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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Sir Brian Barder obituary | Politics

Brian Barder, who has died aged 83, was one of the most energetic and politically committed diplomats of his generation. In retirement, he campaigned against injustices in the British legal system. From a range of postings from New York to Australia, the Soviet Union, Canada, Poland and Nigeria, his most gruelling but rewarding service came as Britain’s ambassador in Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine of 1984-85. As the crisis developed, he waited with trepidation at an airfield in the capital with his wife, Jane. Media barons such as Robert Maxwell and rock stars including Bob Geldof were helping to fuel massive media and parliamentary pressure for Britain to help to feed the millions of starving people.

The UK government decided to send three RAF Hercules freight planes with aid. But after constant effort Barder had still not managed to get official clearance for them to land. Ethiopia’s socialist leadership was split, with hardliners arguing that no planes from a Nato air force should be allowed inside their country. Their main weapons supplier, the Soviet Union, took a similar line.

All that Barder could rely on was an unofficial last-minute telephone call from a senior member of the Ethiopian leadership, explaining that no agreement would be announced but the RAF planes would not be stopped from landing and could tacitly operate further flights.

It was a tenuous and easily deniable promise. As the Barders anxiously watched, the Hercules appeared in the African sky. There were no oil drums on the runway and no fighter planes ready to shoot them down. They landed safely and for the next 14 months regularly brought supplies for air drops to the famine-ridden highlands without ever getting official permission.

Beside the tension over the RAF’s role, Barder had to cater for “famine tourists” or “grandstanders on ego trips” who, he later recalled, usually expected meals at the residence. He and Jane were happier to give hospitality to genuine relief workers when they came out of the highlands for a rare break.

Born in Bristol into relatively well-off circumstances, Brian was the son of Vivien (nee Young) and Harry, a descendant of Polish Jewish immigrants and a successful furrier. His parents divorced when Brian was four, and he was sent to a boarding preparatory school and then Sherborne school, Dorset.

At St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a degree in classics, Barder was active in student politics and became chairman of the Labour Club. In 1956 he met Jane Cornwell when both were canvassing, and they married two years later. He remained a party member until his death, standing down for a few years towards the end of his diplomatic service only because he felt it was appropriate to be non-partisan while serving as an ambassador or high commissioner.

After taking the civil service exam he started in the Colonial Office in 1957, and in 1964 was sent to the UK desk at the UN on four-year secondment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was the peak of decolonisation, and Barder met most of the leaders of the African independence movements, sparking his lifelong interest in the continent.

Back in London during the Biafra crisis in Nigeria, he made daily visits to Downing Street to brief Harold Wilson. During a stint in Moscow (1971-73) he was subjected to intimidation by KGB thugs who frequently jostled him and his wife in the lift going up to their flat in retaliation for the Heath government’s astonishing decision to expel 105 Soviet diplomats as alleged spies.

As ambassador in Poland (1986-88) when the Solidarity trade union movement was still banned, Barder frequently met its leader Lech Wałęsa in the Gdansk shipyards. Other Solidarity activists were invited to the Warsaw embassy. These encounters were designed to offer them protection.

Barder was knighted in 1992, during his final diplomatic posting, as high commissioner to Australia (1991-94).

In 1997 he was invited to join the newly created Special Immigration Appeals Commission as its lay member, sitting alongside two judges. The layperson was required to have security clearance and experience in assessing secret intelligence, as the SIAC’s job was to adjudicate cases of people whom the government wished to deport without giving defence lawyers the chance to know or challenge the reasons.

In 2004, when the home secretary, David Blunkett, gave the SIAC the additional job of examining the cases of people who were to be detained without trial because they were allegedly threats to Britain’s security, Barder resigned. His opinion, later endorsed by the law lords, was that sending people to prison without charge or trial breached the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Barder moved on to the issue of indeterminate sentences, a procedure also promoted by Blunkett whereby people could be sentenced on conviction to a “tariff” of a fixed number of years but then be held indefinitely in prison after serving the “tariff” if the authorities felt they would pose a threat to society on release. Barder considered it a Kafka-like system, since people had to refute subjective assessments about their future behaviour and there was almost no funding for them to make their case from behind bars or with adequate legal assistance.

