Bangladesh

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.

The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The 2016 Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.

The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrimes, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA for suppressing freedom of expression and criminalizing free speech.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure. In October the World Economic Forum found press freedom declined over the past year.

The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced a threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as social stigma associated with having a criminal record.

On October 21, police arrested Munir Uddin Ahmed, a district correspondent of the newspaper New Nation and former general secretary of Khulna Press Club, in a case filed under the DSA for mistakenly posting on his Facebook a photograph of the Chittagong Metropolitan police commissioner instead of the Bhola superintendent of police. Although the court twice denied Ahmed’s bail, the Khulna Metropolitan Magistrate court rejected a police request to interrogate him. Observers commented police interrogation–known as remand–occasionally involved mistreatment of the detained. Ahmed remained in prison at year’s end.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media outlets alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. Reporters without Border alleged media self-censorship was growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”

Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists reportedly received threats after publishing their stories.

According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.

On January 2, the newspaper Daily Star reported the government detained Khulna reporter Hedait Hossain Molla to investigate accusations he violated the DSA by reporting “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during the 2018 general elections. Following the elections, Molla reported that official initial elections results showed the number of votes cast was higher than the number of eligible voters. A Khulna elections official later corrected the official vote tally, lowering the number of votes cast, but reporters had already published their stories. Molla was then arrested under the DSA for spreading false information. Although Molla was released on bail, he was obliged to appear regularly before the court, since the case remained active.

Journalists claimed the government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. In April the government cancelled the publishing rights of Juger Chinta, a daily newspaper in Narayanganj. This move sparked a human chain protest in Narayanganj. Journalists claimed the government penalized Juger Chinta because it published reports criticizing the ruling party’s local member of parliament (MP).

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. As of July a total of 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the act with more than 80 individuals arrested.

In March law enforcement arrested Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Council member Mahfuza Khter Kiron for allegedly defaming the prime minister after saying on a television talk show that Prime Minister Hasina was neglecting football in the country in favor of cricket, maintaining a double standard rewarding the cricket team’s successes, but ignoring those of the football team. In April, Kiron was granted bail, but the charges against her were not dropped.

Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.

In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.

The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.

In March the government blocked al-Jazeera’s English news website hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. Joban, a local news and discussion site that published a summary of the article in Bengali, was also inaccessible during that time. No other local or foreign outlets covered the story.

In the past, the country’s security services instructed the BTRC to block websites by emailing all International Internet Gateways. During the year the Department of Telecommunications and the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center launched a new system that allowed the agencies to block websites centrally without having to involve the BTRC.

Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.

The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.

According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally, police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.

While the government allowed the primary opposition party, the BNP, to hold political rallies throughout the country during the year, the government occasionally imposed restrictions. In July, Chittagong Metropolitan Police gave the BNP conditional permission to organize a rally the evening prior to the event. Conditions for the rally included making paper copies of the permit for all rally participants, estimated at 100,000-200,000 persons before the event took place.

In September, 80 BNP leaders were apprehended immediately before a Rajshahi rally. BNP leadership alleged the Rajshahi Metropolitan Police (RMP) arrested the party leaders to weaken the rally. RMP said 150 individuals were arrested in the same timeframe, all for drug peddling, and none for political activities.

During the year police used force to disperse peaceful demonstrations. In July leaders and activists with Left Democratic Alliance (LDA) protested a proposed gas price hike. Newspaper New Age reported police injured 25 LDA marchers when police charged them for trying to remove barbed wire barricades placed by police along the protest route.

The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).

The 2016 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5). In August the government announced a number of NGOs, including foreign-funded relief organizations, were no longer allowed to operate in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, following a peaceful rally commemorating the two-year mark of the 2017 Rohingya crisis (see section 5).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners.

In-country Movement: The government is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not bound under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this document.

The government did not recognize the new Rohingya arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was that the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country. While the refugees were able to move largely unrestricted in the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts, the government established checkpoints to prevent their movement outside this area.

Foreign Travel: Some senior civil society representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country. The country’s passports are invalid for travel to Israel, according to government policy.

Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.

The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces.

In 2016 the government amended the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act to curtail the unilateral authority of the commission chair to make decisions on behalf of the commission. The amended act failed to resolve the disputes during the year as tribal leaders insisted on establishing a governing framework for the law before hearing disputes for resolution. In 2017 the government reappointed Justice Mohammad Anwarul Haque chair of the commission for three years. The Land Ministry formulated rules for implementation of the act, but the rules had not been officially promulgated by year’s end.

The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.

f. Protection of Refugees

Prior to the August 2017 Rohingya influx, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, approximately one million Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. According to the United Nations, more than half of the population was younger than 18 years old. A National Task Force, established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the Bangladesh Army and Border Guard Bangladesh. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner provided coordination.

The government temporarily deployed the military to Cox’s Bazar District in the fall of 2017 to streamline relief activities and to assist in registration of Rohingya in coordination with the civilian administration. In response to growing security concerns, the military again became more active in the refugee camps. In September the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the army would begin taking over security tasks the police and other law enforcement agencies had held since 2017. In the same month, the government introduced restrictions on telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar. This move limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. As of August the IOM identified 96 Rohingya trafficking victims from the camps, the overwhelming majority for labor exploitation. While the majority of the victims were women and girls, there were indications many Rohingya men and boys did not self-identify, nor did they seek services following their return. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.

International organizations reported an increase in gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.

Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating the trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.

Refoulement: According to UNHCR, the government sent six Rohingya back to Burma in September in a possible incident of refoulement. There were no other reported cases of potential refoulement or forced repatriation. On August 22, authorities sent buses to selected Rohingya camps to pick up and transport anyone ready to return to Burma. They called off the initiative when no refugees volunteered. Several times during the year, senior government officials reaffirmed the country’s commitment to voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable refugee returns, based on informed consent. On September 27, at the United Nations, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underscored voluntariness and safety as necessary requirements for any repatriation.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese address. The government was working jointly with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s commitment against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system, leading to underreporting of cases of abuse and exploitation and impunity for traffickers and other criminals.

Freedom of Movement: There continued to be restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In November the government began erecting fencing to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling.

Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.

Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work schemes for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers in the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.

Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue that hindered the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.

Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certification of students having attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. Rahima Akter, a Rohingya woman, hid her identity to enroll in Cox’s Bazar International University to study law. In October 2018 Rahima was featured in a video by the Associated Press in which she discussed her dreams to study human rights. The video went viral and revealed her identity. In September the university expelled her for being Rohingya.

Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya formal and regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information about all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.

The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.

The estimated 300,000 Urdu-speaking population (known as Biharis, originally Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then East Pakistan before the 1971 war of independence) were formerly stateless but received Bangladeshi citizenship through a 2008 court case that directed the Election Commission to issue national identity cards to every member of the community who applied and met the legal and administrative requirements. Nevertheless, members from this community said their requests to obtain passports were rejected by immigration officers due to their address. The overwhelming majority of this population still resided in refugee-like camps established by the International Community for Red Cross in the 1970s, when many believed they would return to Pakistan following the 1971 Liberation War.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape of a female by a male and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the female is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Credible human rights organizations agreed the first half of the year saw an alarming increase in rape cases, with ASK, the Human Rights Support Society, and the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP) estimating 630-738 women raped between January and June, figures higher than the same timeframe of the previous year. In comparison, the BMP reported a total of 942 women were raped in all of 2018.

There were reports of sexual violence with impunity. In August authorities in Khulna removed two policemen, including the officer in charge (OC) of Khulna Government Railway police station, for dereliction of duty following reports police had detained and gang-raped a woman. According to the woman’s family, she was detained inside a train by Railway Police in Khulna’s Phultala Railway Station and then taken to a police residential building. There, according to her family, she was raped by the OC and four other policemen. When the victim’s family learned of her detention, they went to the police station, where police demanded 1.5 lakh BDT ($1,800) for her release, alleging first she had stolen a mobile phone, and later alleging drug possession. Following public criticism, police filed a case against the OC under the Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act.

According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove, using medical evidence, a rape occurred.

In April 2018 the High Court released a 16-point guideline on the handling of rape cases by law enforcement personnel and other parties to the matter. The guidelines came in response to a 2015 writ petition following complaints of delays in recording rape cases. According to the guidelines, the OC of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical and DNA tests are required to be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. The High Court guidelines also stipulated every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim are required to be recorded in the presence of a lawyer, social worker, protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some media and NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries, despite recent legal changes prohibiting dowry demands. Apparently to stop abuse of the 1980 Dowry Prohibition Act, parliament adopted the Dowry Prohibition Act of 2018, which imposes a maximum five years’ imprisonment, a fine of 50,000 BDT, ($590), or both for demanding or giving dowry.

On September 11, Shova Rajmoni Hosna died following a series of dowry-related beatings from her husband. Hosna, the daughter of a political leader, and her family claimed her husband beat her regularly to demand dowry. While her body bore multiple injury marks, the doctors ruled her case a suicide, a finding human rights advocates sharply questioned. Her husband was arrested in connection with her death.

A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of fatwas (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions, village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.

Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.

Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims, usually women, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were frequently related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land disputes.

Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, harassment, also known as “Eve teasing,” was common according to multiple NGOs.

On March 27, Nusrat Jahan Rafi accused her madrassah (Islamic school) principal of touching her inappropriately when he summoned her to his office. Accompanied by her family, she went to the police station to file a sexual harassment complaint. The officer in charge filmed the interview and shared it broadly online. Police then arrested the principal. According to a police report, while in detention, the principal ordered students loyal to him to intimidate Nusrat’s family to withdraw charges against him, and if unsuccessful, to kill Nusrat. On April 6, according to Nusrat’s statement, she was lured to a building rooftop where male students disguised in burqas again pressured her to withdraw the case. When she refused, they gagged and bound her, doused her with kerosene, and set her on fire. During her ride to the hospital, fearing she would not survive, Nusrat recorded a statement of the events on her brother’s mobile phone and identified her attackers as students in the madrassah. On April 10, Nusrat died from her injuries. Following her death, authorities charged 16 persons, including the madrassah principal, in connection with her death. On October 24, the Feni Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal sentenced the 16 individuals to death. A leading human rights activist welcomed the verdict but said the judgment was a “blanket” judgment and suggested the tribunal should have sentenced the perpetrators individually based on the severity of their involvement.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection of the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death.

Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. The government suspended birth registrations for Rohingya refugees born in Cox’s Bazar. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.

Education: Education is free and compulsory through eighth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, despite free classes, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school.

Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. The law prohibits child abuse and neglect with a penalty of up to five years, a fine of one lakh BDT ($1,180), or both. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the law was not fully implemented, and juvenile cases–like many other criminal cases–often lagged in the judicial system. In 2016 the government, with support from UNICEF, launched “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. The Department of Social Services, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, operated the hotline, which received approximately 80,000 calls a year on average and was accessible from anywhere in the country. The hotline center provided services such as rescue, referral, and counseling.

In July, BSAF published a report estimating nearly 500 instances of child rape in the first half of the year, an increase of 41 percent compared with 2018. The report said children as young as two were among the rape victims and cited a failure of the law and order situation in the country as reason for the increase in child rape.

During the year former students detailed multiple allegations of sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic madrassahs. According to AFP, in July at least five madrassah teachers were arrested on rape charges against boys and girls under their care. In one instance, senior students were held for the rape and beheading of an 11-year-old orphan. BSAF commented these crimes had not been reported previously due to the sensitivity of the subject but were “widespread and rampant.” Many smaller schools had few teachers and had no oversight from governing bodies.

Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. A 2017 law includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government did not implement the recommendations raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this act. In 2017 the High Court ruled the government should explain why the provision allowing the marriage of a minor should not be declared illegal in response to a writ petition filed by Bangladesh National Women Lawyer Association. The association’s petition argued the Muslim Family Law describes marriage as a “contract,” and a minor could not be a party to a contract.

According to government data, 52 per cent of girls were victims of child marriage in 2011. UNICEF’s 2018 report estimated this figure at 59 per cent.

In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and the selling or distributing of such material is prohibited. In June the NGO Terre des Hommes-Netherlands released a report stating street children were the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation but had little legal redress due to a lack of social and financial support and a lengthy criminal justice system. The report said although the government took “necessary legal and institutional measures to combat commercial sexual exploitation, children face multiple challenges in accessing justice.” The report found 75 percent of female children living on Dhaka streets were at risk of sexual exploitation. Underage girls working in brothels were able to produce notarized certificates stating they were older than age 18, and some NGOs claimed that corrupt government and law enforcement officials condoned or facilitated these practices. In May human traffickers brought 23 teenage Rohingya girls from refugee camps to Dhaka (ref. 2.f.). Police speculated the girls were potential victims of forced prostitution.

Displaced Children: See section 2.d.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

There was no Jewish community in the country, but politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.

See the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, and the government took measures to enforce these provisions more effectively. NGOs reported the government took cases of violence based on discrimination against disabled persons seriously, and official action was taken to investigate and punish those responsible for violence and abuses against those with disabilities.

Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. For example, government buildings had no accommodations for disabled individuals. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees had not been activated. In many cases local authorities were not aware of their responsibilities under this law. A report prepared by several NGOs in 2016 highlighted negligence in areas such as accessibility in physical structures; access to justice; rights of women with disabilities; freedom from exploitation, violence, and abuse; the right to education, health, and a decent work place; the right to employment; and political rights and representation.

The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. The law also created a 27-member National Coordination Committee charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.

According to the NGO Action against Disability, some children with disabilities did not attend public school due to lack of special accommodation, but data was not readily available. The government trained teachers about inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities.

The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.

The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Department of Social Services, and National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

According to The Daily Star, in the 2019 budget money allocated towards the disabled was 0.31 of the total government budget. Allowances made up 85 percent of the total allocation, displacing other services and resource needs for the disabled. Disability rights organizations pointed out this allocation was not enough to cover the significant number of students with disabilities studying in different schools, colleges, and universities.

The government took official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.

Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government established 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.

Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility in elections.

There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons. Police did not file charges against Muslim villagers accused of vandalizing and burning approximately 30 Hindu houses in Rangpur in 2017 in response to a rumored Facebook post demeaning Islam.

NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) had restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.

The CHT indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which had not been fully implemented–specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system composed of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.

Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported deforestation to support Rohingya refugee camps caused severe environmental degradation in their land, adversely affecting their livelihoods. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas.

The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year. In July, three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu faked residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land in order to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban.

The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence causing dozens of deaths. The factional clashes between and within United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF) and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reported many leaders of these factions were engaged in extortion and smuggling of money, drugs, and arms. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remained unresolved. During the year NGOs warned intraparty violence in CHT had sharply risen.

In April, UPDF leader and indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma disappeared after he left his house for an organizational event. Human rights groups and activists pressed the government to investigate his disappearance and claimed Chakma’s criticisms of government activities played a direct factor in his disappearance. No investigation had begun at year’s end. Many observers compared this case with the 1996 disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, another indigenous rights activist and dissident. Despite 39 officers investigating the 1996 case, police in 2018 said they found only “initial proof” of her abduction, while admitting an overall failure to identify the culprit, and concluded the chances of recovering Kalpana Chakma remained unlikely.

