Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government 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 limiting 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 government routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the government publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The government 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 Freedom: 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 outweigh 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 government continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their government sources in response to government 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 government connections, published during the year. Books critical of the government were illegal.
The government 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 government policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the government jammed some Arab networks.
Violence and Harassment: Government forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state. 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 government 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. For example, in September the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) reported that on August 25, Syrian military intelligence forces stopped and arrested Kurdish broadcast journalist Omar Kalo at a checkpoint while he was traveling to renew his passport. The government reportedly interrogated Kalo and subsequently transferred him to the military intelligence prison in Aleppo. He was released in early October.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 26 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned by the government, and 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 government detention between 2011 and October. For example, in July RSF and the CPJ reported that photojournalist Niraz Saeed was executed or died due to torture while in government custody at Sednaya Prison in 2016.
The government and ISIS routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, CPJ, and RSF. The CPJ estimated more than 120 journalists were killed between 2011 and October, while RSF estimated more than 240 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants were killed during the same period. The CPJ attributed more than half of journalist deaths since 2011 to government and progovernment forces.
During the year the CPJ and RSF documented the deaths of 14 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants: Abdul Rahman Ismael Yassin was killed by a government barrel bomb; Ahmed Azize and Bashar al-Attar were killed while aiding wounded civilians in separate Russian “double-tap” air strikes; Kamel abu al-Walid was killed by a landmine; Mustafa Salamah was killed by artillery fire; Obeida abu Omar was killed when a Russian air strike hit his home; Ibrahim al-Munjar was shot and killed by a motorcycle gunman after receiving death threats from ISIS; Ahmed Hamdan, Khaled Hamo, Moammar Bakkor, and Sohaib Aion were killed by government and Russian air strikes and bombings; and Raed Faris and Hamud Junaid were killed by unidentified gunmen (see section 1.a.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to control the dissemination of information strictly, including developments regarding fighting between the government and armed opposition, and prohibited most criticism of the government 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. According to Freedom House, the National Media Council lacked independence, regularly criticized media overage that was displeasing to the regime, and intimidated media outlets into taking a progovernment editorial line. The government prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the government. Censorship was usually greater 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.
In July 11 letters, RSF asked UN secretary-general Gutierrez, UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Jordanian prime minister Omar Razzaz to take all necessary measures to evacuate and provide for the safety and protection of 69 journalists who reportedly self-identified as being exposed to extremely grave danger by the advance of government forces on Daraa and the demilitarized Quneitra region on the Syria-Israel border. The International Press Institute sent a similar letter to Prime Minister Razzaz the same day, and the CPJ sent a similar letter to High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Frederica Mogherini on July 25. Some journalists reportedly told RSF they feared being executed or imprisoned as soon as the government controlled the entire province. RSF assessed that the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than seven years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since the outset, helped to document the government’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 government continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the government.
National Security: The government regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of government policies or public officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: The CPJ and RSF reported that armed opposition groups, HTS, and ISIS targeted journalists. Extremist organizations such as the HTS and ISIS posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. International NGOs reported the SDF also periodically detained journalists.
For example, the CPJ reported that, on June 22, the FSA detained three cameramen–Kaniwar Khalef, Essam al-Abbas, and Hassan Khalef–near the village of Chath in northeastern Syria after the journalists stopped to ask directions. The FSA reportedly shot at the group’s reporter, Heybar Othman, as he ran and, subsequently, transferred the three cameramen to a prison in Azaz. Their fate was unknown as of October.
According to Freedom House, the PYD appeared to exercise partisan influence over media regulation in Kurdish-held territories. In February the COI reported that SDF members intimidated and arrested journalists and activists for reporting on alleged violations by the SDF in Raqqa and elsewhere in the country. The CPJ reported that on September 30, the Sutoro police, an ethnically Assyrian force affiliated with the PYD in the northeast, arrested Souleman Yousph, who is ethnically Assyrian, seized his electronics, and held him for five days. Yousph had published pieces criticizing the PYD and its ally, the Syriac Union Party, for allegedly closing private Assyrian schools and trying to impose a Kurdish nationalist curriculum in public schools.
HTS reportedly detained and tortured journalists. RSF reported that HTS freed journalist Hossam Mahmoud on June 6 after holding him for six months but continued to hold Amjad al Maleh, whom HTS captured with Mahmoud in December 2017. RSF further reported that HTS detained two other journalists earlier in the year, and captors commonly attempted to coerce detainees to give up journalism. RSF assessed that HTS wanted to control media reporting.
The severe restrictions imposed by ISIS on fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression, including for the press, were well documented. The CPJ reported that a motorcycle gunman shot and killed journalist Ibrahim al Munjar in Saida, Daraa on the morning of May 17. Al Munjar reportedly had received death threats from ISIS following his reporting on clashes between the FSA and ISIS in Daraa.
The government controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts. This year’s Freedom on the Net Report, the country remained a dangerous and repressive environment for internet users. The report noted a slight improvement in internet access in areas liberated from ISIS. Individuals and groups could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The government applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecute users. On 25 March, the government approved by presidential decree the anticybercrime law (also referred to Law No. 9), which increases penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. NGOs such as the Gulf Center for Human Rights asserted the new law threatens online freedom. As of late 2017, at least 15 citizen journalists remained imprisoned by the government on charges related to digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups in an effort to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
In a positive, but limited development, authorities unblocked a number of media websites by the end of 2017, including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Asharq al-Awsat, the Qatari Al-Arab newspaper, and Al-Hayat, in addition to the Syrian websites The New Syrian, Enab Baladi, and Souriali Radio, according to this year’s Freedom on the Net report. The report also noted that many nonpolitical websites were also unblocked, such as Wikipedia and the WordPress blogosphere. The block on the Israeli domain (.il) was also lifted.
The government often monitored internet communications, including email; it interfered with and blocked internet service, SMS messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The government 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 government 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 government censored websites related to the opposition, including the websites for local coordination committees as well as media outlets.
The government also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under siege. It obstructed connectivity through its 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 government-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) cell phone network coverage.