Barder blogged and regularly had letters printed in the Guardian and other newspapers to on issues including indeterminate sentences. Always convivial, he was a man of great generosity who was often contacted by partners or relatives of people given these unfair sentences, and he corresponded with many of them.

When the Conservatives took power in 2010 Barder started informal contacts with the Ministry of Justice under Ken Clarke, who also deplored the system and was battling against Theresa May as home secretary to have it abolished. Though it was finally stopped in 2012, some 2,200 prisoners who had been given these sentences before abolition and have served their tariff are still in custody today.

In 2014 Barder published What Diplomats Do, an imaginary account of the typical duties and challenges faced by a diplomat as he or she progresses up the career ladder, interspersed by reminiscences of key events in his own life. The book is probably the most useful introduction currently available for anyone thinking of diplomacy as a career.

He is survived by Jane and their children, Virginia, Louise and Owen.

Brian Leon Barder, diplomat and civil rights campaigner, born 20 June 1934; died 19 September 2017

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UN rights experts criticise Spanish efforts to block Catalan vote | World news

UN human rights experts have warned the Spanish authorities that their “worrying” efforts to halt Catalonia’s independence referendum appear to violate fundamental individual rights as well as stifle debate “at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy”.

The intervention by two specialists working for the UN Human Rights Council comes three days before Catalans are due to vote in a poll declared illegal by both the Spanish government and the country’s constitutional court.

In a statement, David Kaye and Alfred de Zayas singled out the recent arrests of 14 Catalan officials, the blocking of referendum websites and the possibility that protest organisers could be charged with sedition.

“Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” the experts said.

“The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”

David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and De Zayas, an independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, also expressed reservations over the Spanish government’s decision to deploy thousands of extra police officers to Catalonia.

“We are concerned that this order and the accompanying rhetoric may heighten tensions and social unrest,” they said. “We urge all parties to exercise the utmost restraint and avoid violence of any kind to ensure peaceful protests in the coming days.”

The pair have spoken to the Madrid government about the issues they raised in the statement.

Senior Catalan politicians have previously called for the European Union to weigh in on the issue. The pro-independence Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, said the EU was turning its back on the region, and the Catalan foreign minister, Raül Romeva, accused the Spanish government of a “brutal crackdown” and said the EU needed to “understand that this is a big issue”.

Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, struck a more emollient note in an article for the Guardian, asking the European commission to “open a space for mediation between the Spanish and Catalan governments to find a negotiated and democratic solution to the conflict”.

On Wednesday evening the Catalan high court stepped in to take control of efforts to prevent the vote, instructing local and national police officers to prevent public buildings from being used as polling stations and to seize any material related to the referendum.

However, Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has said shutting polling stations risks “a disruption of public order”.

The Spanish government has vowed to prevent the vote from being held, arguing that it would be a clear breach of the country’s constitution. But Puigdemont insists the vote will go ahead and that Catalonia will declare its independence from Spain within 48 hours of a victory for the yes campaign.

A European commission spokesman declined to comment on how the commission would respond if there were such a declaration of independence, saying: “I will not speculate what will happen 48 or 36 or 72 hours afterwards.”

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Spain lacks capacity to handle migration surge, says UN refugee agency | World news

Spain lacks the resources and capacity to protect the rising number of refugees and migrants reaching it by sea, the UN refugee agency has said.

The warning from UNHCR comes as the Spanish coastguard said it rescued 593 people in a day from 15 small paddle boats, including 35 children and a baby, after they attempted to cross the seven-mile Strait of Gibraltar.

