European authorities are seeking testimony from some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Middle East violence as they try to build war crimes cases linked to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
As witnesses to atrocities, they are invaluable to prosecutors preparing trials in European courts that will offer a way round the United Nations impasse that has prevented the setting up of an international court for Syria.
The search for evidence takes a variety of forms, Dutch and German immigration services hand out leaflets to arriving migrants, inviting them to testify. In Norway, police screen arrivals’ mobile phones for evidence of possible involvement in war crimes.
“Over the next five years you’ll see a lot of prosecutions,” said Matevz Pezdirc of the European Union’s Genocide Network, a forum that brings together police and prosecutors twice a year in The Hague to swap information about war crimes.
Some alleged perpetrators may be European citizens who have joined Islamic State; others may be militants who have traveled to Europe from Syria or Iraq, blending in with the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who streamed into the continent last year.
“You may have lots of victims or witnesses in one place, but you can’t move with a prosecution until you have a perpetrator in your jurisdiction,” Pezdirc said.
Most European countries have legislation allowing them to prosecute international crimes like genocide regardless of where in the world they happen. About 15 have units dedicated to investigating and prosecuting them.
According to EU judicial cooperation agency Eurojust over the past decade, authorities in Europe have launched 1,607 international war crimes cases in domestic jurisdictions, while another 1,339 are ongoing.