Exposed: abuses of migrants by state officials on Europe’s borders

Violence, brutality and unlawful treatment by authorities on the Western Balkan route are a frequent occurrence, claim refugees and other migrants in a new NGO report revealed today. People fleeing war, persecution and poverty describe beatings, robbery and inhuman treatment at the hands of police, border guards and other officials. In many cases, people tell of illegal deportations with state agents denying access to asylum procedures for those seeking international protection.

The report “A dangerous ‘game’” is based on 140 interviews with people seeking safety and dignity. A disturbing pattern of brutality and abuse by law enforcement officials against migrants, including children, is exposed. The research was conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), with the support of Oxfam. It includes testimonies of incidents in Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

“They put us in a cage, and didn’t give us food for three days. They beat us so badly. They even gave us electric shocks,” says Isaaq from Afghanistan about his treatment in Bulgaria.

The ‘game’ is how migrants cynically refer to their attempts to cross borders in search of safety and dignity without interception and ill-treatment by government agents.

All 140 people interviewed for the report claimed to have suffered mistreatment by officials. Accounts of abuses include:

  • Border police in Croatia forcing migrants to strip and walk back over the border to Serbia, while running a gauntlet of officers who beat them with batons.
  • Hungarian officials forcing migrants to take off their clothes and sit in snow as they poured cold water over them.
  • Bulgarian police searching a group of migrants and taking all of their valuables, even their shoes, before sending them back over the border.

Ruth Tanner, Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam South East Europe, said: “People who are often fleeing unimaginable violence in their home countries are shockingly and unjustly thrown back into a reality of brutality here in Europe. The testimonies we have collected expose the horrendous treatment governments, including by European Union member states, are letting happen in order to stop people entering their territory.”

“These cruel and unlawful actions do nothing to stop the journey of people seeking safety and dignity. People tell us they have nothing to lose and will try to continue however dangerous it may be. Violence and intimidation must be replaced with fair and effective access to asylum procedures, and authorities must investigate claims of abuse,” said Nikolina Milić of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.

Many people have experienced problems in accessing asylum procedures in Serbia and Macedonia.  People also tell of frequent collective expulsions from Serbia. These so-called pushbacks are prohibited by international refugee and human rights law, because, among other reasons, they undermine a person’s right to seek asylum and deny the right to due process before a decision on whether to expel them or not.

The report shows that authorities are pushing people from one country to another outside of the legal system without individual cases being heard, without legal assistance or interpreters, and without any possibility of appeal. This is illegal and unethical.

These accounts reinforce UNHCR findings that people are regularly being informally and arbitrarily expelled from one territory to another across the region. Examples of pushbacks and difficulties to access the asylum system include:

  • In Serbia a group of migrants, including a 2-year old child, was told that they were being taken to a refugee reception center. Instead, police brought them to a forest on the Bulgarian border in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures and left them there. The group survived, but by the time they were found two of them had lost consciousness due to hypothermia.
  • In a court in Serbia, a group of migrants expressed their desire to claim asylum. Police officers who were supposed to take them to a reception center instead destroyed the court documents and drove them to the border with Bulgaria.
  • In Hungary the asylum claim of a 22-year-old Syrian has been refused in a process where he did not have access to a legal representative, he did not receive proper information about the process and he had no chance for an effective appeal of the decision.

“The brutal illegal actions of law enforcement officials create a climate of fear among refugees and other migrants. This pushes many to rely on smugglers to continue their journey to other places in Europe, which is very dangerous as it leaves already vulnerable people exposed to the criminal underbelly of trafficking and violence,” said Oxfam’s Ruth Tanner.

“This unlawful behaviour has been reported on before but the European Union has done very little to stop it. On the contrary, EU Council president Donald Tusk has been praising the migration management of the same governments exposed in this report. The EU is meant to be a bastion of human rights, but by backing these policies the bloc is instead endorsing violent behaviour. It leaves a mark of shame not only on the governments responsible, but also on the EU,” Tanner added.

Oxfam, BCHR and MYLA call on the governments of Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria to immediately cease violations of people’s rights, and to urgently take action against the perpetrators of crimes against migrants and refugees.

The three organizations also urge the European Union to assume a role in ensuring that international law and human rights are respected. EU governments should make sure all states along the Balkans route adhere to international laws and standards, and they must themselves set a model of respecting these legal and moral obligations.

Notes to editors

  • Spokespeople from Oxfam and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights are available in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Brussels.
  • Pictures and videos in broadcast quality are available for free use by the media.
  • Read the full report.
  • The testimonies in this report were collected from 30 January to 17 February 2017 in Serbia and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The vast majority of the interviewees came from Afghanistan, the others from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. The names in the report, and in this release, have been changed to protect the identity of the people we have spoken to.
  • Of the 140 people spoken to 75 had been expelled from Hungary to Serbia, 19 from Croatia to Serbia, and 44 from Serbia to either Bulgaria or Macedonia, one from Macedonia to Greece, and seven from Bulgaria to Turkey. Several people have reported multiple pushbacks from different countries.
  • Earlier evidence of unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment at the hands of security forces in Serbia and Macedonia was released by Oxfam and partners in ‘Closed Borders’, a report from November 2016.
  • A recent UNHCR report showed the harmful impact of border restrictions on people, with many relying on smugglers and facing often deadly risks. The UNHCR also spoke of tens of thousands of reported push-backs by border authorities in Europe, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia, amidst alleged violence and abuses.
  • Read more about Oxfam’s work with refugees and other migrants in Europe and across the globe.

Contact information

Florian Oel | Brussels | florian.oel@oxfaminternational.org | office +32 2 234 11 15 | mobile +32 473 56 22 60

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