The government meanwhile expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread progovernment propaganda and manipulate online content. Government authorities routinely tortured and beat journalists to extract passwords for social media sites, and the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of progovernment computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post progovernment material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the government and groups that it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted malware to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed government 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 government’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 government critics and diverting email traffic to government servers for surveillance.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 34 percent of individuals used the internet and 45 percent of households had internet access at home in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit academic personnel to express ideas contrary to government policy. Authorities reportedly dismissed or imprisoned university professors in government-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 besieged areas of eastern Ghouta suspended activities intermittently through April due to government assaults. Areas liberated by the SDF from ISIS reopened local schools. For example, thousands of children in Raqqa city returned to school in August and September in refurbished buildings 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.
In September the government barred actor Samer Ismail from leaving the country to attend the Venice Film Festival in Italy, where his film The Day I Lost My Shadow was due to be shown. Local media reported that every man between the ages of 17 and 42 must obtain approval from the conscription office before leaving the country, which Ismail reportedly had not done.
In September multiple news outlets reported that the SDF, PYD, and its ally, the Syriac Union Party, temporarily closed 14 private Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic schools in the cities of Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Al-Malikiyeh for their refusal to cease teaching the Syrian regime’s curriculum and implement new school curriculum. The schools, administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church Diocese, had been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area. The Kurdish authorities and the local Syriac Orthodox Archbishopric eventually reached an agreement that allowed the schools to reopen. Samira Haj Ali, head of the Kurdish authority’s education authority, said the agreement ensured students in the first two grades followed a Syriac version of the Syrian Interim Government’s curriculum, a slight variation of the regime curriculum excluding Ba’athist ideological components. In exchange, the agreement allowed students in grades three to six to follow the Damascus education curriculum with extra Syriac language classes available.
ISIS and the HTS sought to restrict academic freedom severely and to curtail cultural events they considered un-Islamic. Schools in ISIS-controlled territories banned several academic subjects, including chemistry and philosophy, but ISIS territories diminished significantly during the year.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
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 government, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions.
According to allegations by Kurdish activists and press reporting, the PYD and the YPG sometimes suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. During the year, however, hundreds of Christians and Assyrians peacefully protested against PYD policy to close private religious schools that teach the Syrian regime’s curriculum. Kurdish security forces fired weapons into the air but reportedly did not otherwise engage the protesters. Similar protests in Hasaka against forcible recruitment also appear to have occurred without serious incident.
During the year multiple media outlets reported that HTS loosened restrictions on civil society activity, including protests, due to popular pressure for engagement to oppose an expected assault by government and progovernment forces on the Idlib Governorate. This approach was manifested in September, when substantial numbers protested against President Assad and the government in opposition- and HTS-held areas of Idlib and Hama.
The COI reported that residents who previously resided in ISIS-controlled Raqqa noted severe restrictions on assembly while under ISIS rule, but ISIS territories contracted considerably during the year.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the government latitude to restrict this freedom. The government 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 government.
The government 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 government continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association. Despite government 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 in Syria.
The government selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only progovernment groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the government would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the government, security forces detained hundreds of persons linked to local human rights groups and prodemocracy student groups. The thousands of death notices released by the government during the year shed light on this practice. For example, the Atlantic described the fates of many of the young protest organizers, civil society leaders, and local coordination committee members forcibly disappeared by the government in 2011. These included Yahya and Ma’an Shurbaji; both had been missing since 2011 and were now listed as having died in government detention in 2013. The government also searched these individuals’ personal and social media contacts for further potential targets.
HTS restricted the activities of organizations it deemed incompatible with its interpretation of Islam. For example, in its March report, the COI describes how in 2015 the HTS predecessor Jabhat al-Nusra group burned a women’s organization in Idlib, stole the organizer’s car, and detained the organizer for a short period. In 2017 the March COI report noted that HTS prevented NGOs in Idlib from conducting meetings with mixed participants so a number of NGOs began holding meetings via remote presence.
According to previous media reports and reports from former residents of ISIS-controlled areas, ISIS did not permit the existence of associations that opposed the structures or policies of the “caliphate.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
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 government, 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. Government sieges in Homs, Damascus, rural Damascus, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib Governorates restricted the 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.).
The government 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 government provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Both government 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.
In-country Movement: In government-besieged cities throughout the country, government 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 government expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Government forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The government 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 HTS and ISIS also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). According to the COI, long desert detour routes exposed drivers and passengers to arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, demands for bribes, and detention and execution at checkpoints administered by ISIS, the government, and other armed actors.
While the SDC and SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW claimed that the SDC and members of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration operating in Deir al-Zour and Raqqa confiscated the identification cards of IDPs in camps and prevented their freedom of movement. According to UN and HRW allegations, the SDF in some instances required IDPs to obtain “sponsorship” to move to traditionally Kurdish areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Kobani.
In the remaining areas under its control, ISIS restricted the movement of government supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. 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 government 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 government 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. For example, local media reported that every man between the ages of 17 and 42 must obtain approval from the conscription office before leaving the country. Additionally, the government 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 government reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The government 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 government also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to numerous media outlets, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate, stated that in coordinating the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, the Syrian government reviews a list of names and “on average” rejects 10 percent of them.
Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The government allowed Syrians living outside of the country, whose passports expired, to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the government against which they may have protested or feared the government could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Women older than age 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.
There were reports ISIS destroyed Syrian passports and legal records and produced its own passports, not recognized by any country or entity. These policies disproportionately affected children, because many left the country before obtaining a passport or identification card. ISIS explicitly prohibited women from foreign travel.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to government and Russian aerial attacks. Government and progovernment 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 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. The United Nations estimated that 750,000 IDPs returned to their places of origin during the first half of the year. Up to 1.2 million persons lived in UN-designated hard-to-reach areas. 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 government generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance or protection, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The government forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The government 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. Seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July, told HRW that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. According to HRW, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access to Darayya and in Qaboun the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished the property of the Syrians attempting to return. The government 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 government and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced government 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 government offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the government increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. Cross-border operations from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, provided humanitarian assistance, but these halted from Jordan in June when the government retook territory in the southwest up to the Syria-Jordan border. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey prohibited the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the government continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the government secured control over many of these areas during the year. For example, humanitarian organizations reported throughout the summer that the government did not permit UN agencies the sustained access required to conduct detailed needs assessments for vulnerable populations in Quneitra. The United Nations reported that as of November only seven humanitarian assistance convoys had accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year, providing assistance to approximately 220,000 persons.
