Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: While individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately without reprisal, there were some limitations on freedom of speech. Strict antidefamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated verbal and physical abuse. Written or oral speech that incites racial or ethnic hatred and denies the Holocaust or crimes against humanity is illegal. Authorities may deport a noncitizen for publicly using “hate speech” or speech constituting a threat of terrorism.
On June 18, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of the new law against online hate speech, adopted by parliament on May 13. The so-called Avia Law required online platforms to remove within 24 hours the following: hateful content based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion; language trivializing genocide or crimes against humanity; and content deemed sexual harassment. Content related to terrorism and child pornography had to be removed within one hour of being flagged by a user. Social media companies faced fines up to 1.25 million euros ($1.75 million) if they failed to remove the content within the required timeframes. The Constitutional Council ruled that these provisions of the law infringed on freedom of speech and were “not appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.”
On June 19, the Constitutional Court found unconstitutional the law against downloading and possessing files that condone or justify terrorism. The judges found it violated freedoms of expression and communication and stated it was duplicative of existing antiterrorist laws. Introduced following the 2015 wave of terrorist attacks, the law was intended to “prevent the indoctrination of individuals susceptible to commit such acts.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, print and broadcast media, books, and online newspapers and journals were subject to the same antidefamation and hate-speech laws that limited freedom of expression.
The law provides protection to journalists who may be compelled to reveal sources only in cases where serious crimes occurred and access to a journalist’s sources was required to complete an official investigation.
Violence and Harassment: In 2019 the NGO Reporters without Borders (RSF) noted growing hatred directed at reporters in the country and an “unprecedented” level of violence from both protesters and riot police directed at journalists during Yellow Vest protests between 2018 and May 2019. The RSF, which reported dozens of cases of police violence and excessive firing of flash-ball rounds at reporters, filed a complaint with the Paris public prosecutor’s office in December 2019. As of year’s end, the investigations were ongoing.
On September 17, Interior Minister Darmanin introduced a new national law-enforcement doctrine aimed at reducing injuries by law enforcement personnel during demonstrations. Certain provisions, including the designation of a referent officer responsible for engaging credentialed members of the press aroused concern from human rights and press organizations, who argued the rules could be used to restrict press access. On September 22, the RSF and 40 media companies requested clarification from Interior Minister Darmanin.
UNESCO’s September report, Safety of Journalists Covering Protests—Preserving Freedom of the Press During Times of Civil Unrest, pointed to the use of flash ball ammunition by French law enforcement agencies as an example of disproportionate use of force. Several journalists were injured by flash balls in 2018, including Boris Kharlamoff, a journalist for the audio press agency A2PRL, who claimed he was hit in the side even though he presented a press badge, and Liberation reporter Nicolas Descottes, who was struck in the face.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, although it does not carry the possibility of imprisonment as punishment. The law distinguishes between defamation, which consists of the accusation of a particular fact, and insult, which does not.
National Security: The Committee to Protect Journalists raised concerns about police and prosecutors questioning reporters on national security grounds.
Nongovernmental impact: On September 2, to mark the start of the trial of the January 2015 attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the magazine reprinted on its front page the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that led terrorists to target its headquarters. The reprinted cover provoked condemnation from several Muslim countries and threats from al Qaeda. After receiving death threats, Charlie Hebdo senior staffer Marika Bret required police assistance to be exfiltrated from her home on September 14. On September 23, more than 100 news outlets signed an open letter calling for public support of Charlie Hebdo.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the law intelligence services have the power to monitor suspected threats to public order and detect future terrorists. The law also provides a legal framework for the intelligence services’ activities. Laws against hate speech apply to the internet.
In a May 28 report, the Central Office on the Fight against Crimes Linked to Information and Communication Technology announced it had ordered the removal of 4,332 terrorist-related online contents from February to the end of December, 2019, a 57 percent decrease compared with the previous year. Of 30,883 URLs that internet users flagged to authorities, the report noted it assessed 14,327 (46 percent) of them to be illegal, including 656 URLs related to terrorism–a 63 percent decrease from 2018. The office attributed the drop in terrorist-related content to less online publication by terrorist organizations and to successful EUROPOL efforts in countering and preventing terrorist propaganda online. The majority of illegal content the office found related to child pornography.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, subject to certain security conditions, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government enacted security legislation in 2019 that gave security forces greater powers at demonstrations, including the power to search bags and cars in and around demonstrations. It also approved making it a criminal offense for protesters to conceal their faces at demonstrations, punishable by one year in prison and 15,000 euros ($18,000) in fines.
In 2019, 210 persons were detained under a new ban on wearing face coverings to protests, which many did to protect themselves from police tear gas In a report released on September 29, Amnesty International accused authorities of using “vague laws” to crack down on antigovernment protesters and deter others from exercising their right to demonstrate. The report said many peaceful demonstrators had been fined, arrested, and prosecuted. According to Amnesty, more than 40,000 persons were convicted in 2018 and 2019 “on the basis of vague laws” for crimes including “contempt of public officials,” “participation in a group with a view to committing violent acts,” and “organizing a protest without complying with notification requirements.”
On January 27, then interior minister Christophe Castaner announced police would stop using GLI-F4 grenades, tear gas grenades containing 26 grams of TNT, that reportedly injured numerous protesters at demonstrations.
On September 17, the government enacted legislation establishing a new doctrine for maintaining order at demonstrations that was intended to be “more protective for the demonstrators” and “reduce the number of injured during demonstrations.” Among the changes are replacing the hand grenade model that is in service with a new model deemed less dangerous, putting in place stricter supervision of defense ball launchers, and implementing the widespread presence of a “supervisor” who assists the shooters to “assess the overall situation and the movements of the demonstrators.”
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The law permits the government to cancel and seize passports and identification cards of French nationals in some circumstances, such as when there are serious reasons to believe that they plan to travel abroad to join a terrorist group or engage in terrorist activities.
On March 16, President Macron announced nationwide lock-down measures aimed at curbing the COVID 19 pandemic outbreak. Residents were asked to stay at home except to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise, or seek medical care. Approximately 100,000 police and gendarmes were mobilized throughout the country to enforce the measures, including with the help of drones and helicopters in some regions. Violators faced fines of 135 euros ($162) for first-time offenders, increasing to 3,700 euros ($4,440) for multiple offenses with maximum punishment of up to six months in prison for more than four offenses in a single month.
The Ministry of the Interior announced that police executed 20.7 million interventions, resulting in 1.1 million fines and 570 trials. Several cities and municipalities, including Nice and Cannes, introduced curfews. The country never completely closed its borders, but travel became heavily restricted beginning in April. Persons travelling from within Europe were allowed in for essential reasons only and needed to present travel permits at the border. After eight weeks, the government lifted lockdown measures on May 11. On June 15, the government lifted coronavirus restrictions on movement at its European borders (land, air, and sea) for EU members and a few other countries.
On October 14, President Macron announced a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew in areas most impacted by COVID-19, which included Paris and the Ile-de-France region, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Aix-Marseille, Montpellier, Rouen, Saint-Etienne, and Toulouse. On October 22, Prime Minister Castex announced the extension of the curfew to an additional 38 departments in France, bringing the total number of persons who must adhere to the restrictive measures to 46 million (two-thirds of population) in 54 departments.
