Of the more than 14,000 asylum seekers currently confined to five Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, many are facing dire circumstances due to unusually harsh winter conditions, according to a statement released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The migrants are fleeing conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have been confined for more than ten months, according to the report. A "hotspot" was created in Moria on the island of Lesbos at the recommendation (PDF) of the European Commission to serve as a reception and registration area for refugees, as required by a deal the EU signed with Turkey last March. The report from HRW finds more needs to be done, saying the Greek government should immediately transfer vulnerable refugees to "appropriate mainland accomodations." During a recent visit to the Moria camp, HRW staff reported seeing flimsy, snow-covered tents, and vulnerable refugees in life-threatening living conditions.
The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported Jan. 6 that 2016 had more recorded migrant deaths than any previous year. According to preliminary figures, 363,348 migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe arrived successfully while 5,079 died at sea. At least 300 more fatalities are expected to factor in, as the figures do not yet reflect more recent events off Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. The IOM suspects there are additional unreported deaths in areas between North Africa and Spain where there was less reliable data collection. The IOM expressed its dismay over the current migrant situation, expressing the need to find "creative means to permit safe, legal and secure migration." The IOM also began training rescuers in Libya to strengthen migrant lifesaving efforts.
Poland's increasingly authoritarian government capitulated after days of angry protests and agreed to scrap a proposed law that would have imposed harsh restrictions on the media. The announcement came after thousands marched on the presidential palace Dec. 18, chanting "freedom, equality, democracy." President Andrzej Duda admitted the legislation was too controversial, and tellingly made his announcement after consulting with Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of his right-populist Law & Justice Party (PiS). Protests even penetrated the parliament chamber Dec. 19, when opposition MPs blockaded the entrance, forcing PiS MPs into another room to vote on next year's budget. The law, which would have placed restrictions on media access in parliament, is part of a growing centralization of power by the PiS government since it came to power in October 2015. The EU this week issued a formal protest of moves to restrict the independence of the judiciary. But this is not the first victory over the PiS regime. In October, the party withdrew plans for a total abortion ban after huge numbers of women dressed in black protested across the country. (The Guardian, Dec. 21; The Guardian, Dec. 19; BBC News, Dec. 18; The News, Poland, Dec. 16)
The Crimean Tatar community has been subject to systematic persecution by the Russian authorities since the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, Amnesty International charges in a report released Dec. 14. The report, "In the Dark: The Silencing of Dissent" (PDF) looks at repressive tactics employed by Russian authorities against the Crimean Tartar community and other dissenting voices in the two and a half years they have been in control the Crimean peninsula. "As the most visible and cohesive group in Crimea opposed to the Russian occupation, the Crimean Tatar people have been deliberately targeted by the de facto local and Russian authorities in a wave of repression aimed at silencing their dissent and ensuring the submission of every person in Crimea to the annexation," said John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia Program.
The UK government said Dec. 12 it will use its terrorism laws to ban a neo-Nazi group, marking the first time such a step has been taken. The move would make it a crime to be a member of, wear insignia, or work with the National Action, as it would fall under the umbrella of a terrorist organization. While the group rose to prominence for its anti-Semitic and xenophobic stances, they recently began to encourage their members to use violence. The terrorism act provision is being used because the group used their now deleted social media to encourage lone wolf acts and showed members training for battle. Additionally, the group praised the murder of progressive MP Jo Cox and adopted her accused killer's court statement as its official slogan. ("Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.") The measure to ban the group is subject to Parliamentary approval.
The UK's Investigatory Powers Bill (PDF) was given royal assent and became law on Nov. 29. The bill gives the UK's intelligence agencies a wide variety of tools to monitor the online activity of all UK citizens. The bill will require Internet providers and phone companies in the UK to retain logs of every citizen's communications and online activity in a massive database for one year. The bill makes it lawful for authorities to access communications data without judicial approval, except to uncover journalistic sources. The government defined communications data as "the context, but not the content of a communication." It also allows for targeted equipment interference (EI), accessing specific devices such as mobile phones and computers, with the approval of a law enforcement chief and judicial commissioner. Another section allows agencies to seek communications data or EI in bulk by applying for a warrant. The bill's supporters argue that it is necessary for enforcement agencies to keep up with rapid technological advances. Critics of the bill, however, have already began circulating a petition calling for it to be repealed. The petition is nearing 140,000 signatures, passing the 100,000 signature threshold required to compel a discussion on the matter by Parliament.
The European Parliament on Nov. 24 voted to halt EU accession negotiations with Turkey due to the government's "disproportionate repressive measures" after a failed coup in July. This vote is non-binding, but represents a strong message to the EU ministers before their December meeting to discuss Turkey's 11-year bid for membership. The MEPs stated that the actions taken by the Turkish government "violate basic rights and freedoms protected by the Turkish Constitution," and that "In partnerships, the will to cooperate has to be two-sided... Turkey is not showing [the] political will [to cooperate] as the government's actions are further diverting Turkey from its European path." The freezing of negotiations on this basis is provided for in Article 5 of the Turkey-EU Negotiating Framework (PDF). However, the MEPs believe Turkey should still "remain anchored" to the EU.
The UK Supreme Court confirmed on Nov. 18 that Scotland and Wales may intervene in an upcoming hearing that will determine whether Prime Minister Theresa May has the power to take the UK out of the EU without a parliamentary vote. Earlier this month the High Court ruled that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows for the UK's exit from the EU, can only be triggered by a vote of the British Parliament. The UK government immediately appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, with Scotland and Wales demanding intervention soon after. While the two countries had their lawyers attend the previous hearing, they will now be allowed to argue how triggering Article 50 without their parliaments' consent will infringe upon their governments' rights and powers. The UK government continues to argue that it has exclusive control over foreign affairs and legal treaties. The three parties will argue their stances at the hearing scheduled for early December.