In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 50,000 persons in need at Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. Additionally, the convoy provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. The overall humanitarian situation in Rukban camp had reached a dire state, with reported shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns, increasing violence, and the death of several children who reportedly were unable to obtain the further medical treatment they needed, according to the United Nations. Prior to the delivery of humanitarian goods, the last UN delivery of assistance to Rukban was in January, delivered through Jordan. Prior to the November delivery, the government refused to authorize a convoy to travel from Damascus to Rukban.
Armed opposition groups, and terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. For example, in March the United Nations criticized the Turkish-backed 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 Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province due to HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib Province. The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Raqqa.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to Syria in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to Syria during the year. In July, however, the government and Russia began 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 Syrian government adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to the government’s suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government 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 government 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 government 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 48,000 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. UNHCR 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 with regard 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 al-Hasakah Governorate 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 operating refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets. By law a person may be imprisoned for as long as five years for insulting the president.
In 2016 the Parliament amended Article 137 of the Criminal Code providing for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander against the leader of the nation, including on the internet, for which an individual can go to jail for up to five years. In August the Khatlon Region court sentenced labor migrant Umar Murodov from Muminobod to five and a half years of imprisonment for “insulting and humiliating the president.” According to court documents, Murodov “liked” videos critical of the president on the Russian-language social media site Odnoklasniki, widely used among Tajik labor migrants in Russia. Law enforcement officers arrested Murodov on June 12 when he returned to the country from Moscow. On July 18, law enforcement officials told the media that while in Moscow, Murodov “liked” videos with calls for the violent overthrow of the government and insulted the head of state in the comments section of his Odnoklasniki page. In a conversation with Radio Ozodi in May, Murodov claimed that Muminobod authorities promised they would not arrest him should he return voluntarily.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats on media outlets. Although some print media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president, or content regarding the banned IRPT.
Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, “Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs,” stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”
The government allowed some international media to operate and permitted rebroadcasts of Russian television and radio programs.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Although the government decriminalized libel in 2012, state officials regularly filed defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing stories critical of the government.
After eight months in detention, the government on August 22 released and reduced the charges against independent journalist Khairullo Mirsaidov. Mirsaidov was sentenced on June 11 to 12 years in a high-security penal colony, after the Khujand city court found him guilty of “embezzlement of public funds,” “forgery of documents,” and “dissemination of false information.” Criminal charges were filed against Mirsaidov in December 2017, soon after he publicly accused government officials from the local Department of Youth and Sports of soliciting a bribe. The original charges included “inciting ethnic and religious hatred,” a charge that was later dropped. The severe nature of the charges and their timing created concern that authorities were punishing Mirsaidov for his whistleblower activities.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.
Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an excessively complex application process. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.
Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail. Nevertheless, libel judgments were common, particularly against newspapers critical of the government.
Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals, and used temporary full blackouts of internet services and messaging to suppress criticism.
According to a World Bank report issued in June 2017, 17 percent of the population used the internet regularly.
There were new and continuing government restrictions on access to internet websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Google services, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, although some of the restrictions were lifted during the year. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside of the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.
In 2017 the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, passed a law giving law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet. According to the new bill, the security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information regarding which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. On June 13, the lower house of the parliament adopted amendments to the Criminal Code, making those who use the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics subject to up to 15 years in jail. Members of Parliament amended article 179 that said, “Public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes and (or) publicly justifying terrorist activities,” adding “via the internet” to the second part of this article.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress, during the academic year.
Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a 1,000 somoni ($115) fine and six months imprisonment. In addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing.
A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons under age 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.
The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.
The Ministry of Education banned students from attending events sponsored by or conducted for foreign organizations during school hours. On February 28, the Ministry of Education reportedly issued a new regulation that requires the ministry’s approval for all students to study abroad and for ministry employees who wish to travel internationally for any educational purpose.
On April 22, the Communications Service, without explanation, reportedly blocked internet access and sealed the office of the Tajik Academic Research and Educational Network Users Association’s, which consists of more than 20 research institutes and more than 30 universities.
There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because to possible government retribution.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities. The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, nonsecular political parties became illegal.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at http://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to Article 14 of the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.
The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.
In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.
Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country without arbitrary restrictions. Authorities reportedly confiscated the passports of Ibrohim Tillozoda, the critically ill four-year-old grandson of exiled IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and his mother, prohibiting Tillozoda, who has life-threatening stage-3 testicular cancer and whose treatment is beyond the scope of local doctors, to seek medical treatment abroad. The deputy head of the border control office in Dushanbe told media on July 26 that there were no restrictions on the family members’ departure and claimed that none of them applied for passports or permission to leave. Following criticism of this statement, Tillozoda received his passport and flew to Turkey August 2. On August 4, Fatima Davlyatova, the 10-year-old daughter of human rights activist Shabnam Khudoydodova, was forced off a flight headed to Europe with her grandmother and uncle, and informed she was banned from travelling abroad. Khudoydodova, a member of the banned human rights organization Group 24, has been in exile since 2015. On August 11, after facing international criticism, the GKNB contacted Davlyatova, her grandmother and her uncle stating there was a misunderstanding with their documents, gave them new flight tickets and allowed to travel to Almaty to reunite with her Khudoydodova.
The government abused international law enforcement mechanisms, such as Interpol Red Notices, in an attempt to locate and repatriate into its prison system local dissidents living abroad. Such dissidents are detained on the basis of politically motivated extremism charges. In June IRPT spokesman Bobojon Qayumzod was reportedly detained by Czech police at the Czech-German border because his name was on a list of persons banned from entering the Czech Republic. Police kept him in custody for a day before releasing him. On August 4, Polish authorities detained IRPT member Mahmadi Teshaev based on an Interpol Red Notice. A Polish court released him on August 10 due to the political background of his case. Media reported that Numonjon Sharipov, a senior IRPT representative, was flown from Istanbul by Tajik diplomatic staff and forcibly handed over to the Tajik government by Turkish authorities. According to the IRPT’s official website, Payom, Sharipov was detained on February 4 by Turkish law enforcement officers on suspicion of violating migration laws. His lawyers said that Turkish migration officials told them on February 16 that their client would be allowed to leave for a third country some days later. On February 19, however, the lawyers were informed that Sharipov had already left the country, with an unnamed witness saying that Sharipov was taken to the airport in a car belonging to the Tajik consulate.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government in some cases forced asylum seekers or refugees to return to countries where they may face persecution or torture. There were 13 refugee families who continued to be at risk of penalty and deportation. The UNHCR office in Dushanbe has not been notified of any new deportation cases since the beginning of the year. The deportees included refugees whose status was revoked based on violation of the law prohibiting such persons from residing in urban areas as well as cumbersome preconditions that preclude a claimant from registering as a refugee. The cases of revoked status were under appeal in court with the support of UNHCR. The deportations took place despite the incomplete appeal processes. In some cases there was risk of refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nevertheless, the process for making asylum status determinations remained uncertain and lacked transparency, and administrative and judicial procedures did not comply with international standards. Although not required by law, government officials required refugees and asylum seekers to obtain a visa and a valid travel document before entering the country. Government officials detained and deported individuals not in possession of a visa without due process.
