulnerable have been coming in,” she told the Guardian. “Everyone is saying ‘thank God this heat wave is not as bad as the last one a couple of weeks ago.’”

In Spain, where the drought has devastated cereal crops and could threaten the grape and olive harvests, seven southern provinces were on their highest heat alert with temperatures forecast to rise above 44C on Thursday.

According to the state meteorological office, Aemet, the temperature in the town of Córdoba in Andalusia was expected to reach 47C at midday.

Aemet said the heatwave had been caused by a mass of hot air from northern Africa and a lack of clouds over the Iberian peninsula. It said cooler weather would not set in until the weekend.

Fans spray cold water on customers on the terrace of the Círculo de Bellas Artes bar in Madrid.



Fans spray cold water on customers on the terrace of the Círculo de Bellas Artes bar in Madrid. Photograph: Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty

Spain endured an early heatwave last month. Although the phenomenon is not uncommon in July, authorities said the temperatures were especially high at the moment.

On Wednesday, police in Madrid rescued a dehydrated 16-month-old girl who had been left in a car for three hours in sweltering temperatures. Officers smashed one of the windows to get to the toddler, who was sweating, vomiting and breathing rapidly.

She was taken to hospital for treatment. Her father, who was later found, told police he had put the girl in the back of the car and “completely forgotten” to take her to nursery. His actions are under investigation.

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