The EU must accept responsibility for the use of violence towards refugees and asylum seekers at Europe’s borders

15 Jul, 2021 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest, Stop the hostile environment

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Recent reporting from numerous NGOs and activist groups has revealed the systematic use of violence against migrants at Europe’s borders. Whilst the EU has tried to distance itself from these human rights violations, its policies and decisions have played a key role in creating the conditions that allow violence to thrive. 

Despite facing a range of hostile measures – border closures, detention camps, inflexible asylum policies and deportations – thousands of migrants still seek safety in Europe every year. For many, this involves taking the “Balkan Route”: a migratory path passing through Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. 

Since 2017, the Border Violence Monitoring Network(BVMN) – a coalition of NGOs working along the Balkan Route – has recorded thousands of testimonies exposing the systematic use of violence against migrants. This violence usually occurs in the context of pushbacks; illegal operations that involve migrants being intercepted and forcibly removed from EU territory, either on land or at sea. 

Whilst pushbacks are, in and of themselves, a violation of the universal right to asylums, the details are even more shocking. Of the 1123 incidents recorded by the BVMN (involving an estimated 18,150 people) 72% involved physical beatings, 61% involved the theft/destruction of personal belongings and 51% involved verbal abuse or degrading behaviour such as being forced to undress. Migrants have also reported the use of torture-like abuses such as electric shocks and cigarette burns.

The primary perpetrators identified by the BVMN include the Croatian Police Force and the Hellenic Coastguard. Recently, this list has been expanded to include Frontex, the EU’s border control agency. Long suspected of conducting illegal activity, investigative reporting by Bellingcat and Der Spiegel has provided concrete evidence of Frontex conducting pushbacks in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. In these instances, Frontex vessels can be seen blocking migrant dinghies, endangering the lives of those on board.

As the public exposure of Europe’s violent border regime has grown, so have the legal pressures on the perpetrators. Legal cases (led by the NGOs Front-Lex, Syria Justice and Accountability Center and Legal Center Lesvos) have been launched against Frontex and its director Fabrice Leggeri, and investigations by the European Ombudsman and European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) are ongoing. June 2021 also saw the launch of the “Abolish Frontex” campaign, supported by dozens of NGOs.

The response of the EU to the increasing public awareness of border violence has been characterised by attempts to distance itself and minimise its culpability. Frontex in particular has been labelled as “an organisation that is completely out of control”, in need of investigation and discipline. The violence carried out by groups such as the Croatian Police Force has been represented as the product of illiberal eastern states, contrasted with the “liberal nature” of Western European states,

Several factors however, bring this position into question. The first is the EU’s financial support of  the implicated groups. Under the 2014 Asylum Migration and International Fund (AMIF), Croatia has received €108m, with a further €23.3m in 2017 and €6.2m in 2019. With a 2020 budget of €5.6B, Frontex is now the best-funded of any EU agency. EU money has facilitated the militarization of border control, with aircrafts, boats, thermal cameras, drones and watchtowers being deployed to more effectively intercept and push back migrants.

Secondly, EU migration legislation and policy is largely responsible for creating the conditions in which border violence occurs. As has been well-documented, the EU’s response to the “refugee crisis” has been one of peripheral containment, enshrined in key legislation such as the Lisbon Agreement and the EU-Turkey deal. These legal measures have been supported by the physical closure of safe migrant routes, putting thousands at further risk. 

As a result, states at the edges of Europe (often poorer and, in the case of Greece, weakened by EU-mandated austerity policies) are forced to bear much of the social and economic burden. In this context, the violent actions of Croatian and Hellenic border authorities can be seen as the desperate actions of states who have been left with little other alternative. Whilst this does not justify their decisions, it does highlight how they have been made in the context of strenuous circumstances which the EU has played a central role in creating.  

Finally, border violence is highly consistent with the range of hostile measures deployed by the EU and its member states; the destruction of camps in Calais, the inhumane “hotspot” system, detention centers and unwelcoming asylum systems. In all, these measures are designed to prevent and deter refugees from seeking asylum in European states.

This strategy is clearly present in the UK’s 2021 “New Plan for Immigration”. The central element of this legislation is to make refugees’ rights, entitlements and asylum chances dependent on their mode of arrival to the UK. Those who arrive by “irregular” routes are set to have minimal rights as compared to those who arrive by legal channels. 

Given that the UK and other European states make no effort to ensure the existence of “regular” and safe routes, the legislation can be seen as a thinly veiled attempt to make life harder for asylum seekers. Although no longer formally part of the EU, these policy changes are typical of a pan-European handling of migration that reneges on international responsibilities to help refugees and punishes the use of illegal migrant routes. 

Rather than viewing border violence as an isolated phenomenon, we must regard it as an extension of an EU-wide approach to migration that is characterized by hostility, violence and complete disregard for fundamental human rights.

Theo Jackson is a Political Correspondent for the UK’s Immigration News

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