Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press if such does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision, media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, militias, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.
Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service.
Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political figures and parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, government officials, and private individuals. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.
The KRG’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaymaniya Province, Kurdsat News, and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.
The IKR press law does not give the KRG the authority to close media outlets, but in August the KRG closed the Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices in Erbil and Duhok over the television station’s coverage of protests. On September 9, KRG coordinator for international advocacy Dindar Zebari defended the move stating that NRT violated Article 2 of Law 12 of 2010, which bars encouraging a public disturbance or harming social harmony in accordance with IKR law.
Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.
Violence and Harassment: Several journalists were killed throughout the year during the course of their work, some reportedly by militia or security forces. On February 11, unknown gunmen assassinated journalist and general supervisor of al-Rasheed Satellite TV, Nizar Thanoun, while he was traveling in his car in the al-Jama neighborhood of western Baghdad.
In addition to those killed, others in media reported threats, intimidation, and attacks. Istiaq Adel, a reporter for al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported she survived an attack on January 30 after receiving several threatening text messages.
HRW released a report in June that cited numerous violations of press freedom and freedom of expression amid widespread protests and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Media workers reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.
Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.
Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular journalists working for NRT were frequently arrested. On August 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city and seized their equipment. Rebwar Kakay, head of NRT’s office in Erbil, told the CPJ that authorities held the journalists without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, and that the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones were seized.
Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Press Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. KRG officials increased their use of lawsuits against journalists critical of the KRG, including applying laws such as the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices instead of the IKR press law. In the first nine months of the year, KRG officials from various government offices filed eight independent lawsuits against freelance journalist Hemn Mamand after he posted content on Facebook critical of the KRG’s COVID-19 response. Mamand was arrested twice, in March and again in April, and spent 34 days in detention on charges levied under the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices.
Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.
The Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) released a report in July that detailed restrictions imposed by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC) on media outlets over the past 10 years, which included 128 closures of media outlets, suspension of operating licenses, fines, and forced job termination of selected employees. Since October 2019 the CMC ordered the closure of 19 local and Arab media outlets, most of which participated in the coverage of the October 2019 demonstrations.
HRW reported in April that the CMC suspended Reuters’ license for three months and fined it for an article it published on April 2 alleging that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was much higher than the official statistics. Authorities lifted the suspension on April 19 amid international pressure.
Libel/Slander Laws: Militias and government officials used arrest warrants in defamation cases to intimidate, silence, and in some instances apparently “flush out” activists and journalists from hiding. An Iranian-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, targeted Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salihi with a defamation complaint over her reporting on their activities, which resulted in Baghdad’s Karrada Investigative Court issuing an arrest warrant against her on October 22. On November 5, the Ninewa Federal Court of Appeals issued arrest warrants against four media bloggers over their critical reporting on the province’s COVID-19 response. One blogger claimed to have been directly threatened by Ninewa’s provincial health services director. In similar developments in the IKR, on September 22, police detained journalist Bahroz Jaafar in Sulaymaniya following a lawsuit filed by President Barham Salih over defamation charges.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. On July 17, dozens of journalists expressed concerns regarding a potential escalation of violence against them by outlaw militias, particularly in the wake of the Hisham al-Hashemi killing. The PFAA reported in July it had documented specific threats by unknown militias against at least 30 journalists during the year. The PFAA also said that it had become common practice to accuse journalists responsible for antimilitia reporting of being agents of foreign governments and encourage violence against them.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, organize demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.
The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. While Wi-Fi and 3G access was largely restored, connectivity remained weak, making social media and streaming difficult. Slow speeds, or the “throttling back” of internet access, greatly limited the ability of users to upload video and photographic content.
There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Social, religious, and political pressures significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions, various groups sought to control the pursuit of formal education and the granting of academic positions. Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.
NGOs in the IKR reported that university president, dean, and senior professorship positions were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties. Privilege was also given to those affiliated with political parties in the pursuit of higher degrees.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” The government sometimes limited freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations. As demonstrations escalated starting in October 2019, authorities consistently failed to protect demonstrators from violence (see section 1.e.).
In February armed militias attacked protest squares in Najaf and Karbala using live bullets, batons, and knives against peaceful protesters and also burned their tents. The security forces watched the attacks unfold without intervening to protect the demonstrators or stopping the militants. In May security forces in Diwaniyah Province opened fire on protesters who had gathered to demand the release of four activists arrested earlier that day.
From October 2019 to August, the al-Nama Center for Human Rights documented 39 killings targeting protesters, 31 attempted killings, 20 cases of harassment and intimidation, seven enforced disappearances, 36 kidnappings, and 35 arbitrary detentions throughout the country. Most of these attacks were carried out by unknown gunmen who observers believed were likely linked to Iranian- or Sadrist-backed militias.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or “Zionist principles.”
The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. According to the NGO Directorate at the Council of Ministers Secretariat, there were 4,600 registered NGOs as of September, including 168 branches of foreign organizations. There were also 900 women-focused or -chaired NGOs registered as of September. The directorate also sanctioned 700 NGOs for committing violations, such as providing cover for political parties or suspicious operations against the NGO code.
NGOs registered in Baghdad could operate in the IKR; however, NGOs registered solely in the IKR could not operate in the rest of the country. As a result some NGOs registered only in the IKR could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
In some instances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other instances local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees or comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.
Despite improving security conditions in some areas, many returnees grappled with the destruction of homes, lack of services and livelihoods, and continued concerns for security due to the prevalence of PMF groups and, in Sinjar, militias aligned with the PKK. In some cases this led to secondary displacement or a return to IDP camps.
Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19 curfews, and travel restrictions, as well as official and unofficial access restrictions, limited humanitarian access to IDP communities. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS, the PKK, and PMF groups hindered the movement of local and international staff of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor and implement some programs for a portion of the year.
UNAMI also reported that more than 2,460 humanitarian missions had been canceled or prevented from reaching their destinations since the beginning of December 2019. An estimated 2.4 million persons in need were affected by the restrictions imposed on humanitarian movements. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in September alone more than 287,700 individuals in need were affected by these restrictions.
Humanitarian and other organizations reported improved field access beginning in September following action by the NGO Directorate to begin processing access letter requests. According to OCHA, in October the number of individuals affected by access related restrictions fell to 37,000. Humanitarian organizations reported smoother movement in the central provinces of Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala. Access challenges continued, however, in some areas in western Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces.
In July humanitarian partners reported 77 restrictions of access incidents across 22 districts, with Ninewa Province reporting the highest number. Across all provinces, approximately 95 percent of the incidents reported constituted administrative restrictions on humanitarian activities and movements. It was estimated that more than 231,000 persons in need were affected by access-related incidents that took place in Ninewa (71 percent), Kirkuk (27 percent), Anbar (1 percent), and Baghdad (1 percent). Most incidents reported by humanitarian organizations indicated difficulties related to lack of national-level access letter authorizations.
In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethnosectarian reasons, as well as criminal extortion, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.
Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and the Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Province. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th and 50th PMF Brigades, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade also refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints, and their continued obstruction led to forced demographic change in traditionally Christian areas of the Ninewa Plain.
The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered for nonresidents. Authorities required nonresidents to register with the local Asayish office to obtain a residence permit. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Province and the disputed territories.
KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that entry limitations for IDPs and refugees seeking to return to their areas of origin depended upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, leaving some returnees separated from their families and agricultural land on the other side of the line of control. Closed checkpoints forced many IDPs to wait, often resulting in secondary displacement. In other instances the closure of checkpoints forced returnees to take circuitous and dangerous routes to reach their areas of origin. KRG officials also prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks reportedly were lengthy on occasion. Entry was often more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, an estimated 1.3 million persons remained internally displaced, with more than 250,000 residing in camps and an additional 44,000 in informal settlements, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa provinces. According to IOM, more than 100,000 IDPs lived in critical shelters, including unsafe and abandoned buildings, religious buildings, and schools. Nearly five million persons returned to areas of origin across the country since liberation from ISIS.
The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors continued to provide support for formal IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.
In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal, and ethnosectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements strained the capacity of local authorities in areas with higher concentrations of IDPs. Families returning to their place of origin faced a lack of shelter, access to services, and livelihood opportunities. Displaced families, especially those with perceived ties to ISIS, were often unable to obtain or replace vital civil status documents, without which they were not able to work, go to school, or move about freely.
Government assistance focused on financial grants to returnees, but payments were sporadic and there was a large backlog in responding to applications. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.
All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in areas that were among the last to be liberated. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each province. Low oil prices reduced government revenues and further limited funds available for the PDS. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.
Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. KRG officials asserted that all IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan Region benefited from access to public services and infrastructure (such as drinking water, electricity, education, health care, roads, and irrigation system) on an equal basis with the local population, which they stated was a reflection of the KRG’s commitment to safeguard fundamental human rights and human dignity under pressing circumstances.
To support humanitarian standards and serve displaced populations, KRG officials reported they had allocated land for construction of camps; contributed to the construction of camps and connecting camps to power grids and local infrastructure; introduced civil administration in the camps and provided security services; reinforced technical and legal services to combat sexual and gender-based violence in and outside the camps; opened additional shifts at local schools to make schooling in Arabic available to displaced children (58 percent of refugees’ children and 91 percent of IDPs children were enrolled in formal and informal education); facilitated reunification of children with their families; granted access for all IDPs and refugees to public health services, including mobilizing emergency mobile clinics and medical teams; introduced simplified procedures for free movement of humanitarian personnel; introduced exemption from customs duty and mechanisms to fast-track customs clearance for humanitarian supplies; and publicly called on local communities and all sections of society to welcome and assist IDPs as their guests.
The KRG was host to almost two million IDPs, including a large percentage of Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kaka’i, and other ethnic and religious groups from the Ninewa Plain. Despite the dire economic situation and security difficulties that occurred in the region, KRG officials reported they focused on preserving the rights of these minorities as a top priority.
Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Government officials frequently denied security clearances for displaced households with perceived ISIS affiliation to return to areas of origin. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camps where they resided. Humanitarian organizations reported that women heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.
IKR-based NGOs documented numerous cases of women, who, forced to marry ISIS fighters, subsequently became widows with children but lacked marriage and birth certificates required to obtain legal documentation for these children. These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters. NGO partners reported that some Yezidi community representatives pressured women to abandon their children or place them in orphanages as a condition for being accepted back into the Yezidi community.
In October the minister of displacement and migration announced a new three-phase plan to close all of the country’s IDP camps and immediately launched a series of sudden camp closures in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Ninewa provinces, affecting more than a thousand families. By late November the ministry had closed 11 displacement sites–eight formal IDP camps and three informal sites–across federal Iraq, affecting more than 25,000 IDPs. These closures were not coordinated with relevant local authorities or with humanitarian actors, not all IDPs were able or willing to return to their place of origin, and there were reports that up to 50 percent of IDPs could end up in secondary displacement as a consequence. IDP camp managers and NGOs reported government officials did not always give IDPs at closed camps the choice of where to proceed, resulting in involuntary, unsafe, and undignified returns and movements.
There were numerous reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion when they attempted to return to areas of origin. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to the stigmatization of IDPs, particularly those living in camps, who were being isolated and whose movements in and out of camps were increasingly restricted. Following IDP camp closures starting in October, many IDPs with perceived ISIS affiliation reported being rejected by local communities in areas of return, forcing them either to return to their former camps or to proceed elsewhere. Tribal pacts called for punishing false accusations of ISIS affiliation, but they also prohibited legal defense for those affiliated with ISIS. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than affiliation with ISIS.
Many Christian IDPs refused to return to the town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Brigade that occupied it and the presence of the Tesferat detention center and court, which the International Committee of the Red Cross reported could hold women and minors suspected of being ISIS family members. Prior to 2002, there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the region, but that figure had reportedly fallen to below 150,000. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plans or public services, as well as insecurity, had discouraged them from returning home. In June, however, Yezidis began returning to the Sinjar district in Ninewa Province for a variety of reasons, including fear of COVID-19 in camp settings, and as of late October more than 30,000 had returned.
In October the Iraqi government and the KRG signed a comprehensive agreement that called for a new mayor and administrative committees to oversee Sinjar district, a local security force consisting of Yezidis, removal of PKK and PMF militias, and expanded reconstruction efforts to support voluntary returns of Yezidis still displaced in the IKR and abroad.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls and lack of capacity.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse of residents, further exacerbated by COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported cases in which camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.
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. Syrians made up the vast majority of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR. The KRG generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.
According to the KRG Ministry of Interior, 259,496 refugees resided in the IKR as of September. More than one-half of these refugees lived outside of camps. The KRG cooperated with UNHCR in allowing these individuals to seek refuge in camps and receive basic assistance. The KRG allowed Syrian refugees with family in the IKR to live outside of camps.
Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR. KRG authorities noted IDPs and refugees had freedom of movement within the IKR. There are provisions to allow family visits to Syria. The KHRW confirmed the restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians. In the KRG Palestinians are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their refugee status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Central government authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed in some form of livelihood activity.
UNHCR estimated there were more than 47,000 stateless individuals in the country as of August. An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps were missing civil documentation and faced exclusion from local society, including being barred from attending school, lacking access to health care, and being deprived of basic rights. Many of these children, born under ISIS rule, were issued birth certificates that were considered invalid by the Iraqi government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation.
Absent a countrywide, consistent plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness. The Yezidi community more willingly welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered through rape by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community.
International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that did not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality.
As of 2006, the latest year for which data was available, an estimated 54,500 Bidoon (stateless) individuals, living as nomads in the desert in or near the southern provinces of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding. Prolonged drought in the south of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani (Dom) population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Baha’i religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.
A UNHCR-funded legal initiative secured nationality for hundreds of formerly stateless families, giving them access to basic rights and services. Since 2017 lawyers worked to help Bidoons and other stateless persons acquire nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration provides for freedom of opinion, expression, and press, but various armed groups, including those aligned with the GNA, exerted significant control over media content, and censorship was pervasive. Unidentified assailants targeted journalists and reporters for political views.
Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech was limited in law and practice. The law criminalizes acts that “harm the February 17 revolution of 2011.” The House of Representatives, since its election in 2014, and the GNA, since taking its seat in Tripoli in 2016, have done little to reduce restrictions on freedom of speech. Civil society organizations practiced self-censorship because they believed armed groups would threaten or kill activists. Widespread conflict in major urban areas deepened the climate of fear and provided cover for armed groups to target vocal opponents with impunity.
International and local human rights organizations claimed that human rights defenders and activists faced continuing threats–including physical attacks, detention, threats, harassment, and disappearances–by armed groups, both those aligned with and those opposed to the GNA. Many armed groups aligned with the GNA or LNA maintained databases of persons being sought for their alleged opposition activities or due to their identity. Some journalists and human rights activists chose to depart the country during the year rather than remain and endure harassment.
