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“Seeking Asylum is Not a Crime”: European Rights Chief on Refugee Crisis & “Shameful” U.S. Response

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As violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa pushes a wave of refugees to seek shelter in Europe, the United Nations refugee agency reports a growing number of children have been forced into sex to pay for the continuation of their journey. Now the United Nations is accusing the Czech Republic of systematic human rights violations over its treatment of refugees. The U.N. said the Czech government is committing the abuses in an effort to deter refugees from entering the country or staying there. We discuss the refugee crisis with Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa pushes a wave of refugees to seek shelter in Europe, the United Nations refugee agency reports a growing number of children have been forced into sex to pay for the continuation of their journey. Now the United Nations is accusing the Czech Republic of systematic human rights violations over its treatment of refugees. The U.N. said the Czech government is committing the abuses in an effort to deter refugees from entering the Czech Republic or staying there. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke Thursday in Geneva.

RUPERT COLVILLE: There appear to be violations of human rights of the migrants and refugees, not isolated violations, not coincidental, but essentially systematic. And this is basically to do with the fact that they’re being detained pretty much as a matter of course, for 40 days in some cases, which is just about permissible under Czech law, but in other cases way beyond that, so even beyond what the Czech legal system allows. They’re not being—many of them are unable to challenge their detention legally.

AMY GOODMAN: Colville went on to describe the findings of a recent report by the Czech ombudsperson, who visited migrant detention centers and was shocked by what she saw.

RUPERT COLVILLE: She described it as degrading treatment of parents in front of their children. There have been reports also—this seems to have got better, but there were reports that children were being separated from their parents, who were behind wire fences, that they were having to see their parents being handcuffed. People are being strip-searched in order to take their money, essentially, because they’re actually being charged for being detained. So they’re being wrongly detained in the first place, and then they’re having to pay for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Germany alone says it expects to take in between 800,000 and 1 million refugees this year. Sweden has already taken in over 100,000 refugees this year, including 10,000 in the past week. With winter looming, authorities across Europe are scrambling to find warm places for refugees. Refugees from Iraq and Syria are suffering in near-freezing temperatures in Croatia.

REFUGEE 1: What we saw from the bad weather, the bad weather is very cold. And the U.N. help us. The U.N. offer us blankets. They offer us food, drinks and many things. So we are very grateful to them. And we—now we just are waiting for the gate to be opened, and complete our way to Germany.

REFUGEE 2: Yeah, it was very cold. We was freezing.

REFUGEE 3: [translated] This situation is really difficult. Children are staying in the cold. People have been waiting here for the past two days. All night they sleep outside. Children are getting sick. It is enough. We are all waiting for the borders to open, so it is over.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the refugee crisis, we’re joined in studio by Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Explain why these refugees are coming, the responsibility of the Western countries they are fleeing to, and what needs to be done.

NILS MUIŽNIEKS: This is not a new crisis. Anybody who’s been following what’s going on in Syria knows that countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have been faced with huge—with a huge arrival of refugees from Syria. And the inadequacies of many national systems for asylum and refugee have been plain to anybody on the ground. Greece’s asylum system collapsed a number of years ago. Italy has been saving hundreds of thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s only when it went further into Europe that the rest of the countries began to take notice.

The responsibility is to provide access to asylum for those who need protection, to not detain them, as we just heard—seeking asylum is not a crime, and people should not be detained for doing so—and to get fair hearing. And those who need protection should be given it. The problem is that this was very predictable that people would move, and what we need is to ramp up resettlements from the areas in and around the conflict, so that people don’t have to make these dangerous journeys, don’t have to endure the suffering. If we’re going to give them protection, why not help them move immediately to a safe place?

AMY GOODMAN: What about the United States? What’s the responsibility of the United States?

NILS MUIŽNIEKS: Well, the United States can do much, much more. When I hear that the United States has taken several thousand Syrians, this is shameful. This is a pitifully small number. When you hear that a country like Armenia, a very small, poor country, has received 10,000 Syrian refugees, when you hear that various countries in Europe are taking hundreds of thousands of people, to learn that America is taking several thousand from Syria, I don’t think it’s worthy of America. I think America also has a special responsibility to politically help arrive at a solution in Syria to end the conflict, because until that happens, we’re going to see a continued outflow of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the German politician, Horst Seehofer, the premier of the state of Bavaria, called on the U.S. and Arab states to take in more refugees.

HORST SEEHOFER: [translated] We need, ladies and gentlemen, quotas for refugees from war zones. And I would like to underline my support for the proposal from my parliamentary group. Apart from all the other measures, we need to achieve a quota for refugees from war zones. Also, ladies and gentlemen, we need to include countries in the distribution of these quotas which have an especially large responsibility for these refugees, such as the United States and the Arab countries.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just talking before about Syria and Libya and what the U.S. did in the interventions there. What is the link between those interventions, the U.S. military moving in, and refugees moving out?

NILS MUIŽNIEKS: Well, it’s clear that these people are fleeing terrorism, conflict, barrel bombs, beheadings. And insofar as America is politically implicated in one side or the other, militarily implicated in one side or the other, America has a special responsibility towards the people who afterwards are uprooted and flee for their lives. My job is to look at what’s going on in 47 countries, so I cannot really speak to questions of what’s going on in Libya or Syria. But we see the consequences in Europe of political and military decisions made in those countries.

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