When Ibrahim was arrested on the Romanian side of the border with Serbia, he and his asylum-seeking colleagues thought they were lucky. The guards smiled and promised to take them to the nearest town to ask for asylum. Instead, they brought the migrants back to the Serbian forest, put on masks and beat them with batons before running away.
Ibrahim, 22, protected his face with his hands and escaped with a broken wrist. His friend, another Syrian refugee, was hit on the head so hard that he lost consciousness. Ibrahim cannot bring himself to tell his family what happened: after having survived air strikes, Isis and conscription, it is in Europe, he says, that he reached his point on lower.
“I didn’t know they would treat humans the way they do in Syria,” said Ibrahim of the Kikinda border camp in Serbia, near the Romanian border. “Maybe the idea of Europe is a big lie.”
Violence, increasingly common at the gates of the EU, is escalating in what asylum seekers and advocacy groups view as brutal but unofficial policy.
Interviews with 25 migrants and several humanitarian organizations suggest that beatings and “refoulements” – forcing asylum seekers from a country before their claims can be examined – are now systemic, despite violation of the right to the EU. The normalization of violence increases as migrants seek new paths. Initial criticism focused on Hungary, before allegations rose in Bulgaria and Greece. In recent months, as more and more migrants have attempted the Balkan routes through Croatia and Romania, accusations of violence along these borders have soared.
“This idea of [using] violence spreads instead of decreasing, ”explains Jovana Arsenijevic, program coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in the Balkans. “It is a huge shame that Europe, a place that has built a reputation as the cradle of human rights, does not treat people with dignity.”
The use of these dangerous roads, she says, is inevitable when Europe has made it so difficult for asylum seekers to flee and seek asylum legally.
Roll back such tactics will only become more difficult when populism across Europe, which has grown on the back of anti-migration sentiment, politicizes any discussion of rights violations. The growing tolerance for Europe’s aggression became evident when Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, hailed Greece as Europe’s “shield” even as videos showed border forces using tear gas and rubber bullets and harassing asylum seeker boats earlier in March.
Critics say EU risks eroding its own human rights laws, while advocates say such crossings are illegal, and blame Turkey for bringing refugees to Greece in an attempt cynical to trigger a new crisis. Ankara had signed an agreement in 2016 with the EU to reduce the number of arrivals after more than a million people, mainly Syrians fleeing the civil war, entered Europe almost without control in 2015.
Although the EU is working with Turkey to reduce border tensions, the use of these primitive tactics intervenes even as the EU border police adopt ever more sophisticated technologies. Surveillance helicopters, robotic camera and sensor systems and drone “swarms” are now being tested during border patrols.
Most of the migrants interviewed said they had suffered at least one severe beating. They all remembered being stripped to their underwear, forced to wait for hours on icy ground and receiving their clothes with laces and belts removed, their cell phones broken.
Responsibility for violence allegedly inflicted on migrants is often directed against countries supported by the EU for migration control, such as Libya, but more and more EU member states are now directly accomplices, unofficial policy stretching along the borders of the Union, say the rights. groups.
Romanian border police say that migrants detected on their territory are being investigated and given instructions on asylum procedures. In a statement, they said: “All the measures taken by the Romanian border guards when detecting migrants acting illegally at the border are carried out in accordance with national and international law, always with respect for human rights . “
But in the Serbian border camp where Ibrahim sleeps, many men piled on mattresses in filthy rooms show signs of abuse: two wear plasters and scarves, one wears two black eyes and another walks with a limp painful.
Since coronavirus the epidemic struck Europe, the Serbian and Bosnian soldiers locked the camps of the migrants, arguing that it was for the safety of those which were accommodated there. But it is a reminder of how the virus can exacerbate hostility towards asylum seekers at a time when the economic recession and social conflicts following the pandemic could trigger even more migration.
Comprehensive statistics are impossible to collect given the number of migrants under the radar, but a January study by the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an advocacy group in the Balkans, said that more than 80% of the 263 people that he studied while documenting refoulements in Croatia reported assaults.
Frontex, the European border and coast guard agency, said its patrols were faced with violence from migrants throwing stones, as happened at the Greek border. “It is violence that should concern all EU citizens,” he said in comments to the FT.
He added that increased deployments could reduce violence. “The officers deployed in Frontex operations are present to support member states and guarantee the rule of law,” said Frontex.
Yet Ms. Arsenijevic argues that the growing displays of force do not even act as an effective deterrent – an argument confirmed by interviews with asylum seekers, who promise to keep trying. “We are like ants,” said 25-year-old Abu Laith, who, like all the migrants interviewed, asked not to be identified by his real name. “You have put a rock in front of us, and we will continue to move around it.”
The night of his assault in Romania, Ibrahim marveled at the precision with which the patrol had spotted his group, up to the place where they were hiding. He and his interviewed colleagues were also followed by helicopters, patrols with night vision goggles and camouflaged robotic sensors that detect movements and alert the police. Since 2016, Romanian police have declared that they are increasing “remote vision equipment to its maximum capacity” to prevent level crossings.