Reports of sexual assaults that occurred in 2018 on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel remain unresolved. In January 2018 security personnel allegedly raped an 18-year-old Marma girl and sexually assaulted her 13-year-old sister during a raid on the village of Orachhari in Rangamati. The accused officials publicly denied any incidence of rape but administratively confined the personnel member accused of the rape to battalion headquarters. Police filed a report on insistence from civil society but prevented media and NGO personnel from talking to the victims.

Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.

The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.

Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.

The government took positive steps to increase LGBTI inclusion. In January the government announced hijra (third gender) candidates who identify as women were eligible for national parliamentary election, and in April the government included hijra as a separate sex category on the national voters list. On October 14, the country elected the first transgender woman into local office: Sadia Akhter Pinky was elected vice chairman of the Kotchandpur subdistrict in Jhenaidah, a neighborhood near Khulna.

In July police pressed charges against eight members of Ansar al-Islam, a banned militant group, for the 2016 death of Xulhaz Mannan, a LGBTI human rights activist, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy.

Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.

Vigilante killings occurred. From July to September, mob violence erupted over false social media rumors of children being kidnapped and sacrificed as offerings for the construction of the Padma Bridge. Odhikar estimated at least 20 individuals were killed by mob violence between July and September. On July 20, housewife Taslima Begum was publicly lynched after a mob wrongly suspected her of child abduction. The issuance of illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred.

Cameroon

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right, explicitly or implicitly.

Freedom of Expression: Government officials penalized individuals or organizations that criticized or expressed views at odds with government policy. Individuals who criticized the government publicly or privately frequently faced reprisals. On several occasions, the government invoked laws requiring permits or government notification of public protests to stifle discourse. Many civil society and political organizations reported increased difficulty when obtaining approval to organize public gatherings.

In the early hours of February 23, police surrounded CRM headquarters in the Odza neighborhood of Yaounde and the New-Deido in Douala to prevent prospective activists from registering with the party. In other cities, such as Bafoussam and Mbouda in the West Region, security forces disrupted the registration process and arrested CRM activists. In Bafoussam, police seized CRM’s campaign truck and detained it along with its driver. On April 30, Zacheus Bakoma, the divisional officer for Douala 5, ordered a 90-day provisional closure of the Mtieki community hall after the CRM used the hall as a venue for a meeting on April 28.

Press and Media, including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed diverse views. This landscape, however, included restrictions on editorial independence, in part due to stated security concerns related to the fight against Boko Haram, the Anglophone crisis, and the postelectoral crisis. Journalists reported practicing self-censorship to avoid repercussions for criticizing the government, especially on security matters. According to the 2018 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, the re-election of President Biya for a seventh term of office was accompanied by multiple instances of intimidation, attacks, and arrests of journalists.

Violence and Harassment: Police, gendarmes, and other government agents arrested, detained, physically attacked, and intimidated journalists for their reporting. Journalists were arrested in connection with their reporting on the Anglophone crisis. According to reports by multiple organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), police arrested Pidgin news anchor Samuel Wazizi, who worked for the Buea-based independent station Chillen Muzik and Television. The arrest occurred on August 2 in Buea, Southwest Region. Police initially held Wazizi at the Buea police station and subsequently handed him over to the military, who detained him on August 7 without access to his lawyer or family. As of late November, he was presumed to still be in detention.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Under a 1990 law, the Ministry of Communication requires editors to submit two signed copies of their newspapers within two hours after publication. Journalists and media outlets reported practicing self-censorship, especially if the National Communication Council (NCC) had suspended them previously. In February the NCC issued a press release calling on journalists to be professional in their publications. The release was in reaction to media coverage following the January 26 protests called for by CRM, the arrests of hundreds of activists, including Maurice Kamto, and the ransacking of the Cameroonian embassy in Paris by anti-President Biya protesters. The NCC chairman indicated that the government had informed all professional media about the facts through official procedures and regretted that some press organizations continued to spread opinion contrary to government’s position, thereby maintaining confusion.

At its 23rd ordinary session, the NCC issued warning notices in 21 media regulation cases. The charges stated that the groups engaged in practices contrary to professional ethics, social cohesion, and national integration.

In a July 20 meeting with 100 private media outlet managers, Minister of Communications Rene Sadi chided Cameroon’s private media for abandoning its duty to “inform, educate, and entertain” by publishing articles that “sowed divisiveness and promoted tribalism.” He accused the private press of “playing politics under the influence of journalistic cover.” As of year’s end, no private television or radio station held a valid broadcasting license. Although the few that could afford the licensing fee made good-faith efforts to obtain accreditation, the ministry had not issued or renewed licenses since 2007. The high financial barriers coupled with bureaucratic hurdles rendered Cameroonian private media’s very existence illegal.

Libel/Slander Laws: Press freedom is constrained by libel laws that authorize the government to initiate a criminal suit when the president or other senior government officials are the alleged victims. These laws place the burden of proof on the defendant, and crimes are punishable by prison terms and heavy fines.

National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government. During a security meeting in Douala on August 9, Minister of Territorial Administration Paul Atanga Nji called on the representatives of NGOs and media professionals to be responsible, contribute their own quota to nation building, and avoid derogatory language that discredits government actions. Atanga Nji said many media houses in Douala organized weekly debates in order to sabotage government actions and promote secessionist tendencies. He urged private media organizations to exercise responsibility when carrying out their activities, warning them to construct, not destroy, the nation. He called on opposition political parties to respect the law and not to force his hand to suspend them. The minister also warned NGOs to respect the contract they signed with his ministry or be suspended.

Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that separatist groups in the Southwest and Northwest Regions sought to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. In an August 13 online post, Moki Edwin Kindzeka, a Yaounde-based journalist, said it was becoming impossible for journalists to practice their profession, because they faced pressure from both separatist fighters and the government. The article was in reaction to Atanga Nji’s August 9 statements.

No credible reports indicated that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government occasionally disrupted access to the internet.

Although there were no legal restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, some school authorities reportedly sanctioned academic personnel for their teaching on politically sensitive topics, and administrative officials often deterred teachers from criticizing the government.

On March 5, Jean-Pierre Voundi Abondo, the principal of Yaounde’s Government Bilingual High School Mendong, suspended Felix Ningue from his duties as a philosophy teacher. Ningue reportedly proposed an abstract from Maurice Kamto’s 1993 book entitled LUrgence de la Pensee (The Urgency of Thought), as one of the topics for student discussion in an examination on February 17. In an interview on Canal 2 television channel, Voundi said the school was apolitical and that he asked Ningue to stop teaching pending an investigation.

The government limited and restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Although the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government often restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, and processions to notify officials in advance but does not require prior government approval of public assemblies, nor does it authorize the government to suppress public assemblies that it did not approve in advance. Nevertheless, officials routinely asserted the law implicitly authorizes the government to grant or deny permission for public assemblies. The government often refused to grant permits for gatherings and used force to suppress assemblies for which it had not issued permits. Authorities typically cited security concerns as the basis for deciding to block assemblies.

On January 26, in Yaounde, Douala, Bafoussam, and other cities across the country, police arrested several dozen CRM activists who participated in a rally to denounce electoral irregularities in the October 2018 presidential election, the ongoing crisis in the two Anglophone regions, and poor management of infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations. The CRM notified authorities in advance of the protests but did not receive authorization. Security forces, in response, used excessive force against demonstrators. According to Amnesty International, more than one hundred protesters were arrested in Douala, Yaounde, Dschang, Bafoussam, and Bafang. Approximately 50 were released the following day, and the remainder were transferred to Yaounde and placed under administrative custody. Seven persons were shot and injured in the city of Douala, including lawyer Michele Ndoki, while other protesters were beaten. Communication Minister Rene Emmanuel Sadi denied the use of live ammunition against protesters, but social media contradicted that account with videos of gunfire in Douala and a member of the riot police firing a rubber bullet at close range into the leg of a peaceful protester.

On April 5, Minister of Territorial Administration Atanga Nji issued a press release prohibiting all meetings or public events by the CRM. Days later, on April 13, the party initiated a series of meetings throughout the country to demand the immediate release of Maurice Kamto, who by that time had been imprisoned for more than two months. The CRM also aimed to denounce “the selective modification of the electoral code” and the mismanagement of the funds dedicated to infrastructure projects associated with the 2019 African Cup of Nations, which was to be hosted by Cameroon before being ultimately awarded to Egypt. The CRM unsuccessfully appealed the ministry’s decision.

The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the law also limits this right. On the recommendation of the prefet, the Ministry of Territorial Administration may suspend the activities of an association for three months on grounds that the association is disrupting public order. The minister may also dissolve an association if it is deemed a threat to state security. National associations may acquire legal status by declaring themselves in writing to the ministry, but the ministry must explicitly register foreign associations, and the president must accredit religious groups upon the recommendation of the Minister of Territorial Administration. The law imposes heavy fines for individuals who form and operate any such association without ministry approval. The law prohibits organizations that advocate a goal contrary to the constitution, laws, and morality, as well as those that aim to challenge the security, territorial integrity, national unity, national integration, or republican form of the state.

Conditions for recognition of political parties, NGOs, or associations were complicated, involved long delays, and were unevenly enforced. This resulted in associations operating in legal uncertainty, their activities tolerated but not formally approved.

During the year the government did not ban any organizations. The Ministry of Territorial Administration, however, regularly used threats of suspension on the heads of political parties and NGOs. At a press conference after the January 26 CRM protests, Minister Atanga Nji indicated that the ministry had the right to take certain precautionary measures, meaning the CRM’s suspension. A number of observers stated that political motivations were evident in the government’s selective application of the law.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, at times the government restricted these rights. Growing concerns over the entry of armed groups into Cameroon from the Central African Republic (CAR) and the conflict with Boko Haram in the Far North Region appeared to have prompted the government to adopt a more restrictive approach to refugee movement. The government made it more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons to move freely in the country.

In some instances, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government sometimes failed to respect its obligations under relevant international laws. There were instances where it forcibly returned asylum seekers to their countries and did not readily provide humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations access to asylum seekers before refouling them.

In-country Movement: Using minor infractions as a pretext, police and gendarmes at roadblocks and checkpoints in cities and on most highways often extorted bribes and harassed travelers. Police frequently stopped travelers to check identification documents, vehicle registrations, and tax receipts as security and immigration control measures. Unaccompanied women were frequently harassed when traveling alone. Authorities restricted movements of persons and goods, including motorbikes, especially in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, citing security concerns. Armed Anglophone separatists also restricted the movements of persons and goods in the two Anglophone regions, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to harass and intimidate the local population. Humanitarian organizations cited difficulty in accessing certain areas and in some instances were harassed and denied passage by government authorities.

On June 14, Governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique of the Northwest Region lifted the curfew placed in the region since November 2018. The curfew, which lasted eight months, restricted movement of persons and property in the Northwest Region between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Evolving civil unrest and violence in Northwest and Southwest Regions continued to spur population displacement. According to OCHA, an estimated 710,000 individuals were displaced in Littoral, Northwest, Southwest, and West Regions. In addition, UNHCR estimated that more than 44,000 Cameroonian refugees were in southeastern Nigeria. An August 26 announcement by an armed separatist group on social media imposed a restriction of movement on all persons and closure of businesses starting September 2 for three weeks. This led to a further exodus of persons from the Northwest and Southwest Regions. Even prior to the announcement, relief agencies estimated that more than 2,800 persons fled the two regions to seek refuge in the Littoral and West, and an additional 879 individuals crossed the border into Nigeria between August 1 and 20.

As of September 30, the displaced population in the Far North Region was 488,418, including 271,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 106,418 refugees, and 111,000 returnees, in part driven from their homes by attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR.

The government did not put in place mechanisms to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs in the Far North Region. Provision of basic social services to IDPs and assistance to returnees have been carried out by relief actors with minimal support from the government. In the Northwest and Southwest Regions, the government did not manage any efforts to ensure unhindered access for humanitarian actors to deliver aid to persons in need. Its actions were focused on blocking the delivery of aid to show that there is no humanitarian crisis in these regions. Although it made some effort to provide urgently needed in-kind assistance to crisis affected IDPs in the Northwest and Southwest based on its Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, this assistance was distributed to populations without an assessment of their needs and only to persons in accessible areas, especially in regional capital cities.

f. Protection of Refugees

According to UNHCR and government estimates, the country hosted 403,208 refugees and 9,435 asylum seekers as of September 30. The refugee population included 291,803 CAR nationals, 108,335 Nigerians, and 1,599 Chadians. The remaining refugee population hailed from Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, and the Republic of Congo.

In principle, Cameroon operates an open-door policy and has ratified the major legal instruments for refugee protection, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. These commitments were not translated into a progressive legal framework allowing refugees their rights as stated in various legal instruments.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cited other concerns, including security and suspicion of criminal activity, to justify arbitrary arrests and detention of refugees and asylum seekers. The government at times cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: The government stated there was no official policy of forcibly repatriating refugees. On January 16, however, Cameroon forcefully returned 267 Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram to northeast Nigeria. In a February 27 statement, Medicins Sans Frontieres stated Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities ordered 40,000 refugees in Cameroon to return to northeast Nigeria and expressed concern over their possible fate due to continuing insecurity in Rann and a lack of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of persons had fled the town of Rann in northeast Nigeria to Cameroon after a January attack by Islamist insurgents. In 2018 UNHCR and NGOs also reported cases of forced returns of asylum seekers, mostly of Nigerians. According to HRW, in 2017 more than 4,400 asylum-seeking Nigerians were forcibly returned to Nigeria. UNHCR reported that 1,300 were forcibly returned in 2018 and an estimated 600 in 2019. In February an estimated 40,000 Nigerian refugees who had fled to Cameroon in the wake of armed attacks were soon after returned to Nigeria, after Nigerian government officials advised that conditions were safe for their return. Humanitarian organizations, however, stated the conditions were unsafe for return and that the area was largely inaccessible to relief agencies.

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system of providing protection to refugees, but the implementation of this system is less likely. UNHCR continued to provide documentation and assistance to the refugee population. Nevertheless, local authorities did not always recognize these documents as official, which prevented refugees from travelling and engaging in business activities. UNHCR and the government continued to conduct biometric verification and registration of refugees in the Far North Region, including of those not living in a refugee camp.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees had limited access to health care, education, and employment opportunities. Their rural host communities faced similar challenges, but the situation was somewhat worse for refugees. Access to these services varied according to the location of the refugees, with those in camps receiving support through humanitarian assistance, while refugees living in host communities faced difficulty receiving services.

Durable Solutions: UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria started the voluntary repatriation of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon as agreed upon under the 2017 tripartite agreement. The first phase of the voluntary repatriation exercise was conducted on August 22, and involved 133 Nigerian refugees, who departed Maroua for Yola in Nigeria’s Adamawa State, using a Nigerian Air Force plane.

In June 2018 UNHCR carried out return intention surveys using a sample of 4,000 CAR refugees that indicated that approximately one quarter of those surveyed would be interested in going back home, while three quarters would prefer local integration as a durable solution. As of year’s end, UNHCR had assisted more than 2,000 CAR refugees who elected to voluntary return to their areas of origin.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary, unofficial protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, extending this protection to hundreds of individuals during the year, including third-country nationals who had fled violence in CAR. Due to their unofficial status and inability to access services or support, many of these individuals were subject to harassment and other abuses.

