Crisis stoking anti-migrant bias in Europe, warns Amnesty

NEW YORK (AP) - A top human rights group has warned that the plight of refugees and migrants fleeing wars and economic hardship is worsening in Europe as financial turmoil and austerity stokes bias against foreigners.

In its annual global report on human rights, Amnesty International on Wednesday pointed to Greece's tough new immigration laws and Italy's deportation of asylum seekers to countries where they are at risk of abuse.

Amnesty has documented serious problems "in Greece and Italy, where the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers has really been disgraceful," Mr Salil Shetty, the London-based group's secretary general, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

He blamed tough economic times for anti-foreigner attitudes.

"Certainly you could argue that austerity measures and economic crises have led to scapegoating of asylum seekers and people seeking a better life," he told AP.

Last year, Greece introduced legislation to allow detention of "irregular migrants and asylum-seekers on grounds such as suspicion of carrying infectious diseases such as HIV," the report said.

Another legal amendment allowed police to extend the maximum three- or six-month period that an asylum-seeker can be held by a further 12 months.

"Between August and the end of the year, many asylum-seekers and irregular migrants, including many Syrian nationals fleeing the conflict there, were reported to be held in very poor conditions in police stations or were left without shelter" in Greece, the report said.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in February that Italy had violated international human rights obligations to not return individuals to countries where they could be at risk of abuses, by pushing back African migrants and asylum-seekers on the high seas.

In September, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights criticised Italy's treatment of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, including the risk of human rights abuses arising from repatriation agreements with countries such as Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

Another watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, said in a report released Wednesday that US prosecution of people entering the country illegally or re-entering the country illegally have increased 1,400 and 300 per cent, respectively, over the past 10 years. Those cases now outnumber prosecutions for all other US federal crimes, the New York-group said.

More than 80,000 people were convicted of these crimes in the US in 2012, many in rapid-fire mass prosecutions that violate due process rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The increase in prosecutions comes even as the US moves forward on sweeping legislation to remake the nation's immigration system - a key goal of President Barack Obama and one that many Republicans are supporting in the hopes of appealing to Hispanic voters.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would create new routes for people to come legally to the US to work at all skill levels, tighten border security and workplace enforcement, and offer a chance at citizenship to the 11 million people in the country illegally. The bill is now headed for the full Senate.

In a 313-page report covering 153 countries and territories, Amnesty International also criticised international inaction on Syria's civil war.

Russia and China have cast a veto three times in the UN Security Council in the last two years to keep the United Nations from deep involvement in the Syrian civil war, which the United Nations says has killed at least 70,000 people.

Mr Shetty said countries are using the concept of respect for national sovereignty as an excuse not to act on Syria.

"The UN Security Council must consistently stand up to abuses that destroy lives and force people to flee their homes," he said in the Amnesty report.

"That means rejecting worn-out and morally bereft doctrines that mass murder, torture and starvation are no one else's business."

Amnesty blamed both the rebels and the Syrian government for atrocities during the war, including extrajudicial killings and torture, though the report said the abuses by the rebels were "on a smaller scale."