Observers reported that individuals censored themselves in everyday speech. Armed groups reportedly used social media to monitor and target political opponents, incite violence, and engage in hate speech. According to UNSMIL, various news publications and television stations published calls to violence, spread intentionally false news, and permitted ad hominem attacks.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Press freedoms were limited in all forms of media, creating an environment in which virtually no independent media existed. International news agencies reported difficulties obtaining journalist visas, encountered refusals to issue or recognize press cards, and were barred from reporting freely in certain areas, especially eastern cities. UNSMIL documented restrictions imposed by the Foreign Media Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which seriously affected the operations of journalists in Tripoli.
Violence and Harassment: The international NGO Reporters without Borders reported that all sides used threats and violence to intimidate journalists. Harassment, threats, abductions, violence, and killings made it nearly impossible for media to operate in any meaningful capacity in areas of conflict.
Impunity for attacks on members of media exacerbated the problem, with no monitoring organizations, security forces, or functioning judicial system to constrain or record these attacks.
On January 1, a group of youth activists launched the National Initiative for Peace calling for a ceasefire and were immediately attacked by both LNA- and GNA-affiliated media outlets as “traitors.” Several members received death threats against themselves and their families, and some were arbitrarily detained by LNA forces in Benghazi. Well known blogger and activist Khalid Sakran was among those briefly detained in January. In June he was summoned by LNA military intelligence authorities and held arbitrarily for 11 days before being released after intensive lobbying by UNSMIL and other local and international organizations.
On January 20, the GNA-aligned Special Deterrence Force abducted a Libyan journalist working for al-Wataniya from his office in Tripoli, allegedly for sharing information with the LNA. He was tortured then released in late January.
On January 16, LNA-aligned units set fire to a radio station in Sirte.
In July it was reported that journalist Ismail Abuzreiba al-Zwei was sentenced in May in a Benghazi military court to 15 years in prison for his affiliation with a satellite television channel deemed “hostile” to eastern Libyan interests. Human rights activists said he was tried in a closed hearing without access to his lawyer and sentenced under the country’s 2014 counterterrorism law, which provides for the arrest of civilians for perceived terrorist acts. He is one of possibly dozens of such journalists, activists, and other civilians who have been detained and tried in LNA military courts in recent years. Human rights defenders have voiced concern that the LNA unfairly applied the counterterrorism law to silence dissent.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists practiced self-censorship due to the lack of security and intimidation. The unstable security situation created hostility towards civilians and journalists associated with opposing armed groups or political factions.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code criminalizes a variety of political speech, including speech considered to “insult constitutional and popular authorities” and “publicly insulting the Libyan Arab people.” It and other laws also provide criminal penalties for conviction of defamation and insults to religion. Most reports attributed infringement of free speech to intimidation, harassment, and violence.
National Security: The penal code criminalizes speech considered to “tarnish the [country’s] reputation or undermine confidence in it abroad,” but the GNA did not enforce this provision during the year.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental armed groups, terrorist groups, and individual civilians regularly harassed, intimidated, or assaulted journalists.
The GNA generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or widely censor online content. Selective filtering or blocking of access did exist, despite the fact that no reliable public information identified those responsible for censorship. There were reports that GNA-aligned groups monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority (see section 1.f.).
Facebook pages were regularly hacked by unknown actors or closed due to mass reporting and complaints.
Social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, played a critical role in official and unofficial government and nongovernmental communications. Facebook remained the main platform government officials, ministries, and armed groups used to transmit information to the public. A significant body of evidence suggested that foreign actors sought to influence domestic opinion and incite violence in the country by spreading deliberate misinformation on social media and other platforms.
A large number of bloggers, online journalists, and citizens reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation by armed groups and the uncertain political situation.
There were no significant government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
Some members of the Tebu minority residing in southern Libya reported their access to higher education was limited as university campuses were located in geographic areas controlled by Arab tribes that routinely harassed or denied freedom of movement to members of the Tebu minority. Universities reportedly did not provide offsite learning alternatives to these Tebu students.
According to Freedom House, teachers and professors faced intimidation by students aligned with nonstate armed groups.
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration provides for a general right to peaceful assembly, and the GNA generally respected this right. The law on guidelines for peaceful demonstrations, however, fails to include relevant assurances and severely restricts the exercise of the right of assembly. The law mandates protesters must inform the government of any planned protest at least 48 hours in advance and provides that the government may notify the organizers that a protest is banned as little as 12 hours before the event.
There were reports of several small public protests in Tripoli and other major cities, in which participants expressed frustration with civilian casualties and fatalities caused by the continuing conflict, lack of public utilities such as electricity, and poor service delivery by the national and municipal governments.
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration includes freedom of association for political and civil society groups. The government lacked capacity, however, to protect freedom of association, and targeted attacks on journalists, activists, and religious figures severely undermined freedom of association.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) are required to register with the GNA-affiliated Civil Society Commission (CSC) in Tripoli if they have activities in the west and with an eastern, parallel “CSC” in Benghazi if they have activities in the east. International and local CSOs report that the Tripoli and Benghazi commissions, along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Directorate of International Affairs, are known to sometimes delay or deny their attempts to register or renew registrations, or unduly to scrutinize their activities. Registration obstacles included: 1) ad hoc preapproval processes that required interfacing with formal and informal security forces, 2) restrictions and approvals for routine meetings, 3) inordinately detailed requests for financial and human resource information, and 4) direct harassment in some cases.
In the west, this type of interference was frequently attributed to Nawasi Brigade affiliates working in the Tripoli-based CSC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, in July the CSC in Tripoli directed one international CSO seeking to renew its registration to get “preapproval” from a Nawasi Brigade official. In another example, on September 10, the Tripoli-based CSC released an official letter that warned Libyan organizations not to meet with international organizations absent CSC approval, hampering local CSO operations. Threats, including death threats, were made against numerous CSO staff members because of their human rights activities, and several of them believed they were under surveillance by intelligence services; they also reported being unjustly detained for short periods. Numerous activists have sought sanctuary abroad
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration recognizes freedom of movement, including foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, although the government has the ability to restrict freedom of movement. The law provides the government with the power to restrict a person’s movement if it views that person as a “threat to public security or stability,” based on the person’s “previous actions or affiliation with an official or unofficial apparatus or tool of the former regime.”
In-country Movement: The GNA did not exercise control over internal movement in the west, although GNA-aligned armed groups set up some checkpoints. The LNA established checkpoints in the east and south.
There were reports that armed groups controlling airports within the country conducted random checks on departing domestic and international travelers, including of their personal electronic devices. The country lacked a unified customs and immigration system.
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, western and eastern authorities as well as local municipalities imposed curfews and restrictions on intercity travel to curb the spread of the virus. International and local aid workers noted that these restrictions had the secondary effect of restricting humanitarian access to communities in need.
Citizenship: The Nationality Law states that citizens may lose citizenship if they obtain a foreign citizenship without receiving permission beforehand from authorities, but there is still no process for obtaining such permission. Authorities may revoke citizenship if it was obtained based on false information, forged documents, or the withholding of relevant information concerning nationality. The state lacked the capacity, however, to investigate the authenticity of citizenship applications.