Not applicable.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and provides penalties of between five and 10 years of imprisonment for convicted rapists. Police and courts rarely investigated or prosecuted rape cases, especially since victims often did not report them. The law does not address spousal rape. In a report on the Northwest and Southwest Regions, OCHA revealed that it had recorded 74 cases of rape as of July 21, with only 13 victims being able to obtain health-care services due to the absence of services in their localities.

The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, although assault is prohibited and punishable by imprisonment and fines. OCHA recorded 785 cases of gender-based violence in July.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law protects the bodily integrity of persons, and the 2016 penal code prohibits genital mutilation. Perpetrators are subject to a prison sentence of from 10 to 20 years, or imprisonment for life if the offender habitually carries out this practice for commercial purposes or the practice causes death. FGM/C remained a problem, but its prevalence was low. As in the previous year, children were reportedly subjected to FGM/C in isolated areas of the Far North, East, and Southwest Regions and among the Choa and Ejagham ethnic groups.

In 2018 the minister of women’s empowerment and the family said the government fully adopted a UN General Assembly resolution on the intensification of the global action aimed at eliminating FGM/C and had been carrying out initiatives to end FGM/C for more than 10 years. These initiatives included granting support for male and female excision practitioners to change professions and creating local committees to fight against the phenomenon in areas of high prevalence, such as the Southwest and North Regions.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Widows were sometimes forcibly married to one of their deceased husband’s relatives to secure continued use of property left by the husband, including the marital home. To protect women better, including widows, the government included provisions in the 2016 penal code outlawing the eviction of a spouse from the marital home by any person other than the other spouse. The practice of widow rites, by which widows forgo certain activities such as bathing or freedom of movement, was also prevalent in some parts of the country, including in some rural communities of the West Region.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment. Offenders can be imprisoned for periods of six months to one year and may be fined between 100,000 and one million CFA francs ($170 and $1,700). If the victim is a minor, the penalty can be one to three years in prison. If the offender is the victim’s teacher, to the penalty can increase to three to five years in prison. Despite these legal provisions, sexual harassment was widespread, and there were no reports that anyone was fined or imprisoned for sexual harassment. This was partially due to sexual harassment victims’ reluctance to file official complaints.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution provides for the same legal status and rights for women and men. In practice, women did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. Although local government officials including mayors claimed women had access to land in their constituencies, the overall sociocultural practice of denying women the right to own land, especially through inheritance, was prevalent in most regions. The government did not implement any official discriminatory policy against women in such areas as divorce, child custody, employment, credit, pay, owning or managing business or property, education, the judicial process, or housing. Although women and men have equal employment rights, fewer women occupied positions of responsibility.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship through their parents, but not through birth in the country’s territory, and the responsibility to register birth falls upon parents. Many births went unregistered because children were not always born in health facilities, and many parents faced challenges in reaching local government offices. According to a recent study by the National Civil Status Bureau (BUNEC), nearly 43,000 final-year primary school children in the Far North Region risked missing their examinations because they did not have birth certificates. In all, 400,000 primary school children in the Far North Region were without birth certificates. In 2018, 18,000 pupils in the Far North Region missed their academic examinations for lack of birth certificates. A three-year pilot project by BUNEC in Betare-Oya Subdivision in Lom and Djerem Division of the East Region and Mokolo Subdivision, Mayo-Tsanaga Division of the Far North Region suggested that close to 1,000,000 children in the country could be without birth certificates.

Education: The law provides for tuition-free compulsory primary education but does not set an age limit. The law punishes any parent with sufficient means who refuses to send his or her child to school with a fine between 50,000 and 500,000 CFA francs ($85 and $850). The punishment is imprisonment from one to two years in cases in which the offense is repeated. Children were generally expected to complete primary education at 12. Secondary school students have to pay tuition and other fees in addition to buying uniforms and books. This rendered secondary education unaffordable for many children.

During the year separatist attacks on the schools in the Anglophone Southwest and Northwest Regions continued to disrupt the normal operation of schools. In its July report on the Southwest and Northwest crisis, OCHA indicated that more than 700,000 children–representing almost nine of every 10 children–had been out of school for nearly three years and that 80 percent of schools remained closed in the Northwest and Southwest Regions.

In May Catholic authorities agreed to close St. Bede’s College in Kom, Northwest Region, after the school principal was kidnapped, allegedly for not respecting the separatists’ call for a school boycott. The Presbyterian Church also agreed to close all its schools in the two Anglophone regions after armed separatists kidnapped more than 90 children in two separate incidents in October and November.

Dozens of schools remained closed in the Far North Region due to attacks from Boko Haram and ISIS-WA.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits various forms of child abuse, including but not limited to assault, indecency, kidnapping, forced labor, rape, sexual harassment, and situations where one parent refuses to disclose the identity of the other parent to the child. Penalties for the offenses range from 10,000 CFA francs ($17) for forced labor to imprisonment for life in the case of assault leading to death or serious harm. Despite these legal provisions, child abuse remained a problem. Children continued to suffer corporal punishment, both within families and at school. Boko Haram continued to abduct children for use as child soldiers or as suicide bombers.

Early and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. Despite the law, according to UNICEF’s March 2018 child marriage data, 31 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18, and of these, 10 percent were married before they turned 15. Childhood marriages were more prevalent in the northern part of the country. The law punishes anyone who compels an individual into marriage with imprisonment of from five to 10 years, and with fines between 25,000 and one million CFA francs ($43 and $1,700).

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, offering or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography. A conviction requires proof of a threat, fraud, deception, force, or other forms of coercion. Penalties include imprisonment of between 10 and 20 years and a fine of between 100,000 and 10 million CFA francs ($170 and $17,000). The law does not specifically provide a minimum age for consensual sex. According to anecdotal reports, children younger than 18 were exploited in commercial sex, especially by restaurant and bar promoters, although no statistics were available. Anecdotal reports suggested the ongoing crisis in the two Anglophone regions had contributed to a dramatic increase in the prostitution of underage girls and number of early pregnancies, especially in areas with IDPs.

Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were no reports of infanticide of children with disabilities. The newspaper LOeil du Sahel reported that on July 1 local residents found the lifeless body of a child of an estimated age of seven months abandoned in a garbage bin in the neighborhood of Pitoare in Maroua, Far North Region.

Displaced Children: Many displaced children continued to live on the streets of urban centers, although the trend was in decline as a result of stringent security measures and the amended penal code that criminalizes vagrancy. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration, there were approximately 2,570 unaccompanied children in the Far North Region as of April, including IDPs, returnees, out-of-camp refugees, and other migrants (see also sections 1.e. and 1.f.). These children faced many challenges, including limited access to school, health, and protection. As in 2018, thousands of children were negatively impacted by the humanitarian crisis in the Northwest and Southwest. These children faced significant abuses of their rights by armed forces and nonstate armed actors alike. The government had not established structures to ensure that internally displaced children were protected from recruitment by nonstate armed groups and terrorist organizations. The government, through the Ministry of Social Affairs and in joint action with the International Organization for Migration, in September provided temporary shelter to unaccompanied children who were rescued from a boat off the coast of Cameroon in Kribi.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

The Jewish community was very small, and there were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts. A government minister made comments on a prime-time television program that were widely considered anti-Semitic. Speaking on Cameroon Radio Television in early February, Justice Minister Delegate Jean De Dieu Momo warned opposition leader Maurice Kamto that he was leading the Bamileke people to a fate similar to that of the Jews under Hitler in World War II. He said, “educated people like Maurice Kamto need to know where they are leading their people.” The government of Cameroon distanced itself from his comments, saying he was speaking on a strictly personal basis.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The constitution protects the rights of all persons, including persons with disabilities. A 2010 law provides additional protection to persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. The protections under the law cover access to education and vocational training, employment, health services, information and cultural activities, communications, buildings, sports and leisure, transportation, housing, and other state services. Public education is free for persons with disabilities and children born of parents with disabilities. Initial vocational training, medical treatment, and employment must be provided “when possible,” and public assistance “when needed.” The government did not enforce these provisions effectively.

There were no reports of police or other government officials inciting, perpetrating, or condoning violence against persons with disabilities during the reporting period. The majority of children with disabilities attended school with nondisabled peers. The government introduced inclusive education in many schools and reviewed the curriculum of teacher training colleges to include training in inclusive education skills. Other children with disabilities continued to attend specialized schools such as the Bulu Blind Center in Buea and the Yaounde Special School for Hearing-impaired Children.

Persons with disabilities did not receive adequate protection in conflict zones. In an early August report, HRW remarked that persons with disabilities were among the most marginalized and at-risk population in any crisis-affected country, and that Cameroon was no exception. Persons with disabilities in the Northwest and Southwest Regions continued to face attack and abuse by belligerents, often because they were unable to flee. HRW claimed that between January and May, it interviewed 48 persons with disabilities living in the Anglophone regions, their families, representatives of UN agencies, and national and international humanitarian organizations to investigate how the crisis in the two regions had disproportionately affected persons with disabilities.

The population consists of more than 275 ethnic groups. Members of the president’s Beti/Bulu ethnic group from the South Region continued to hold many key positions and were disproportionately represented in the government, state-owned businesses, and security forces.

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Baka, including Bakola and Bagyeli, resided primarily in (and were the earliest known inhabitants of) the forested areas of the South and East Regions. The government did not effectively protect the civil or political rights of either group. Logging companies continued to destroy indigenous peoples’ naturally forested land without compensation. Other ethnic groups often treated the Baka as inferior and sometimes subjected them to unfair and exploitative labor practices. The government continued long-standing efforts to provide birth certificates and national identity cards to Baka. Most Baka did not have these documents, and efforts to reach them were impeded by the difficulty in accessing their homes deep in the forest.

There were credible reports from NGOs that the Mbororo, nomadic pastoralists living mostly in the North, East, Adamawa, and Northwest Regions, continued to be subjected to harassment, sometimes with the complicity of administrative or judicial authorities.

Consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence lasting between six months and five years and a fine ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 CFA francs ($34 to $340).

LGBTI rights organizations such as the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), Humanity First Cameroon, Alternatives Cameroon, National Observatory of the Rights of LGBTI Persons and Their Defenders, and others continued to report arbitrary arrests of LGBTI persons, but they had become less frequent in the past year. While formal arrests may be diminishing, LGBTI individuals continued to receive anonymous threats by telephone, text message, and email. Authorities did not generally investigate these allegations. Civil society members stated there were also cases where LGBTI individuals were subjected to so-called corrective rape, sometimes with the complicity of the victim’s family. Police were generally unresponsive to requests to increase protection for lawyers who received threats because they represented LGBTI persons. Both police and civilians reportedly continued to extort money from presumed LGBTI individuals by threatening to expose them.

The constitution provides for equal rights for all citizens, but the law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. Security forces sometimes harassed persons on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, including individuals found with condoms and lubricants. Fear of exposure affected individuals’ willingness to access HIV/AIDS services, and a number of HIV-positive men who had sex with men took female partners to conceal their activities. Anecdotal reports suggested some discrimination occurred in places of employment with respect to sexual orientation. On September 3, members of Affirmative Action, an LGBTI rights group, remarked that transgender persons often avoided seeking formal employment due to discrimination.

In 2018 the National Observatory for the Rights of LGBTI persons and their Defenders, an umbrella organization representing 33 individual LGBTI organizations who were members of the Unity Platform, produced a report documenting 376 cases of abuses perpetrated against LGBTI persons in 2018. As of August CAMFAIDS alone had documented 206 human rights abuses. The abuses were of a physical, psychological, economic, verbal, cultural, or religious nature.

On September 4, CAMFAIDS reported that members of an army security unit arrested six persons without a warrant at a snack bar in the Yaounde neighborhood of Emombo and detained them at gendarmerie headquarters on September 1. CAMFAIDS claimed the six persons were being detained on charges of homosexuality and indecency. Earlier in April, according to CAMFAIDS, members of security forces arrested 25 persons at the same location. They asked the victims to undress and photographed them while they were naked.

LGBTI organizations could not officially register as such and so sought registration either as general human rights organizations or as health-focused organizations. Many LGBTI organizations found that operating health programs, particularly HIV programs, shielded them from the potential harassment or shutdown rather than promoting advocacy for LGBTI persons as their primary mission.

Persons with HIV often suffered social discrimination and were isolated from their families and society due to social stigma and lack of education on the disease. As in the previous year, while no specific cases of discrimination in employment were made public, anecdotal reports indicated some discrimination occurred with respect to HIV status, especially in the private sector.

Several cases of vigilante action and arson attacks were reported during the year, involving destruction of both public and private property. On June 3, members of the Mbororo community killed two persons and burned homes in Wum, Northwest Region, allegedly in retaliation against repeated attacks by Anglophone separatists.

Vigilante and mob justice were a concern. The privately owned newspaper Le Messager announced that police on July 20 deposited the burned bodies of two young men at the mortuary of the Douala Bonassama district hospital. A crowd reportedly attacked the boys at a place called Total Nouvelle Route Bonaberi at approximately 10 a.m. the same day, beat them to death, and burned their corpses. The victims were on a motorcycle equipped with a global positioning system (GPS). They allegedly killed the motorbike owner earlier in the Douala Akwa neighborhood before stealing the bike. A relative of the deceased located the engine using the GPS and alerted the crowd. Police reportedly arrested three persons suspected of having organized the mob justice and placed them in custody at the Douala Mobile Response Group number 2.

The privately owned newspaper The Guardian Post reported that during the night of August 1, a man, approximately 24 years of age, died as a result of mob vigilante violence in the Yaounde Etoug-Ebe neighborhood for allegedly stealing food from a local shop. Roseline, the lady whose items were stolen, reportedly told a journalist that, during her return to her shop at approximately 3 a.m., she saw the man carrying a bunch of plantains and a basket of tomatoes from her shop. She alerted her neighbors who reacted promptly, caught the thief, and assaulted him while she watched. Police reportedly came to the scene in the morning and took the corpse to the Yaounde University Teaching Hospital.

Greece

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: The constitution and law protect freedom of expression but specifically allow restrictions on speech inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against persons or groups based on their race, skin color, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, or who express ideas insulting to persons or groups on those grounds.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. On June 10, the government passed legislation requiring vendors who sell print media to stock and display all Greek newspapers and magazines. Penalties for those intentionally breaking the law range from one year’s imprisonment to a fine from 5,000 to 50,000 euros ($5,500 to $55,000). For repeated offenders, the penalty can increase to two years or more in prison.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subjected to physical attack, harassment, or intimidation due to their reporting in at least 10 instances. On April 7, a riot police officer in Idomeni, near the border with North Macedonia, kicked a photojournalist covering a migrant protest and later struck the photojournalist in the face and head with his shield. The government and journalist unions condemned the attacks. Seven attacks were led by members of far-right groups who targeted reporters and photojournalists covering rallies protesting the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. Anarchists led other attacks, once torching a journalist’s car at her residence and on December 5, pelting a television crew stationed near the Athens University of Economics and Business with paint. There were no reports of police detentions in these incidents.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government did not censor media. The government maintains an online register with the legal status of local websites, their number of employees, detailed shareholder information, and the tax office they fall under. Once registered, these websites are accredited to accept funding through state advertising, to cover official events, and to benefit from research and training programs of the National Center of Audiovisual Works. All registered websites had to display their certification on their homepage. Although registering was an open and nonobligatory process, outlets failing to do so could be excluded from the accreditation benefits. On April 15, the government launched a similar electronic registry for regional and local press.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides criminal penalties for defamation. A law passed February 26 clarifies that individuals convicted of crimes cannot claim slander for discussion of those crimes. This law also removes the provision requiring journalists to appear immediately before a court, or wait in jail until the court opened, in the case they were accused of libel, a provision that had been abused by politicians to intimidate journalists. On February 13, a court convicted then alternate health minister Pavlos Polakis for slander against a deceased reporter whom he had accused of taking bribes from the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The court ordered the alternate health minister to pay financial damages to the journalist’s family. The government abolished blasphemy laws, effective on July 1.