Ibrahim and two other refugees also described being chased by drones as they passed through a Hungarian forest. They say the objects appeared on all fours, surrounding them and chasing them until they left the border. “It’s a strange feeling – like you’re in some sort of horrible film,” says a refugee.
Researchers from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have developed swarms of drones, and Hungary has also been part of the “Roborder” project supported by the European research fund Horizon 2020. Roborder is testing automated vehicles that could be used from air, land or underwater, including an option to create “swarms” to triangulate a person’s location. Critics warn that such research could lead to armed automated weapons, easing the path to wider use of robots that ward off deadly decisions from humans.
“These research projects are used to test new, aggressive ideas,” says Mark Akkerman, of the Dutch anti-arms campaign Stop Wapenhandel, who studies EU border fortifications for the Transnational Institute (TNI), an advocacy group. . “[This will] fuel the cycle of militarization of borders and the use of increasingly draconian methods to achieve it. “
The European Commission has paid money to Frontex, whose annual budget is now 420 million euros, an increase of more than 34% compared to 2019. Its budget was only 6 million euros in 2005. TNI maintains that such funding contributes to the militarization of Europe, increasing the purchase of surveillance equipment and weapons and, soon, the troops. Last May, Frontex announced its first autonomous border force, which could reach 10,000 people by 2027 – it currently has 1,500 officers, seconded from member states. At the same time, he launched patrols in Albania, its first outside an EU country.
The commission claims that Frontex has put in place mechanisms to promote and monitor respect for fundamental rights. But a 2018 report of the Frontex Advisory Forum, an independent oversight body, said “the almost negligible number of reports received by the Agency. . . raises serious concerns about the effectiveness “of these measures.
In a recent attempt to enter Hungary, a family said that border patrols assaulted a young man in their group, but stopped when two Frontex guards arrived and told the migrants that they had a choice. apply for asylum. “We said OK, but when the Hungarians chased us out, they threw us out [back] in Serbia, ”says Hani, 19, from Iraq. “We really had no choice.”
Andras Lederer, of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based rights group, says Frontex risks being “a silent partner in the crime of violating EU law”. Its presence can reduce violence, he says, but does nothing to prevent the trend of illegal rejection of people across the border. A Hungarian spokesman denied that border forces are using refoulement.
As migrants now spend more time on more delicate routes in Europe, the risk of death increases. Data from the International Organization for Migration shows that 148 refugees died on European soil last year, more than in previous years and even the toll of 135 people in 2015, when more migrants crossed.
Ibrahim intended to meet his cousin in Serbia and to continue his journey to the EU together. But Ibrahim got lost in the mountains for two days without food or water, and by the time he reached their meeting point in Belgrade, he learned that his cousin’s body was in a freezer in Tirana, killed in a car accident when he went underground. from Albania.
Her family started a new round of money-seeking – but this time to bring back a body. The tragedy has only strengthened his resolve, he says. He plots with friends to dig a tunnel afterwards. “It’s not just for me, but for my family. After all they have gone through, I will not fail – I cannot fail. “
Such determination is the reason why human rights activists argue that brutal border strategies do not work. In 2016, migration to Europe declined after Brussels signed an agreement promising Turkey an initial € 6 billion in two installments for aid to refugees in return for blocking the flow of migrants.
Humanitarian officials in Bosnia and Serbia have therefore been surprised by the increase in the number of migrants in recent months. But the trend highlighted the initial problem with the Turkish-European agreement: it left the refugees trapped in another unwelcome place, even if the problems that pushed them to flee their own country were still unresolved.
Ankara, in addition to complaining that Europe has not sent all the promised funds, also demands that its Western allies support Turkish military operations in northern Syria after an offensive launched by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia bombed Idlib, the last country in the enclave country of the opposition. Since December, almost a million people have been displaced and are moving in the northern region, getting closer and closer to the Turkish border, itself now fortified with an EU-funded wall and patrol vehicles. .
At the same time, attacks and deportations targeting migrants in Turkey, which are home to the world’s largest refugee population of 3.6 million, are increasing. Afghan and Syrian migrants interviewed in Serbia say this is what drove many to leave. According to Suleyman Soylu, Turkish Interior Minister, a total of 104,000 people were expelled from Turkey last year. But Ankara denies having forced refugees from Syria to return to the country against their will.
Ahmad, a 30-year-old Syrian, fled Turkey after being arrested for working in a hotel without a permit, which is extremely difficult for the refugees. For 20 days, he was detained in a deportation center, where he said that the authorities tried to force the Syrians to sign papers saying that they were leaving voluntarily. Blankets, sheets and even shampoo given to detainees, he said, bore the EU flag stamp and the words “European Union” in Arabic – supplies which he said were intended for refugees. Once released, Ahmad immediately left for Europe, fearing the next time he would be deported.
He is now stuck in Serbia after trying to enter the EU more than eight times in two weeks. He is not alone. In the seedy hall, under clouds of cigarette smoke, tired men and women from Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria throng and debate various plots to cross: two-week hikes swimming on the Danube. Two young men, preparing for their 18th attempt, brandish telephones with photos of the last one: their back and chest covered with red stripes.
“Welcome to the land of civilization”, we joke.