On October 28, President Macron announced a second wave of nationwide lock-down measures aimed at curbing the COVID 19 pandemic outbreak. French citizens were required to stay at home except to buy groceries, go to school, travel to work, exercise, or seek medical care.
In-country Movement: The law requires persons engaged in itinerant activities with a fixed domicile to obtain a license that is renewable every four years. Itinerant persons without a fixed abode must possess travel documents.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Calais continued to be a gathering point for migrants from the Middle East and Africa trying to reach the United Kingdom. As of September authorities estimated that approximately 1,000 migrants and refugees lived around Calais, while support groups said the number was closer to 1,500.
On July 21, several human rights groups warned in a letter to Interior Minister Darmanin that hundreds of migrants in the Calais area “no longer had access to drinking water, showers, [and] food.” The regional prefect claimed that two meal distribution sites were functioning and had the capacity to distribute 1,000 meals per day. He stated, “We also have shuttles bringing people to showers, and demand has been consistent for several weeks with about 150 showers per day.” In a September 24 statement issued following a two-day visit to Calais, however, the defender of rights denounced the “degrading and inhumane” living conditions of migrants living in the city. On September 25, the Council of State refused to suspend the order issued by the region’s prefect banning feeding migrants in the center of Calais. On September 29, police dismantled a camp of an estimated 800 migrants and refugees there. According to the prefect, it was the largest dismantling of a Calais camp since the “Jungle” was cleared of approximately 9,000 migrants in 2015 and 2016. The Pas-de-Calais prefecture asserted that conditions in the 500 tents at the site posed “serious problems of security, health, and order,” particularly for staff and patients of a nearby health center. The evacuated migrants were brought to shelters in Pas-de-Calais, other departments in the north, and other regions of the country.
On July 7, the Aix-en-Provence Court of Appeals upheld the May 7 conviction of two police officers for the illegal arrest in April of a legally documented Afghan refugee. The officers drove the man 18 miles from the point of arrest and abandoned him; he also claimed they beat him. One officer received a three-year prison sentence (one year suspended), and the other 18 months (six months suspended), a reduction of their original sentences. The officers were prohibited from police work, one permanently and one for three years.
On July 2, the European Court of Human Rights convicted France for violating protections against inhuman and degrading conditions, prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights, in the 2013 case of three adult male asylum seekers. The court awarded the victims a total of 32,000 euros ($38,400). The court noted the individuals had to wait between 90 and 131 days before being able to register their asylum claims, rather than the 15 days France required at the time. After registering, the men still could not access lodging and the temporary allowance for asylum seekers, forcing them to live on the streets for months.
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. The system was active and accessible to those seeking protection. The Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Refugees (OFPRA) provided asylum application forms in 24 languages, including English, Albanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Tamil, and Arabic. Applicants, however, must complete them in French, generally without government-funded language assistance. Applications for asylum must be made on French territory or at a French border-crossing point. Asylum seekers outside of the country may request from a French embassy or consulate a special visa for the purpose of seeking asylum. After arrival in France, the visa holder must follow the same procedure as other asylum seekers in France; however, the visa holder is authorized to work while his or her asylum application is processed and evaluated, unlike other applicants. Asylum seekers may appeal decisions of OFPRA to the National Court on Asylum Law.
In 2018 parliament adopted an asylum and immigration bill intended to reduce the average time for processing asylum applications to six months and shorten from 120 to 90 days the period asylum seekers have to make an application. It also includes measures to facilitate the removal of aliens in detention, extend from 45 to 90 days the maximum duration of administrative detention, and from 16 to 24 hours the duration of administrative detention to verify an individual’s right to stay. The law extends the duration of residence permits for persons granted subsidiary protection and for stateless refugees from one year to four years and enables foreigners who have not been able to register for asylum to access shelter. It includes measures to strengthen the protection of girls and young men exposed to the risk of sexual mutilation, states that a country persecuting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons cannot be considered “safe,” and adopts protective provisions on the right to remain for victims of domestic violence. By law unaccompanied migrant children are taken into the care of the child protection system.
OFPRA stated that priority attention was given to female victims of violence, persons persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors, and victims of torture.
On September 29, the Anafe migrant assistance group alleged rights violations on the country’s borders, including officials preventing new arrivals from filing asylum claims. “France violates daily the international conventions it has ratified, European law, and its own internal legislation,” Anafe claimed. The report claimed authorities engaged in illegal practices, abuse of procedures, and violations of fundamental rights.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government considered 16 countries to be “safe countries of origin” for purposes of asylum. A “safe country” is one that provides for compliance with the principles of liberty, democracy, rule of law, and fundamental human rights. This policy reduced the chances of an asylum seeker from one of these countries obtaining asylum but did not prevent it. While individuals originating in a safe country of origin may apply for asylum, they may receive only a special form of temporary protection that allows them to remain in the country. Authorities examined asylum requests through an emergency procedure that may not exceed 15 days. Countries considered “safe” included Albania, Armenia, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cabo Verde, Georgia, Ghana, India, Kosovo, Mauritius, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Senegal, and Serbia.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities maintained administrative holding centers for foreigners pending deportation. Authorities could hold undocumented migrants in these facilities for a maximum of 90 days, except in cases related to terrorism. There were 23 holding centers on the mainland and three in the overseas territories, with a total capacity of 1,970 persons.
On September 22, six refugee and migrant assistance associations (Association Service Social Familial Migrants, Forum-Refugies-Cosi, France Terre d’Asile, the Inter-Movement Committee for Aid of Evacuees (Cimade), Ordre de Malte, and Solidarite Mayotte) released a joint annual report that estimated 54,000 undocumented migrants were placed in administrative holding centers in 2019, representing a 20 percent increase from 45,000 persons in such centers in 2018.
According to the associations’ annual report, the government detained 3,380 children, including 3,101 in Mayotte. The report noted, however, that in 80 percent of the cases, the duration of detentions did not exceed 24 hours. Since the law prohibits the separation of children from their parents, they were detained together. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the provision of the 2018 asylum and immigration bill that doubled the maximum detention time for foreigners subject to deportation to up to 90 days. In 2019 the government did not report uniformly screening migrants in Mayotte for trafficking indicators prior to their deportation. The government did not report taking steps to address the 3,000 to 4,000 unaccompanied Comorian minors at risk for sex and labor trafficking in the French department of Mayotte by offering protection services such as medical, shelter, or education.
Durable Solutions: The government has provisions to manage a range of solutions for integration, resettlement, and return of migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers. The government accepted refugees for resettlement from other countries and facilitated local integration and naturalization, particularly of refugees in protracted situations. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of migrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers to their home countries. In 2018, the latest year for which statistics were available, the government voluntarily repatriated 10,678 undocumented migrants, including 2,709 minors, to their countries of origin. As of April the government offered an allowance of 650 euros ($780) per person (adults and children) for voluntary return for all asylum seekers coming from countries whose citizens need a visa for France and 300 euros ($360) per person (adults and children) coming from countries whose citizens do not need a visa for France and citizens coming from Kosovo.