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private citizens’ online communications without appropriate legal authority. In November 2018 the newly established Committee on Internet Violations of Intellectual Property ordered domestic internet service providers to discontinue access for three years to 38 domain names offering pirated content. The committee set a 48-hour deadline from the time of the notification of the decision, threatening providers with a fine of 850 euros ($935) for each day of noncompliance.

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. On March 14, four members of an ultrarightist group stormed into a theater in Thessaloniki and briefly interrupted a theatrical performance because they thought “it offended the divine.” On March 3, media reported that a concert by the heavy-metal band “Rotting Christ” in a municipally owned venue in Patras was cancelled. Local authorities cited “technical problems” but the band leader alleged the performance was cancelled after pressure from the local church, which objected to the band’s name.

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

There were, however, some complaints that police dispersed and briefly arrested demonstrators outside heavily secured venues, citing concerns of peace and public order (see also section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest or Detention). On January 23, police detained 20 protesters outside the Megaro Mousikis concert hall in Athens where the then prime minister was scheduled to deliver a speech. According to those detained, police did not provide an explanation for their actions.

On January 29, the International Hellenic Association (IHA) criticized the Ministry of Defense for retracting an offer to provide space inside the War Museum’s premises for an event entitled “Macedonia Is One and Greek.” The IHA suggested the government was using its authority to quash dissenting views on the Prespa Agreement, a treaty between Greece and North Macedonia, which resolved a long dispute over the name “Macedonia.”

Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government continued to place legal restrictions on the names of associations of nationals who self-identified as ethnic Macedonian or associations that included the term “Turkish” as indicative of a collective ethnic identity (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). Such associations, despite the lack of legal recognition, continued to operate.

On September 13, a first-instance court in Serres, in northern Greece, decided to annul a decision by which it had granted official status to the local association Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood of Serres Locals. The annulment resulted from appeals by the Panhellenic Federation of Macedonian Cultural Associations and the local prosecutor. The Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood of Serres Locals had acquired official status through civil-court recognition in January 2018. Petitioners argued that the brotherhood’s articles of association, providing for the preservation and promotion of the “local” language and the attribution of respect to “local” heroes, were deceitful and against public order. According to prosecution witnesses, the brotherhood’s members purposely hid from the court its true goal of promoting locally the language and history of North Macedonia.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: Undocumented migrants arriving at Greek islands were subjected to special border reception and registration procedures and were not allowed to leave registration centers for up to 25 days. After this period, undocumented migrants remaining in those facilities were generally allowed to enter and exit but were prohibited from travelling to the mainland unless they filed asylum applications deemed admissible by the asylum authorities or were identified as “vulnerable.” This group included unaccompanied minors; persons with disabilities; the elderly; pregnant women or those who recently gave birth; single parents with young children; victims of torture, shipwrecks, and other trauma; and victims of human trafficking. Once asylum applications were filed, found admissible, and in process, migrants could move to an accommodation center on the mainland, space permitting. There was no restriction on movement in or out of the mainland accommodation centers. As of September, however, no facilities were available on the mainland even though approximately 7,000 migrants had been deemed vulnerable. The government made efforts to increase placements in the mainland and decongest the island reception and registration facilities, but a steady flow of arrivals, which accelerated during the summer and fall, caused severe overcrowding.

Some local and international NGOs reiterated criticism of the government’s practice of confining asylum seekers to the islands for initial processing exceeding 25 days.

Unaccompanied minors were placed under “protective custody” due to lack of space in specialized shelters (see section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).

Not applicable.

f. Protection of Refugees

During the year the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to the country from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East continued. As of December 16, UNHCR figures indicated 109,000 migrants and asylum seekers resided throughout the country.

On November 1, parliament amended the asylum legislation. The new rules are designed to speed up decision making on asylum applications and to increase the number of rejected applicants returned to Turkey or to their country of origin. The law, which will take effect on January 1, 2020, establishes extended periods of detention for asylum seekers; ties the treatment of asylum applications to the applicants’ cooperation (or lack thereof) with authorities; alters the appeals committees so they consist exclusively of judges, dropping a position held by a UNHCR designate; requires appeals to be filed and justified through court briefs instead of standardized documents; eliminates “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a factor that would make a refugee considered “vulnerable” and therefore ineligible to be returned to Turkey if their asylum application is denied; and codifies that rejected asylum applicants should immediately return to Turkey or their country of origin. UNHCR, as well as local and international NGOs, including the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the MSF, and many others, argued the law emphasized returns over protection and integration, put an excessive burden on asylum seekers, focused on punitive measures, and introduced tough requirements an asylum seeker could not reasonably be expected to fulfill.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to a wide range of credible sources, including international organizations and NGOs, authorities did not always provide adequate security or physical protection to asylum seekers, particularly those residing in RICs. The RVRN recorded 51 incidents involving racially motivated verbal and physical violence against refugees and migrants in 2018 (Also see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities.)

The separation and protection of vulnerable groups was not implemented at some sites. On February 9, the MSF reported that a 20-year-old male Yazidi refugee at the RIC in Fylakio, Evros, was living in a container with his visually impaired sister, his female cousin suffering from mental health problems, and three unrelated men. Media reported incidences of violence involving asylum seekers, including gender-based violence. On January 8, local and international media reported Oxfam’s findings that asylum-seeking and refugee women were wearing diapers at night for fear of leaving their tents to go to the bathroom. In its report for the rights of “children on the move” in Greece, issued on June 14, the ombudsman noted that children at the RIC in Lesvos were at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation, rape, and assault. The report stated many parents of children, especially single parents, were reluctant to queue for hours for food because they were afraid to expose their children to the risk of violence and sexual abuse. Cases of trading food in exchange for sex were also reported to the ombudsman. On April 11, PACE expressed serious concern regarding the humanitarian situation and the poor security of asylum seekers at RICs on the Greek islands as well as in centers on the mainland.

On January 23, a court in Thessaloniki sentenced a 50-year-old Iraqi man to 20 years’ imprisonment for raping his 16-year-old daughter at a reception facility in Serres.

Refugee and migrant women who were victims of gender-based violence were legally eligible for temporary shelter in government-run homes and for legal and psychosocial assistance, but few of them reported abuse. Some NGO representatives reiterated findings from previous years that even after reporting rapes to the authorities, some victims continued residing in the same camp with the perpetrators.

NGOs noted inadequate medical and psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs, mainly attributed to the government’s inability to hire medical doctors willing to serve in such facilities. Even when the government significantly increased the salaries and reissued calls for recruitment, medical doctors expressed minimal interest.

On February 8, a Communist Party delegation visit to the reception facility in Katsikas, Epirus, noted the absence of medical care, especially for women, newborns, and children, according to media reports.

NGOs also noted inadequate psychological care for refugees and asylum seekers, especially in the six RICs. The MSF reported that 25 percent of the children they worked with in the Moria RIC on Lesvos Island from February to June had either self-harmed, attempted suicide, or had thought about committing suicide.

The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of asylum seekers to countries in which their lives or freedom would be threatened due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. On October 31, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Iranian Sharareh Khademi should not be extradited to her country of origin as this would pose an “immediate risk to her life.” The court annulled the decision of a lower-level court that had ruled in favor of the extradition. Khademi and her daughter were victims of domestic violence by an abusive husband and father.

On June 19, the GCR announced it had filed a complaint with the Supreme Court that migrants and asylum seekers were being forced back across the border into Turkey from northeastern Evros in Greece. The GCR stated it had evidence backing the claims of several migrants and asylum seekers who said they were forced back. The GCR reported it had filed three lawsuits on behalf of six Turkish nationals, including a child, who claimed that local authorities had exercised violence to force them back into Turkey. Reportedly, one of the young women, forced back to Turkey, was arrested and taken to a Turkish prison. The GCR noted that despite the growing number of alleged pushbacks, there was no official government reaction.

On June 8, the group Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint against Hellenic Police in Didimoticho, northern Greece, alleging local police staff beat with batons and fired plastic bullets at a 35-year-old Iraqi national and two Egyptian nationals, ages 18 and 26, prior to forcing them back to Turkey.

On May 5, media reported a letter addressed by the then minister for citizen protection Olga Gerovassili to the UNHCR representative in Greece in response to concerns about pushbacks in the Evros area by security officers. After an investigation, the then minister wrote that the alleged incidents were not proven true. She also noted the absence of any such reporting by Frontex officers who assist the Greek border police in their work. From January to April, police arrested 3,130 third-country nationals in the areas of Orestiada and Alexandroupolis.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing legal protection to refugees through an autonomous asylum service under the authority of the Ministry of Migration Policy. Following the July 7 elections, the Ministry for Migration Policy was folded into the Ministry for Citizen Protection. The law requires that applicants have access to certified interpreters and allows applicants to appeal negative decisions and remain in the country while their appeals are examined.

Authorities worked with NGOs, international organizations, and the European Asylum Support Office to inform undocumented migrants awaiting registration in the asylum system, as well as non-EU foreign national detainees, about their rights, asylum procedures, and the IOM-assisted voluntary return programs. UNHCR assisted the government with briefings and distribution of multilingual leaflets and information packages on asylum and asylum procedures.

Human rights activists and NGOs working with asylum applicants reported long waits of up to two years for decisions due to time-consuming processes, pre-existing backlogs in the appeals process, and a limited number of appeals committees. Access to the asylum process for persons detained in predeparture centers was also a concern. In its annual report for 2018, the Greek ombudsman reported his office continued to receive complaints from asylum applicants about difficulties in scheduling an appointment and connecting with the Asylum Service system via Skype, especially in Athens and in Thessaloniki. On May 6, local media reported the Greek Asylum Service had a backlog of more than 62,000 cases while an estimated 5,500 new applications were submitted yearly by new entrants.

According to the Asylum Information Database report for 2018, published by GCR on April 21, the average period between preregistration and full registration was 42 days in 2018. The average processing time at first instance was reported at approximately 8.5 months in 2018. Approximately 80 percent of the 58,793 applicants with pending applications at the end of 2018 had not had an interview with the asylum service.

Major delays frequently occurred in the identification of vulnerable persons on the islands, due to a significant lack of qualified staff, which also impacted the asylum procedure.

Asylum applicants from countries other than Syria complained that their asylum applications were delayed while Syrian applications were prioritized. NGOs, international organizations, and human rights activists also reiterated concerns about the lack of adequate staff and facilities; insufficient welfare, integration, counseling, legal, and interpretation services; discrimination; and detention under often inadequate and overcrowded conditions inside the RICs.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the Dublin III Regulation, according to which authorities may return asylum seekers to the EU member state of first entry for adjudication of asylum claims.

According to the 2016 joint EU-Turkey statement, every undocumented migrant crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands would be confined to a RIC for up to 25 days, during which time the individual would have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Greece. Individuals opting not to apply for asylum or whose applications were deemed unfounded or inadmissible would be returned to Turkey (see also section 2.d., Freedom of Movement).

Employment: Recognized refugees and holders of asylum-seeker papers were entitled to work, although this right was not widely publicized or consistently enforced. In 2018 the managing board of the Greek Manpower Organization extended the right to register for official unemployment to asylum seekers and refugees residing in shelters or with no permanent address, allowing them to benefit from training programs and state allowances.

Access to Basic Services: Legally, services such as shelter, health care, education, and judicial procedures are granted to asylum seekers in possession of a valid residency permit; however, staffing gaps, a lack of interpreters, and overcrowded reception sites limited certain asylum seekers’ access to these services. On July 13, the minister for labor and social affairs revoked a June 20 ministerial decree signed by his predecessor that simplified the process for asylum seekers to be granted a social security number (AMKA). The minister argued that the system of granting AMKAs would be re-examined, as it was abused by foreign nationals who should not have received a number. Several NGOs reported problems in securing access for asylum-seeking individuals to basic services, including treatment for chronic diseases. Legal assistance was limited and was offered via NGOs, international organizations, volunteer lawyers, and bar associations.

RICs on islands and in the Evros region continued to be overcrowded, with inadequate shelter, health care, wash facilities, and sewer connections creating security and health concerns. Housing conditions at reception facilities elsewhere on the mainland were generally better, although at times overcrowding hindered access to services. Due to a lack of space, the government in September opened temporary camps on the mainland, providing six-person tents to hundreds of migrants.

Unaccompanied minors living in “protective custody” in police stations had limited or no access to health care or medical services. As of November 30, according to the country’s National Center for Social Solidarity (EKKA), there were 257 unaccompanied children in protective custody (see section 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).

Many vulnerable asylum-seeking individuals were eligible to be sheltered in apartments via a housing framework implemented by UNHCR in cooperation with some NGOs and local municipalities. Conditions in the apartments were significantly better than in reception facilities.

Administrative and facility management staff in reception centers were usually permanent state employees, eight-month government-contracted personnel, and staff contracted by NGOs and international organizations. Media reported cases, especially on the islands, in which assigned staff were inadequate or improperly trained. On June 6, media reported that 40 employees from the Asylum Service offices in Attica, Korinthos and Patras attended a training seminar on statelessness, the Dublin Treaty, and gender-based violence to handle asylum cases more efficiently.

Everyone in the country is entitled to emergency medical care, regardless of legal status. Medical volunteers, NGO-contracted doctors, the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and army medical doctors provided basic health care in reception centers, referring emergencies and complex cases to local hospitals, which were often overburdened and understaffed. Some individuals suffering from chronic diseases continued to encounter problems obtaining proper medication. Pregnant women in Evros reception and detention facilities continued facing problems in accessing proper medical and prenatal care.

The government failed to identify asylum seekers with nonvisible vulnerabilities, such as victims of torture and trafficking victims, due to gaps and shortages in skilled staff, including medical doctors, at the RICs, several NGOs reported. On January 1, the government officially launched a multidisciplinary national referral mechanism (NRM), which included appropriate standard operating procedures and referral forms. The NRM required first responders to inform and coordinate with the EKKA, when potential victims were identified for care and placement.

Durable Solutions: Refugees may apply for naturalization after three years of residence in the country as a recognized refugee. The government continued to process family reunification applications for asylum seekers with relatives in other countries. The IOM offered voluntary returns to rejected asylum seekers and those who renounced their asylum claims.

Temporary Protection: As of September 30, the government provided temporary protection to approximately 2,578 individuals who may not qualify as refugees.

