The violent abuse of migrants at Europe’s borders

By Theo Jackson

Thousands of firsthand testimonies have revealed a brutal regime of violence at Europe’s borders. Although extreme, it is certainly not exceptional for an EU-wide response to migration that is characterised by racialised hostility, violence, and complete disregard for fundamental human rights.

          “They stole me €150, the only money I had for survive” – 28/05/21

           “Kicking, stick, all the body, here, here and here” – 24/05/21

   “We had again to kneel down with their hands behind the head. The police officers were laughing and filming the scene with a phone” – 22/05/21

         “We were forced to walk through a river to reach the other side of the border” – 17/05/21

 Recorded by NGOs working at Europe’s borders, these quotes show the grim reality faced by refugees searching for safety in Europe. The abusive acts generally occur in the context of ‘pushbacks’;” – illegal operations that involve migrants being forcibly removed from European states, notably along the land borders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Pushbacks have also been documented in the Aegean Sea, with the NGO Aegean Boat Report listing 324 nautical pushbacks in 2020 alone. Since 2017, an estimated 18,200 individuals have experienced violence and other abuses at European borders. As well as beatings and property destruction, refugees have shared stories of psychological abuse and torture-like acts such as electric shocks and cigarette burns.

Under international and EU law, pushbacks are illegal and violate multiple human rights, most notably the right to asylum. The physical and psychological toll of these experiences are enormous, especially so for individuals who have already risked their lives to get that far.

Testimonies have also helped to paint a clear picture of the groups carrying out these operations, highlighting the Croatian Police Force and Hellenic Coast Guard as frequent perpetrators. 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.

Unsurprisingly, internal investigations by Frontex revealed no hint of misconduct, forcing the EU to launch investigations through its Anti-Fraud Office and the EU Ombudsman. Although public acceptance of a problem is one step, several considerations raise skepticism of the EU’s willingness to address it seriously.

Consistent evidence on the existence of border violence has been available for a number of years, yet the EU has continued to pour money into Frontex and the Croatian state. Since 2014, Croatia has received 150 million in EU money for border security, whilst Frontex’s 2020 budget of 5.6 billion makes it best-funded of any EU agency.

The money has primarily been used on the militarization of border security, with the purchase of aircraft, drones, thermal cameras, and other technology. As a result, border forces are now more capable than ever of intercepting and pushing back groups of migrants.

The EU also holds a large amount of responsibility for creating the contexts in which border violence occurs. Since 2015, the EU’s response to migration has been one of containment; using key legislation such as the Lisbon Agreement, alongside the physical closure of safe routes, to prevent migrants from reaching far into Europe.

As a result, migrants are forced to attempt risky border crossings into peripheral European states that are vastly overburdened with migration pressures. It is these conditions that allow violence and abuse to thrive. Finally, border violence is highly consistent with the wide range of hostile measures the EU has enacted in response to migration.

From the horrific ‘hotspot’’ system and prison-like detention camps to racialized political discourse and strict asylum systems, the EU has shown little regard for the wellbeing and safety of refugees. Instead of isolated incidents that happen at Europe’s edges, border violence must be seen as an extension of EU-wide attitudes and approaches to migration.

By directly funding the perpetrators, contributing to the contexts in which violence occurs, and legitimising an inhumane migration response, the EU’s decisions lie at the heart of border violence. If the EU was genuinely concerned with improving conditions for migrants and cracking down on violent abuses, it would launch an investigation that went far beyond Frontex itself.

It is important to acknowledge that migration since 2015 has realised a large amount of pressure on European states. However, it is just as important to criticize the EU’s complete mishandling of the situation, one that has condemned hundreds of thousands to unthinkable hardships.



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.


































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