‘Culture of impunity’ across EU over violence against migrants, NGO warns 

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Migrants attempting to reach Europe are now almost always subjected to some form of violence at the hands of authorities, according to a new NGO report.

The second edition of the “Black Book of Pushbacks” compiled by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) documents more than 1,635 testimonies of human rights violations affecting almost 25,000 people over the past six years.

Nearly half of these testimonies — 44% — were collected since the first edition was released in December 2020 but they account for over 16,100 of the people affected or nearly two-thirds.

They recount being beaten, kicked, humiliated through forced undressing, threatened with a firearm, arbitrarily detained and subjected to inhuman treatment inside a police station before being illegally pushed back both at the EU’s external borders and from deep within the territory of the bloc’s member states.

Only 5.6% of the people surveyed by the various NGOs who participated in the report said they did not recall excessive force being used.

The testimonies were collected in 15 countries: the EU’s Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Spain, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovenia; Western Balkan nations Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia; as well as in Belarus and Turkey.

“In 2020 we published the first Black Book, with over 900 testimonies, and called for an end to the culture of impunity that surrounds human rights violations in Europe. Two years later and illegal pushbacks continue unabated in spite of an increased evidence base, videos of perpetrators committing these crimes, and hundreds more testimonies,” Hope Barker, co-author of the report and BVMN senior policy analyst, said in a statement.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are hundreds of thousands of stories that we have not heard. We at BVMN again call for an end to this practice, for perpetrators to be held accountable, and for the human rights of all individuals to be respected,” she also said.

Irregular arrivals on the rise

Excessive and disproportional force by police was reported in all 15 countries of reporting, with officers using batons, fists, kicking, police dogs or improvised weapons such as metal poles or tree branches.

BVMN meanwhile described itself as “concerned with the growing number of countries using disputed border regions, and so-called ‘neutral zones’ or ‘no-mans lands’ as a location of torture and inhuman treatment against people-on-the-move.”

At least 17 people died between September and New Year’s Eve 2021 at the border between Belarus and Poland after being stranded in one such no man’s land by authorities on both sides of the border.

The report also accuses authorities to turn a blind eye to the evidence of human rights violations recorded by NGOs and failing to launch investigations or hold individuals accountable.

It said for instance that public prosecutors in Greece close such cases citing lack of evidence whilst refusing to interview witnesses or rejecting other evidence while journalists and NGOs are increasingly being monitored via different forms of surveillance technologies.

According to data from the EU’s external border agency, Frontex, there were almost 200,000 irregular arrivals into the EU in 2021— the highest number since 2017. The central Mediterranean — largely via Grece and Italy — and Western Balkan routes were the most popular, accounting for over 125,000 such arrivals.

But this number was shattered this year with 281,000 irregular entries recorded in the first ten months of 2022. More than 128,000 of them came via the Western Balkans. 

The European Commission has responded to the surge by releasing two action plans that aim to bolster cooperation between EU countries and with the bloc’s neighbours and that would also see Frontex staff deployed in Western Balkan countries, rather than just at EU borders. 

But Frontex was itself at the centre of a scandal that forced its chief out earlier this year. Senior staff at the agency were found by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, to have covered up illegal pushbacks from Greece to Turkey.

The European Parliament refused to approve Frontex’s 2020 budget in October over the human rights abuses and the process to appoint a new head is still ongoing. 

‘Right to asylum under serious attack’

Left MEP Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke, Germany) commented on the “Black book” by describing the European Commission as “inactive” on the issue, and “not starting infringement procedures against Member States who are pushing people back and denying them the right to asylum.”

“Frontex is still operating in Greece, although its complicity in human rights violations there is no secret. We see that the right to asylum is seriously under attack: the EU is funding more and more border forces perpetrating violence and Member States like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are adopting laws aiming at legalising push-backs, legislation that violates the EU and international law.”

“As Members of the European Parliament we have to thank the activists and NGOs that have been documenting border violence, gathering testimonies and locations at the high risk of being criminalised by European governments, without whom this book would not exist,” she said.

Migration is a matter of national competence within the EU. The Commission has however repeatedly called on member states to respect international and maritime laws and to thoroughly investigate allegations of human rights violations.

It has also put forward a New Pact on Migration and Asylum but the proposal has languished for more than two years. 

Some member states were vehemently opposed to a mechanism that would require them to show solidarity in times of “force majeure” either by taking in migrants and asylum seekers or by providing other types of assistance, including financial.