Not applicable.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Under a law that took effect July 1, rape, including spousal rape, is a crime punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment in cases with multiple perpetrators or if the rape results in the victim’s death. The previous limit was five to 20 years. Attempted sexual intercourse without consent is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Charges may be pressed ex officio, without the need of a complaint. If the victim does not wish to seek prosecution, the prosecutor may decide to drop charges. The law applies equally to all survivors, regardless of gender. On January 7, media reported research showing that only 200 of an estimated average of 4,500 rape incidents per year were officially reported (approximately one out of 22).

Penalties for domestic violence under the new penal code range from one to three years’ imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violence. The previous range was two to 10 years. The court may impose longer prison sentences for crimes against pregnant or minor victims. Authorities generally enforced the law effectively when the violence was reported; however, some NGOs and international organizations criticized law enforcement in migrant sites for not responding appropriately to victims reporting domestic violence. Experts estimated only 10 percent of rape and domestic violence cases reach the courtroom, noting that despite an adequate legislative framework, judges’ personal biases and social norms that blame the victim were major obstacles. In the first half of the year, police reported identifying the perpetrators in 69 cases of rape and attempted rape. As of June, police had recorded 94 reported rape incidents, 67 of which were attempted rapes.

The government and NGOs made medical, psychological, social, and legal support available to rape survivors. On March 26, the government passed legislation “on the promotion of substantial gender equality and countering gender-based violence.” The law aimed to promote gender equality in politics and businesses and to standardize the services provided in government shelters to victims of gender-based violence, including foreign national women with no legal status.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law requires mandatory prison sentences for persons who coerce or force female individuals to undergo genital mutilation.

Despite reports that migrant and refugee women residing in the country underwent FGM/C prior to their arrival in Greece, there was no concrete evidence FGM/C was practiced in the country. On February 2, the European Institute for Gender Equality issued a study estimating that 25 to 42 percent of migrant and refugee girls living in the country but originating from states in which FGM/C is practiced were at risk of FGM/C.

Sexual Harassment: Under the new penal code, penalties may be as high as three years in prison for sexual harassment, with longer terms applied to perpetrators who take advantage of their position of authority or the victim’s need for employment. The previous penalty ranged from two months to five years. In his 2018 annual report, the ombudsman reported his office received 262 complaints pertinent to gender equality matters without specifying how many were related to sexual harassment. In reports from previous years, the ombudsman had noted the absence of a policy against sexual harassment in most private and public workplaces, emphasizing that employers were often ignorant of their legal obligations when employees filed sexual harassment complaints.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: The constitution provides for the same legal status between women and men. The government effectively enforced the laws promoting gender equality, although discrimination occurred, especially in the private business sector. Muslim minority members in Thrace can request the use of sharia with notarized consent of both parties (see also section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

On January 29, parliament passed legislation establishing in each university an unpaid committee entrusted with the promotion of gender equality. The law assigned academic senates to decide on the formation of such committees, to consist of nine members, including a student representative.

Legislation passed in March established a “National Council on Gender Equality” and created a certification for companies that comply with maternity leave laws, provide equal pay for male and female employees, and demonstrate gender equality in managerial posts. According to data issued by the Secretariat for Gender Equality on March 18, between October and December 2018, 44 percent of women were employed, compared with 60 percent of men.

In 2018 the government announced that to avoid gender bias in hiring decisions it would no longer reveal the gender of unemployed individuals it recommended for job vacancies. The government also decided to allow female victims of domestic violence residing in special shelters or lacking a permanent residence to register for unemployment benefits, including training programs and state allowances.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from one’s parents at birth; a single parent may confer citizenship on a child. Parents are obliged to register their children within 10 days of birth. The law allows belated birth registration but imposes a fine in such cases.

Child Abuse: Violence against children, particularly migrant, refugee, street, and Romani children, remained a problem. The NGO Smile of the Child reported 321 serious cases of abuse related to 623 children through its helpline SOS 1056 from January 1 to June 30. Of those children, 38 percent were younger than age six. The law prohibits corporal punishment and the mistreatment of children, but government enforcement was generally ineffective. Welfare laws provide for treatment and prevention programs for abused and neglected children in addition to foster care or accommodation in shelters. Government-run institutions were understaffed, however, and NGOs reported insufficient space, including for unaccompanied minors who by law are entitled to special protection and should be housed in special shelters.

In 2018 the government enacted legislation allowing foster care and adoption procedures to be completed in less than a year, making them a viable option for children in urgent need of protection. On February 7, parliament passed legislation giving an additional three months of paid leave to foster parents and parents with adopted children up to age six. Parents of children born to surrogate mothers are also entitled to three months of paid leave after the child’s birth.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18, although minors ages 16 and 17 may marry with authorization from a prosecutor. While official statistics were unavailable, NGOs reported illegal child marriage was common in Romani communities, with Romani girls often marrying between the ages of 15 and 17, or even younger, and male Roma marrying between the ages of 15 and 20. The Hellenic Statistical Authority recorded the marriage of seven girls younger than age 15 in 2018. Throughout that year, the authority recorded weddings for 186 boys and 753 girls aged 15-19.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The legal age of consent is 15. The law criminalizes sex with children younger than age 15. The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography and imposes penalties if the crime was committed using technology in the country. Authorities generally enforced the law.

Displaced Children: According to EKKA data, approximately 4,962 refugee and migrant unaccompanied and separated children resided in the country as of October 31. Only 1,760 of these children resided in age-appropriate facilities. Local and international NGOs attested that unaccompanied minors were not always properly registered, at times lacked safe accommodations or legal guardians, and were vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation, including survival sex. On June 14, the ombudsman issued a report about children on the move in the country, noting discrepancies in the administrative treatment of unaccompanied minors depending on where they entered the country, the agency that identified them, and their nationality.

In 2018 parliament passed legislation requiring a “legal guardian” for the daily care of each unaccompanied minor. The legislation allows older unaccompanied minors to reside in semiautonomous living units, established a special body entrusted with the protection of minors and the monitoring of guardianship in each prosecution office, created a special directorate in the national government for the protection of unaccompanied minors, established a registry of certified guardians who meet certain criteria, established a registry of unaccompanied minors, and created a registry of shelters and facilities for unaccompanied minors.

Institutionalized Children: Activists condemned the use of protective custody for unaccompanied minors for prolonged periods, often in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions resulting from a lack of space in specialized shelters (see section 1, Prison and Detention Center Conditions, Physical Conditions).

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Local Jewish leaders estimated the Jewish community in the country consisted of approximately 5,000 individuals. Anti-Semitic rhetoric remained a problem, particularly in the extremist press, social networking sites, and certain blogs. A Eurobarometer survey, conducted in December 2018, found that local citizens did not regard anti-Semitism as a major problem, despite a recent spate of attacks. Vandalism of Holocaust monuments and memorials continued in the city of Thessaloniki. On January 25, unknown perpetrators vandalized a monument marking the site of the former Jewish cemetery at Aristotle University campus in Thessaloniki. On January 28, Archbishop Ieronymos of the Greek Orthodox Church publicly denounced the attack, describing “the desecration and vandalism of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials” as “hideous acts that brutally offend our history, culture, nation, and faith.” On April 10, perpetrators vandalized two memorial metal plaques at the Thessaloniki port area dedicated to persons who perished during the Holocaust.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities (KIS) continued to express concern about anti-Semitic comments by some journalists in the mainstream media and by some religious leaders, including Greek Orthodox Church clerics. On May 13, the KIS reiterated concern about political cartoons and images in the mainstream media where political controversies were mocked with the use of Jewish sacred symbols and comparisons to the Holocaust. The KIS issued the statement about a commentary on social media by journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, criticizing statements by the then main opposition leader. Vaxevanis, arguing that the former leader supported a seven-day work week, illustrated his commentary with a sketch of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp where the phrase Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free) was paraphrased as “12 hours of labor liberates.” The KIS explained that the use of that sign for journalistic commentaries was unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror and of Nazi barbarism.

On April 18, a misdemeanor appeals court in Thessaloniki sentenced a 62-year-old medical doctor to a suspended 14-month jail term for putting up an anti-Semitic sign in 2014 at his municipal practice which read, “Jews Are Not Welcome Here,” in German.

On May 3, a large Greek delegation, including Nikos Voutsis, the then parliamentary speaker, David Saltiel, president of Jewish Communities of Greece; and other members of parliament, participated in the 31st annual March of the Living at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I also marched. The march highlighted the history of Greek Jews during the Holocaust, with the parliament speaker marking the occasion by presenting artifacts to the newly established permanent Greek exhibit in the Auschwitz museum. The latter was funded by parliament and organized through cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Greece.

On February 12, in a statement, the KIS hailed the adoption of the working definition of anti-Semitism in accordance with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance by the General Secretariat for Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Education.

On July 13, Minister for Agricultural Development and Food Makis Voridis defended himself against accusations that he had expressed anti-Semitic views in the past. Voridis denounced “any intolerance on his part” that might be interpreted as anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi. On July 16, the KIS issued a statement that “it takes into consideration and values the explanations” provided by the minister and hoped to see him undertake initiatives to demonstrate his sincerity and fight intolerance and anti-Semitism.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services such as special education. NGOs and organizations for disability rights reported government enforcement of these provisions was inconsistent. In a February 11 report, local NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) noted that penalties for parking in places designated for persons with disabilities, including ramps and pathways for the blind, were only administrative, treated as plain parking offenses.

Most children with disabilities had the option of attending mainstream or specialized schools, unless they could not function in a mainstream classroom. According to the General Confederation of Greek Workers (GSEE), the dropout rate for students with disabilities was 30 percent; approximately 59 percent of students with disabilities were able to finish middle school. The main obstacles were shortages in transportation and a lack of infrastructure such as ramps, as well as audiovisual aids, staff, and regular funding. Despite progress in establishing new special-education school units and classes to help students with disabilities integrate in primary and secondary education, the ombudsman noted that integrating children with special needs into mainstream classrooms remained a problem.

Persons with disabilities continued to have poor access to public buildings, transportation, and public areas, even though such access is required by law. Access to buildings, ramps for sidewalks, and public transportation vehicles were the biggest concerns. Even ramps in the street were often too steep or rough to use, and ramps for public transportation were often out of order.

Experts also noted that while the Athens metro and the main airports were generally accessible, trains and most ships, including ferries, remained inaccessible or partially accessible. The GHM reported that most court buildings, including the Athens First Instance Court, lacked accessibility for citizens, lawyers, and judges with disabilities.

A September 2018 memorandum cosigned by then minister for shipping and island policy and the National Association of Greeks with Paraplegia provides that shipping companies should make their vessels accessible and safe for persons with motor impairment by May 1. The decision obliged nautical transportation companies to install proper elevators and lifting devices, to designate specific disabled parking spaces and areas where wheelchairs could be secured, and to train their personnel to assist persons with disabilities onboard the vessels. While the law allows service animals to accompany blind individuals in all mass transit and eating establishments, blind activists maintained they occasionally faced difficulties accessing public transportation, places, and services.

The ombudsman reported that 14 percent of the complaints his office received were related to disability and chronic disease issues.

The GHM also reported instances of persons with disabilities not being able to vote in the local and European Parliament elections on May 25 and June 2. Domestic law obliges polling station committees (PSC) chairpersons to provide assistance by entering the voting booth or taking election materials outside the polling station if the person cannot enter. The GHM alleged that at times PSC chairs voted for their own preferred candidates.

The GHM noted a lack of homebound voting, effectively disenfranchising voters who cannot travel to polling stations. Inadequate physical infrastructure in public buildings used for voting, in most cases state schools, was one of the main obstacles for persons with disabilities.

On May 29, the government passed legislation lifting significant obstacles to the granting of Greek citizenship for persons with disabilities, which includes provisions for persons with intellectual disabilities or psychiatric illness. In general, the law on citizenship requires an interview with the applicant and several years of Greek schooling. The new legislation enables persons with disabilities, born or raised in the country by lawfully residing foreign nationals, to claim nationality. Under the previous law, persons who were unable to attend a Greek school could not file a petition for citizenship. Adult foreign nationals with certified mental or physical disabilities previously could not take and pass the Greek language knowledge and naturalization test.

According to government statistics, individuals with disabilities and chronic ailments represented 15 percent of all permanent hires in the public sector.

While the constitution and law prohibit discrimination against members of minorities, Roma and members of other minority groups continued to face discrimination.

Although the government recognized an individual’s right to self-identification, many individuals who defined themselves as members of a minority group found it difficult to express their identity freely and to maintain their culture. Citizens identified themselves as Turks, Pomaks, Vlachs, Roma, Arvanites, or Macedonians. Some unsuccessfully sought official government identification as ethnic or linguistic minorities. Courts routinely rejected registration claims filed by associations in Thrace with titles including the terms Turk and Turkish when based on ethnic grounds, although individuals may legally call themselves Turks, and associations using those terms were able to function regularly without legal status (see also section 2.b., Freedom of Association). Government officials and courts denied requests by Slavic groups to use the term Macedonian to identify themselves on the grounds that more than two million ethnically (and linguistically) Greek citizens also used the term Macedonian for self-identification.

The government officially recognizes a Muslim minority, as defined by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which consists of persons descended from Muslims residing in Thrace at the time of the treaty’s signature. They include ethnic Turkish, Pomak, and Romani communities. Some Pomaks and Roma claimed that ethnically Turkish members of the Muslim minority provided monetary incentives to encourage them to say they were ethnically Turkish.

During the 2018-19 school year, the government operated 128 primary schools and two secondary schools in the Thrace region that provided secondary bilingual education for minority children in Greek and Turkish. The government also operated two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Some representatives of the Muslim minority said the facilities were inadequate to cover their needs, claiming the government ignored their request to privately establish an additional minority secondary school. The same representatives noted a decreasing trend in the number of primary minority schools, which the government attributed to the decreasing number of students. Per the law, any facility with less than five students must temporarily suspend operations, with students referred to neighboring schools. For the 2019-20 school year, authorities announced that of the 20 schools that suspended operation in the region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, five were minority schools.

Roma continued to face widespread governmental and societal discrimination, social exclusion, and harassment, including ethnic profiling by police, alleged abuse while in police custody, discrimination in employment, limited access to education, and segregated schooling.

Poor school attendance, illiteracy, and high dropout rates among Romani children remained problems. Authorities did not enforce the mandatory education law for Romani children, and local officials often excluded Romani pupils from schools or sent them to Roma-only segregated schools. In his 2018 annual report, the Greek ombudsman noted that even when Romani children were enrolled in schools, authorities often failed to provide transportation.

On March 26, parliament passed legislation allowing the granting of Greek citizenship to stateless Roma born in the country but whose parents lacked official registration.

On April 17, media reported that the then alternate minister for social solidarity approved the relocation of 31 Romani families in Farsala, central Greece, to a new municipally owned site. On the same day, the municipality in Chalandri, northeast of Athens, reportedly hired two Romani cultural mediators to facilitate access for local Roma to social welfare services as well as the enrollment of adults into “second chance” schools.