A parliamentary report released on September 23 found that despite recognizing significant progress since 2018, progress remained to be made in the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. The report stressed the need to improve access to French learning and employment. It recommended the creation of counselors specialized in accompanying refugees to facilitate access to employment.
Temporary Protection: Authorities may grant individuals a one-year renewable permit and may extend the permit for an additional two years. According to OFPRA, the government did not grant temporary protection in 2019, the most recent year for which information was available.
OFPRA reported there were 1,493 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2019. It attributed statelessness to various factors, including contradictions among differing national laws, government stripping of nationality, and lack of birth registration. As the agency responsible for the implementation of international conventions on refugees and stateless persons, OFPRA provided benefits to stateless persons. OFPRA’s annual report stated that it made 364 stateless status requests in 2019 and granted stateless status to 56 persons in 2019. The government provided a one-year residence permit marked “private and family life” to persons deemed stateless that allowed them to work. After two permit renewals, stateless persons could apply for and obtain a 10-year residence permit.
The law affords persons the opportunity to gain citizenship. A person may qualify to acquire citizenship if: either of the person’s parents is a citizen, the person was legally adopted by a citizen, the person was born in the country to stateless parents or to parents whose nationality does not transfer to the child, or the person marries a citizen. A person who has reached the legal age of majority (18) may apply for citizenship through naturalization after five years of habitual residence in the country. Applicants for citizenship must have good knowledge of both the French language and civics.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. While the government generally respected these rights, it imposed limits on groups it deemed extremist. The government arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned a number of individuals for speech that incited racial hatred, endorsed Nazism, or denied the Holocaust (see also section 6, Anti-Semitism). An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression.
Freedom of Speech: In July the city of Wiesbaden outlawed the wearing of symbols resembling the Jewish yellow badge with the inscription “unvaccinated.” Some protesters and antivaccination activists had been wearing such symbols during demonstrations against coronavirus regulations. Wiesbaden mayor Oliver Franz called the symbols an “unacceptable comparison” that would trivialize the Holocaust.
In February state governments in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hamburg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein announced they would ban school students from wearing full-face veils. Baden-Wuerttemberg implemented the ban in July.
In August the Federal Labor Court rejected an appeal by Berlin against a regional labor court’s 2018 judgment that a general ban on teachers wearing religious symbols in schools was discriminatory. The federal court found the Berlin ban violated teachers’ freedom of religion.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred.
Violence and Harassment: On May 1, an estimated 20 to 25 men attacked a seven-member camera team in Berlin filming a demonstration against the COVID restrictions, hospitalizing six of the camera team. Berlin’s police chief Barbara Slowik announced the state security service was investigating the matter, but on May 2, six suspects were released from custody, and no arrest warrants were issued.
In August the German Union of Journalists and the German Federation of Journalists criticized Berlin police for failing to protect journalists covering COVID protests. The two unions reported police failed to intervene when protesters repeatedly insulted, threatened, and attacked photographers and film crews, forcing some of the journalists to stop covering the August 1 protests.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, with one exception, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The exception is that the law permits the government to take down websites that belong to banned organizations or include speech that incites racial hatred, endorses Nazism, or denies the Holocaust. Authorities worked directly with internet service providers and online media companies to monitor and remove such content. Authorities monitored websites, social media accounts, messenger services, and streaming platforms associated with right-wing extremists. The state-level project Prosecution Rather Than Deletion in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) received 771 offense reports, primarily for incitement.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events supporting extreme right-wing neo-Nazism.
While the constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, the government restricted these freedoms in some instances.
Groups seeking to hold open-air public rallies and marches must obtain permits, and state and local officials may deny permits when public safety concerns arise or when the applicant is from a prohibited organization, mainly right-wing extremist groups. Authorities allowed nonprohibited right-wing extremist or neo-Nazi groups to hold public rallies or marches when they did so in accordance with the law.
In an attempt to limit the COVID-19 outbreak in March, state governments temporarily banned political demonstrations. Some protests took place nonetheless, including protests against the COVID-related restrictions. Beginning in late April, restrictions on demonstrations were gradually relaxed as long as protesters observed social distancing rules to limit the spread of COVID-19. Police broke up demonstrations where they deemed protesters violated these rules.
It is illegal to block officially registered demonstrations. Many anti-Nazi activists refused to accept such restrictions and attempted to block neo-Nazi demonstrations or to hold counterdemonstrations, resulting in clashes between police and anti-Nazi demonstrators.
Police detained known or suspected activists when they believed such individuals intended to participate in illegal or unauthorized demonstrations. The length of detention varied from state to state.
The government restricted freedom of association in some instances. The law permits authorities to prohibit organizations whose activities the Constitutional Court or federal or state governments determine to be opposed to the constitutional democratic order or otherwise illegal. While only the Federal Constitutional Court may prohibit political parties on these grounds, both federal and state governments may prohibit or restrict other organizations, including groups that authorities classify as extremist or criminal in nature. Organizations have the right to appeal such prohibitions or restrictions.
The federal and state OPCs monitored several hundred organizations. Monitoring consisted of collecting information from public sources, written materials, and firsthand accounts, but it also included intrusive methods, such as the use of undercover agents who were subject to legal oversight. The federal and state OPCs published lists of monitored organizations, including left- and right-wing political parties. Although the law stipulates surveillance must not interfere with an organization’s legitimate activities, representatives of some monitored groups, such as Scientologists, complained that the publication of the organizations’ names contributed to prejudice against them.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: Authorities issued three types of travel documents to stateless individuals: those with refugee or asylum status, and foreigners without travel documents. Stateless individuals received a “travel document for the stateless.” Those with recognized refugee and asylum status received a “travel document for refugees.” Foreigners from non-EU countries received a “travel document for foreigners”if theydid not have a passport or identity document and could not obtain a passport from their country of origin.
A 2016 federal government law requires refugees with recognized asylum status who received social benefits to live within the state that handled their asylum request for a period of three years, and several states implemented the residence rule. States themselves can add other residence restrictions, such as assigning a refugee to a specific city. Local authorities who supported the rule stated that it facilitated integration and enabled authorities to plan for increased infrastructure needs, such as schools.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous municipalities and state governments imposed a variety of strict temporary restrictions on freedom of movement to prevent the spread of the virus, including stay-at-home requirements throughout the country and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s entry ban on visitors from out of state. Citizens challenged many of these restrictions in court, with varying results. For example, while Saarland’s state Constitutional Court suspended on April 28 the state ban on leaving one’s home without a “good reason,” The Bavarian Administrative Court ruled on April 28 that the state’s similar restriction was valid on the basis that there were in fact many good reasons to leave one’s home. While most restrictions were lifted in the summer, as of November the government had instituted a nationwide ban on overnight accommodations in an attempt to restrict in-country travel.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Assaults on refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants continued, as did attacks on government-provided asylum homes. On August 1, prosecutors charged three private security guards at a government-run reception center for asylum seekers in Halberstadt, Saxony-Anhalt with causing bodily harm after a video appeared online in April 2019 showing guards beating an asylum seeker. The trial continued as of November.