The number of refugees and migrants risking the sea journey between Morocco and Spain has been rising sharply, with the one-day figure the largest since August 2014, when about 1,300 people landed on the Spanish coast in a 24-hour period.

About 9,300 migrants have arrived in Spain by sea so far this year, while a further 3,500 have made it to two Spanish enclaves in north Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, the EU’s only land borders with Africa.

Chart of child refugees and migrants arriving in Europe after crossing Mediterranean

María Jesús Vega, a spokeswoman for UNHCR Spain, said police were badly under-resourced and there was a lack of interpreters and a shortage of accommodation for the new arrivals.

“The state isn’t prepared and there aren’t even the resources and the means to deal with the usual flow of people arriving by sea,” she said.

“Given the current rise, we’re seeing an overflow situation when it comes to local authorities trying to cope at arrival points.”

Vega said the agency was seeing a very high number of vulnerable people including women, victims of people-trafficking, and children.

“What we’re asking is for there to be the right mechanisms in place to ensure people are treated with dignity when they come,” she said.

Last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said Spain could become more popular than Greece as a destination for people seeking to enter Europe, as some look for alternatives to Italy.

About 12,440 people have arrived in Greece so far in 2017, according to UNHCR. The numbers heading to Spain and Greece are dwarfed by Italy, which has seen 97,376 arrivals so far this year. Although this is a reduction on the 101,512 people who arrived during the same period in 2016, the issue continues to cause problems for the authorities, with almost 5,000 people reaching Italy on one day in June.

William Spindler, a spokesman for UNHCR in Geneva, said: “There have been three main routes into Europe for many years, for decades: the central Mediterranean one, the eastern one from Turkey to Greece, and there has always been Spain.

“What is true is that when efforts are made to clamp down on one route, another tends to open up.”

UNHCR figures show that most of those arriving in Spain by sea set out from Morocco, although some also embark from Algeria. The majority of the migrants are from Cameroon, Guinea and the Gambia.

Vega said the continuing instability in Libya meant people trying to escape the war in Syria were trying to reach Europe via Ceuta and Melilla.

She said the agency had noticed an increase in the number of Moroccans travelling to Spain, coinciding with the end of Ramadan and unrest in the Rif region.

Although Vega stressed that the situation in Spain was hardly comparable with Italy, she said Madrid needed to do much more.

“This could be managed quite simply if it were properly addressed,” she said.

“[But] if there isn’t a proper response, we could see people who have fallen into the clutches of people-traffickers becoming merchandise. We’re going to see people who should have international protection facing danger if they’re returned home.”

Statistics compiled by the IOM show that more than 113,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year. To date, more than 2,300 have died in the attempt, 119 of them while trying to reach Spain.

Migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe chart

Italy has embarked on a flurry of initiatives to reduce numbers, including a diplomatic campaign to persuade tribes in the south of Libya to clamp down on people smugglers.

Marco Minniti, the Italian interior minister, has insisted that NGOs involved in sea rescues sign a code of conduct, which was sharply criticised by the UN-backed IOM.

Several aid groups refused to sign the code of conduct because they thought their neutrality would be compromised by taking armed police officers on board. At least three organisations signed it.

The Italian government remains under pressure, as neighbouring countries have tightened border controls, meaning refugees and migrants are unable to head north to France or Austria as they have done in the past.

On Wednesday, 70 Austrian troops were deployed to the Brenner pass to help police with border checks, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

UNHCR said it was too soon to tell whether the recent drop in arrivals in Italy represented a downward trend or a temporary fluctuation.

Under pressure from the EU, the Libyan coastguard has stepped up interceptions of boats, while some NGOs have suspended work in the central Mediterranean because they felt threatened by Libya’s coastguard.

Both could explain the recent fall in sea crossings, but Spindler said: “We don’t have any hard evidence. We could see an increase in the next few weeks.”

Vega said the international community needed to do more to tackle the root causes of migration, such as conflict, climate change and economic instability, to reduce numbers.

