UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has raised concerns regarding the treatment of asylum seekers at Europe’s borders – calling for states to halt abusive practices and investigate the actions taken by their respective border agencies.
UNHCR has found that some European states are “restricting access to asylum, returning people after they have reached territory or territorial waters, and using violence against them at borders.” Such practices, typified by the frequent expulsion of refugee boats, have become routine; with extensive reports of “violence and abuse by state forces” indicating human rights violations are customary at Europe’s land and sea borders.
Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, condemned the actions taken by European border agencies, stating that:
“Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal.”
These systematic pushbacks are a clear violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which stipulates that states are legally obliged to protect the right of people to seek asylum.
Attacks on the rights of refugees in this manner have increased in frequency recently, with Greek and Croatian border agencies responsible for hundreds of human rights violations in 2020.
The Greek coastguard has come under widespread criticism for its role in around 300 forced returns in 2020. In a report compiled by the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee, deep concerns were raised with regard to:
“acts by the Greek Coast Guard to prevent boats carrying migrants from reaching any Greek island”
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, is already under investigation, partially for its illegal operations at the Greek-Turkish maritime border. Allegations of harassment, migrant pushbacks, and activity intended to prevent migrants from reaching the EU have become commonplace.
In December 2020, one of the most comprehensive and gruelling documents detailing the experiences faced by refugees along the Balkan migrant route was published. The “Black Book of Pushbacks”, recording 12,654 victims of human rights violations along the route, highlights the extent to which human rights are being violated, particularly in Croatia. German MEP, Cornelia Ernst, raised concerns regarding accountability for perpetrating authorities, stating that:
“We call for an end to impunity and a renewed commitment to accountability, both of which will work towards ending such brutal human rights violations”
With around one percent of humanity currently displaced, European governments have an obligation to uphold international law and to ensure that the rights of those escaping persecution, conflict or any other threat to their safety are not violated.
This post was originally published on International Observatory of Human Rights.