On May 16, a group of 15-20 youths attacked four asylum seekers in Guben, Brandenburg. Two were able to flee, but the other two were beaten, kicked, and racially insulted. A 16-year-old Guinean and a 19-year-old Moroccan were injured and had to be treated in the hospital. Investigations continued as of September.
On April 22, the Administrative Court of Leipzig ruled an asylum seeker could leave the holding center where he was staying because it was too crowded to respect COVID-19 distancing rules. The man had to share a room of 43 square feet with another person and had to share toilets, showers, and a kitchen with 49 other residents. The state of Saxony declared it would appeal the decision, and the case continued as of September.
In May, Bundestag members Filiz Polat and Luise Amtsberg (both Green Party) accused the federal government of a systemic failure in its dealing with refugees amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. They criticized that refugees were confined together in cramped living conditions where the coronavirus could easily spread. They also faulted the federal government for ending many legal forms of immigration in light of COVID-19 while still enabling thousands of seasonal workers to enter the country in disregard of infection protection measures.
Refoulement: In 2018 the government lifted its deportation ban for Afghanistan, with 107 refugees deported to that country during the first three months of the year. Previous federal policy permitted deportations only of convicted criminals and those deemed a security risk. NGOs including Amnesty International criticized the policy as a breach of the principle of refoulement. On March 30, the Ministry of the Interior announced a temporary ban on deportations to Afghanistan due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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. The country faced the task of integrating approximately 1.3 million asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who arrived between 2015 and 2017. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) reported 165,938 asylum requests in 2019 and 74,429 requests in the first eight months of the year (see also section 6, Displaced Children).
BAMF reported 962 persons from China requested asylum in the country in 2019, more than doubling the previous year’s figures. Of the total of 962, 193 applicants were Uyghurs, nearly triple the figure from 2018; 96 percent of Uyghur asylum requests were granted.
The NGO Pro Asyl criticized the “airport procedure” for asylum seekers who arrive at the country’s airports. Authorities stated the airport procedure was used only in less complex cases and that more complex asylum cases were referred for processing through regular BAMF channels. Authorities maintained that only persons coming from countries the government identified as “safe” (see below) and those without valid identification documents could be considered via the “fast track procedure.” The “fast track procedure” enabled BAMF to decide on asylum applications within a two-day period, during which asylum applicants were detained at the airport. If authorities denied the application, the applicant had the right to appeal. Appeals were processed within two weeks, during which the applicant was detained at the airport. If the appeal was denied, authorities deported the applicant. The NGO Fluechtlingsrat Berlin criticized a similar “fast track” or “direct” procedure applied to some asylum seekers in Berlin. The organization claimed asylum applicants were not provided with sufficient time and access to legal counsel.
In 2018 BAMF suspended the head of its Bremen branch, Ulrike Bremermann, amid allegations she improperly approved up to 1,200 asylum applications. In April 2019, however, a BAMF review concluded that just 145 of 18,000 positively approved Bremen asylum decisions since 2006 that were reviewed by a special commission (0.81 percent) should be subject to legal review–a proportion below the national average of 1.2 percent. In September 2019 a Bremen prosecutor brought charges against Bremermann and two private lawyers. They are accused of 121 criminal offenses–mainly asylum law violations, but also falsifying documents and violating official secrets. In November the Bremen Regional Court rejected 100 of the charges, including all of the charges related to violations of the asylum and residence laws, asserting there was “no criminal offense committed.” As of November the trial for the remaining 21 minor charges had not begun.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country adheres to the EU’s Dublin III regulation that permits authorities to turn back or deport individuals who entered the country through “safe countries of transit,” which include the EU member states, and Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. “Safe countries of origin” also include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ghana, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Senegal, and Serbia. The government did not return asylum seekers to Syria. Pro Asyl pointed out that asylum seekers who under the Dublin III regulation fell into another EU state’s responsibility but could not be returned to that country often remained in a legal gray zone. They were not allowed to work or participate in integration measures, including German-language classes.
Freedom of Movement: Under a 2019 law addressing deportation, all asylum seekers must remain in initial reception facilities until the end of their asylum procedure, up to 18 months. Rejected asylum seekers who do not cooperate sufficiently in obtaining travel documents can be obliged to stay in the institutions for longer than 18 months. Authorities can arrest without a court order persons who are obliged to leave the country. Persons obliged to leave the country who do not attend an embassy appointment to establish their identity can be placed in detention for 14 days. The law indicates that persons detained under “deportation detention”–including families and children–would be held in regular prisons. Refugees deemed to be flight risks can be taken into preventive detention. Officials who pass on information regarding a planned deportation are liable to prosecution. Legal scholars stress the regulations are legally problematic because both the German constitution and the EU Return Directive pose high hurdles for deportation detention. The law also provides for the withdrawal after two weeks of all social benefits from those recognized as asylum seekers in other EU states. As of January no federal state had made use of the law.
Authorities issued 11,081 expulsion orders in 2019, considerably more than the 7,408 expelled in 2018. Persons originating from Ukraine (1,252 cases), Albania (1,220), and Serbia (828) were subject to the highest number of expulsions, which are orders to leave the country, often due to criminal activity. Bundestag member Ulla Jelpke (Left Party) called for an abolition of the practice, arguing that some of the expellees had been living in the country for decades.
Employment: Persons with recognized asylum status were able to access the labor market without restriction; asylum seekers whose applications were pending were generally not allowed to work during their first three months after applying for asylum. According to the Federal Employment Agency, approximately 270,000 refugees were unemployed as of August. Migration experts estimated 40-45 percent of refugees who arrived in 2015 were employed at the end of 2019. Refugees and asylum seekers faced several hurdles in obtaining employment, including lengthy review times for previous qualifications, lack of official certificates and degrees, and limited German language skills.
The law excludes some asylum seekers from access to certain refugee integration measures, such as language courses and employment opportunities. This applies to asylum seekers from countries considered “safe countries of origin” and unsuccessful asylum seekers who cannot be returned to the country through which they first entered the area covered by the Dublin III regulation. The government did not permit rejected asylum seekers or persons with temporary protected status who are themselves responsible for obstacles to deportation to work, nor asylum seekers from safe countries of origin if they applied for asylum after 2015.
Access to Basic Services: State officials retain decision-making authority on how to house asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants and whether to provide allowances or other benefits.
Several states provided medical insurance cards for asylum seekers. The insurance cards allow asylum seekers to visit any doctor of their choice without prior approval by authorities. In other states, asylum seekers received a card only after 15 months, and community authorities had to grant permits to asylum seekers before they could consult a doctor. The welfare organization Diakonie criticized the medical insurance card system, which only enabled asylum seekers to obtain emergency treatment. Local communities and private groups sometimes provided supplemental health care.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted for resettlement and facilitated the local integration (including naturalization) of refugees who had fled their countries of origin, particularly for refugees belonging to vulnerable groups. Such groups included women with children, refugees with disabilities, victims of trafficking in persons, and victims of torture or rape. Authorities granted residence permits to long-term migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who could not return to their countries of origin.
The government assisted asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants with the safe and voluntary return to their countries. In the first half of the year, authorities provided financial assistance of 300 to 500 euros ($360 to $600) to approximately 1,691 individuals to facilitate voluntary returns to their country of origin. Beneficiaries were either rejected asylum seekers or foreigners without valid identification. The largest group of program applicants came from Iraq.