“It’s clear that walls and fences aren’t going to deter anyone who’s desperate enough to risk their life and those of their children. Whatever lies ahead of them, it can’t be worse than what they’re leaving behind. They know they could die,” she said.

The Spanish government did not respond to a request for comment.

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Countries with coral reefs must do more on climate change – Unesco | Environment

Countries with responsibility over world heritage-listed coral reefs should adopt ambitious climate change targets, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would keep global temperature increases to just 1.5C, the UN agency responsible for overseeing world heritage sites has said.

At a meeting of Unesco’s world heritage committee in Kraków, Poland, a decision was adopted that clarified and strengthened the responsibility of countries that have custodianship over world-heritage listed coral reefs.

Until now, most countries have interpreted their responsibility over such reefs as implying they need to protect them from local threats such as water pollution and overfishing.

But between 2014 and 2017, reefs in every major reef region bleached, with much of the coral dying, in the worst global bleaching event in recorded history. Over those three years, 21 of the 29 listed sites suffered severe or repeated heat stress.

Last month Unesco published the first global assessment of climate change’s impacts on world heritage-listed reefs and it concluded that local efforts were “no longer sufficient” – concluding the only hope was to keep global temperature increases below 1.5C.

The new decision builds on that assessment, clarifying the responsibility of countries with custodianship over world-heritage listed coral reefs.

The decision adopted by the world heritage committee said it “reiterates the importance of state parties undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris agreement”, which it noted meant pursuing efforts to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

It went on that it “strongly invites all state parties … to undertake actions to address climate change under the Paris agreement that are fully consistent with their obligations within the world heritage convention to protect the [outstanding universal values] of all world heritage properties”.

The decision appeared to implement the earlier finding that local efforts were insufficient to protect reefs, and indicated the committee considered that countries were obliged under the world heritage convention to undertake strong action on climate change.

The decision put most countries’ emissions targets in stark contrast with what was needed to protect their reefs. Combined, all countries’ commitments made so far are projected to allow warming or as much as 2.7C by 2100.

But some countries with coral reefs are not contributing their fair share to even that level of ambition.

Australia, which has responsibility over the world’s largest coral reef system – the Great Barrier Reef – has climate change targets consistent with between 3C and 4C of warming by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker.

Moreover, Australia doesn’t have any policies in place that will help it achieve those targets, with official government projections showing emissions are not expected to be cut at all, and instead will rise for at least decades to come.

The first indication that Unesco would consider action on climate change an obligation of custodians of world-heritage listed coral reefs came in June when it assessed Australia’s progress in protecting the Great Barrier Reef, following back-to-back mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017 that killed as much as half its coral.

Despite acknowledging Australia’s progress in addressing water quality on the reef, and deciding not to put the reef on its “in-danger” list, Unesco noted that climate change was the most serious threat to it, and said there was the need to consider how bleaching was affecting the effectiveness of the country’s plan to protect it.

“Last week the Australian government bragged that the Great Barrier Reef was not put on the in-danger list at this meeting,” said Imogen Zethoven from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, who was at the world heritage committee meeting in Poland.

“However, this week the Australian government should be worried. It knows very well that it is still on probation with the world heritage committee. This decision means Australia needs to rapidly reduce carbon pollution and reject new coalmines – otherwise our reef is at great risk of being placed on the world heritage in-danger list in 2020.

“The Australian government must now, more than ever, rule out any new coalmines and urgently develop a climate policy that will protect our global icon. It must do its fair share of the global effort to reduce pollution.

“If it doesn’t, the world heritage committee should hold Australia to account for failing to tackle the single greatest threat to our Great Barrier Reef – and for putting all other world heritage coral reefs at risk.”

An Earthjustice attorney, Noni Austin, who also attended the world heritage committee meeting, said: “The world heritage committee’s decision has confirmed what scientists have been saying for years: urgent and rapid action to reduce global warming and implement the Paris agreement is essential for the survival of coral reefs into the future.”

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