If a father’s citizenship is revoked, the citizenship of his children is also revoked. The law does not specify if a mother’s citizenship is also revoked in this case. The law does not specify if only minor children are susceptible to losing their nationality in this way or if loss of nationality would apply to adult children as well.
Non-Arab communities were marginalized under the Arab nationalist Qadhafi regime. Qadhafi revoked the citizenship of some inhabitants of the Saharan interior of the country, including minorities, such as the Tebu and Tuareg, after the regime returned the Aouzou strip along the Libya-Chad border to Chad in 1994. As a result there were many nomadic and settled stateless persons in the country. In addition, due to a lack of state control of the southern borders, a large number of irregular migrants of Tebu background entered the country, some of whom reportedly applied for and obtained documents attesting to nationality, including national identification numbers.
Limited access for local and international assistance organizations into areas affected by fighting between rival armed groups and to official and unofficial detention centers within the country hampered efforts to account for and assist the displaced.
As of September, the IOM estimated there were more than 392,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. More than half of these IDPs were displaced from the southern Tripoli area alone since April 2019. Following the end of hostilities in southern Tripoli, a slow return of some displaced households commenced in western Libya in July and August; however, the lack of basic services combined with the presence of explosive remnants of war and unexploded ordnance in previously contested areas hindered IDP returns.
IDPs generally resided in rented accommodations or with relatives and other host families. A smaller portion of IDPs lived in schools or other public buildings, in informal camps, shelter facilities, or abandoned buildings.
Most of the 48,000 former residents of the town of Tawergha, near Misrata, who were forcibly displaced after the 2011 revolution for their perceived affiliation with the former regime, remained displaced.
IDPs were vulnerable to abuses. The government struggled to facilitate the safe, voluntary return of IDPs to their place of origin. Due to the lack of adequate laws, policies, or government programs, international organizations and NGOs assisted IDPs to the extent possible in the form of cash payments and provision of health services, including to those with disabilities.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other international agencies that operated within the country and were allowed to assist refugees and migrants in some geographic areas and facilities across the country. UN agencies monitored and publicly reported on the situation of refugees and migrants in the country, including those in GNA detention centers. During the year international aid organizations provided basic services directly and through local implementing partners to refugees and asylum seekers.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to UNSMIL and various UN agencies, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were routinely subjected to unlawful killings, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual exploitation, and other abuses. Perpetrators included state officials, armed groups, smugglers, traffickers, and criminal gangs.
Conditions in government and extralegal migrant detention facilities included severe overcrowding, insufficient access to toilets and washing facilities, malnourishment, lack of potable water, and spread of communicable diseases (see section 1.c.). Many press reports indicated refugees and migrants were summarily tortured in official and unofficial detention centers. According to numerous press reports, nonstate actors routinely held migrants for ransom payments.
Armed groups and criminal gangs involved in human smuggling activities targeted migrants. Numerous reports during the year suggested that various human smugglers and traffickers had caused the death of migrants. There were limited arrests and no known prosecutions by the GNA during the year of Libyan nationals engaged in trafficking or human smuggling. The GNA did not seriously pursue accountability for the massacre of 30 migrants in Mizda in May (see section 1.a.).
In 2018 UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior began receiving refugees at a new Gathering and Departure Facility (GDF) in Tripoli, intended to host vulnerable refugees while they awaited resettlement. In September 2019, UNSMIL assessed that GDF conditions were overcrowded, contributing to a deteriorating humanitarian situation. In January the deputy director of the Ministry of Interior’s Department to Combat Illegal Migration (DCIM), the state’s migration authority, mobilized hundreds of DCIM guards and Tripoli militia personnel at a site adjacent to the GDF. This militarization of the GDF raised concerns that the facility could be targeted in the continuing Tripoli conflict. UNHCR was forced to suspend its activities at the GDF and negotiated for the evacuation of its residents. According to migrant advocates, numerous other DCIM-affiliated migrant facilities were colocated with or in close proximity to weapons depots and other dual-use sites.
Migrants were exploited for forced labor at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, and GNA-aligned armed groups. There were reports that migrants in some official or informal detention locations were forced to engage in forced labor, such as construction and agricultural work, for no wages. According to international observers, some migrants were also forced to provide services for armed groups, such as carrying and transporting weapons, cooking food, cleaning, and clearing unexploded ordnance. In June reports emerged that some Libyan families had hired migrants to clear debris in mine-contaminated areas of Tripoli, exposing these migrants to potential grave bodily harm.
After the onset of COVID-19, there were numerous reports that migrants, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, were harassed or discriminated against by citizens due to the perception that foreigners were transmitting the virus.
Women refugees and migrants faced especially difficult situations, and international organizations received extensive reports of rape and other sexual violence. Nigerian women and girls were vulnerable to trafficking and were routinely detained in houses in Tripoli and Sebha, a southwestern Libyan city. Migrant women and girls were forced into prostitution in both official and unofficial detention facilities in conditions that sometimes amounted to sexual slavery. Other migrant women reported being harassed when leaving their homes to search for work. Many migrant women who had been abused could not return to their countries of origin for fear of stigmatization. The country lacks legal protections for survivors of sexual violence.
Access to Asylum: The country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, although the 2011 Constitutional Declaration recognizes the right of asylum and forbids forcible repatriation of asylum seekers. The GNA has not established a system for protecting refugees or asylum seekers. Absent an asylum system, authorities can detain and deport asylum seekers without their having the opportunity to request asylum. The GNA did not legally recognize asylum seekers without documentation as a class distinct from migrants without residency permits.
Authorities continued to expel migrants and asylum seekers across the country southern borders, and in some areas these activities reportedly increased. In May, UNSMIL noted that at least 1,400 migrants and refugees had been expelled from eastern Libya during the year, contrary to the 2011 Constitutional Declaration. These persons were forcibly deported to Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Somalia.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, refugee resettlement, emergency evacuation, and migrant voluntary humanitarian return flights were temporarily suspended in the second quarter of the year.
Freedom of Movement: Migrants and asylum seekers were generally considered to be illegally present in the country and were subject to fines, detention, and expulsion. Migrants attempting sea crossings on the Mediterranean and who were later intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard were considered to have violated the law and were often sent to migrant detention facilities in western Libya.
At least 6,000 migrants and asylum seekers were intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to the country during the year. UN agencies expressed concern that thousands of these migrants remained unaccounted for after disembarkation and disappeared into informal detention by human-trafficking networks.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees registered with UNHCR may access basic protection and assistance from UNHCR and its partners, but during the year the GNA did not provide refugees with reliable access to health care, education, or other services, given the limitations of its health and education infrastructure.
Libyan national mothers alone are generally unable to transmit citizenship to their children. The law permits female nationals to confer nationality to their children only in certain exceptional circumstances, such as when fathers are unknown, stateless, or of unknown nationality. In contrast, the law provides for automatic transmission of nationality to children born of a Libyan national father, whether the child is born inside or outside of Libya and regardless of the nationality of the mother. There are naturalization provisions for noncitizens.
According to some reports, up to 30 percent of the population in southern Libya are of undetermined legal status, which has fueled discrimination in employment and services. Noncitizens without national identification numbers cannot access basic services; register births, marriages, or deaths; hold certain jobs; receive state salaries; vote; or run for office.
Due to the lack of international monitoring and governmental capacity, there was no comprehensive data on the number of stateless persons.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, arresting, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.