Temporary Protection: The government provides two forms of temporary protection–subsidiary and humanitarian–for individuals who do not qualify as refugees. In the first eight months of the year, the government extended subsidiary protection to 12,267 persons. This status is usually granted if a person does not qualify for refugee or asylum status but might face severe danger in his or her country of origin due to war or conflict. During the same period, 3,816 individuals were granted humanitarian protection. Humanitarian protection is granted if a person does not qualify for any form of protected status, but there are other humanitarian reasons the person cannot return to his or her country of origin (for example, unavailability of medical treatment in their country of origin for an existing health condition). Both forms of temporary protection are granted for one year and may be extended. After five years, a person under subsidiary or humanitarian protection can apply for an unlimited residency status if he or she earns enough money to be independent of public assistance and has a good command of German.
UNHCR reported 14,947 stateless persons in the country at the end of 2019. Some of these persons lost their previous citizenship when the Soviet Union collapsed or Yugoslavia disintegrated. Others were Palestinians from Lebanon and Syria.
Laws and policies provide stateless persons the opportunity to gain citizenship on a nondiscriminatory basis. Stateless persons may apply for citizenship after six years of residence. Producing sufficient evidence to establish statelessness could often be difficult, however, because the burden of proof is on the applicant. Authorities generally protected stateless persons from deportation to their country of origin or usual residence if they faced a threat of political persecution there.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a July MetroPOLL company survey, 62 percent of respondents believed media in the country was not free, and 50 percent believed they were not free on social media.
The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 36,066 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2019; 12,298 stood trial and 3,831 were penalized. In contrast from 2014 to 2019, the number of individuals that received prison sentences under insult laws dropped to 2,663. In July police detained 11 persons and arrested one for comments made on social media posts about the president’s daughter and son-in-law, former treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, following the birth of their son on charges of “insulting a public official.”
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons whom it has issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” claiming ties to or support for the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On June 23, an Istanbul court upheld the conviction and sentencing of the main opposition CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu on multiple charges related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court had sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018 for “insulting the republic,” “insulting the president,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” in tweets. At year’s end she remained free pending her final legal appeal. Kaftancioglu also faced separate charges under a December indictment by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for ordering photographs of alleged illegal construction on land owned by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The indictment sought up to 10 years’ imprisonment for Kaftancioglu. Authorities scheduled the first hearing of the case for May 2021.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by MPs on the floor of parliament and provides for the possibility of fining violators; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law. Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from a statement the Bar Association released in 2017, stating, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
In late April the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint for hate speech against Ali Erbas, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), following a sermon in which he stated that homosexuality causes illness, including HIV. In response President Erdogan announced that an attack against Erbas was an attack against the state. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office promptly opened a criminal investigation against the bar association, and President Erdogan commented, “All will know their place.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In 2018 authorities convicted 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet on charges of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. After a lengthy appeal process, the Constitutional Court found no rights violations in cases for 11 of the journalists but ruled in favor of three. On November 10, the ECHR found that Turkey violated the freedom of expression rights of eight of the journalists and ordered them to be compensated 16,000 euro ($19,200) each. On November 24, the ECHR separately found that the country had violated the rights of another defendant, journalist Ahmet Sik.
In July an Istanbul court convicted Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” for articles he wrote on Turkey as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. The Constitutional Court had previously reviewed the press articles in the indictment and determined they were protected by freedom of the press. Yucel indicated he would appeal the ruling.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including through the use of electronic monitoring. For example, in October an Istanbul court sentenced five of eight Yeni Yasam, Yeni Cag, and OdaTV journalists on trial for allegedly revealing the identity of intelligence officers to more than four years in prison. The court released three of the defendants, Baris Pehlivan, Hulya Kilinc, and Murat Agirel, based on time served but imposed an international travel ban. The court acquitted the two OdaTV journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2019 at least nine journalists were physically attacked, often outside of their place of work. Although in some cases suspects were identified quickly, by year’s end authorities had made no arrests or publicly noted progress in investigations against the perpetrators. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. On August 19, Saban Onen, a journalist of a Bursa-based local newspaper was attacked in a parking garage in Karacabey. Onen claimed that the attackers were relatives of the ruling AKP mayor of Karacabey and specifically referenced his writing about the mayor during the attack. On August 26, a vehicle belonging to the Nevsehir Journalists Association was set on fire. The chair of the association, Bayram Ekici, stated he believed the attack was a premediated attempt to intimidate journalists.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state. In September authorities arrested on slander charges the publisher and editor in chief of a daily newspaper in Kocaeli Province after the newspaper ran a story accusing local AKP officials of sexually abusing a minor.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Human rights organizations voiced strong concern that a law governing social media that went into effect October 1 would result in increasing social media censorship and indiscriminate enforcement of content removal requests imposed by courts or made through individuals’ requests by social media companies (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom for details). Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, authorities required publishing houses to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The Turkish Publisher’s Association reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities banned books because of objectionable content.
In August an Istanbul court banned access to reporting by major newspapers and broadcast networks that a large tender was awarded to a friend of the president’s son. In September an Istanbul court ordered an additional access ban to news articles regarding the initial access ban.
In October police raided the Van bureau of Mezopotamya Ajansi and the homes of many journalists of the news agency. Police detained four journalists during the raid and confiscated their cameras and technical equipment. One of the journalists, Cemil Ugur, first reported the story of two villagers in Van who were allegedly detained, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter by soldiers in September. The courts granted a confidentiality order requested by the Van Chief Prosecutor’s Office on news reports concerning the incident. On October 1, an Ankara penal judge also ruled to permit the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to block access to Mezopotamya Ajansi’s online content.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. For instance, the government continued to pursue a case against Cumhuriyet journalists Alican Uludag and Duygu Guvenc for “publicly degrading the judiciary” and “insulting the Turkish nation” for their coverage of the country’s arrest of Andrew Brunson in 2018. On October 22, the court ruled that Uludag and Guvenc be acquitted as “the act in question is not defined as a crime in the law.”
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. In December the owner of private media outlet Olay TV announced that he would close the channel after only a month of operation because its editorial line prioritized pro-HDP content. The editor in chief of Olay TV announced during its last broadcast that the government pressured channel executives to close the channel. Other outlet employees told reporters the channel faced government scrutiny because it was too critical of the government and included reports of alleged corruption and human rights violations by government officials.
Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of December, RTUK had fined or suspended independent broadcasters in 54 instances. During that time government-affiliated broadcasters received two warnings and one fine. Independent broadcasters paid 25 times more in fines than government-affiliated ones.
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. In July, RTUK announced it would suspend pro-opposition television stations Halk TV and TELE1 for five days and that the two outlets could lose their broadcast licenses entirely if they received another penalty. RTUK ruled that TELE1 “incited hatred” during two news programs that criticized the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and President Erdogan. RTUK imposed the suspension on Halk TV for criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists warned, “the two channels were two remaining pro-opposition broadcast outlets in a media landscape that has become predominantly progovernment” and that “their presence is vital for media plurality” in the country. After the broadcasters lost court appeals, RTUK suspended TELE1 and Halk TV broadcasts for five days in September.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of 2019. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted. In March, Engin Ozkoc of the opposition CHP insulted the president using the same phrasing that the president used in reference to Ozkoc. Ozkoc’s comments set off a brawl on the floor of the parliament. Erdogan sued Ozkoc for libel and the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Ozkoc’s comments.