The government processed asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and granted applicants documents to regularize their stay and prevent deportation. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications. In some instances, when denying claimants refugee status, officials cited, in broad terms, a lack of evidence of persecution in the refugee’s home country or “malpractice” on the part of refugees applying to renew their status, such as violation of the prohibition of living in big cities, including in Dushanbe. Unofficially, some refugees claimed authorities could deny cases if sufficiently high bribes were not paid.
The government continued to place significant restrictions on claimants, and officials continued to enforce a law decreed in 2000 prohibiting asylum seekers and refugees from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Asylum seekers and refugees regularly reported to UNHCR that security officials harassed them, often for allegedly lacking personal identification, and attempted to extort money. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.
During the year increased government scrutiny of persons living in areas annexed to Dushanbe, coupled with the retroactive application of Government Resolution 325, a law that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas including Dushanbe, led to a significant increase in administrative cases brought against refugees.
The law stipulates that refugee status be granted for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must reregister yearly to receive an extension of refugee status. According to government statistics, the country had 2,647 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghan. An additional 167 asylum seekers, mostly Afghan, still have their refugee status determination process pending.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, according to Government Resolution 325, restricting their ability to find work and go to school.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to education and health services alongside local citizens. The Ministry of Education allowed Afghan parents to send their children to local schools without paying fees. UNHCR partners provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to these children. The law provides registered refugees with equal access to law enforcement, health care, and the judicial system, although in practice refugees did not always have equal access. Vulnerable refugee families received assistance with medical expenses. Refugees were subjected to harassment and extortion. In such situations UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.
Durable Solutions: Following the amended Constitutional Law on Nationality adopted in 2015, the government removed provisions for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship.
In April 2017 the government adopted by-laws to the 2015 Constitutional Law on Nationality that provide practical guidance on its implementation. Since the nationality law outlines only a general framework on citizenship issues, there was a need to clarify procedures for applicants and government officials. The by-laws’ implementing regulations set clear guidance on required documents to be submitted, mandate responsibilities for each government agency accepting and processing those documents, create a decision-making mechanism and authority on nationality-related issues, outline responsibilities of government agencies to provide within a specific time frame information on decisions made, and describe the rights of applicants to appeal to courts decisions and actions of government agencies. The adopted by-laws are designed to provide a more transparent and effective process of nationality-related cases as well as an overall greater effectiveness in reduction of statelessness in the country.
The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Soghd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). From the project’s inception in November 2017 until June 30, 31,107 persons falling under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate, including former USSR citizens with undetermined nationality, were registered in the three target regions. Solutions were found for 23,524 persons, both adults and children, who had their nationalities confirmed with local authorities. Some registered individuals, however, struggled to achieve a durable solution because they lived in remote areas and lacked the financial means to pay for transportation and fees associated with confirming their citizenship. As a result, a total of 4,226 individuals residing in remote districts in the three separate pilot areas were assisted in covering their legal fees and the administrative costs associated with nationality confirmation.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech but does not explicitly provide for freedom of the press.
Freedom of Expression: Public criticism of the government was unwelcome and resulted in punitive action in some cases. Authorities used the Cybercrimes Act to bring criminal charges against individuals who criticized the government on a variety of electronic media. In March the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations became law, requiring the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to certify all bloggers and operators of online forums through a licensing process. On May 29, the government won a court case against bloggers and activists who sought to block the enforcement of the new regulations because they require disclosure of information about members, shareholders, and staff. Several bloggers shut down their websites to avoid punishment under the new regulation. Analysts conducting research for a civil society organization (CSO) reported that respondents in Dar es Salaam and Dodoma said they did not feel free to express their political beliefs for fear of being kidnapped or tortured for expressing views at odds with the ruling party’s agenda.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media on the mainland were active and generally expressed varying views, although media outlets often practiced self-censorship to avoid conflict with the government.
Two mainland newspapers (Daily News and Habari Leo) were owned by the government, one (Uhuru) by the ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM), another (Tanzania Daima) by the chair of the CHADEMA opposition party, and another (Mwanahalisi) by a CHADEMA parliamentarian. The remaining newspapers were independent, although close associates of political party members owned some of them. Registering or licensing new media outlets, both print and broadcast, continued to be difficult. Newspaper registration was at the discretion of the registrar of newspapers at the information ministry on both the mainland and Zanzibar. Acquiring a broadcasting license from the TCRA took an estimated six months to one year, and the TCRA restricted the area of broadcast coverage. The TCRA imposes mandatory registration and annual fees for commercial and community radio stations. The fee structure disproportionately disadvantages the existence and creation of small community radio stations.
In June 2017 the TCRA also clarified a requirement that all broadcast stations receive approval from the Tanzania Film Board for locally produced content, including music videos, films, cartoons, and other video content.
The Zanzibari government-owned daily newspaper had an estimated circulation of 25,000. There was one privately owned weekly newspaper with a much smaller circulation. The government of Zanzibar controlled content on the radio and television stations it owned. There were government restrictions on broadcasting in tribal languages; broadcasts in Kiswahili or English were officially preferred. The nine private radio stations on Zanzibar operated independently, often reading the content of national dailies, including articles critical of the Zanzibari government.
The government also threatened to close down TV service providers for failing to comply with free-to-air licensing regulations. In August the TCRA demanded a cessation of broadcasting Free-to-Air (FTA) public channels for close to one month. FTA content included several local news channels.
