Terrorist attacks and security: neglect of humanitarian law raises fundamental concerns over refugees


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Heightened security across Europe in the wake of the November 13 attacks in Paris is likely to slow the flow of refugees across the continent.

At the same time, more rigorous security measures are raising alarm bells that international humanitarian law and refugee law may be compromised.

Julia Hall, an expert on counter-terrorism, criminal justice and human rights at Amnesty International and a member of the IBA’s Task Force on Terrorism, is concerned that actions taken by the French and Belgian governments following the attacks could contravene international humanitarian law.

‘‘The non-application of international humanitarian law in Syria, for example, means that states can use these broad, sweeping and vague ‘dragnet’ laws to criminalise virtually anything

Julia Hall, Counter-terrorism, criminal justice and human rights expert, Amnesty International; member of the IBA’s Task Force on Terrorism

‘If you look at the French bill that has been tabled, basically it gives the French government a carte blanche under the State of Emergency to do whatever it wants to do,’ she told Global Insight.

‘What we’re seeing in France and Belgium…[where they are] amending the Constitution to make it easier to declare a State of Emergency, should really raise a red flag for all of us… as it will have a knock-on effect across the region.’

Hall, who has spent more than two decades researching and analysing counter-terrorism operations in conflict areas such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia, as well as researching migration and asylum issues in the EU, warned that such measures could fan the flames of Islamophobia and growing anti-refugee sentiment in Europe:

‘The non-application of international humanitarian law in Syria, for example, means that states can use these broad, sweeping and vague "dragnet" laws to criminalise virtually anything they want to.

'This is something that should be extremely worrying to all of us.'

Hall says the focus of many of these types of laws is on travel and acts in preparation to travel that raise questions about free speech, association and movement, which could undermine human rights, the rule of law and ultimately play into the hands of ISIS.

‘These types of reactions are precisely what ISIS wants to see; they want to see refugees and migrants marginalised and alienated and not being made welcome; they want to see really repressive and hardcore counter-terrorism measures that target certain communities and make them feel fearful and hostile.’

Karl Waheed, Secretary of the IBA’s Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and founder of Karl Waheed Avocats in Paris, says France’s reinforced anti-terrorism measures follow in the footsteps of the Patriot Act introduced by the US government in the wake of 9/11.

Karl Waheed

‘We don’t have any political debate any more,’ he told Global Insight during the IBA’s Biennial Global Immigration Conference held in London in November.

‘The kind of Patriot Act that we’ve passed, which is an extension of the État d'Urgence [State of Emergency] which permits the government to suspend all civil rights, has now been extended three months until the end of February 2016.’

Although he recognised such measures could raise some concerns, he said security was now of paramount importance:

‘The general opinion is – just like the Patriot Act – that we want this and even defenders of civil liberties agree that we have to give up some civil liberties temporarily for the government to make our world safe.’

Gunther Maevers

It soon emerged that one of the assailants may have passed through several European countries before arriving in Paris. If proven, Justice Richard Goldstone, Honorary President of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and a member of the IBA’s Task Force on Terrorism, says it will be vital that refugee law is upheld.

‘It’s a disturbing thought that people could dishonestly use refugee status to further terrorist aims,’ he says. ‘This certainly would justify extra precautions from a security point of view [but] it would have very negative consequences if refugee laws are not respected.’

Even before the attacks, Gunther Maevers, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Immigration and Nationality Law Committee and a partner at michels.pmks, says the migrant crisis had exposed glaring IT inefficiencies in the Schengen Area – a problem which he says will only worsen as more rigorous security checks are imposed across the continent.

‘Information Technology is a big problem,’ he says. ‘The systems in place are simply not made for so many people. In Germany, just to give you an example of how difficult it is, there were so many people coming in that it was nearly impossible to register them all with fingerprints in a proper way. Later on when they go to the local Foreigners’ Registration Office, they have to register them again because there’s no transfer of the data.

‘You can’t guarantee that everyone is registered and you can’t guarantee that none of them have produced forged documents. This is why in the Paris case it is difficult to know where they came from; it’s assumed they have entered via certain countries, but we don’t know.’

French President François Hollande has reaffirmed the country’s pledge to take in 30,000 migrants from Syria and Iraq, but said asylum seekers would be vetted to ensure they posed no security threat.

While Hall welcomes the message this sends to the international community, she warned that Europe, the US and other countries accepting refugees need to ensure their refugee policies go hand in hand with well-thought out integration policies.

‘It takes a lot more than just saying you’re going to accept a quota, it means you’ve got to create the climate within which those people actually get the protection that they deserve,’ she says. ‘The current climate is not a climate where those refugees will be welcome. They might be able to get in the door but they arrive in countries where at the highest levels the political rhetoric has not been great, the opposition is horrible in the main and at the street level people are not safe. We’re already seeing signs of Islamophobia and attacks against people.

‘So they can say that they’re going to accept 30,000, but parallel to the security measures that they do need to take to secure the population, there also needs to be hard work and very specific measures that address issues of hate speech, crimes, integration and the general feeling of marginalisation felt by these communities.

'Unless these two projects take place in parallel there will be no such thing as welcome refugees. They’ll just arrive in a place where they don’t feel safe again.’

Ruth Green is the IBA's Multimedia Journalist and can be contacted at ruth.green@int-bar.org