With two months still to go, deaths of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean so far this year have hit a record high, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Expressing alarm at the situation, UNHCR reported that 3,740 lives had been lost so far in 2016, just short of the 3,771 reported for the whole of 2015. "This is the worst we have ever seen," UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva. "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiralled to one in 88." Spindler said the high loss of life takes place despite a large overall fall this year in the number of people seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Last year at least 1,015,078 people made the crossing. This year so far, crossings stand at 327,800.
An administrative court in Lille, France, on Oct. 18 rejected requests from almost a dozen aid groups and permitted the closure process of the "Jungle" migrant camp near Calais to continue. President François Hollande has promised closure of the camp as pressure for such a result grows while the April election approaches, and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stated that the demolition project is only days away. The groups were seeking postponement of the closure in order to better organize relocation of the migrants, but the court determined that the closure seeks to prevent inhuman treatment that migrants are currently subjected to at the camp. While another concern was the transport of unaccompanied minors, the transfers are to be done pursuant to the Dublin Regulations, which in part governs family reunification.
Low voter turnout has invalidated the referendum of Oct. 2 in which Hungarian citizens voted overwhelmingly to oppose any EU mandatory placement of refugees. The proposed plan sought to share 160,000 asylum seekers throughout the 28-member bloc through imposition of mandatory quotas. The Hungarian government had opposed the imposition of the plan, along with other countries. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán nonetheless expressed his support for the referendum's results as "excellent" and praised the turnout of voters.
Swiss voters on Sept. 25 approved a new surveillance law allowing their national intelligence services broad powers to spy on "terrorist" suspects and cyber criminals, as well as to cooperate with foreign intelligence agencies. While the right to privacy is traditionally considered very important in Switzerland, the new law will allow security agents to tap phones and computer networks. This marks a drastic change from previous surveillance capabilities, under which intelligence agencies relied solely on information from public sources and other authorities. Some left-wing groups have protested, saying the new legislation violates citizens' rights and will undermine Switzerland's neutrality. Amnesty International said the law would lead to "disproportionate" levels of surveillance and was harmful to "freedom of expression." Despite opposition, the new law garnered 65% of the vote.
Residents of the Bosnian Serb Republic voted in a referendum Sept. 25 to maintain Jan. 9 as a national holiday in defiance of a court ruling. The date remembers Jan. 9, 1992, when ethnic Serbs declared their own state within Bosnia and triggered a brutal conflict in which it is estimated 100,000 people lost their lives. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina had banned the referendum, and had originally ruled that the date should be changed because it discriminated against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who had set the date for the vote, said he was proud of the peaceful manner in which the referendum passed.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Sept. 12 urged the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to end its pattern of expelling and detaining migrants contrary to international standards. Numerous central and eastern European countries have recently closed their borders to fight the influx of migrants, and many migrant families have found themselves either trapped in Macedonian transit centers or forced into neighboring countries. Zeid strongly denounced the treatment of such families, stressing that all migrants deserve not only adequate living requirements but also opportunity for employment and education. Zeid also expressed concern over the country's Asylum Law (PDF), which significantly hinders the ability for migrants to be granted legal asylum upon request. Reportedly, 600 migrants have sought legal asylum in Macedonia since 2015, yet only five have actually succeeded. Zeid called on Macedonia and neighboring countries to address the ongoing suffering and mistreatment of all migrant families and abide by international law.
President Petro Poroshenko on Aug. 11 put Ukraine's armed forces on high alert and "full combat readiness" near the lines of control with Russian-annexed Crimea and the separatist region of Donbas. Russia meanwhile announced it has deployed long-range S-400 missile systems in Crimea. Russian state TV has broadcast footage of men confessing to a plot to carry out terror attacks on the annexed peninsula. The accused saboteurs tell interrogators they were acting on orders from Kiev. Said Russia's President Vladimir Putin: "Our special forces prevented terrorist attacks organized by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry—the situation is pretty disturbing." Responded Poroshenko: "These fantasies are just a pretext for another portion of military threats against Ukraine." (Kyiv Post, NYT, Al Jazeera, BBC News)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein in a statement released Aug. 11 expressed concern over Bulgaria's criminalization of migrants leaving and entering the country. Zeid stated Bulgaria's practice of arresting migrants for both entering and leaving Bulgaria irregularly "places many of them in an invidious Catch-22 situation" and calls into question the country's compliance with international law. While Zeid stated he was pleased with the positive steps the country has taken in integrating international asylum standards, he is upset with the country's practice of arresting migrants who do not fall within the category of refugee, despite having "legitimate reasons for being unable to return to their home country." The high commissioner was particularly displeased with the "disregard for due process and fair trial guarantees." Finally, Zeid stated that he was worried the current detention regime will continue to expand, and called for leadership to respect the human rights of migrants and guard against intolerance.