On the mainland the government generally did not restrict the publication of books. The publication of books on Zanzibar was uncommon.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement authorities attacked, harassed, and intimidated journalists during the year. For example, on August 9, Tanzania Daima journalist Sitta Tuma was arrested and accused of unlawful assembly while covering the opposition by-election campaign in Tarime district in Mara Region.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law authorizes police to raid and seize materials from newspaper offices without a warrant and authorizes the minister of information to “prohibit or otherwise sanction the publication of any content that jeopardizes national security or public safety.”
A permit was required for reporting on police or prison activities, both on the mainland and in Zanzibar, and journalists needed special permission to cover meetings of the Tanzanian National Assembly or attend meetings in the Zanzibar House of Representatives. Anyone publishing information accusing a Zanzibari representative of involvement in illegal activities was liable to a fine of not less than TZS 250,000 ($110), three years’ imprisonment, or both. The government may fine and suspend newspapers without warning.
There were examples of the government repressing information, extending to online newspapers and journals. In November newspapers did not publish an international statement critical of the government for fear of reprisal. In January management of the weekly Swahili newspaper Nipashe voluntarily suspended the Sunday edition of its own newspaper for three months after being chastised by the Ministry of Information for publishing an article critical of the government. In June the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled that the government’s June 2017 ban of weekly tabloid Mawio for two years for publishing an article implicating two former presidents in corruption was illegal; the EACJ ruling had not been implemented. In September parliament passed amendments to the 2015 Statistics Act that require individuals and organizations to obtain permission from the National Bureau of Statistics before conducting surveys, collecting research data, or publicizing results.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides for arrest, prosecution, and punishment for the use of seditious, abusive, or derogatory language to describe the country’s leadership. The Media Services Act of 2016 makes defamation a criminal act. Defamation is defined as any matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.
In July CHADEMA MP Halima Mdee was arrested and accused of insulting the president during a press conference after she criticized him for barring teenage mothers from school. In February a court in the southern highlands sentenced CHADEMA MP Joseph Mbilinyi and local CHADEMA leader Emmanuel Masonga to two months in prison for insulting the president at a public rally held in December 2017.
In November 2017 the government ordered Channel Ten to apologize publicly for broadcasting the name and residence of a student allegedly sodomized by a motorcycle driver.
National Security: In March the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations were passed, requiring online content providers to monitor and filter content that threatens national security or public health and safety.
The government restricted access to the internet and monitored websites and internet traffic. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations tighten control of internet content through registration requirements and licensing fees. Bloggers and persons operating online forums, including online television and radio streaming services, must obtain certification from the TCRA by submitting a license application requiring information such as the nature of services offered, estimated cost of investment, staff qualifications, and future plans. In addition, all online content providers must pay application and licensing fees totaling more than two million TZS ($924) in initial costs. Licenses are valid for three years and must be renewed annually for one million TZS ($440). Prohibitive costs led some citizens to stop blogging or posting content on online forums, including international social media platforms.
Under the regulations internet cafes must install surveillance cameras to monitor persons online; online material deemed “offensive, morally improper” or that “causes annoyance,” is prohibited; and those charged with violating the regulations face a minimum fine of TZS five million ($2,200) or a minimum sentence of 12 months in prison. According to the TCRA’s Telecommunication Statistics, in June 22.9 million persons (45 percent of the population) used the internet in 2017. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 16 percent of the population used the internet that year.
The Cybercrimes Act of 2015 criminalizes the publication of false information, defined as “information, data or facts presented in a picture, texts, symbol, or any other form in a computer system where such information, data, or fact is false, deceptive, misleading, or inaccurate.” Individuals who made critical comments about the government on electronic media were charged under the act, even when remarks reflected opinions or were factually true. University of Dar es Salaam student and human rights activist Abdul Nondo was charged with publishing false information and providing false information to police in March after he sent a private WhatsApp message to friends saying he had been abducted by unknown assailants.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
In September parliament passed amendments to the 2015 Statistics Act that require individuals and organizations to obtain permission from the National Bureau of Statistics before conducting surveys or collecting research data, and before publicizing results. Academics were concerned that the new amendments would stifle independent research in universities.
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including through bans decreed by authorities but not supported by law. The government requires organizers of rallies to obtain police permission. Police may deny permission on public safety or security grounds or if the permit seeker belongs to an unregistered organization or political party. The government and police continued to limit the issuance of permits for public demonstrations and assemblies to political parties, NGOs, and religious organizations. The only political meetings allowed in principle are by MPs in their constituencies; outside participants, including party leaders, are not permitted to participate. Restrictions are also applied to nonpolitical gatherings deemed critical of the government.
In August police arrested members of an opposition coalition for holding a public rally in Turwa Buyungi ward in advance of by-elections. During a June speech at the State House, the president declared the opposition should confine its political opinions to appropriate platforms, such as parliament, until the next elections in 2020.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Thousands of NGOs and societies operated in the country. Political parties were required to register and meet membership and other requirements. Freedom of association for workers was limited (see section 7.a.).
The registration process for associations outside Zanzibar was slow. The law makes a distinction between NGOs and societies and applies different registration procedures to the two. It defines a society as any club, company, partnership, or association of 10 or more persons, regardless of its purpose, and notes specific categories of organizations not considered societies, such as political parties. The law defines NGOs to include organizations whose purpose is to promote economic, environmental, social, or cultural development; protect the environment; or lobby or advocate on issues of public interest. Societies and organizations may not operate until authorities approve their applications. In August the government began a verification exercise that required all NGOs to reregister. Registration of new NGOs was suspended until December 1.
Religious organizations are registered as societies and wait the longest–an average of four years–for registration. From July 2017 to March, the Registrar of Societies received 252 registration applications, 74 of which came from religious institutions. The registrar registered 136 organizations and rejected five applications; 111 applications remained unprocessed. The government rarely registered societies within the legally required 14-day period.
NGOs in Zanzibar apply for registration with the Zanzibar Business and Property Registration Agency. While registration generally took several weeks, some NGOs waited months if the registrar determined additional research was needed.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights; however, there were cases of political opposition leaders being barred from leaving the country. For example, in September a member of an opposition political party was prevented from boarding a plane while attempting to travel to an international conference on political party development. After the July release of survey results by independent East African NGO Twaweza showing that the president’s approval rating had dropped 41 percent over the past two years, immigration officials confiscated the passport of Twaweza’s executive director.