Freedom of Speech: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. For example, Article 376 imposes a one- to three-year sentence on anyone who criticizes or insults the president. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. The regime monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the Nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces. The law criminalizes the publication on social media of false news that causes fear and panic, with prison sentences up to 15 years with hard labor. Article 287 stipulates that the broadcasting of false or exaggerated news abroad that undermines the prestige of the state or its financial standing is subject to a minimum prison sentence of six months in addition to a fine. Article 309 similarly criminalizes the broadcasting of false news or claims that undermine confidence in the “state currency.”
The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests. The SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19, including one journalist at a state-owned media outlet who was barred from reporting on COVID-19 deaths.
The SNHR reported that only print publications whose reporting promoted and defended the regime remained in circulation. Books critical of the regime were illegal. The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arab networks.
Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. YouTubers and other citizen journalists were routinely detained, intimidated, and tortured, both by the regime and extremist groups. According to NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that regime authorities in May arbitrarily detained Nada Mashraki, who worked as an editor for Latakkia News Network, after she published a story about judicial corruption. Mashraki was released a month later.
RSF reported that 28 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom. The reason for arrests was often unclear. The SNHR reported that at least 350 citizen journalists remained missing as of May after being arbitrarily detained by the regime since the beginning of the conflict.
The regime and, to a lesser extent, the HTS and other armed groups routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, Freedom House, and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ estimated that at least 137 journalists were killed since 2011, while the SNHR estimated more than 707 citizen journalists were killed between March 2011 and May. The SNHR attributed 573 of citizen journalist deaths from 2011 and through 2020 to regime and proregime forces, including 47 individuals who died due to torture.
During the year the CPJ and RSF documented the deaths of two journalists by Russian forces. A Russian airstrike killed Abdul Nasser Haj Hamdan on February 20 while he was documenting the bombardment of Ma’arat al-Naasan in northern Idlib governorate; another Russian airstrike killed freelance photographer Amjad Anas Aktalati on February 4 in Ariha, south of Idlib.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: According to Freedom House, the regime enforced censorship of news sites and social media content more stringently in regime-controlled areas. The regime continued to block circumvention tools used to access censored content, internet security software that can prevent state surveillance, and other applications that enable anonymous communications. Censorship was implemented by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) and private internet service provider (ISP) using various commercially available software programs. Decisions surrounding online censorship lacked transparency, and ISPs did not publicize the details of how blocking was implemented or which websites were banned. The STE was known to implement blocking decisions; it was unclear which state agency typically made the decisions, although security and intelligence bodies were believed to play an important role. Websites covering politics, minorities, human rights, foreign affairs, and other sensitive topics were censored or blocked outright.
The regime continued to control strictly the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights and tensions. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.
Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, Alawite religious groups, and the spread of COVID-19.
According to National Public Radio, despite regime censorship and a campaign of intimidation to suppress information about the spread of COVID-19, medical workers reported the virus was spreading quickly across the country and that government hospitals were overwhelmed. In August the SJAC noted accounts of the regime pressuring doctors, journalists, and patients to suppress reporting on the spread of COVID-19. The media publication Syria in Context reported in August that recent satellite imagery showed significant burial activity in Najha cemetery in Damascus, indicating the regime was burying thousands of individuals who died due to COVID-19; Najha is the same cemetery where the regime allegedly buried hundreds of thousands of victims of its notorious detention centers. Doctors in regime hospitals reportedly listed “pneumonia” as the cause of death on death certificates for individuals suspected to have died from COVID-19.
RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the province. RSF assessed the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than nine years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since its outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.
National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as the HTS, detained, tortured, and harassed journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The COI described HTS targeting female media workers for harassment and threatening detention, causing them to resort to self-censoring and hiding their cameras. In August the SNHR reported that media activist Fayez al-Dgheim was forcibly disappeared by police affiliated with the HTS and that his family had not heard from him, nor were they officially notified of his arrest.
The SNHR also documented HTS members’ assault of 13 citizen journalists on June 10, while they were reporting on the passage of a Russian-Turkish joint patrol on the Latakia-Aleppo International Road. HTS members attacked them and smashed their equipment, accusing them of filming women during their media coverage.
In areas controlled by the regime, the STE served as both an ISP and a telecommunications regulator, providing the government with tight control over the internet infrastructure. Independent satellite-based connections were prohibited but heavily employed across the country, given the damage that information and communication technology infrastructure sustained as a result of the conflict. ISPs and cybercafes operating in regime-controlled areas required a permit from the STE and another security permit from the Interior Ministry, and cybercafe owners were required to monitor customers and record their activities. The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts.
Freedom House continued to report that self-censorship was widespread online and had increased in recent years as users contended with threats and violent reprisals for critical content. Sensitive topics included President Assad, former president Hafez Assad, the military, the ruling Baath Party, or influential government officials. Other sensitive subjects including religious and ethnic tensions and corruption allegations related to the president’s family were also off-limits. Individuals and groups reportedly could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecuted users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9), which increased penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression reported the regime monitored citizens affiliated with the opposition and worked to undermine their activities online. Citizen journalists and other civilians were frequently targeted based on their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not prosecute or otherwise take action 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. According to Freedom House, the regime blocked websites for human rights groups as well as those criticizing the regime’s political, cultural, social, or economic policies; criticizing specific high-level government officials; or mobilizing persons to protest or resist the regime, including those linked to the network of activists known as the Local Coordination Committees.
The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under attack. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.
The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content, including false content aiming to undermine the credibility of human rights and humanitarian groups. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted spyware and other malware in at least 71 android applications using COVID-19 lures to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.
Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.
The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit employees of academic institutions to express ideas contrary to regime policy. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.
The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.
The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions. Freedom House reported that residents of Sweida used Facebook to call for protests in January against corruption and deteriorating economic conditions in regime-held areas under the campaign slogan “We Want to Live.” Further protests in Sweida prompted a regime crackdown in June, in which regime security forces and proregime militias assaulted and arbitrarily detained protesters.
According to allegations by human rights activists and press reporting, at times the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ez-Zour protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities; however, the SNHR reported SDF members opened fire on a protest in Mheimida, killing Najm Hussein al-Atwan, and the SDF arbitrarily detained 28 civilians in al-Sh-heil and al-Hawayij following protests in those areas. The SDF reported arresting, trying, and convicting one member of its forces for opening fire and killing an unarmed demonstrator.
During the year the HTS repressed civil society activity and public protests. Media outlets and the SNHR reported HTS militants shot and killed Saleh al-Mrie in April when they opened fire on civilians protesting the opening of a commercial border to link territory controlled by the HTS with regime-held areas.
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.
None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, due to the regime’s practice of denying requests for registration or failing to act on them, reportedly on political grounds, but some functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association, but journalists in exile continued working to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression through the Syrian Journalist Association, an independent democratic professional association established in 2012 by Syrians in exile.
The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained individuals linked to local human rights groups, prodemocracy student groups, and other organizations perceived to be supporting the opposition, including humanitarian groups.
The HTS and other armed groups also restricted freedom of association in areas they controlled. The SNHR reported al-Qa’ida-linked Hurras al-Din kidnapped Khaled Mdallala, a prominent activist and director of the Sham al-Khair Association, on February 24 as part of its effort to repress and restrict civil society organizations operating in Idlib. TSOs reportedly detained residents based on their affiliation with the SNES (see section 1.d.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, the HTS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime attacks on Idlib governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while fear of death and regime retribution resulted in mass civilian displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
In-country Movement: In areas outside of regime control, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement, and the COI reported regime security officials detained, forcibly conscripted, and extorted residents at checkpoints, at times impeding civilians’ access to health care and education. Regime forces used violence to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats, including delegations from the United Nations and the OPCW IIT, 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 controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in July that HTS systematically interfered with women’s freedom of movement, harassing unaccompanied women and denying them access to public events under threat of detention. The HTS also attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of humanitarian assistance, according to COI reporting.