In September a court sentenced the former cochair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party Sebahat Tuncel to 11 months in prison for insulting the president. Tuncel had called Erdogan a misogynist and “an enemy of women and Kurds.”
In May police arrested former CHP Izmir province vice chair Banu Ozdemir for her social media posts sharing videos of Izmir mosques playing the song “Bella Ciao” from their speakers after a hacking incident. Ozdemir was arrested on charges of “denigrating religious values” and spent one week in pretrial detention. On December 10, an Izmir court acquitted Ozdemir.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In March an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of seven journalists and editors for their news organizations’ reports on the funeral of an alleged MIT official who died in Libya in February. Authorities charged the journalists with exposing the identities of MIT agents and their families. In September an Istanbul court found five of the journalists guilty and issued sentences from three to more than four years imprisonment. The court acquitted two of the journalists.
The trial of prominent columnist Ahmet Altan continued, and he remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” relating to allegations he had a role in the 2016 attempted coup; Altan received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. In December the Constitutional Court rejected Altan’s application for review of his re-arrest. Rights groups claimed that Altan faced charges in reprisal for his work as a journalists and author.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in March authorities detained a group of journalists, including five foreign journalists along the Turkey-Greece border, for allegedly violating the border zone. All were later released.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.
In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education.
In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the “Academics for Peace,” was a violation of freedom of expression. The academics had signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast and been prosecuted on terrorist propaganda charges. As of September, 622 of the 822 Academics for Peace cases ended in acquittal. Most of the academics acquitted in 2019 had been fired from their positions and had not been reinstated at year’s end.
In April the parliament amended the Higher Education Law. The amendment included specification of grounds for censure and dismissal of academics, including engaging in and supporting “activities that qualify as terror” and insulting a superior. The University Faculty Members Association released a statement that expressed concern the amendment threatens academic freedom.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies. In December 2019 the Council of Higher Education temporarily suspended the operating license of Istanbul Sehir University, established by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January the council seized the assets of the Science and Art Foundation that managed the university and appointed trustees to its management, citing financial mismanagement and inadequate funds as the reason for the intervention. Academic freedom activists claimed that the actions were in retaliation for Davutoglu’s establishment of a new opposition party.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The government banned more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” Police arrested members of Grup Yorum, a popular folk band collective, in 2016 on terror charges alleging the group’s links to terrorist group Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front and banned them from performing. In April and May, two members of the group, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokcek died as a result of hunger strikes in protest of the group’s treatment. Two additional members remained in prison. In August police detained at least 10 persons for attending an unauthorized concert in Istanbul by the group. Authorities arrested at least two persons for attending the unauthorized concert.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, police intervened in at least 637 demonstrations. As many as 1,364 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither the government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
In July dozens of leaders and members of 29 bar associations participated in a march to Ankara to protest anticipated legal changes to regulations governing bar associations. Police forcibly disrupted the march as they entered the city of Ankara and prevented bar association chairs from participating in a sit-in in front of the parliament. Video footage showed police pushing and jostling the bar association heads.
On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators intending to mark International Women’s Day by marching through Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. Prior to the scheduled march, the governor of Istanbul announced the areas would be closed for demonstrations and assembly and deployed an extensive police presence to prevent access to the main thoroughfares. Despite the announcement, groups proceeded with the planned march and attempted to enter the area. Police blocked the entrances and dispersed the group using tear gas and riot shields. According to media reports, police detained 32 women during the confrontations. Police did not disperse commemorations and marches hosted by women’s groups in the city’s Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Authorities generally prohibited domestic and international observers from observing the hearings.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. For instance, the Tekirdag Governor’s Office closed entrance to the province citing COVID-19 precautions ahead of the HDP March for Democracy from Edirne to Ankara, scheduled in June to take place during three days. Sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK continued for the second year. Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, in July detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability.
In January police prevented Melek Cetinkaya, the mother of one of 259 military cadets jailed and sentenced to aggravated life in prison in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup, from launching a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul. Police detained Cetinkaya and 66 family members of other imprisoned cadets who were to join the march. The group planned to walk from Ankara to Silivri Prison in Istanbul, where the cadets are jailed. Police teams took heightened security measures in the city center of Ankara before the group gathered and began detaining marchers as they entered the area. Authorities later released all of the detained protesters. Cetinkaya accused police of excessive force.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. The longstanding bans in the southeast of the country have remained in place during the year.
In contrast with previous years, labor unions, labor organizations, and opposition political parties called on citizens to honor Labor Day on May 1 while respecting social distance measures. In particular these groups encouraged supporters to sing songs from balconies, share messages via social media, and explore other activities that respect social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis. Social media showed that many celebrations occurred in isolation across the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, police detained and later released at least 45 persons for attempting to march despite a mandatory three-day COVID-related lockdown. Among others, police detained the chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), Arzu Cerkezoglu, as well as 25 other DISK members as they attempted to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prior to the event, DISK claimed to have contacted and informed the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding its plans to organize a march. The office stated that DISK received Istanbul approval to travel by vehicles, not by foot, and blamed DISK for violating social distancing measures and initiating brawls with law enforcement officials.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2019 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. For instance, the HRA reported that continued investigations and audits during the last four years have created immense pressure on the organization. In February the government launched a three-week audit of the HRA.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. On July 3, an Istanbul court convicted four of the human rights activists on terrorism-related charges. Nearly three years after his arrest, Kilic received a prison sentence of six years and three months for membership in a terrorist organization. The court sentenced former Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, and fellow human rights defenders Gunal Kursun and Ozlem Dalkiran to two years and one month for assisting a terrorist organization. The court acquitted seven other human rights activists including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi. The four convicted human rights activists remained free pending appeal; the ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, imposed in 2018, remained in place.
On December 27, the parliament adopted new counterterrorist financing legislation entitled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” granting the Ministry of Interior powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs. The legislation prompted strong concern among civil society groups. Nearly 700 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing the new law, noting it would expand Ministry of Interior “political tutelage,” severely restrict fundraising, and allow for rapid closure of civil society groups without judicial review.
On July 11, parliament approved a law changing the regulations governing bar associations. The law allows lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 bar association members to establish new associations after collecting a minimum of 2,000 member signatures. Whereas previous regulations only permitted one bar association per province, the new regulations allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces, paving the way for provincial associations to splinter into many groups, which could dilute the voices of existing organizations. The law also changed delegate representation within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA), a governing body of bar associations, reducing the influence of large bar associations from major metropolitan areas. All 80 Turkish bar associations, as well as human rights groups, publicly criticized the law, predicting it would undermine judicial independence, divide bar associations along political lines, and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. To date, bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In September a group of Istanbul Bar Association lawyers gathered enough signatures to establish a new association in the city and filed a registration petition with UTBA.