In February the travel of migrant workers overseas for employment was temporarily suspended to allow time for the government to strengthen migrant worker protection mechanisms.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In January the government withdrew from the UN’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, announced that it would no longer provide citizenship to Burundian refugees, and would encourage refugees to return home. The government assured the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that it would respect the choice of refugees on whether or not to return to their country of origin. While many Burundian refugees had been successfully repatriated, there were several accounts of refugees facing intimidation or pressure to return home by Tanzanian authorities. Some refugees who were pressured into returning to Burundi became refugees in other countries or returned to Tanzania.
Refugees apprehended more than 2.5 miles outside their camps without permits are subject by law to sentences ranging from a fine up to a three-year prison sentence. In July immigration officials reported that 1,470 undocumented immigrants employed as agricultural laborers were arrested in Kagera Region, including 994 Burundian, 223 Ugandans, 193 Rwandans, 19 Ethiopians, 39 Congolese, and two Kenyans. Immigration also reported the arrest of 156 Burundians in Kasulu Kigoma. UNHCR reported that when police apprehended refugees outside the camp without permits, they were normally held in the prison nearest to where they were arrested. Usually these persons were prosecuted and sentenced in local courts. Some were only given warnings and advised to return to the camp. UNHCR advocated for the return of refugees to the camp, but the response was dependent on the officer handling the case.
Sexual- and gender-based violence against refugees continued, including allegations against officials who worked in or around refugee camps. UNHCR worked with local authorities and residents in the three refugee camps to strengthen coordination and address violence, including sexual violence, against vulnerable persons. UNHCR reported the most frequent gender-based violence crimes were rape and physical assault, followed by psychological and emotional abuse. The public prosecutor investigated, prosecuted, and punished perpetrators of abuses in the camp, although international NGOs provided assistance to the legal team when requested by a survivor. Local authorities and the public prosecutor handled most cases of refugee victims of crime and abuse outside the camp. Residents of the refugee camps suffered delays and limited access to courts, common problems also faced by citizens.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The National Eligibility Committee is mandated to meet regularly and make determinations on asylum applications.
The international NGO Asylum Access reported many persons with refugee claims were living in Dar es Salaam. The government often treated these individuals as undocumented immigrants, deporting or imprisoning them if they faced criminal charges. Arrest was often the only situation in which urban asylum seekers were exposed to the government. Observers believed many urban asylum seekers, if given the opportunity, would be able to demonstrate a need for international protection that would qualify them for refugee status. Since urban asylum seekers were not formally registered with UNHCR and the government, however, they had very little access to health care and education, and employment opportunities were limited to the informal sector. There was no policy or infrastructure to serve this group.
UNHCR processed irregular migrants arrested by authorities when the persons in custody were asylum seekers or were in the process of accessing the asylum process at the time they were apprehended.
During the year the government and the International Organization for Migration continued to support training for law enforcement officers on the use of biometric registration equipment intended to provide irregular migrants a basis for either regularizing their status or voluntary return to their places of origin.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: No policy for blanket or presumptive denials of asylum exists for applicants arriving from “safe country of origin” or through a “safe country of transit.” All asylum applications are evaluated individually. The law provides that, unless the transit country is experiencing a serious breach of peace, an asylum claim can be refused upon failure to show reasonable cause as to why asylum was not claimed in the transit country prior to entry into the country.
Freedom of Movement: Encampment policy does not allow refugees to travel more than 2.5 miles outside the boundaries of official refugee camps without permission of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The ministry generally granted permission for purposes such as medical referrals and court appearances.
Authorities sometimes imprisoned irregular migrants before releasing them to UNHCR if there was a pending asylum claim. Other irregular migrants were occasionally arrested if they bypassed refugee transit sites and attempted to work in border towns without permission.
Employment: The government generally did not permit refugees to pursue employment and restricted refugees’ attempts to farm land within the camps.
Durable Solutions: In 2017 the Ministry of Home Affairs granted citizenship to 135 persons, an increase of 10 percent from 2016 to 2017. More than 48,000 returns were facilitated under a tripartite agreement between Tanzania, Burundi, and UNHCR. The government, however, increased pressure on Burundians to sign up for returns, often under duress, thus bringing into question the claimed voluntary nature of the returns. There were reports of the government closing markets used jointly by camp and host communities; a reduction in camp exit permits; reduced health and education benefits; and forcible loading of persons into return convoys without proper safeguards.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Broad NCPO orders restricting freedom of expression, including for the press, issued following the 2014 coup, remained in effect at year’s end. Invoking these orders, officials suspended media outlets, blocked access to internet sites, and arrested individuals engaging in political speech. In addition to official restrictions on speech and censorship, NCPO actions resulted in significant self-censorship by the public and media. The NCPO routinely banned dissemination of information that the NCPO asserted could threaten the NCPO or “create conflict” within the country.
Freedom of Expression: The NCPO enforced limits on free speech and expression using a variety of regulations and criminal provisions, including intimidation of speakers, monitoring meetings, and threats of prosecution or arrest.
Article 112 of the criminal code, the so-called lese majeste (“royal insult”) law, makes it a crime–punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense–to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The government continued to use this law to prosecute anyone who was in any way critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against each other. The Attorney General’s Office issued a directive on February 21 announcing that the decision to indict lese majeste suspects lies solely with the attorney general. Previously public prosecutors could also decide whether to indict lese majeste cases.
No new lese majeste prosecutions had begun this year as of September, but in January the government issued at least one summons under Article 112 to prodemocracy student activist Chanoknan Ruamsap, accusing her of sharing on her Facebook page a BBC profile of the king. No charges have been filed as the activist reportedly departed the country prior to being arrested and has not returned.
The government continued regularly to conduct lese majeste trials in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the content of the alleged offenses. The government also frequently tried lese majeste cases in military courts that provided fewer rights and protections for civilian defendants, notwithstanding a September 2016 order that ended the practice of trying violations of Article 112 in military courts for offenses committed after that date (see section 1.e.). International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste law’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
Official statistics varied by agency, but new lese majeste cases increased dramatically following the 2014 coup. According to local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, as of September 94 new lese majeste cases had been filed since the 2014 coup with 43 convictions. In some of these cases, the accused committed the alleged offense prior to the 2014 coup, but authorities only filed charges afterwards. According to the Department of Corrections, 128 persons were imprisoned on lese majeste charges as of August (including a number of persons convicted for corruption-related offenses under Article 112 for misuse of royal title to further business interests).