While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in June, HRW reported that the SNES was restricting the movement of more than 10,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP camp. The COI reported in January that many of the children in al-Hol camp lacked birth registration papers, in some cases because parents were unable to register, jeopardizing their rights to a nationality, hindering family reunification processes, and increasing their vulnerability to abuse.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Syrian passports cost approximately $800, which many Syrians found prohibitive. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks and arbitrary detention at airports and border crossings.
The regime also often refused to allow some citizens to return, while millions more Syrians who fled to neighboring countries reportedly feared retribution by the regime should they return. In July the regime implemented a new policy of charging returning refugees a substantial fee to enter the country. The press-monitoring organization Middle East Monitor reported this fee presented a barrier to refugee returns. On September 5, Lebanese government officials announced that 17-year-old Zainab Mohammed Al-Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee, had died while she was trapped between the two countries because she could not afford the fee needed to enter into Syria. A regime immigration official stated the regime’s policy was to refuse entry to any Syrian unable to pay the fee and that the Lebanese government did not accept Syrians back once they crossed the border.
Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country. Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Violence and instability continued to be the primary cause for displacement, much of it attributed to Syrians fleeing regime and Russian aerial attacks, including almost one million persons who were displaced in Idlib during the first three months of the year–the largest single displacement of the conflict. Years of fighting and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, with each displacement further depleting family assets. The UN estimated more than 6.6 million IDPs were in the country and 2.6 million children and 4.7 million individuals were in need of acute assistance. It also included 1.3 million new IDPs and 184,921 IDP return movements since the start of the year. In July the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded 32,170 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. Approximately 25,000 of these returns were recorded within and between Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Spontaneous IDP return movements in areas other than northwest Syria remained very low.
The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level three response–the classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. UN humanitarian officials reported most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps.
The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, offer IDPs assistance, facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, or provide consistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in some cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home. According to PAX and Impunity Watch, the regime systematically dispossessed Syrians perceived to threaten the regime’s authority of their property, presenting an increasingly grave impediment to the return of refugees and IDPs (see section 1.e., Property Restitution). The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity reported in July that regime repression had led the vast majority of Syrian refugees, as well as IDPs displaced from regime-held areas, to fear returning to their homes.
Syrians with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while intelligence forces summarily seized homes and businesses of some former opposition members.
The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.). NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. In January the Russian government, by threatening to veto resolution drafts maintaining existing crossings for UN cross-border humanitarian assistance measures, forced through a UN Security Council resolution that reduced UN cross-border humanitarian assistance from four crossings to two, cutting off northeast Syria from crucial health-related humanitarian assistance. The provision of cross-border assistance by the United Nations and its humanitarian partners was further restricted to one border crossing with Turkey in July after the Russian and Chinese governments vetoed a resolution that would have extended authorization for cross-border assistance through both Turkey crossings into northwest Syria and reinstated the Iraq crossing into northeast Syria. Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey. Jordan’s borders remained closed since mid-March due to COVID-19 prevention measures.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors.
Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to severely constrained access to the area. The regime and Russian government routinely refused to approve UN requests for assistance delivery. The most recent UN convoy to Rukban took place in October 2019. A UN mission, including a regime-requested health assessment, planned for April 21, was rejected by the Russian government. The convoy was expected to deliver a combination of food, nutritional supplements, and nonfood items to 2,300 households in Rukban. Conditions in the camp remained poor with few deliveries of food and basic provisions permitted by the regime. Rukban residents continued to depart the settlement in small groups, and several hundred returned to regime-held areas since late March, according to UN sources, including at least several dozen who departed for urgent health services not available in the camp. The regime did not permit those who departed to return to the camp.
Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the HTS also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. The COI and humanitarian actors reported HTS attempted to control and interfere with the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northwest, including by demanding a share of food packages, cash payments, and housing developments intended for others. For example the HTS reportedly detained and harassed SARC personnel on March 14, occupying offices in Idlib and Ariha and removing and destroying SARC-owned materials. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.
The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ez-Zour and Raqqa.
f. Protection of Refugees
The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russian government maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. The Russian government reportedly sought to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, and in November the regime and Russia held a conference on refugee returns in Damascus. The conference did not address any of the root causes that caused persons to flee the regime or offer actionable steps to secure the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees, and was organized without input or support from an internationally recognized authority on humanitarian or refugee issues.
The COI described in January interviews with Syrian parents who relocated their children, particularly boys, outside of Syria to protect them from violence. In one such case, an estimated 500 unaccompanied children, almost all boys older than 14, were registered in 2013 in a refugee camp near the Syrian border.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths. The Damascus governorate council announced in June a plan to confiscate the property of households in the Palestinian Yarmouk Camp as part of a reconstruction project, displacing Palestinian residents unable to prove ownership of their property. Muammar Dakak, director of technical studies in the Damascus governorate council, announced in July that Yarmouk residents would not receive alternative housing.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.
Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 23,600 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.
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork lost their Syrian citizenship from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an estimated increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “within the limits of the law,” the law calls for journalists to uphold national unity and prohibits criticism of the head of state. The Houthis did not respect the rights as provided in the constitution, and the government was unable to enforce them.
Freedom of Speech: All parties to the conflict severely restricted the right to freedom of expression. Female human rights defenders, journalists, and activists faced specific repression on the basis of gender. Local human rights defenders faced harassment, threats, and smear campaigns from the government, Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi forces. Freedom House reported that freedom of personal expression and private discussion remained severely limited as a result of intimidation by armed groups and unchecked surveillance by the Houthi authorities. In multiple instances Houthis went to the homes of activists, journalists, and political leaders opposed to the Houthis and used the threat of arrest and other means to intimidate perceived opponents and to silence dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Prior to the outbreak of conflict, the transitional government approved legislation to regulate broadcasting and television channels. A number of domestic private radio and television stations operated under media production company permits, and several stations broadcast from abroad for domestic audiences.
Violence and Harassment: The government was unable to take any substantive steps to protect journalists from violence and harassment. Progovernment popular resistance forces, Houthis, and tribal militias were responsible for a range of abuses against media outlets.
The UN Group of Experts reported that the Houthis arbitrarily detained journalists and human rights defenders in Sana’a prisons, such as Sana’a Central Prison, unofficial facilities like the security and intelligence detention center, and in secret detention facilities, including former residential buildings in and around Sana’a.
Reporters Without Borders reported that photographer Abdullah Bukeir, who was arrested and detained in a ROYG-controlled facility in April, began a hunger strike and by June was hospitalized because of his condition. As of December, he remained in detention.
