The UN refugee chief voiced alarm Monday (22 February) at increasing violence against refugees and migrants at European borders, warning that rights abuses and illegal pushbacks across frontiers risked becoming “normalised”.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi criticised the growing number of incidents of abuse targeting people trying to cross borders into various European countries, including several that have cost lives.
“Violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks continue to be regularly reported at multiple entry points at land and sea borders, within and beyond the European Union despite repeated calls … to end such practices,” he said in a statement.
He highlighted, in particular, the consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, pointing out that the UN refugee agency UNHCR had recorded nearly 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the start of 2020.
“Disturbing incidents are also reported in central and southeastern Europe at the borders with EU member states,” Grandi said.
Many incidents of illegal pushbacks and abuse are never reported. Still, the UN refugee chief said his agency had nonetheless spoken with thousands of people across Europe who had experienced such practices, revealing “a disturbing pattern of threats, intimidation, violence and humiliation.”
“At sea, people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water, showing a callous lack of regard for human life,” he said, pointing out that at least three people are reported to have died in such incidents since September 2021 in the Aegean Sea, including one in January.
“Equally horrific practices are frequently reported at land borders, with consistent testimonies of people being stripped and brutally pushed back in harsh weather conditions.”
With few exceptions, European states have failed to investigate such reports, Grandi said, lamenting that authorities are busy erecting walls and fences to make it even harder for refugees and migrants to cross instead of rectifying the problem.
UNHCR had also received reports of that “some refugees may have been returned to their country of origin, despite the risks they faced there,” Grandi said.
He warned that such practices could violate the international legal principle of non-refoulment, which forbids states from returning refugees to countries where they could be in danger.
The Greek government has consistently denied carrying out illegal pushbacks of migrants.
Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, responding to the UN refugee chief’s comments, said, “Turkey is a not a country at war, and it has an obligation under the 2016 EU-Turkey joint statement to prevent illegal departures of migrants and accept return of those individuals that are deemed not to be entitled to international protection.”
Mitarachi voiced surprise at Grandi’s comments, saying that “Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in total compliance with international law and in full respect of the charter of fundamental rights”.
Greece cannot solve the migration crisis alone, he stressed, calling for urgent “more tangible support and greater commitment at an EU level and from member states, particularly with relocations.”
The UN refugee chief stressed that people have a right to seek asylum, and that right does not depend on the mode of their arrival to a country.
He said that walls and fences are unlikely to deter people fleeing war and persecution.
But they would indeed “contribute to greater suffering of individuals in need of international protection, particularly women and children, and prompt them to consider different, often more dangerous routes and likely result in further deaths.”
“We fear these deplorable practices now risk becoming normalised and policy-based,” Grandi said.
“What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop.”
Problems in the Western Balkans
Reports of pushbacks have come from Albania where the EU’s border guards, Frontex are stationed on the border with Greece.
Refugees told the media of being forced back over the border, sometimes causing injury, by men in uniforms but without badges. One human smugger told Exit, EURACTIV’s Albanian partner that he had heard many instances of this but that migrants would just keep trying until they managed to successfully enter Albania, before progressing on to Kosovo or Montenegro and then the EU.
In October 2021, EURACTIV visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and interviewed officials and migrants about systematic illegal border violence and pushbacks by Croatian police against people attempting to cross over from Bosnia.
Unprompted, several asylum seekers stranded in Bosnia both outside and inside the migrant camps have shared with EURACTIV identical accounts of rape and abuse by the Croatian police. Some local officials corroborated their accounts.
“The footage that we’ve seen recently, it’s just one location, but we have so many of these locations around,” Jasmin Stambolija, a municipal official in charge of migration in Bihać, where camps are located, told EURACTIV on 8 October.
As for the Central Mediterranean route which sees boats coming from Libya to Italy, has been particularly deadly in recent years. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 1,553 people died in 2021 alone while tens of thousands more were sent back to Libya with the help of the EU-funded Libyan coastguard.
The problem there is with reports of torture, sexual abuse, arbitrary detention, and extortion in militia run detention centres in and around Tripoli. This has led to calls from civil society and human rights NGOs to stop the practice of sending migrants back to the country.
They claim to do so breaches international and EU law as the safety of returnees cannot be assured.