Research on pushbacks of asylum-seekers reveals a massive number of such human-rights violations—yet it could be just the tip of the iceberg.
This month the NGO Border Violence Monitoring Network published a Black Book of Pushbacks, commissioned by the United Left group of the European Parliament. The book represents the most comprehensive repository of evidence to date, containing a total of 892 group testimonies detailing the experiences of more than 12,600 people on the move who were pushed back both in border areas and deep inside European territory.
While these numbers appear shocking at first sight, they only refer to the interviews undertaken by BVMN—a glimpse of a much larger and more far-reaching phenomenon. In spite of the 1,500 pages of documented evidence, which couples hard data (timings, geolocations, dates, officer and vehicle descriptions, medical reports and other corroborating evidence) with narrative accounts of pushback incidents, the official line of member states’ governments is point-blank denial.
In January, the Croatian Ministry of Interior rejected accusations of pushbacks as ‘false’ and in October the Greek minister of migration and asylum, Notis Mitarachi, claimed that ‘Greece does not participate in so-called push-backs’. Since 2016, BVMN has made it its mission to collect and document such evidence—the book seeks to foreground the realities facing those navigating the European Union’s harsh border regime.
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Illegal in essence
Pushbacks, in their very essence, are illegal. They occur when people on the move are forced back over borders without being afforded the opportunity to apply for asylum; individual circumstances are not considered, no option to challenge the expulsion is given and violent methods are often employed.
They violate the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, articles 4 and 28 of the EU Charter on Human Rights, articles 3 and 33 of the European Convention on Human Rights and articles 5 and 13 of the EU Returns Directive, not to mention provisions in the legislation of member states. Yet not only are they occurring—they are co-ordinated and systematic.
Pushbacks have become an increasingly prevalent yet unacknowledged pillar of the EU’s border regime. In the field it is hard to meet a person who has not experienced one or more incidents. As a field reporter in Greece, I have supervised or conducted more than 50 interviews with affected persons since 2019. When it comes to the Greece-Turkey land border, these interviews reveal a high concurrence among reported patterns of action.
In a typical testimony, groups are apprehended before being brought to incommunicado detention sites in the highly militarised Evros border area. They are held in these locations until enough people have been accumulated, with group sizes often reaching over 100. It is here that the authorities, often masking their identities with balaclavas, commit violent acts against people on the move, ranging from prolonged beatings, use of electric discharge weapons and shaving of heads to forced undressings.
From there, groups are taken to the Evros river, where further violence often occurs before they are loaded into rubber dinghies and ferried back to the Turkish side. A new tactic observed in multiple testimonies is officers using members of the transit group to drive these dinghies, perhaps to outsource blame for the actual pushback itself.
It seems near impossible to imagine that so many different individuals, speaking different languages to different reporters at different times, would be telling such a similar story if there were no truth to the matter. Yet that is the response competent authorities continue to advance.
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We must not point the finger at Greece, or other perpetrating member states, alone. Looking at testimonies with a geographical lens provides a perspective which illuminates the EU’s culpability in this practice.
In Croatia and Greece, nearly 90 per cent of all recorded cases in 2020 detailed how pushback victims were subject to one or more forms of abuse that could constitute torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. This makes them the most violent pushback perpetrators, according to BVMN’s data. Particularly shocking stories which came out of the two member states this year include mock executions and allegations of serious sexual assault in Croatia, and more recently groups being stranded on an island in the Evros river between Greece and Turkey for days, without food, water or any kind of assistance.
That both Croatia and Greece are located at the edges of the EU—Greece the external frontier and Croatia the barrier to the Schengen zone—can’t be ignored. Is such violence and brutality, then, the price these member states are made to pay to fortify the EU’s borders?
If the EU is serious about stopping these violations, it needs to do a much better job than the independent monitoring mechanism proposed in the European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum. This method has already been trialled in Croatia, where the commission announced an extra €6.8 million for border surveillance, with an explicit commitment ‘to ensure that all measures applied at the EU external borders are proportionate and are in full compliance with fundamental rights and EU asylum laws’.
Several miscommunications followed around who was carrying out this monitoring project and whether it was actually in operation. An independent inquiry into the implementation of the grant, led by MEPs in collaboration with civil-society actors, revealed underspending, misreporting and a cover-up of the fact that no independent border monitoring mechanism was ever established. The commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, has continued to claim Croatian authorities have put a mechanism in place with the commission’s support.
There is a pattern, both within the competent authorities of member states and those tasked with monitoring their compliance in the EU, to deny the realities of what borders in Europe really mean to those navigating them. These unconvincing denials are further weakened by the publication of the Black Book of Pushbacks, which tells the stories of those who came to Europe seeking safety and instead experienced systematic human-rights deprivations, violence and even torture—at the hands of those tasked with protecting them.
What is required are genuinely independent monitoring mechanisms led by national preventive mechanisms and independent NGOs, funded by the commission or through an independent agency. These must include unannounced visits to border zones and police stations, enhanced cross-border collaboration in testimony collection and an alarm system which could be triggered by potential asylum-seekers in situations where their fundamental rights are violated.
Perpetrators of these violations must be held accountable, impunity must end and pushbacks must be stopped.