By Helena Enyon
Many refugees across Europe desperately need to reach a safe country where they can apply for asylum and seek family reunion. It is in trying to get there that many are faced with further human rights abuse, detention and even violence, as they attempt to cross borders. With no safe, legal means in place for them to do this, many people including children are forced to attempt an extremely dangerous, illicit border crossing, and risk being caught.
There is a widespread practice occurring at multiple border locations across Europe, in which people in displacement are subjected to push-backs when they attempt to cross the border illicitly. ‘Push-backs’ refer to the expulsion by state authorities of an individual or group back across a border after they have crossed it. It essentially means that people are being forced back across the border to where they came from by the relevant authorities.
In doing so, officials abandon their obligations to look at a person’s situation and process their asylum application, preventing refugees from realising their human rights within that territory. As well as violating the human rights of incredibly vulnerable people, push-backs clearly contravene certain state obligations in international law; however, the practice continues.
Why do refugees need to cross borders?
In examining the practice of push-backs, it is important to consider how so many people, families and children become so desperate that they are compelled to attempt a border crossing. The refugee crisis within Europe remains under-reported but has by no means subsided. People in displacement all too often live in desperate, inhumane and even life-threatening conditions, with thousands of people and families currently facing destitution; with poor sanitation, nutrition and healthcare.
There are widespread reports of a lack of information regarding legal rights and how to apply for asylum,[i] as well as extremely protracted processes that often leave individuals in a seemingly indefinite state of limbo[ii]. It is these conditions, compounded with the growing desperation to reach a safe country or to be reunited with family members, that draw people into this situation. Certain European borders have become hotspots for refugees and displaced people who need to reach safety, many of whom end up attempting to illicitly enter a neighbouring state.
Push-backs and the law
Push-backs take place in the absence of due process, are arbitrary and often collective; with no opportunity for the person to claim asylum or seek redress against what has occurred. A push-back is very different to “deportation”, which by its nature involves a legal process. Push-backs are not lawful, a point which has been emphasised repeatedly, including by the United Nations[iii] and the European Court of Human Rights.[iv]
Push-backs are in fact fundamentally illegal[v], and in many cases may violate the principle of non-refoulement as set down by Article 33 of the European Convention on Human Rights, that prohibits the expulsion or return of a refugee into territories where their life or freedom may be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.[vi] They also contravene the ban on collective expulsions according to Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights[vii].
However, a culture of organised, collective push-backs exists at many European borders as a significant aspect of migration practice. Many such push-backs involve violence and inhumane treatment, although it should be emphasised that any push-back is unlawful, regardless of how it is carried out.[viii]
The French-Italian border
Refugees and displaced people trapped in Italy face a dire situation, characterised by poor conditions in the reception centres and refugee camps, including inadequate sanitation and food provision[ix]. The implementation of the Salvini Decree revokes humanitarian protection permits, with many people now left destitute and forced to sleep rough; all occurring against the backdrop of a system that is stretched to breaking point with a frustratingly slow asylum process[x]. These factors combine to render the situation unbearable for many migrants in Italy, many of whom remain desperate to reunite with family elsewhere in the EU or to reach a safe country. It is for these reasons that many people attempt to leave the country via the border, where so many, including children, are then subjected to violent push-backs into Italy by the French authorities, who systematically deny them their right to claim asylum.
This situation has escalated since 2015, which saw the reintroduction of border controls, coupled with the changing climate following the terror attacks in Paris and Nice. Today, push-backs from France back to Italy occur on a daily basis. Procedures under French law for refusing entry are not followed, with people being denied appropriate translations and information on their legal rights. Push-backs against children and unaccompanied minors are being carried out in the same way, with reports of documents being confiscated with no means of redress[xi].
Individuals subjected to push-backs may then be deprived of their liberty[xii], with many held in containers, sometimes for over 12 hours at a time, with little-to-no access to food or water. Such practices contravene French national law, with many individuals now attempting to escape via motorway tunnels, train tracks and through the mountains, risking serious injury, hypothermia and even death.
The Greece-Turkey border
There are organised, collective push-backs of displaced men, women and children occurring at the border of Greece and Turkey around the Evros River, with individuals who have crossed into Greece being forcibly pushed back to Turkey, in direct violation of their human rights under international law. There are widespread and alarmingly similar accounts of people being captured and arrested by the Greek police, who then detain them before confiscating their personal belongings and effecting a coordinated handover for their collective expulsion back to Turkey[xiii].
Under national law, people in displacement should be escorted to the police station to register their requests for asylum[xiv]. There are reports however of the organised abuse of this system, with some officials allegedly being complicit in handovers to other groups. Although the full extent of police involvement in these forced push-backs remains unclear, there are widespread testimonies of people being routinely apprehended, rounded up and handed over to other agents[xv].
There are also multiple reports that people pushed back into Turkey then face further human rights violations, including detention in dirty, cramped conditions, insufficient food and water, the theft of personal possessions and unprovoked violence. Research in this region has highlighted widespread violations of human rights and international law, including the principle of non-refoulement, the right to seek asylum, the ban on collective expulsions and the right not to be unlawfully detained and tortured.
The Balkan Region
A culture of illegal push-backs and violence against people in displacement has also been recorded within the Balkan Region. The use of dogs by border officials to apprehend and assault people in transit, reportedly common in both Croatia and Hungary, has led to cases of bite victims requiring hospitalisation[xvi].
Border rivers are also systematically used to effect push-backs. There are reports of people being immersed in cold water, stripped of their clothing by officials, humiliated and effectively tortured[xvii]. Detention facilities are largely sub-standard, with the human rights of many people being largely overlooked in favour of the deprivation of liberty, violent assaults and the ongoing culture of illegal push-backs.
There is overwhelming evidence of the organised and systematic abuse of the human rights and dignity of people in transit who are seeking safety within the EU at the hands of state actors; which will not stop until positive action is taken to protect the fundamental rights of people in displacement. Urgent reform is needed, to acknowledge and uphold the rights and safety of these extremely vulnerable people.
Refugees are entitled to protection, or refuge, within a safe country. Given that all asylum seekers should be presumed refugees until proved otherwise,[xviii]it is crucial that the practice of push-backs is brought to an end, to protect the rights and dignity of people who remain in desperate need. By sharing this piece, you can help to alert governments to the culture of push-backs and the ongoing human rights violations occurring upon their territories.
We continue to urge all EU states to remain vigilant to the behaviour of any officials who may be complicit in these practices and to take swift action against those found to be culpable. Safe, legal routes must be made available to allow people in transit to lawfully cross borders when necessary, with due processes in place to ensure a fair outcome in line with both national and international human rights obligations.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.