On October 2, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular postponing bar association elections scheduled by law from October to December. The circular cited anti-COVID-19 precautions banning all in-person events held by professional organizations and NGOs. Major bar associations protested the move, alleging the postponement decision was political since a later election timeline would allow newly established bar associations to participate. On October 5, a total of 76 of 80 bar associations issued a statement alleging that the circular violates Turkish law and filed civil suits. Courts dismissed Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir associations’ suits. In December the minister of interior postponed the elections further to March 2021.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In March the country enacted amendments to the Law on Associations introducing requirements that associations notify local administrative authorities of any changes in membership within 30 days or face penalties. The Council of Europe issued a statement calling the amendments “problematic on both procedural and substantive accounts” and noted they failed to meet requirements under the ECHR.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In June authorities lifted passport restrictions for 28,075 individuals, in addition to the 57,000 lifted in 2019, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement, as did restrictions on interprovincial travel due to COVID-19 precautions.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
The minister of interior and governorates also restricted interprovincial travel between March and May followed by limited restrictions on movement to and from metropolitan municipalities as measures to contain COVID-19. Some governorates, particularly in the northwest and southeast, instituted subsequent bans on movement as anti-COVID-19 measures throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
In October 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in areas of Syria affected by the operation. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria as a result of the operation have returned. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants” in 2019. The DGMM reported 201,437 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. Due to border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government paused deportations until June 1, and deportations continued at a much lower rate throughout the year. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 34 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. In February, however, the government announced that the borders the country shares with the EU were “open,” prompting more than 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups. Because the borders remained closed on the Greek side, many individuals were stuck in difficult conditions, particularly on the land border with Greece near Pazarkule. Press reports asserted some Turkish border guards aided refugees in charging and dismantling border fences. Unable to cross into Greece and unable to return to their homes in Turkey, hundreds of refugees remained at the border for weeks in an unofficial encampment. On March 1, Istanbul Bar Association representatives visited Pazarkule and reported that a group of approximately 1,000 individuals, including women, children, and elderly, were in the region and experienced poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical services, and basic goods, including, food, clothes, and blankets. The bar association delegation reported that many individuals were injured by tear gas capsules.
After weeks of living in open-air temporary shelters, on March 26, Turkish authorities disbanded the encampment due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The government reported it transported migrants to dormitories in nearby cities to safely quarantine. On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border. Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. At least five migrants also drowned in the river near this border area.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans during much of the year due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country was significantly lower than in prior years; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel. For example, an estimated 50-60 migrants died after their boat sank on Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Police arrested the captain of the boat and detained eight others in relation to investigation into the deaths.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings. Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they are able to register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. Following the deaths of several Turkish soldiers in Syria in February, in early March increased societal violence against refugee communities was reported throughout the country, including some beatings and attacks on businesses. In July, in the western province of Bursa, four Turkish men beat to death a 17-year-old Syrian refugee in a market. Police arrested the four, who awaited trial at year’s end. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement, and tens of thousands of deportations took place during the year. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities, particularly non-Syrians. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children, some specialized medical cases, and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. In May, Amnesty International reported the apparent forcible deportation of six Syrian men to northern Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at serious risk.
As of November 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,395 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (831 persons), Afghans (228 persons) and Iranians (173 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, three persons reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin.
In the incidents of administrative detention, of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not completing the registration procedure, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, and rejection of request for temporary protection) or criminal acts. Authorities continued to apply the legal framework and the procedural safeguards in place for persons seeking or in need of international protection.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. For incidents in which UNHCR intervened where the persons were no longer in the country, it was difficult for UNHCR to reach the individual to confirm or deny claims.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to nearly four million Syrians while maintaining conditional or subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional or subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some observers expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the DGMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Most refugees, however, did not have access to regular or skilled work, partly as a result of high unemployment rates for both refugees and Turkish nationals, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of late 2019, only an estimated 132,000 Syrians in the country had formal work permits.
Access to Basic Services: During the year, due to changes to the Law on Foreigners under International Protection, refugees registered under international protection status (approximately 330,000 individuals) for more than one year no longer had access to subsidized medical care (other than emergency care). Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Previously, the government provided free access to the public medical system to non-Syrian refugees registered until they began receiving international protection. Syrians registered for temporary protection (3.6 million) continued to receive free access to the public health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,919 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF, since 2017 more than 628,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely. NGO staff members reported seeing refugees asked for bribes to receive government services, and individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 110,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
As of September 30, UNHCR in cooperation with the DGMM, observed spontaneous voluntary returns in 14 provinces of 10,917 Syrians who chose to return to Syria. In April and May, the DGMM suspended voluntary repatriation as a result of COVID-19 measures. As of the end of November, authorities referred 6,022 refugees to 14 countries for resettlement, and 3,864 refugees departed the country for resettlement. The main reasons for the decrease in resettlement are due to reduced refugee quotas and the suspension of resettlement departures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September, however, resettlement departures resumed.
Temporary Protection: The country adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government continued to offer temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In September 2019 the governate of Bursa announced that the provinces of Antalya, Aydin, Bursa, Canakkale, Duzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kirklareli, Kocaeli, Mugla, Sakarya, Tekirdag, and Yalova would limit registration processing to exceptional cases and newborns. The DGMM has not made any official announcement regarding provinces stopping processing of registrations. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care.
By the end of 2019, the DGMM had closed all but seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of the end of November, there were 59,077 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2019 a total of 117,579 Syrians held valid residence permits; official figures for the calendar year were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December 2019, at least 516,000 babies had been born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government routinely respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits expressions of hatred toward persons because of their color, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation as well as any communication that is deemed threatening or abusive and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress a person. The penalties for such expressions include fines, imprisonment, or both.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law’s restrictions on expressions of hatred apply to the print and broadcast media. In Bermuda the law prohibits publishing written words that are threatening, abusive, or insulting, but only on racial grounds; on other grounds, including sexual orientation, the law prohibits only discriminatory “notices, signs, symbols, emblems, or other representations.”
In September the Council of Europe issued a “Level 2 Media Freedom Alert” to the UK after Ministry of Defence press officers refused to engage with Declassified UK, an investigative media outlet. The secretary of state for defence issued an apology to lawyers for Declassified UK and said he would open an investigation into the incident.
Violence and Harassment: During Black Lives Matter protests in London in June, two Australian and one British journalist, were violently attacked. The National Union of Journalists called for the arrest of the perpetrators, which had not taken place at year’s end.
In July charges were brought against a suspect for the killing of freelance reporter Lyra McKee in April 2019 in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Libel/Slander Laws: On February 12, the governor of the British Virgin Islands signed into law a bill that criminalizes with imprisonment for up to 14 years and a fine “sending offensive messages through a computer.” The law applies to a message that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” or that is sent “for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience.” The provision carries penalties up to 14 years in prison and a fine. Media freedom NGOs strongly criticized the law.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The country has no blanket laws covering internet blocking, but the courts have issued blocking injunctions against various categories of content such as depictions of child sexual abuse, promotion of violent extremism and terrorism, and materials infringing on copyrights.