In January the Yala Provincial Court sentenced 23-year-old Nurhayati Masoh, a visually impaired woman, to three years in prison, reduced to one and one-half years after she pled guilty to sharing an article deemed defamatory to the monarchy on her Facebook page. She appealed the conviction and was acquitted in February. She was rearrested in March and the Bangkok Criminal Court, after a one-day trial, sentenced her to two years in prison under the Computer Crimes Act, rather than lese majeste, for sharing audio clips deemed defamatory to the monarchy on her Facebook page.
Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that Nathee Suwajjananon was arrested this year and brought before the military court for pretrial detention for allegedly posting online comments related to the late king in 2016. On November 13, the military prosecutor issued a nonprosecution order on lese majeste charges and returned the case file to police. Police officials then submitted a request for Suwajjananon’s pretrial detention to a civilian court, resulting in the public prosecutor indicting him on sedition charges under Article 116 rather than lese majeste charges under Article 112, an increasingly common prosecutorial tactic.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active but faced impediments to operating freely. Many media contacts reported concerns about NCPO orders authorizing government officials to limit press freedom and suspend press operations without a court order.
The 2017 constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media to be citizens. Government entities owned and controlled most radio and broadcast television stations.
The Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association (TBJA), and the Online News Providers Association called on the NCPO to refrain from passing laws that could affect freedom of the press. Their joint statement also called on the NCPO to revoke its announcements and orders that restrict freedom of the press. The statement also called on the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to advocate for broadcast media reform without government interference.
In September police shut down a forum organized by foreign journalists to discuss whether senior military officers in Burma should face justice for alleged human rights abuses committed by their forces against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities. According to press reports, approximately one dozen police arrived ahead of the scheduled panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and ordered the panelists not to speak.
Violence and Harassment: Senior government officials routinely made statements critical of media. There were numerous reports of security forces harassing citizens who publicly criticized the military government, including by visiting or surveilling their residences or places of employment. Media operators also complained of harassment and monitoring.
In April there were reports that the management of television station PPTV pressured the station’s news director to resign after military officials repeatedly visited the station related to the journalist’s coverage of alleged corruption involving the defense minister.
On May 21, the government warned journalists they would arrest them if they did not wear government-issued armbands while covering prodemocracy demonstrations. The TJA released a statement saying it was not aware of the new protocol and advised members of the press to abide by their regular procedures and display official badges.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The NCPO restricted content deemed critical of or threatening to the military government, and media widely practiced self-censorship. NCPO Order No. 41/2016 empowers the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the military government. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press.
In September police arrested three women for possessing with intent to sell T-shirts with a small symbol deemed to be a logo for an antimonarchy, anti-NCPO movement advocating for removal of the color blue, the color representing the monarchy, from the Thai flag.
The emergency decree, which remained in effect in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces, empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news considered a threat to national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of 200,000 baht ($6,015) and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, journalists, and politicians.
There were several high-profile cases of criminal defamation filed against human rights defenders and government critics. In February the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) filed a complaint against Ismael Tae, founder of the Pattani Human Rights Organization, accusing him of defamation related to his appearance on a television show to discuss the torture he endured in military detention in 2008.
National Security: Various NCPO orders issued under Section 44 of the interim constitution, later extended by the 2017 constitution, provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security. Media associations expressed alarm regarding the sweeping powers they complained lacked clear criteria for determining what constitutes a threat to national security.
On May 9, the NBTC suspended for 30 days the broadcast license of Peace TV, a television channel operated by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, on allegations the channel’s content threatened national security and the morality of the country. The TJA and TBJA issued a joint statement calling on the NBTC to review its decision to suspend Peace TV.
The government continued to restrict or disrupt access to the internet and routinely censored online content. There were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), the government may impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a 100,000 baht ($3,000) fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and some penalties were too harsh.
Individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, although there were numerous restrictions on content, including proscribing lese majeste, pornography, gambling, and criticism of the NCPO.
Civil society reported the government used prosecution, or threat of prosecution, under the Computer Crimes Act as a tool to suppress speech online. From January to June, 57 persons were charged or prosecuted under sedition and the Computer Crimes Act. On August 24, the Technology Crime Suppression Division charged three members of a political party with violating the Act. The charges stemmed from a Facebook Live video in which one of the party leaders criticized politicians who switched parties as supporters of the NCPO. If convicted, they could face a five-year prison term.
The government closely monitored and blocked thousands of websites critical of the monarchy. The prosecution of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The NBTC also lobbied foreign internet content and service providers to remove or locally censor lese majeste content. Human rights contacts reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.
Former Chiang Mai governor Pawin Chamniprasart filed a complaint alleging violations of the Computer Crimes Act in March against a local magazine for posting images of a student artist’s drawing of three ancient Thai kings wearing pollution masks to call attention to seasonal air pollution. The complaint alleged the drawings negatively affected the image of Thailand’s ancient kings. Chiang Mai authorities withdrew the complaint in September.
Internet access was widely available in urban areas and used by citizens, including through a government program to provide limited free Wi-Fi access at 300,000 hotspots in cities and schools. The government also undertook an initiative to expand internet access to rural areas throughout the country. International monitoring groups estimated 46 million citizens (67 percent of the population) had access to the internet during the year.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The NCPO intervened to disrupt academic discussions on college campuses, intimidated scholars, and arrested student leaders critical of the coup. Universities also practiced self-censorship.
University authorities reported the regular presence of military personnel on campus, monitoring lectures and attending student events. There were numerous accounts of authorities arresting students for exercising freedom of speech and expression.
In February, six students and activists in Chiang Mai were charged with violating NCPO Order 3/2015 banning political gatherings of five or more people for their role in a February 14 prodemocracy rally at Chiang Mai University demanding elections in 2018. As of September the case was pending at the Office of the Prosecutor in Chiang Mai.
In August a group of university students filed a petition to the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Ministry of Education, objecting to the amendment of the Education Ministerial Regulations on Student Behavior. The proposed amendments expand the prohibition on gatherings from those that cause public disorder to include also gatherings that violate public morality.