Local media and NGOs reported race- and hate-motivated attacks on migrants by far-right groups, including alleged supporters of Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn members of parliament publicly expressed anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views. The trial of 69 members, including 18 current and former members of parliament, continued. They were charged with weapons crimes and operating a criminal enterprise.

On April 20, a court on Chios Island sentenced a 79-year-old man from a local village to 13 years’ imprisonment for shooting and injuring a 15-year-old Syrian refugee with a hunting rifle in July 2018.

The law prohibits discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, and government services such as education and health care. The government enforced antidiscrimination laws, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, as aggravating circumstances in hate crimes. Offices combatting race crimes and hate crimes include in their mandates crimes targeting LGBTI individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Violence against LGBTI individuals remained a problem. Societal discrimination and harassment of LGBTI persons were widespread despite advances in the legal framework protecting such individuals. LGBTI refugees and migrants reported incidents of rape, physical violence, and discrimination perpetrated by other refugees and migrants, and reported that authorities and NGOs did not adequately investigate these crimes. LGBTI activists alleged that authorities were not always motivated to investigate incidents of violence against LGBTI individuals and that victims were hesitant to report such incidents to the authorities due to a lack of trust.

In 2018 the RVRN recorded 18 attacks based on sexual orientation and 11 based on gender identity. In one incident the perpetrator was a law enforcement official who targeted a Greek transgender woman. Among the recorded assaults on grounds of sexual orientation, one incident of rape was reported. Six of the incidents resulted in injuries and were combined with verbal attacks and threats. In one of those cases, the victim was a minor male. Of the 11 incidents recorded on grounds of gender identity, three involved physical violence combined with threats and verbal assault. According to information communicated to the RVRN for the calendar year 2018, Hellenic Police recorded 226 incidents potentially involving racist motives, 40 of which were related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

On July 29, the Newspaper of the Journalists reported on the case of a male couple from Switzerland who, on their exit from a gay bar on the island of Mykonos, were kicked and punched by eight unknown male perpetrators. The victims said no one helped them, although there were witnesses.

On January 28, a first-instance court issued a guilty verdict against Metropolitan of Kalavryta and Aegialia Amvrosios for public calls to violence, hate speech, and abuse of his position in the church. The decision overturned a previous court’s decision to acquit Amvrosios. The court sentenced him to a seven-month suspended prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 euros ($11,000).

On February 27, the Supreme Court prosecutor ordered a probe into the attempted eviction by the same metropolitan of an elderly man from a church-run retirement home for allegedly being gay.

Unmarried transgender individuals older than age 15 may update identity documents to reflect their gender identity without undergoing sex reassignment surgery. The law requires that a judge validate the change based on the individual’s external appearance. In 2018 the NGO Transgender Support Association (SYD) issued a press statement saying that judicial officials often failed to properly apply this law. The SYD alleged that judges did not always secure the necessary privacy for the hearing and often used derogatory language and employed an intimidating stance toward transgender individuals and their lawyers. On February 19, media reported that a civil court on Lesvos Island allowed a Bangladeshi transgender refugee woman to change all her identification documents to match her appearance.

At the start of the seventh annual LGBTI Pride parade in Thessaloniki, two gay men were pushed into the sea. Six days later, media reported police had launched an investigation into the incident. Twenty-two locally based Christian associations announced that they would boycott businesses sponsoring the Thessaloniki Pride event.

While the law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment of HIV-positive individuals, societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem. Persons with HIV/AIDS were exempt from serving in the armed forces on medical grounds. A presidential decree authorizes the dismissal of professional military staff members if a member diagnosed with AIDS does not respond to treatment, but there were no reports of military staff dismissals under this provision.

On March 11, unknown arsonists attacked the premises of the NGO Positive Voice, which hosted a facility that conducted HIV tests for free. The perpetrators also removed the rainbow flag from the facade.

On April 13, media reported the Labor Inspectorate fined a private company that refused to accept the services of an HIV-positive employee who returned to work after long-term sick leave. The case reached the ombudsman’s office, which found the company violated the antidiscrimination law and recommended a fine. The company tried unsuccessfully to prove it was unaware of the employee’s health problem, while citing his professional inefficiency as the reason for the dismissal. During mediation talks with the Labor Inspectorate, the employer offered the employee the option to return at work but with less favorable terms, which he refused.

South Sudan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The transitional constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government and its agents frequently violated these rights in the name of national security, however, and the downward trend in respect for these freedoms since 2011 continued.

Freedom of Expression: Civil society organizations must register with the government under the 2013 NGO Act (and the subsequent 2016 Act). The government regularly attempted to impede criticism by monitoring, intimidating, harassing, arresting, or detaining members of civil society who publicly criticized the government.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government maintained strict control of media, both print and electronic. The government suppressed dissenting voices, forcing some civil society organizations and media houses to shut down or flee the country. Government officials or individuals close to the government regularly interfered in the publication of articles and broadcasting of programs, and high-level government officials stated press freedom should not extend to criticism of the government or soliciting views of opposition leaders.

Most organizations practiced self-censorship to ensure their safety, and authorities regularly censored newspapers, directly reprimanded publishers, and removed articles deemed critical of the government. Many print media outlets reported NSS officers forcing the removal of articles at the printing company (where all newspapers are printed), often leaving a blank spot where the article was originally meant to appear. For example, on January 24, the NSS removed an article about the new governor of Tonj State from the Dawn. On April 8, the NSS removed an opinion article in the Arabic daily newspaper al-Mougif written by a former government minister; there were a number of other similar cases of censorship during the year.

Since the outbreak of conflict in 2013, the government tried to dictate media coverage of the conflict and threatened those who tried to publish or broadcast views of the opposition. The Media Authority advised international journalists not to describe conflict in the country in tribal terms and described any such references as “hate speech.” The NSS regularly harassed, intimidated, and summoned journalists for questioning. The environment for media workers remained precarious throughout the year.

In March 2018 the media regulatory body, the Media Authority, announced its intention to shut down Miraya FM, run by UNMISS, for “persistent noncompliance.” The Media Authority stated it was not censoring the station, but rather monitoring for “hate speech and incitement.” Because Miraya FM’s transmitter is located within a UN compound, the government was unable to take it off the air, although the government continued to jam Miraya’s frequency to disrupt its broadcasts during the year. The jamming affected areas within a mile of the country’s national public service broadcaster, the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation, compound in Nyakuron. Miraya FM reporters were occasionally harassed when attempting to cover events outside of the UN compound and were not invited to government-sponsored media events.

Violence and Harassment: Security forces commonly intimidated or detained journalists whose reporting they perceived as unfavorable to the military or government. Security forces confiscated or damaged journalists’ equipment and restricted their movements. During the year journalists were interrogated, harassed, detained, and imprisoned. NSS representatives frequently harassed journalists by detaining them at NSS headquarters or local police stations without formal charges. Government harassment was so pronounced that several journalists chose to flee the country. Journalists and media agencies that reported on news of the opposition could expect questioning and possibly closure. Journalists in Juba experienced threats and intimidation and routinely practiced self-censorship. On several occasions, high-level officials publicly used intimidating language directed toward media outlets and representatives.

There were multiple reports of abuses similar to the following example: In January the Arabic language al-Watan newspaper published a series of editorials by its editor in chief Michael Rial Christopher describing the al Bashir regime in Sudan as a dictatorship and predicting its downfall. Subsequently, Christopher began to experience a pattern of anonymous harassment and government restrictions. Christopher and many other journalists were warned not to report on the situation in Sudan. A series of threatening anonymous telephone calls forced Christopher into hiding, and he left the country for Egypt. Christopher returned to South Sudan and resumed his life, although his newspaper was suspended, ostensibly for bureaucratic reasons. On July 15, as he was departing Juba for medical treatment, NSS officials at the Juba airport boarded his plane and detained Christopher, confiscated his passport, and ordered him to report to NSS headquarters (colloquially known as the “Blue House”) the next day for questioning. On July 17, he reported to the Blue House again and was detained for 39 days without charges before being released. During his detention he did not have access to a lawyer, his family, or the medical treatment that prompted his attempt to travel from Juba.

There continued to be no credible investigation into the killing of freelance journalist Christopher Allen in 2017.

The government’s South Sudan National Communication Authority frequently blocked access to certain websites, such as two popular news websites, Radio Tamazuj and Sudan Tribune, and two blogs, Paanluel Wel and Nyamilepedia, accused of disseminating “nonpeace” messages considered not to be “in the best interest of peace building in this country.” There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The government also targeted and intimidated individuals–especially those outside of Juba–who were critical of the government in open online forums and social media.

The government restricted cultural activities and academic workshops. NSS authorization is required for public events including academic workshops, which particularly affected NGOs and other civic organizations. To obtain permission, the NSS sometimes requested a list of national and international staff members employed by the organizations and names of participants. Permission was often predicated upon the expectation that the NSS would be able to monitor the events.

The government generally respected freedom of peaceful assembly but restricted freedom of association.

The transitional constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right, but many citizens did not gather due to fear of targeted violence. Security officials lacked nonviolent crowd control capabilities and at times fired live ammunition into the air to disperse crowds.

In May security officials deployed heavily on the streets of Juba following social media announcements of a “Red Card Movement” to launch protests in Juba. Members of civil society reported their meetings were more scrutinized and that sometimes they were denied permission to hold meetings following the protest movement announcements, although proposed events had nothing to do with the protests.

The transitional constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect this right for those suspected of associating with or having sympathies for opposition figures (see section 1.g.). Some civil society leaders interpreted the 2012 Political Parties Act as an attempt to suppress opposition to the SPLM (see section 3).

A 2016 law strictly regulating the activity and operations of civil society was widely enforced throughout the year. The law focused particularly on NGOs working in the governance, anticorruption, and human rights fields, and it imposed a range of legal barriers, including limitations on the types of activities in which organizations can engage, onerous registration requirements, and heavy fines for noncompliance. Human rights groups and civil society representatives reported NSS officials continued surveillance and threats against civil society organizations. Civil society organizations reported extensive NSS scrutiny of proposed public events; the NSS reviewed every proposed event and sometimes denied permission, rejected proposed speakers, or disrupted events.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The transitional constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, and repatriation. The government, however, often restricted these rights and routinely blocked travel of political figures within the country and outside the country. Despite multiple pledges from the government to dismantle checkpoints, they remained a common problem. Security forces manning these checkpoints routinely used them as opportunities to charge illegal fees and discriminate against minorities.

The transitional constitution does not address emigration.

In-country Movement: IDPs remained in UNMISS PoC sites due to fear of retaliatory or ethnically targeted violence by armed groups, both government- and opposition-affiliated. The government often obstructed humanitarian organizations seeking to provide protection and assistance to IDPs and refugees. Continuing conflict between government and opposition forces restricted the movement of UN personnel and the delivery of humanitarian aid (see section 1.g.).

Foreign Travel: Due to arbitrary restrictions, individuals were sometimes prevented from leaving the country.

Although large-scale conflict decreased during the year, significant levels of violence continued, particularly affecting populations in Central Equatoria and Greater Upper Nile. The result was sustained mass population displacement, both within the country and into neighboring countries, and high levels of humanitarian and protection needs, which strained the ability of UN and international humanitarian personnel to provide protection and assistance. According to OCHA, conflict and food insecurity had displaced internally approximately 1.5 million persons as of September. Approximately 180,500 persons were sheltered in UNMISS PoC sites as of September. The increased violence and food insecurity forced relief actors to delay plans for the safe return and relocation of some IDP populations.

Violence affecting areas such as the regions of Central Equatoria, isolated regions in Upper Nile, and areas of Northern and Western Bahr el Ghazal, continued to result in dire humanitarian consequences, including significant displacement and serious and systematic reported human rights violations and abuses, including the killing of civilians, arbitrary arrests, detentions, looting and destruction of civilian property, torture, and sexually based violence, according to the UNMISS HRD and other reports.

The government promoted the return and resettlement of IDPs but did not provide safe environments and often denied humanitarian NGOs or international organizations access to IDPs.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugees sometimes suffered abuse, such as armed attacks, killings, gender-based violence, forced recruitment, including of children, and forced labor, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Access to Asylum: The South Sudan Refugee Act provides for protection of refugees as well as the granting of asylum and refugee status. The government allowed refugees from a variety of countries to settle and generally did not treat refugees differently from other foreigners.

Access to Basic Services: While refugees sometimes lacked basic services, this generally reflected a lack of capacity in the country to manage refugee problems rather than government practices that discriminated against refugees. Refugee children had access to elementary education in refugee camps through programs managed by international NGOs and the United Nations. Some schools were shared with children from the host community. In principle refugees had access to judiciary services, although a lack of infrastructure and staff meant these resources were often unavailable.

Due to continuing conflict and scarcity of resources, tension existed between refugees and host communities in some areas over access to resources.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees and returnees for reintegration, and efforts to develop a framework for their integration or reintegration into local communities were in progress. No national procedures were in place to facilitate the provision of identity documents for returnees or the naturalization of refugees beyond procedures that were in place for all citizens and other applicants.

Citizenship is derived through the right of blood (jus sanguinis) if a person has a South Sudanese parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent on either the mother’s or the father’s side or if a person is a member of one of the country’s indigenous ethnic communities. Individuals also may derive citizenship through naturalization. Birth in the country is not sufficient to claim citizenship.

According to a 2018 report from the National Dialogue, a government-sponsored initiative, it was more difficult for those from the southern region of Equatoria to rightfully claim citizenship due to discrimination from other tribes, which suspected them of being Ugandans or Congolese. According to UNHCR, certain nomadic pastoralist groups had difficulty accessing application procedures for nationality certification, requiring UNHCR’s intervention to address issues with the Directorate of Nationality, Passports, and Immigration.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and rape was widespread. The law defines sexual intercourse within marriage as “not rape.” No information was available on the number of persons prosecuted, convicted, or punished for rape, and convictions of rape seldom were publicized. According to observers, sentences for persons convicted of rape were often less than the maximum. Since the conflict began in 2013, conflict-related sexual violence has been widespread. The targeting of girls and women reached epidemic proportions following skirmishes and attacks on towns in conflict zones, and sex was often used as a weapon of war (see section 1.g.). Women and girls also faced the threat of rape while living in UN PoC sites and when leaving PoC sites to conduct daily activities.

The law does not prohibit domestic violence. Violence against women, including spousal abuse, was common, although there were no reliable statistics on its prevalence. According to NGOs, some women reported police tried to charge them 20 South Sudan pounds ($0.16) or more when they attempted to file the criminal complaints of rape or abuse. While not mandatory, police often told women they needed to complete an official report prior to receiving medical treatment. Families of rape victims encouraged marriage to the rapist to avoid public shaming.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C is a criminal offense under the penal code, but little data existed to determine its prevalence. The law prohibits subjecting children to negative and harmful practices that affect their health, welfare, and dignity. Although not a common practice, FGM/C occurred in some regions, particularly along the northern border regions in Muslim communities. Several NGOs worked to end FGM/C, and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Welfare raised awareness of the dangers of FGM/C through local radio broadcasts.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The practice of girl compensation–compensating the family of a crime victim with a girl from the perpetrator’s family–occurred. Victims were generally between the ages of 11 and 15, did not attend school, and often were physically and sexually abused and used as servants by their captors. Local officials complained the absence of security and rule of law in many areas impeded efforts to curb the practice. Dowry practices were also common. NGOs reported fathers often forced daughters, generally minors, to marry older men in exchange for cattle or money.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. The government rarely enforced the law, and NGOs reported most women were unaware it was a punishable offense. Observers noted sexual harassment, particularly by military and police, was a serious problem throughout the country.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Discrimination: While the transitional constitution provides for gender equality and equal rights for women, deep cultural prejudices resulted in widespread discrimination against women. High illiteracy rates also impeded women’s ability to understand and defend their rights. Communities often followed customary laws and traditional practices that discriminated against women. For example, authorities arrested and detained women for adultery.

