An orchestration of violence
Video footage has emerged which shows disguised, uniformed men beating asylum seekers back over the Croatian-Bosnian border. Klass van Dijken, the investigating journalist behind the camera, writes on Twitter: “Hiding in the trees, listening to the damp thwack of batons on human bodies, the screams will be hard to forget.” While reports of migrant pushbacks in EU border countries such as Greece, Croatia or Romania have made the news for years, this is the first time visual evidence documents these violent and illegal security measures.
Based on an 8-months long investigation led by Utrecht-based Lighthouse Reports in conjunction with other European media outlets, the EU is now facing allegations of actively funding and supporting these systematic pushbacks. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is put under particularly close scrutiny. “There seems to be […] some kind of orchestration of violence at our external borders. And there seems to be convincing evidence of misuse of EU funds,” states Ylva Johannson, European commissioner for home affairs, expressing serious concern about the allegations.
What are Migrant Pushbacks?
According to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) migrant pushbacks are defined as ‘deportations carried out without consideration of individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken.’
Migrant pushbacks can take multiple forms and have been recorded in various EU border states. As described above, in Croatia there have been recorded instances of guards disguised in balaclavas fending off migrants with batons. Other reports detail vans pulling up to refugee camps in Greece, collecting groups of migrants detained there and transporting them to the Turkish border. Once there, the migrants are forced to cross over.
There have also been horrific accounts of maritime pushbacks. This is old news, so to speak, with the Mediterranean having gained its sinister nickname as ‘Europe’s cemetery’ at the height of the refugee crisis back in 2015. Yet, witness reports such as the one by Mustafa, interviewed by The Guardian, hint that the right to asylum remains under threat today: “We were all forced on to the boat. If we looked up they shouted at us and hit us in the head. Then they stopped at a place in the sea where there were no other boats, they left us.”
Mustafa and his family, Afghan nationals, had been deported from Greece by anonymous border guards shortly after their arrival. They were eventually found by Turkish coast guards and rescued before dying at sea, but also, before claiming asylum on EU territory.
Are Migrant Pushbacks Legal?
The short answer is: No. Migrant pushbacks are illegal under EU, humanitarian and international law.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention and Protocol, the primary document securing the rights of refugees internationally, assigns asylum seekers the right of non-refoulement. Accordingly, it is prohibited to forcefully return individuals to a country where they may face torture, inhumane treatment or other threats to their fundamental rights. Refugees are further to be granted access to an orderly judicial procedure including a formal hearing regarding their asylum request, and the right to reside in the EU or host country until a decision has been made. The adherence to the principle of non-refoulement by EU member states is enshrined in Article 19 of the EU Charter.
The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), an independent network monitoring human rights violations at EU borders, further framed the pushbacks as a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture. In their appeal to the UN Special Rappoteur on Torture, BVMN states that in 2020, 90% of recorded pushbacks included at least one of the following ill-treatments or forms of violence: “forced undressing, beatings, use of electric discharge weapons, use of firearms, mock executions and the use of inhuman and extralegal detention.” The report also stated that 52% of recorded pushback victims were underage.
Frontex: An Agency in Turmoil
When the EU Commissioner of home affairs Ylva Johannson speaks of the potential misuse of EU funds in relation to the migrant pushbacks, she is talking about Frontex. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, successfully framed itself as the EU’s most valuable resource in solving the 2015 refugee crisis. Consequently, the agency has seen its budget grow from a mere 6 million euros in 2005 to 460 million euros in 2020. According to Der Spiegel, Europe’s taxpayers will have contributed over 5.6 billion euros in support of Frontex by 2027.
Frontex has been connected to migrant pushbacks multiple times since 2016. For instance, despite 600 Frontex personnel being stationed to surveil the Aegean sea (body of water between Greece and Turkey) including ships, drones and aircrafts, the agency denies any knowledge of illegal pushbacks executed by Greek coast guards. In Novembre 2020, this sparked an internal investigation upon request of the European Ombudsman. Earlier this year both the European Parliament and the EU anti-fraud office followed up and initiated their own investigations.
But why does the Frontex, which is meant to protect EU borders and monitor human rights violations, fail to do its job?
A key problem seems to be the lack of oversight over the internal workings of the agency, which are, allegedly, messy and chaotic. Media outlets have picked up on that, with Der Spiegel dubbing Frontex ‘an agency in turmoil’. Following its rapid expansion after 2016 the agency seems to face serious organizational and bureaucratic issues. Employees report a lack of resources such as vehicles. After having to rent cars and pay for fuel out of their own pockets, Frontex guards report bureaucratic hurdles to getting the money refunded. Additionally, because Frontex has failed to provide a legal request in time, officers are not yet allowed to carry weapons. The EU’s border guards and alleged protectors of human rights have to be accompanied by national officials if they wish to carry arms on a mission.
On a more serious note, Frontex repeatedly fails to report about its workings to the European Commission. ‘Serious Incident Reports’ are meant to document any serious human rights violations observed by Frontex officials but are barely ever written. And requests by the European Parliament to employ 40 human rights monitors continue to be ignored. There is thus a lack of oversight over the EU agencies internal workings by the EU as well as serious concerns about their actions in relation to international human rights law.
With investigations against Frontex ongoing, it remains to be seen if the EU has made itself guilty of funding migrant pushbacks. Croatia and Greece have both been ordered to initiate internal investigations in order to determine who is hiding behind the balaclavas and batons that fight off asylum seekers on EU borders.
Cara is currently completing her BA in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She has a passion for ethical journalism, focussing on EU foreign relations, gender equity and human rights.