The Polling Director of the National Institute for Development Administration resigned in January in protest, alleging the Institute had prohibited the release of poll results related to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s wristwatch scandal (see section 4).
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The 2017 constitution grants the freedom to assemble peacefully, subject to restrictions enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals, or to protect the rights and liberties of others.” Nonetheless, NCPO orders, invoked under authority of Article 44 of the interim constitution and extended under the constitution, continued to prohibit political gatherings of five or more persons and penalize persons supporting any political gatherings.
According to a human rights advocacy group, the NCPO has moved away from disrupting public events, opting instead to charge event leaders and participants for violating NCPO orders and laws prohibiting gatherings and political activities. In September, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand announced police had ordered the club to cancel a scheduled panel discussion entitled “Will Myanmar’s Generals Ever Face Justice for International Crimes.” The club issued a statement noting this was the sixth event canceled by police order at the club since the 2014 coup.
In May police arrested 15 leaders and activists from the “We Want Elections” group for organizing a demonstration to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the 2014 coup. The group members were charged with sedition and violating the NCPO’s ban on political gatherings of five or more persons.
Surat Thani, Phuket, and Phang Nga Provinces have regulations that prohibit migrant workers–specifically persons from Cambodia, Burma, and Laos–from gathering in groups, while Samut Sakhon Province prohibits migrant gatherings of more than five persons. Authorities did not enforce these provisions strictly, particularly for gatherings on private property. Employers and NGOs may request permission from authorities for migrant workers to hold cultural gatherings.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The 2017 constitution grants individuals the right to free association subject to restrictions by law enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals.”
The law prohibits the registration of a political party with the same name or logo as a legally dissolved party.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions for “maintaining the security of the state, public peace and order or public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
Following the 2014 coup, the NCPO issued orders prohibiting travel outside the country for approximately 155 persons, the majority of which it lifted in 2016. Nevertheless, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Center (TLHR) estimated there were an additional 300 persons who, when summoned to appear before the NCPO following the 2014 coup, signed agreements as a condition of their release consenting not to travel abroad without NCPO approval. According to the TLHR, the NCPO had not revoked the restrictions contained in these agreements. The NCPO asserted the travel ban is the result of continuing litigation and not an NCPO initiated ban.
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In 2015 authorities confined in IDCs and shelters approximately 870 Rohingya and Bangladeshi persons who arrived in the country irregularly by boat during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in May 2015. As of September approximately 100 persons (mostly Rohingya) remained in detention.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived outside of designated border camps as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Although reinstated in 2013, authorities have not universally permitted bail for detained refugees and asylum seekers since 2016.
International humanitarian organizations noted concerns about congested conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, and limited freedom of movement in the IDCs.
In-country Movement: The government restricted the free internal movement of members of hill tribes and other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home districts without prior permission from the district office or outside their home provinces without permission from the provincial governor. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one district to another.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minorities, to seek permission for foreign travel. A small number of nonregistered Burmese refugees, who were approved for third-country resettlement but not recognized as refugees by the government, waited for years for exit permits.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where they would face threats to their lives or freedom because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Outside the camps, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. However, if caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp. Other Burmese, if arrested in Thailand without refugee status or legal permission to be in Thailand, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status; however, one Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern was returned in February, and others with protection concerns were forcibly returned to their home countries.
As part of an overall operation to reduce illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. The government, however, has not deported any UNHCR-registered persons of concern from these groups. There were approximately 412 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs as of December 10, and approximately 50 Uighurs have been detained in Thailand since 2015.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Burmese asylum seekers and refugees who reside outside official refugee camps are by law considered illegal migrants, as are all non-Burmese asylum seekers and refugees in the country if they do not hold a valid passport and visa. If arrested they are subject to indefinite detention at IDCs in Bangkok and other provinces.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the main IDC in Bangkok and at Suvarnabhumi International Airport to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. UNHCR had access to provincial IDCs where authorities detained ethnic Rohingya to conduct refugee status determinations. Authorities allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of approximately 100,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement for approximately 1,400 Burmese refugees from camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement, and authorities have confined them to the camps since the camps were established. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during and up to two years after the end of their trial involvement.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban refugee and asylum seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Since 2014 two NGOs provided primary and mental health-care services. UNHCR coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: The government continued to extend temporary protection status to the migrants of Rohingya and Bangladeshi origin who arrived during the 2015 maritime migration crisis in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
The government continued to identify stateless persons, provide documentation to preclude statelessness, and open paths to citizenship for long-time residents. An estimated 470,000 persons, mainly residing in the northern region, were likely stateless or at risk of statelessness, including persons from Burma who did not have evidence of Burmese citizenship, ethnic minorities registered with civil authorities, and previously undocumented minorities.
The government pledged to attain zero statelessness by 2024 and in 2016 approved a Cabinet resolution that provides a pathway to Thai nationality for approximately 80,000 stateless children and young adults. The resolution covers persons born in the country, whose parents are ethnic minorities, who are registered with the government, and who have resided in the country for a minimum of 15 years. The new resolution also applies to stateless youths certified by a state agency to have lived in the country for 10 years whose parentage is unknown.
Birth within the country does not automatically confer citizenship. The law bases citizenship on birth to at least one citizen parent, marriage to a male citizen, or naturalization. Individuals may also acquire citizenship by means of special government-designated criteria implemented by the Ministry of Interior with approval from the cabinet or in accordance with nationality law (see section 6, Children). Recent amendments to the law allow ethnic Thai stateless persons and their children, who meet the added definition of “displaced Thai,” to apply for the status of “Thai nationality by birth.”
The law stipulates every child born in the country receive an official birth certificate regardless of the parents’ legal status. Many parents did not obtain birth certificates for their children due to the complexity of the process, the need to travel from remote areas to district offices, and a lack of recognition of the importance of the document.
By law stateless members of hill tribes may not vote or own land, and their travel is restricted. Stateless persons also may not participate in certain occupations reserved for citizens, including farming, although authorities permitted noncitizen members of hill tribes to undertake subsistence agriculture. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing credit and government services, such as health care. Although education was technically accessible for all undocumented and stateless children, it was usually of poor quality. School administrators placed the term “non-Thai citizen” on these students’ high school certificates, which severely limited their economic opportunities. Some public universities charged stateless and undocumented students higher tuition rates than citizens.
Without legal status, stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse (see section 6, Children and Indigenous People).