Despite statutory law to the contrary, under customary law a divorce is not final until the wife and her family return the full dowry to the husband’s family. As a result families often dissuaded women from divorce. Traditional courts usually ruled in favor of the husband’s family in most cases of child custody, unless children were between three and seven years of age.

Women also experienced discrimination in employment, pay, credit, education, inheritance, housing, and ownership and management of businesses or land. Although women have the right to own property and land under the transitional constitution, community elders often sought to prevent women from exercising these rights because they contradicted customary practice.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived through birth if a person has any South Sudanese parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent on either the mother’s or the father’s side, or if a person is a member of one of the country’s indigenous ethnic communities. Individuals may also derive citizenship through naturalization. Birth in the country is not sufficient to claim citizenship. The government did not register all births immediately.

Education: The transitional constitution and the 2012 Education Act provide for tuition-free, compulsory basic education through grade eight. Armed conflict and violence, however, were key factors preventing children from attending school throughout the year. UNICEF estimated nearly three-quarters of the country’s children were not attending school. The expansion of conflict also resulted in the displacement of many households and widespread forced recruitment of children, particularly boys, by armed groups (see section 1.g.), making it difficult for children to attend school and for schools to remain in operation. NGOs reported government and opposition forces and militias associated with both, looted numerous schools in conflict zones. In addition, the government did not give priority to investments in education, particularly basic education, and schools continued to lack trained teachers, educational materials, and other resources. Girls often did not have equal access to education. Many girls did not attend school or dropped out of school due to early marriage, domestic duties, or fear of gender-based violence at school.

Child Abuse: Abuse of children included physical violence, abduction, and harmful traditional practices such as “girl compensation” (see Other Harmful Traditional Practices). Child abuse, including sexual abuse, was reportedly widespread. Child rape occurred frequently in the context of child marriage and within the commercial sex industry in urban centers, and armed groups perpetrated it. Authorities seldom prosecuted child rape due to fear among victims and their families of stigmatization and retaliation. Child abduction also was a problem. Rural communities often abducted women and children during cattle raids (see section 1.g., Abductions).

Early and Forced Marriage: The law provides that every child has the right to protection from early marriage but does not explicitly prohibit marriage before age 18. Despite a case in July when a court annulled a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man, the ruling applied only to that specific case, and child marriage remained common. According to the Ministry of Gender, Child, and Social Welfare, nearly one-half of all girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 19 were married, and some brides were as young as 12. Early marriage sometimes reflected efforts by men to avoid rape charges, which a married woman cannot bring against her husband. In other cases families of rape victims encouraged marriage to the rapist to avoid public shaming. Many abducted girls, often repeatedly subjected to rape (see section 1.g.), were forced into marriage. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law designates 18 as the minimum age for consensual sex, although commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred. Perpetrators of child prostitution and child trafficking may be punished by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, although authorities rarely enforced these laws. Child prostitution and child trafficking both occurred, particularly in urban areas.

Child Soldiers: The law prohibits recruitment and use of children for military or paramilitary activities and prescribes punishments of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for violations. Opposition and government forces and affiliated armed militia groups recruited and used child soldiers throughout the year (see section 1.g., Child Soldiers).

Displaced Children: During the year conflict displaced numerous children, both as refugees and IDPs (see section 1.g.).

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

There were no statistics concerning the number of Jews in the country. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, or the provision of other government services. NGOs reported community and family routinely subjected persons with disabilities to discrimination. The government did not enact or implement programs to provide access to buildings, information, or communications public services. The Transitional Constitution and the 2012 Education Act stipulate primary education be provided to children with disabilities without discrimination. Very few teachers, however, were trained to address the needs of children with disabilities, and very few schools were able to provide a safe, accessible learning environment for children with disabilities. There were no legal restrictions on the right of persons with disabilities to vote and otherwise participate in civic affairs, although lack of physical accessibility constituted a barrier to effective participation. There were no mental health hospitals or institutions, and persons with mental disabilities were often held in prisons. Limited mental-health services were available at Juba Teaching Hospital.

There were no reports of police or other government officials inciting, perpetuating, or condoning violence against persons with disabilities or official action taken to investigate or punish those responsible for violence against persons with disabilities.

Persons with disabilities also faced disproportional hardship under conditions of crisis-level food insecurity and continuing violence throughout the year. Human Rights Watch reported persons with disabilities were often victimized by both government and opposition forces. Persons with disabilities faced difficulty fleeing areas under attack and accessing humanitarian assistance in displacement camps. Since 2013 the conflict itself disabled an unknown number of civilians, who experienced maiming, amputation, sight and hearing impairment, and trauma.

Interethnic fighting and violence by government forces, opposition forces, and armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition targeting specific ethnic groups resulted in human rights abuses throughout the year (see section 1.g.). The country has at least 60 ethnic groups and a long history of interethnic conflict. Ethnic groups were broadly categorized into the Nilotic (Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk ethnic groups), Nilo-Hamitic, and Southwestern Sudanic groups. For some ethnic groups, cattle represented wealth and status. Competition for resources to maintain large cattle herds often resulted in conflict. Longstanding grievances over perceived or actual inequitable treatment and distribution of resources and political exclusion contributed to conflict.

Interethnic clashes occurred throughout the year. Insecurity, inflammatory rhetoric–including hate speech–and discriminatory government policies led to a heightened sense of tribal identity, exacerbating interethnic differences.

The law does not prohibit same-sex sexual acts, but it prohibits “unnatural offenses,” defined as “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” which are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment if committed with consent and up to 14 years if without consent. There were no reports authorities enforced the law.

There were reports of incidents of discrimination and abuse. LGBTI persons reported security forces routinely harassed and sometimes arrested, detained, tortured, and beat them. Because of actively hostile government rhetoric and actions, most openly LGBTI citizens fled the country.

While there were no reports filed regarding discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, discrimination was widely believed to be both pervasive and socially acceptable. Key groups especially vulnerable to stigma and discrimination included commercial sex workers and LGBTI persons. This stigma often presented a barrier to seeking and receiving services for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Historical clashes between cattle keepers and agrarian peoples and between cattle keepers and persons attempting to raid and steal their herds intensified during the year. The level, scale, and sophistication of these attacks were significantly higher when compared with past conflicts. Hundreds of individuals were killed and injured, and thousands were forced to flee their homes.

Civilian casualties and forced displacements occurred in many parts of the country when raiders stole cattle, which define power and wealth in many traditional communities. Land disputes often erupted when stolen cattle were moved into other areas, also causing civilian casualties and displacement. The SSPDF, NSS, and police sometimes engaged in revenge killings both between and within ethnic groups.

Syria

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.

Freedom of Expression: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. It monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the Nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces.

The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests. Freedom House reported that only a few dozen print publications remained in circulation, reduced from several hundred prior to the conflict. A number of quasi-independent periodicals, usually owned and produced by individuals with regime connections, published during the year. Books critical of the regime were illegal.

The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arab networks.

Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. According to reliable NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. The SNHR reported that authorities in February arrested Ahmad Orabi, who worked as a news correspondent for al Ayyam newspaper and Ana Press, despite having previously signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime. In January a U.S. federal court found the regime had perpetrated targeted murder to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent, and found it liable for the 2012 death of American journalist Marie Colvin. The court ordered the regime to pay $302 million in punitive damages, which it has not paid.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 26 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom, and the CPJ reported that at least five journalists remained missing or held hostage as of November. The reason for arrests was often unclear. RSF reported that at least 25 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants died in regime detention between 2011 and October. For example, in July the CPJ reported that a prison official informed the family of Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi in July that the photojournalist died due to torture while in regime custody at Sedayna Prison.

The regime and ISIS routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, the CPJ, and RSF. The CPJ estimated that 129 journalists were killed since 2011, while RSF estimated more than 260 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants were killed during the same period. The CPJ attributed more than half of journalist deaths between 2011 and 2017 to regime and proregime forces.

During the year the CPJ, RSF, and the SNHR documented the deaths of six journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants. Anas Al-Dyab was killed in a Russian airstrike while documenting the bombardment of Khan Sheikhoun; Amjad Hassan Bakir was killed when a missile struck the Free Idlib Army vehicle in which he was riding as an embedded journalist covering the regime’s offensive in Idlib Governorate; Mohammad Jomaa was killed by a mine in Deir Ezzour in an area that had recently been retaken by the SDF; and Omar Al-Dimashqi was killed by the explosion of an IED placed under his car by an unidentified attacker.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The regime continued to strictly control the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.

Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, or Alawite religious groups.

RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the entire province they were in. RSF assessed that the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than eight years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since the outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.

National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.

Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as the HTS, detained and tortured journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The CPJ reported that four members of the HTS abducted Syrian reporter Ahmed Rahal, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights news website Al-Dorar al-Sahmia, after raiding his home in September. The SNHR reported that the family of Samer Saleh al Salloum, an activist responsible for the printing and distribution of al Gherbal political magazine and Zawrak children’s magazine, was informed in August that he had reportedly been executed in detention by the HTS in April.

In July the CPJ reported that the HTS arbitrarily detained Jumaa Haj Hamdou, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl, at his home in western Aleppo. He was not charged and was released after six days. Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud, the editor in chief of Zaman al-Wasl, told the CPJ he believed Hamdou was detained because of his reporting.

The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts. In Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, the country remained a dangerous and repressive environment for internet users. Individuals and groups could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecute users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9) increases penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. As of late in the year, at least 14 citizen journalists remained imprisoned by the regime, many on charges related to their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.

The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not attempt to restrict the security branches’ monitoring and censoring of the internet. The security branches were largely responsible for restricting internet freedom and access; internet blackouts often coincided with security force attacks. The regime censored websites related to the opposition, including the websites of local coordination committees as well as media outlets.

The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under siege. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.

The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content. Regime authorities routinely tortured and beat journalists to extract passwords for social media sites, and the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted malware to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.

Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.

The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit academic personnel to express ideas contrary to regime policy. Authorities reportedly dismissed or imprisoned university professors in regime-held areas for expressing dissent and killed some for supporting regime opponents. Combatants on all sides of the war attacked or commandeered schools. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.

During the conflict students, particularly those residing in opposition-held areas, continued to face challenges in taking nationwide exams. For example, school districts in Dar’a were affected by the influx of new pupils to the governorate due to hostilities, forcing many schools to hire unqualified staff and begin operating in shifts to accommodate all the pupils. The COI reported that thousands of students had to repeat classes and retake examinations as a result. Areas liberated by the SDF from ISIS reopened local schools. In Raqqa city and the surrounding rural regions, more than 130,000 students returned to classes in 322 refurbished buildings and schools previously used or destroyed by ISIS. Many school buildings required extensive repairs, sometimes including clearance of explosive remnants of the war, and administrators required assistance to obtain basic supplies for learning.

The SDF also reportedly imposed penalties for SDF and school administration staff members who enrolled their children in schools that did not use their curriculum.

The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.

The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions.

According to allegations by Kurdish activists and press reporting, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG sometimes suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ezzor protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS following the coalition offensive to liberate Baghuz from ISIS control. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities.

During the year multiple media outlets reported that the HTS increased its repression of civil society activity in August due to widespread protests held in opposition to the group. The SNHR reported that the HTS arrested approximately 182 persons as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention.

The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.

The regime often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, reportedly on political grounds. None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, but many functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association. Despite regime efforts, journalists in exile founded the Syrian Journalist Association as an independent democratic professional association in 2012 to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression.

The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.

Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained hundreds of persons linked to local human rights groups and prodemocracy student groups. The death notices released by the regime shed light on this practice. For example, HRW described the forcible disappearance by the regime during the year of many young protest organizers, civil society leaders, and local coordination committee members. This included Sahar, a community leader and head of the Women’s Affairs Bureau in Daraa, who was detained without cause at a local checkpoint. In several cases documented by HRW, intelligence branches either arrested or repeatedly harassed relatives of civil society activists and people who fled the country to gain information about their wanted family members or force them to return.

The HTS restricted the activities of organizations it deemed incompatible with its interpretation of Islam. HTS forces detained Munawir Hamdeen, a relief worker at the Big Heart organization in Idlib, after severely beating him at his home in 2016. After five months of detention, Hamdeen pleaded guilty to the charge of adultery and was held in detention until August, when his body was found outside the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) center in Idlib.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, ISIS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime sieges in Idlib Governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while forced evacuations following sieges resulted in mass displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).

In-country Movement: In regime-besieged cities throughout the country, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.

The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Regime forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.

In areas they still controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in September it had received accounts of harassment, including of women, arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, and demands for bribes at checkpoints administered by the HTS and other armed actors.

While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW reported that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was restricting the movement of more than 11,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP Camp. The UN secretary-general also released a report on children and armed conflict stating that 1,248 children of 46 nationalities were deprived of their liberty to move freely by the SDF due to their actual or alleged association with ISIS.

Until the territorial defeat of ISIS in March, ISIS restricted the movement in areas under its control of regime supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. The Free Yezidi Foundation further reported that Yezidis were held against their will by ISIS. ISIS reportedly did not permit female passengers to traverse territory it controlled unless accompanied by a close male relative.

Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks at airports and border crossings.

The regime also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to several media outlets, Richard Kouyoumjian, Lebanon’s minister of social affairs, stated in March that the regime accepted less than 20 percent of the refugees who attempted to return to the country from Lebanon.

Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.

Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country.

During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to regime and Russian aerial attacks. Regime and proregime evacuations of besieged areas, often overseen by Russian forces, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. Years of conflict and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, and each displacement depleted family assets. In September the United Nations estimated there were more than 6.2 million IDPs in the country, including 2.5 million children and five million individuals in need of acute assistance. This number included 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. In May UNOCHA recorded 27,969 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. The greatest number of these returns were recorded in Homs with 8,290 returnees, approximately 45 percent of whom were displaced within the governorate. Deir Ezzor received the second-largest number of IDP returnees with 5,373 spontaneous returns, while 4,349 returns were recorded in rural Damascus. The fourth largest number of returnees was recorded in Aleppo, with 3,592 returnees, followed by Daraa with 3,098 recorded spontaneous returns. UN humanitarian officials reported that most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps. The humanitarian response to the country was coordinated through a complex bureaucratic structure. The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level 3 response–the global humanitarian system’s classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.

The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in many cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home (see section 1.e., Property Restitution).

According to HRW, the regime confiscated more than 70 residential households with all internal contents in the Eastern Ghouta Region. The regime restricted access to many of the neighborhoods and converted several properties into military headquarters. In November the Middle East Institute reported that regime security and intelligence forces had seized a number of homes and other properties belonging to local residents using several different methods. Those with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while some former opposition members had their homes and businesses summarily seized by intelligence forces. The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.).