By law the electronic surveillance powers of the country’s intelligence community and police allow them, among other things, to check internet communications records as part of an investigation without a warrant.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events. Under emergency COVID-19 legislation, participation in cultural events was severely restricted.
In March the UK’s cultural scene, including restaurants, museums, galleries, cinemas, and sporting events, was closed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Outdoor music events were allowed from July, but indoor musical events remained restricted at year’s end. The government provided a support package of 1.57 billion pounds ($2.07 billion) for arts groups and venues. From March through the end of the year, the government imposed restrictions on the number of persons from separate households who could gather socially indoors and outdoors, including with regard to protest.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government routinely respected these rights. Under emergency COVID-19 legislation, the government banned mass gatherings.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Except for areas affected by COVID-19 laws and guidelines, the law generally provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government routinely respected these rights.
In March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced extraordinary measures, including curbs on the freedom of movement, to slow the spread of COVID-19 in England. These measures continued in force in some form at year’s end. From March 24 through May 13, the government instructed individuals they were only allowed out of their homes to purchase essential items.
COVID-19 legislation empowers police to enforce the evolving government guidelines. Police officers could issue fixed penalty notices (FPNs) to those they suspected of acting contrary to government guidelines on social interaction. FPNs allowed the accused to pay a fine rather than face prosecution for the offense.
On May 13, the prime minister announced changes that allowed those in England to leave their homes for outdoor recreation. The governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland also began easing their lockdown restrictions in May. From May through year’s end, COVID-19 guidelines in all four nations of the UK were frequently relaxed or tightened to account for shifting trends in the spread of COVID-19 as well as public pressure to reopen schools and businesses. The prime minister announced that from July 4, lockdown laws in England would no longer provide legal restrictions associated with the government’s social distancing guidance. The other three nations made similar changes to their laws in July. Laws across the UK mandate some restrictive rules on social gatherings. As the spread of COVID-19 began to slow, the government took steps in July and August to loosen restrictions, allowing individuals to have small gatherings, return to the office and schools, and reopen retail businesses, restaurants, and pubs. The UK government passed laws in September that imposed additional restrictions called “local lockdowns” in areas where the virus was most prevalent. From November 5 until December 2, the prime minister imposed a lockdown across England to slow the spread of the virus.
In-country Movement: The home secretary may impose terrorism prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs) based on a “balance of probabilities.” TPIMs are a form of house arrest applied for up to two years to those thought to pose a terrorist threat but who cannot be prosecuted or deported. The 14 measures include electronic tagging, reporting regularly to the police, and facing “tightly defined exclusion from particular places and the prevention of travel overseas.” A suspect must live at home and stay there overnight, possibly for up to 10 hours daily. Authorities may send suspects to live up to 200 miles from their normal residence. The suspect may apply to the courts to stay elsewhere. The suspect may use a mobile phone and the internet to work and study, subject to conditions.
Exile: The law permits the home secretary to impose “temporary exclusion orders” (TEOs) on returning UK citizens or legal residents if the home secretary reasonably suspects the individual in question is or was involved in terrorism-related activity and considers the exclusion necessary to protect people in the UK from a risk of terrorism. TEOs impose certain obligations on the repatriates, such as periodic reporting to police. The measure requires a court order and is subject to judicial oversight and appeal.
In May a UK high court issued a preliminary ruling that the restrictions imposed on individuals under TEOs must be in accordance with the provision of the European Convention on Human Rights providing for a fair trial. The ruling allows those under TEOs to know the evidence against them and to contest the terms of their obligations.
Citizenship: The law allows the home secretary to deprive an individual of citizenship if officials are satisfied this is “conducive to the public good,” but not if this renders a citizen stateless.
In 2019 the home secretary started the process of revoking the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a 20-year-old British citizen by birth of Bangladeshi extraction who left the UK to join ISIS. Because Begum was British by birth, the home secretary could only cancel her British citizenship if she were a dual national. The home secretary asserted that Begum held dual citizenship with Bangladesh. Begum’s lawyers disputed that she had Bangladeshi citizenship. In August the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ruled that Begum should be allowed to return to the UK to have a fair and effective appeal against being stripped of her British citizenship. In November the Supreme Court held hearings on the home office’s appeal.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
During the year the UK government consolidated its various refugee resettlement programs into a single “global scheme” aimed at providing more consistency in the way that refugees are resettled and to broaden the geographical focus beyond the Middle East and North Africa. UNHCR welcomed the shift.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Home Office officials have the power to detain asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants who do not enter the asylum system. There was no maximum time limit for the use of detention. Immigration detention was used to establish a person’s identity or basis of claim, to remove a person from the country, or to avoid a person’s noncompliance with any conditions attached to a grant of temporary admission or release.
On September 20, Glasgow’s six members of Parliament (MPs) signed a joint letter calling for a fatal accident inquiry into the deaths of three asylum seekers housed in the city during the year. Adnan Walid Elbi, Mercy Baguma, and Badreddin Abedlla Adam died in separate incidents. The causes of Elbi’s and Baguma’s deaths were not determined, although the NGO Positive Action in Housing stated they were living in “extreme poverty.” In June police officers shot and killed Adam after he stabbed six persons at a hotel temporarily housing asylum seekers. Scotland’s Police Investigations and Review Commissioner launched an investigation into the police shooting, but had not published the results at year’s end. Media reports and NGOs suggested the government contractor providing services to Adam and other asylum seekers at the location of the attack may have been negligent in the provision of health services.
Access to Asylum: In England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum is a matter reserved for the UK government and is handled centrally by the Home Office. Bermuda’s constitution and laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government does not have an established system for providing protection to refugees.
NGOs criticized the government’s handling of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France. By October an estimated 7,000 persons had crossed the channel in more than 500 boats. Media reported that many of these asylum seekers were being held in detention centers.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Until the end of the year, the country was subject to the EU’s Dublin III regulation and considered all other EU member states to be countries of safe origin or transit. The regulation permits authorities to remove an asylum applicant to another country responsible for adjudicating an applicant’s claim. The government placed the burden of proof on asylum seekers who arrived from safe countries of origin, who passed through a country where they were not considered to be at risk, or who remained in the country for at least five consecutive months before seeking asylum.
For the duration of their asylum application, asylum seekers are eligible for government support at 30 percent below the normal rate for their family size, an amount that NGOs continued to deem inadequate. NGOs continued to criticize the government for cutting off benefits 28 days after a person is granted refugee status, which they say left some destitute.
Employment: Refugees are eligible to work or to receive state benefits if unable to work. In Scotland the devolved government funded the Refugee Doctors’ Program to help refugees to work for the National Health Service Scotland. The program offers doctors advanced English lessons, medical classes, and placements with general practitioners or hospitals, providing them with the skills needed to get their UK medical registration approved.
Temporary Protection: The government may provide temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the year ending in March, the government granted humanitarian protection to 1,482 individuals (up 24 percent from 2019), 1,026 grants of alternative forms of leave (down 18 percent), and 4,968 grants of protection through resettlement schemes.
The government provides a route to legal residence for up to five years for stateless persons resident in the country. After the initial five-year period, stateless persons are able to apply for “settled status” or further extension of their residency. The government did not publish data on the number of habitual residents who are legally stateless.