Amnesty International reported in July that the Houthis had detained 10 journalists since 2015 on false charges, subjected them to torture and other forms of abuse, and sentenced four of them–Akram al-Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hareth Hamid, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri–to death in April for espionage (see section 1.d, Arbitrary Arrest or Detention.). The journalists reportedly suffered from a range of medical problems while in detention.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Houthis controlled several state ministries responsible for press and communications, including the Ministry of Telecommunications. In that capacity they selected items for formerly government-run broadcast and print media and did not allow reports critical of themselves. The Ministry of Telecommunications and internet service providers reportedly blocked websites and domains that authorities deemed critical of the Houthi agenda. The OHCHR reported Houthi forces censored television channels and banned newspapers from publication.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes criticism of the “person of the head of state”; the publication of “false information” that may spread “dissent and division among the people”; materials that may lead to “the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution”; and “false stories intended to damage Arab and friendly countries or their relations.” There was no information during the year whether the ROYG or the Houthis used these laws to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental actors inhibited freedom of expression, including for members of the press. The OHCHR reported that since the start of the conflict in March 2015 there were 357 human rights abuses against journalists, including 28 killings, two enforced disappearances, one abduction, 45 physical assaults, and 184 arbitrary arrests and detentions. These abuses were committed by both government authorities and nonstate actors.
Censorship affected internet freedom, and there were notable cases of Houthi intrusion into cyberspace. The Houthi-controlled Public Telecommunications Corporation systematically blocked user access to websites and internet domains it deemed dangerous to their political agenda.
The NSB maintained permanent offices on campuses, reflecting continued government concern regarding security and, in some cases, controversial speech. Partisan officials at the Ministry of Higher Education and academic institutions reviewed prospective university professors and administrators for political acceptability before hiring them and commonly showed favoritism toward supporters of specific political parties. There were no reported instances of censored curriculums or sanctioned professors or students; however, after their takeover, Houthi and other actors’ incursions onto campuses and detentions of academics appeared designed to intimidate perceived opponents.
Scholars at Risk (SAR) reported that armed groups, mostly Houthi forces, targeted individual students, faculty, and university administrators over perceived disloyalty to a particular armed group. The Houthis subjected scholars and students to a number of academic reforms aimed at bolstering Houthi influence and quashing opposition. The reforms include the imposition of lectures and apparently politicized courses developed by the Houthis. Students have reportedly been required to study speeches and sermons by Houthi military leaders. One scholar in exile told SAR that Houthi forces have required faculty to attend lectures on the group’s ideology.
On January 25, Houthi militants arrested Hamid Aqlan, president of the Sana’a-based University of Science and Technology, along with one of his administrative colleagues. The Houthis reportedly charged Aqlan with “aiding aggression” based on accusations that he smuggled the university’s financial and electronic records, including those of the university hospital, to the private university’s owners in Aden. Aqlan was brought to an undisclosed location where Houthi soldiers denied him contact with family and colleagues. The day of his arrest, the Houthis announced the appointment of a new president, Adel al-Mutawakkil, whom the ROYG identified as a supporter of the Houthis. On February 2, Houthi forces released Aqlan; however, they detained him again on February 11 at a checkpoint in Ibb governorate, along with his brother and three other companions. On March 4, Aqlan was charged with “falsifying a personal identity.” While his companions were released, Aqlan remained in custody at year’s end.
On February 2, armed Houthi forces raided a Sana’a University lecture hall and assaulted sociology professor Ali Baalawi, apparently for allegedly criticizing the appointment of a military commander’s relative as dean of the Faculty of Arts, despite lacking the appropriate qualifications. Baalawi was promptly removed from campus and reportedly barred from returning to the university.
On May 19, Houthi forces detained Hodeidah University faculty member Wadih al-Sharjabi, apparently for social media commentary critical of the Houthi militia. Al-Sharjabi, a communications lecturer, had reportedly demanded over Facebook that the militia release several university students who were arrested for allegedly fighting alongside state armed forces.
SAR also documented Houthi activities to deter campus activities the Houthis found objectionable. On February 2, Houthi soldiers and a number of pro-Houthi student informants shut down an academic competition hosted at the University of Ibb that they claimed was “immoral” and did not have their advance approval.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights were not respected in the majority of the country, i.e., areas that the ROYG did not control.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. The Houthis and their affiliates responded to demonstrations and protests in various parts of the country with excessive force. SAR reported that in March students at the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a allegedly received threatening letters after holding a peaceful campus protest against the Houthi occupation of the university and the continued detention of the university’s former president Dr. Hamid Aqlan (see section 2.a, Freedom of Expression–Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
While the law provides for freedom of association, there were reports the Houthis harassed and detained activists and shut down NGOs. Houthi authorities closed numerous NGOs during the year without proper due process, citing treason or conspiring with foreign powers. Houthi authorities created the Executive Office for Monitoring Operations of International Organizations to oversee the work of NGOs and reportedly police NGO activity. Several NGOs originally based in Sana’a moved to Aden or other cities in government-controlled areas, or abroad.
The law regulates associations and foundations and outlines the establishment and activities of NGOs. Authorities required annual registration. The law exempts registered NGOs from taxes and tariffs and requires the government to provide a reason for denying an NGO registration, such as deeming an NGO’s activities “detrimental” to the state. It forbids NGO involvement in political or religious activities. It permits foreign funding of NGOs. The law requires government observation of NGO internal elections. There were no known attempts by NGOs to register during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however there were many restrictions on these freedoms.
In-country Movement: Rebel forces, resistance forces, security forces, and tribes maintained checkpoints on major roads. In many regions, especially in areas outside effective central security control, armed tribesmen frequently restricted freedom of movement, operated their own checkpoints, sometimes with military or other security officials, and often subjected travelers to physical harassment, extortion, theft, or short-term kidnappings for ransom. Damage to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure from the conflict also hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid and commercial shipments (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Women in general did not enjoy full freedom of movement, although restrictions varied by location. Oxfam reported that in areas controlled by radical Islamic groups such as AQAP, men at checkpoints increasingly insisted on adherence to the mahram system, the cultural obligation of women to be accompanied by male relatives in public. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that harassment at checkpoints of women and girls not accompanied by a male, as well as inability to afford transport, hampered women’s ability to reach health, nutrition, and other services.
The Houthis banned the mixing of genders in cafes unless the couple had children or carried a marriage certificate.
Local observers reported individuals from Houthi-controlled areas faced increasing discrimination and difficulties when traveling in the southern portion of the country.
Foreign Travel: The Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the government relocation to Aden in 2015 left no official government authority in control of Sana’a airport customs or immigration functions. In 2016 the coalition closed Sana’a International Airport to commercial traffic, permitting only UN humanitarian flights, thereby preventing thousands of local citizens from traveling abroad. Those who needed to leave the country attempted alternative routes that required long journeys across active front lines at high risk and cost.
The closure of airports and land borders as a result of COVID-19 further complicated international travel. In September the Houthi authorities temporarily closed Sana’a airport to UN flights.
In the past women needed the permission of a male guardian, such as a husband, before applying for a passport or leaving the country. A husband or male relative could bar a woman from leaving the country by placing a woman’s name on a “no-fly list” maintained at airports. Prior to the conflict, authorities strictly enforced this requirement when women traveled with children, but there were no reports of government authorities enforcing this requirement during the year. There were attempts, however, by the Houthis to impose similar restrictions on women’s international travel. In view of the deterioration of infrastructure and lack of security due to the conflict, many women reportedly declined to travel alone (see section 6, Women).
Prior to 2014 the transitional government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees (see section 2.f, Protection of Refugees), returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
The Houthi takeover, coalition airstrikes, and active fighting made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach many areas of the country due to security concerns (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict–Other Conflict-related Abuse).