The SARC functioned as the main partner for international humanitarian organizations working inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance in regime- and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. The UN and its humanitarian partners continued to provide cross-border assistance from Turkey and Iraq during the year. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.

Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors. The United Nations reported that only seven humanitarian assistance convoys accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year.

In September the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to 15,000 individuals and facilitated the voluntary return of nearly 400 individuals at Rukban Camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 45,000 persons in need and provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to inconsistent access to the area. The regime frequently took months to approve aid convoy requests, and Jordan declined requests to deliver aid from its side of the border, although it allowed a small, exceptional delivery by an NGO from Jordan during Ramadan. The United Nations reported that, since February, approximately half of the camp’s estimated population, or 18,000 individuals, left the camp through the regime-established transit point, primarily towards collective shelters in Homs, where the United Nations and SARC provided services, before moving onwards.

Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors reported that the HTS impeded the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northeast, making it difficult to effectively respond to displacement near Idlib. For example, in March the United Nations criticized Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups, including the FSA, for providing inconsistent, restricted access to IDPs in Afrin. In October the United Kingdom temporarily suspended the delivery of aid to Idlib Province due to the HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.

The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ezzour and Raqqa.

f. Protection of Refugees

UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russia maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the regime adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to its suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.

Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.

Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.

Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 45,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. The COI reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.

Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork became “foreign” from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.

In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an approximate increase in population since the 1962 census.

Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape and sexual assault of women, men, and children, but the regime did not enforce the law effectively. Rape is punishable by imprisonment and hard labor for at least 15 years (at least nine years in mitigating circumstances), which is aggravated if the perpetrator is a government official, religious official, or has legitimate or actual authority over the victim. Male rape is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The law specifically excludes spousal rape, and it reduces or suspends punishment if the rapist marries the victim. The victim’s family sometimes agreed to this arrangement to avoid the social stigma attached to rape.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies, NGOs, and media outlets characterized rape and sexual violence as endemic, underreported, and uncontrolled in the country (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.). Humanitarian organizations reported that women, men, and community leaders consistently identified sexual violence as a primary reason their families fled the country. The COI reported that rape and sexual violence continued to play a prominent role in the conflict and was used to terrorize and punish women, men, and children perceived as associated with the opposition, as did terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS. There were instances, comparatively far fewer, of armed opposition groups reportedly raping women and children. The HTS and ISIS also reportedly forced women and girls into sexual slavery.

The law does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, but it stipulates that men may discipline their female relatives in a form permitted by general custom. According to a May UNFPA report, violence against women and children was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men. Victims did not report the vast majority of cases. Security forces consistently treated violence against women as a social rather than a criminal matter. Observers reported that when some abused women tried to file a police report, police did not investigate their reports thoroughly, if at all, and that in other cases police officers responded by abusing the women.

In previous years several domestic violence centers operated in Damascus; the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor licensed them. Local NGOs reported, however, that many centers no longer operated due to the conflict. There were no known government-run services for women outside Damascus. According to local human rights organizations, local coordination committees and other opposition-related groups offered programs specifically for protection of women; NGOs did not integrate these programs throughout the country, and none reported reliable funding.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law permits judges to reduce penalties for murder and assault if the defendant asserts an “honor” defense, which often occurred. The regime kept no official statistics on use of this defense in murder and assault cases and reportedly rarely pursued prosecution of so-called honor crimes. There were no officially reported honor killings during the year, but reporting from previous years indicated that honor killings increased since the onset of the crisis in 2011. NGOs working with refugees reported families killed some rape victims inside the country, including those raped by regime forces, for reasons of honor.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS permitted and committed so-called honor killings in territories under their control (see section 1.g.).

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of gender but does not explicitly prohibit sexual harassment. The regime did not enforce the law effectively. Sexual harassment was pervasive and uncontrolled. For example, a 2019 UNFPA report cited an adolescent girl from Idlib who was blackmailed and harassed by a stranger who took revealing photos of her in a changing room and threatened to share them with her family.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization by the regime, but the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that ISIS forced some Yezidi women whom they had impregnated to have abortions (see section 1.g.).

Discrimination: Although the constitution provides for equality between men and women, the law does not provide for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. Criminal, family, religious, personal status, labor, nationality, inheritance, retirement, and social security laws discriminate against women. For example, if a man and a woman separately commit the same criminal act of adultery, then by law the woman’s punishment is double that of the man. The law generally permits women to initiate divorce proceedings against their spouses, but the law does not entitle a divorced woman to alimony in some cases. Under the law a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach age 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family. Personal status laws applied to Muslims are derived from sharia and are discriminatory toward women. Church law governs personal status issues for Christians, in some cases barring divorce. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case. While the constitution provides the “right of every citizen to earn his wage according to the nature and yield of the work,” the law does not explicitly stipulate equal pay for equal work. Women cannot pass citizenship to their children. The regime’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, courts usually granted Muslim women half the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. If they refuse to provide this support, women have the right to sue.

The law provides women and men equal rights in owning or managing land or other property, but cultural and religious norms impeded women’s property rights, especially in rural areas.

The Commission for Family Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shared responsibility for attempting to accord equal legal rights to women. Governmental involvement in civil rights claims, including cases against sexual discrimination, was stagnant, and most claims went unanswered.

Women participated in public life and in most professions, including the armed forces, although UNFPA reported that violence and lawlessness in many regions reduced women’s access to the public sphere. Various sources observed that women constituted a minority of lawyers, university professors, and other professions.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS reportedly placed similar discriminatory restrictions on women and girls in the territories they controlled. For example, the International Center for the Study of Radicalism reported in September that the HTS forced women and girls into marriage, imposed a dress code on women and girls, banned women and girls from wearing makeup, required that women and girls be accompanied by a mahram or male member of their immediate family, forbade women from speaking with unrelated men or hosting men who were not their husband, forbade widows from living alone, banned women’s centers, banned meetings with mixed male and female participation, and segregated classrooms. The HTS maintained all-female police units to support the Hisbah in enforcing these regulations, sometimes violently, among women. Summary punishments for infractions ranged from corporal punishment, such as lashing, to execution.

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship solely from their father. In large areas of the country where civil registries were not functioning, authorities did not register births. The regime did not register the births of Kurdish noncitizen residents, including stateless Kurds (see section 2.g.). Failure to register resulted in deprivation of services, such as diplomas for high school-level studies, access to universities, access to formal employment, and civil documentation and protection.

Education: The regime provided free public education to citizen children from primary school through university. Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 12. Enrollment, attendance, and completion rates for boys and girls generally were comparable. Noncitizen children could also attend public schools at no cost but required permission from the Ministry of Education. While Palestinians and other noncitizens, including stateless Kurds, could generally send their children to school and universities, stateless Kurds were ineligible to receive a degree documenting their academic achievement.

The conflict and widespread destruction continued to hamper the ability of children to attend school. In October UNICEF reported that 5.3 million children were in need of humanitarian assistance. UNICEF also reported that fighting destroyed or damaged or that combatants occupied one in every three schools. Approximately 1.75 million children were out of school (among more than 2.6 million Syrian children, including refugees and others in the diaspora); another 1.35 million were at risk for leaving school.

ISIS and the HTS reportedly imposed their interpretation of sharia on schools and discriminated against girls in the territories they controlled. The International Crisis Group reported in March that the HTS continued to segregate classrooms by gender, imposed their curriculum on teachers, and closed private schools and educational centers. Additionally, the STJ reported in March that the HTS Salvation Government banned any students who had previously been granted elementary and middle-school diplomas by the regime from pursuing their high school education in any schools controlled by the HTS.

Child Abuse: The law does not specifically prohibit child abuse, but it stipulates that parents may discipline their children in a form permitted by general custom. According to a 2017 UNFPA report, violence against children, especially girls, was pervasive and increasing due to the conflict and the lack of economic opportunity for men.

NGOs reported extensively on reports of regime and proregime forces, as well as the HTS and ISIS, sexually assaulting, torturing, detaining, killing, and otherwise abusing children (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.c., and 1.g.). The HTS and ISIS subjected children to extremely harsh punishment, including execution, in the territories they controlled.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for men and 17 for women. A boy as young as 15 or a girl as young as 13 may marry if a judge deems both parties willing and “physically mature” and if the fathers or grandfathers of both parties’ consent. Early and forced marriages were common. CARE reported in March that young women were increasingly vulnerable to forced marriage due to the extreme financial hardships placed upon families while the conflict progressed into its eighth year.

Many families reportedly arranged marriages for girls, including at younger ages than typically occurred prior to the start of the conflict, believing it would protect them and ease the financial burden on the family.

There were instances of early and forced marriage of girls to members of regime, proregime, and armed opposition forces.

In previous years ISIS abducted and sexually exploited Yezidi girls in Iraq and transported them to Syria for rape and forced marriage; many of those Yezidi women and girls remained captive during the year (see section 1.g. and section 6, Women). Even after the territorial defeat of ISIS, the Free Yezidi Foundation reported that Yezidi women and children remained with ISIS-affiliated families in detention camps due to the intense trauma from their treatment under ISIS and out of fear. From 2014 onwards, ISIS began to forcibly marry Sunni (also a minority) girls and women living in territories under its control. Some of those forced to marry ISIS members were adults, including widows, but the vast majority of cases the COI documented revealed that girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were victims of forced marriage. Many women and girls reportedly were passed among multiple ISIS fighters, some as many as six or seven times within two years. The HTS also reportedly forced Druze and other minority women and girls into marriage as well as Sunni women and girls.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law stipulates penalties for those found guilty of certain forms of child abuse associated with trafficking crimes, including kidnapping and forced prostitution, both of which carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. The law considers child pornography a trafficking crime, but the punishment for child pornography was set at the local level with “appropriate penalties.” It was also unclear if there had been any prosecutions for child pornography or if authorities enforced the law.

The age of sexual consent by law is 15 with no close-in-age exemption. Premarital sex is illegal, but observers reported authorities did not enforce the law. Rape of a child younger than 15 is punishable by not less than 21 years’ imprisonment and hard labor. There were no reports of regime prosecution of child rape cases.

Child Soldiers: Several sources documented the continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in combat (see section 1.g.).

Displaced Children: There was a large population of IDP children and some refugee children as well. These children reportedly experienced increased vulnerability to abuses, including by armed forces (see sections 1.c., 1.g., 2.e., and 2.f.).

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

In 2016 NGOs estimated that fewer than 20–perhaps fewer than 10–Jews remained in the country. The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the Syrian opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor is responsible for assisting persons with disabilities, working through dedicated charities and organizations to provide assistance. During an April briefing with the UN Security Council, Syrian activist Nujeen Mustafa explained that persons with disabilities remained among the most vulnerable and neglected of all displaced persons in the country, particularly in areas of active conflict.

The destruction of schools and hospitals, most often by regime and proregime forces, limited access to education and health services for persons with disabilities, but government and nongovernment social care institutes reportedly exist for blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and physical and intellectual disabilities. The regime did not effectively work to provide access for persons with disabilities to information, communications, building, or transportation. In its November report, UNFPA detailed how both public and private spaces–including educational institutions, health-care services and religious or cultural buildings–were inaccessible to the elderly and persons with disabilities, leading to further ostracization and deprivation. UNFPA further stated that persons with disabilities were sometimes denied aid, as they could not access it, and some distribution centers required presence in person. UNFPA identified women and adolescent girls with disabilities as being at a dangerously high risk of various forms of violence and exploitation.

According to the COI, on May 13, two men and a child with intellectual disabilities were kidnapped by an armed group when travelling from Afrin to I’zaz. One of those abducted was reportedly found dead a few days later displaying signs of torture, while the kidnappers demanded a ransom of $10,000 for the remaining abductees. The bodies of the second man and child were discovered more than a month later. There was no indication the regime effectively investigated or punished those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.

The regime actively restricted national and ethnic minorities from conducting traditional, religious, and cultural activities. The Kurdish population–citizens and noncitizens–faced official and societal discrimination and repression as well as regime-sponsored violence. Regime and proregime forces, as well as ISIS and armed opposition forces such as the Turkish-backed FSA, reportedly arrested, detained, tortured, killed, and otherwise abused numerous Kurdish activists and individuals as well as members of the SDF during the year (see section 1.g.).

The regime continued to limit the use and teaching of the Kurdish language. It also restricted publication in Kurdish of books and other materials, Kurdish cultural expression, and at times the celebration of Kurdish festivals.

The Alawite community, to which Bashar Assad belongs, enjoyed privileged status throughout the regime and dominated the state security apparatus and military leadership. Nevertheless, the regime reportedly also targeted Alawite opposition activists for arbitrary arrest, torture, detention, and killing. Extremist opposition groups targeted Alawite communities on several occasions for their perceived proregime stance.

In March the COI reported that armed opposition groups detained hundreds of women and girls belonging to minority groups, particularly Alawites, and used them as bargaining chips for initiating prisoner swaps with regime and proregime forces.

The terrorist groups ISIS and the HTS violently oppressed and discriminated against all non-Sunni Arab ethnic minorities in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.).

HRW documented multiple instances of Syrian opposition forces “discriminating on ethnic grounds.” HRW reported that TSOs participating in Turkey’s military offensive into northeast Syria “refused to allow the return of Kurdish families displaced by Turkish military operations and looted and unlawfully appropriated or occupied their property.” HRW reported opposition forces systematically blocked Kurdish IDP returns while permitting some Arab IDP returns.

The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, defined as “carnal relations against the order of nature” and punishable by imprisonment up to three years. In previous years police used this charge to prosecute LGBTI individuals. There were no reports of prosecutions under the law during the year, but NGO reports indicated the regime arrested dozens of LGBTI persons since 2011 on charges such as abusing social values; selling, buying, or consuming illegal drugs; and organizing and promoting “obscene” parties. Local media and NGOs reported instances in which regime and proregime forces used accusations of homosexuality as a pretext to detain, arrest, torture, and kill civilians. The frequency of such instances was difficult to determine, since police rarely reported their rationale for arrests.

Although there were no known domestic NGOs focused on LGBTI matters, there were several online networking communities, including an online LGBTI-oriented magazine. Human rights activists reported there was overt societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in all aspects of society.

The terrorist HTS regularly detained, tortured, and killed LGBTI individuals in the territories they controlled (see section 1.g.). For example, in August The Guardian newspaper reported that a Syrian transgender woman was arrested by HTS officers barely 110 yards across the border into Idlib after being deported by Turkish authorities. According to a fellow refugee deported on the same bus, the HTS officers went through her cellular telephone, humiliating her about pictures they found. The woman has not been heard from since she was seen forced into the back of a taxi, a bag tied over her head.

There were no reports of violence or discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS, but human rights activists believed such cases were underreported and the UN Development Program (UNDP) noted that stigma affected access to health care. The UNDP and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria assessed that the incapability of the health-care sector to identify newly infected persons or offer medical support in a hostile environment posed a major problem and added to the risk of further spread of the disease among the general population.

Yezidis, Druze, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities were subject to violence and discrimination by ISIS, the HTS, and other extremist groups (see section 1.g.).

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