UNHCR reported in September that more than 156,000 additional persons had been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, and further displacement occurred during increased fighting in Ma’rib. Close to one million IDPs were living in more than 1,600 IDP sites in deplorable conditions; UNHCR and its partners had access to 660 of those sites to provide assistance.
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations reported in March that heavy fighting in al-Hazm caused massive secondary and tertiary displacements of IDPs towards Ma’rib. An estimated 1,800 households reportedly fled the area as fighting escalated and more than 2,100 IDPs had already reached Ma’rib.
In April, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Lowcock said that 60,000 persons had fled conflict in al-Jawf since January, most of them arriving in Ma’rib.
UNHCR declared in July that up to 670 IDP families had been newly displaced in Abyan due to recent clashes between STC and ROYG forces.
In August the Executive Unit for the Management of IDPs in Ma’rib reported the displacement of 1,580 families from their homes and displacement camps due to military operations launched by Houthi rebels in the Medghal district of Ma’rib.
According to UNHCR, summer flooding temporarily displaced an additional 300,000 individuals, some of whom were already living in IDP camps. The worst hit areas were Ma’rib, Amran, Hajjah, Hudaydah, Ta’iz, Lahj, Aden, and Abyan governorates, where floods killed more than 150 persons.
Humanitarian organizations’ access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations was generally limited and unpredictable due to the continuing conflict; however, many humanitarian organizations maintained a presence in multiple locations. According to the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, local NGOs, and charities that still functioned in the capital supported IDPs and other conflict-affected persons in Sana’a and other parts of the country with food, shelter, nonfood items, and other support. IDPs from Sa’ada reported limited access to cash for purchasing basic household items. COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges of reaching IDPs.
NGOs reported shelter continued to be a primary concern for IDPs. The IOM reported IDPs largely sought refuge with relatives or friends, or rented accommodations where many faced frequent threats of eviction due to late rent payments. Others were held in unconventional shelters in public or private buildings such as schools, health facilities, or religious buildings, primarily in Ta’iz and Lahj. The shifting nature of the conflict displaced many IDPs multiple times as the front lines of the conflict changed, requiring individuals to seek new shelter with every subsequent displacement.
f. Protection of Refugees
The IOM reported that new arrivals of migrants declined significantly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Between January and September, the IOM recorded somewhat more than 33,000 arrivals, compared to more than 84,000 during the same period in 2019.
The country received refugees from a variety of countries. Many refugees became increasingly vulnerable due to the worsening security and economic situation in the country. Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants shared in the general poverty and insecurity of the country.
According to UNHCR, there were 283,898 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of August, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia. Many were attempting to reach or return to Saudi Arabia for work and had entered the country based on false information from smugglers that the conflict in the country was over, according to UNHCR and the IOM. Many took refuge at the Kharaz refugee camp and towns in the south. The ROYG could not provide physical protection to refugees or migrants; many were held in detention centers operated by the Houthis in the north and by the government in the south. UNHCR and other organizations stated there were reports of refugees and migrants facing physical and sexual abuse, torture, and forced labor in both Houthi and ROYG-controlled facilities, and that many refugees and migrants were vulnerable to human trafficking.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to the IOM, migrants in the country continued to face egregious forms of abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, abduction for ransom, forced labor, and physical violence. The IOM considered women and girls to be particularly vulnerable and more likely to be trafficked and exposed to sexual abuse. The OHCHR reported that UAE-supported Security Belt Forces (SBF) committed rape and other forms of serious sexual violence targeting foreign migrants and other vulnerable groups (see section 1.c, Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict.).
These risks were compounded by armed hostilities concentrated around Shabwah, Abyan, al-Bayda, al-Jawf, Ma’rib, and Sa’ada governorates, and by internal movement restrictions due to COVID-19. These factors resulted in more migrants becoming stranded or trapped for longer periods in areas without assistance and at risk of being injured or killed, according to the IOM. Multiple NGOs and media reported that criminal smuggling groups built a large number of “camps” near the Yemen-Saudi border city of Haradh and in other parts of the country, where militants held migrants for extortion and ransom.
The UN Department of Economic Affairs reported there were 385,600 migrants, including women and children, as of mid-2019. The IOM estimated that more than 14,500 migrants were stranded in August because of the COVID-19 border closures in Aden, Ma’rib, Lahj, and Sa’ada governorates. Through the end of July, the IOM assisted in the return of 946 migrants from the country.
Authorities in both the north and south of the country often detained migrants. According to the IOM, migrants in detention who could afford to pay for their release were reportedly loaded on trucks and moved to other governorates where they were left in secluded areas, on the outskirts of towns, or forcibly transferred to the Sana’a Immigration, Passport, and Naturalization Authority facility. In the north, from April to June, Houthi authorities arrested and relocated 1,500 migrants to the south. The IOM estimated that approximately 5,000 migrants were living in Aden on the streets.
The IOM reported both the ROYG and Houthis detained migrants due to concerns the migrants could be recruited by the other party, and to scapegoat migrants for being carriers of COVID-19. UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations faced challenges accessing detention centers to monitor detained refugees and asylum seekers.
While the government generally deported migrants back to their country of origin, the Houthis frequently detained migrants for indefinite periods.
HRW and the IOM reported overcrowding in detention facilities, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse, with detainees showing signs of sores and festering wounds.
According to local authorities, 390 migrants were relocated from detention centers in Houthi-controlled areas to al-Jawf, and from mid-April to mid-May, 486 were moved to Ta’iz. The Houthis reportedly left at least 20,000 migrants stranded along the border with Saudi Arabia. As of June, approximately 7,000 migrants were reportedly still on the Saudi-Yemen border.
The IOM reported in September that an estimated 4,000 or more migrants in Ma’rib were stranded across the governorate, with many of them having lived there for more than six months, unable to continue their journey northwards due to movement restrictions along the main roads. In addition, more than 500 migrants were under risk of eviction in Ma’rib due to a lack of acceptance from the local community.
HRW reported that in April, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from Sa’ada in the northern part of the country. The Houthi forces described the migrants as “coronavirus carriers,” killing dozens and forcing them to the Saudi border. Saudi border guards reportedly fired on the migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia).
From January 1 through July 31, the IOM reported that 13,416 citizens returned to the country from Saudi Arabia and 366 from the Horn of Africa.
According to reports, the head of the militia that previously detained refugees at the Bureiqa migrant detention center was arrested and all refugees were released.
Access to Asylum: No law addresses the granting of refugee status or asylum, and there was no system for providing protection to asylum seekers. In past years the government provided automatic refugee status to Somalis who entered the country. The Houthis attempted to take over the refugee status determination process in areas under their control, leading many refugees to have lapsed documentation. Houthi armed groups arbitrarily detained migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in multiple facilities in Houthi-controlled territories. UNHCR was generally able to access populations to provide assistance and was working with the Houthis to come to a resolution on registration of refugees. UNHCR continued to conduct refugee status determinations in southern territory under ROYG control, in coordination with the government.
Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement was difficult for all persons in the country, including refugees, in view of the damage to roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure, and COVID-19 travel restrictions. Most of the country’s airports had significant damage or were closed to commercial traffic, making air travel difficult for all, including refugees. In areas controlled by Houthis, unofficial checkpoints blocked and delayed the movement of individuals and goods.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees lacked access to basic services due to the continuing conflict. The United Nations estimated only approximately half of the country’s public-health facilities remained functional during the year. Many were closed due to damage caused by the conflict, some were destroyed, and all facilities faced shortages in supplies, including medications and fuel to run generators.