EU member states have used illegal operations to push at least 40,000 asylum seekers back from Europe’s borders during the pandemic, linked to the deaths of more than 2,000 people, The Guardian can reveal.
In one of the largest mass expulsions in decades, European countries, supported by the EU’s border agency Frontex, systematically turned away thousands of refugees, including children fleeing wars, using illegal tactics ranging from assault to brutality. during detention or transportation.
The Guardian’s analysis is based on reports published by UN agencies, combined with a database of incidents compiled by non-governmental organizations. According to charities, with the onset of Covid-19, the regularity and brutality of pushback practices has increased.
The findings come as the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog Olaf has launched an investigation on Frontex for allegations of harassment, misconduct and illegal operations aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching EU shores.
According to the International Organization for MigrationIn 2020, almost 100,000 immigrants arrived in Europe by sea and land, compared with almost 130,000 in 2019 and 190,000 in 2017.
Since January 2020, despite the drop in numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hard-line migration agenda. Since the introduction of partial or full border closures to halt the coronavirus outbreak, these countries have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept vessels in distress at sea and push passengers back to hubs. detention. There have been repeated reports of people being beaten, robbed, naked at the borders or abandoned at sea.
In 2020, Croatia, whose police patrol the EU’s longest external border, escalated systemic violence and the rejection of migrants to Bosnia. The Danish Refugee Council (RDC) registered about 18,000 migrants rejected by Croatia since the start of the pandemic. Over the past year and a half, The Guardian has collected testimonies from migrants who have allegedly been whipped, robbed, sexually abused and naked by members of the Croatian police. Some migrants said officers spray-painted them with red crosses on their heads and said the treatment was the “cure for coronavirus.”
According to an annual report released Tuesday, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a coalition of 13 NGOs documenting illegal setbacks in the Western Balkans, abuse and disproportionate force was present in almost 90% of testimonies in 2020 collected in Croatia, an increase of 10% compared to 2019.
In April, The Guardian revealed how a woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused and held at knife point by a Croatian border police officer during a search for migrants on the Bosnian border.
“Despite the European Commission’s commitment to the Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither in the investigations of actual reports, nor in the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms,” said Nicola Bay. , Country Director of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Bosnia. “Each rejection represents a violation of international and EU law, whether it involves violence or not.”
Since January 2020, Greece has rejected some 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores, according to BVMN data. The report indicated that in 89% of rejections, “BVMN has observed the disproportionate and excessive use of force. This alarming figure shows that the use of force in an abusive, and therefore illicit way, has become a normality […]
“Extremely cruel examples of police violence documented in 2020 included prolonged excessive beatings (often on naked bodies), immersion in water, physical abuse of women and children, the use of metal bars to inflict injuries.”
In the testimonies, the people described how their hands were tied to the bars of the cells and helmets were put on their heads before the blows to avoid visible bruises.
A lawsuit filed against the Greek state in April in the European human rights court accused Athens of abandoning dozens of migrants on life rafts at sea, after some were beaten. The case claims that Greek patrol boats towed the migrants back to Turkish waters and left them at sea without food, water, life jackets or any means of calling for help.
BVMN said: “Whether using the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown to cover rejections, creating open-air prisons, or preventing ships from entering Greek waters by firing warning shots towards ships, evidence indicates negative persistence to defend democratic values, human rights and international and European law “.
According to UNHCR data, since the start of the pandemic, the Libyan authorities, with the support of Italy since 2017, when Rome handed over responsibility for overseeing rescue operations in the Mediterranean to Libya, intercepted and returned some 15,500 applicants to Tripoli. asylum. The controversial strategy has led to the forcible return of thousands of people to Libyan detention centers where, according to first-hand reports, they face torture. Hundreds have drowned when neither Libya nor Italy intervened.
“In 2020 this practice continued, and Frontex aircraft played an increasingly important role, spotting ships at sea and communicating their position to the Libyan coast guard,” said Matteo de Bellis, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “So, although Italy at some point even used the pandemic as an excuse to declare that its ports were not safe for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea, it had no problem with the Libyan coastguard returning people to Tripoli. Even when this was bombed or when hundreds were forcibly disappeared immediately after landing. “
In April, Italy and Libya were accused of deliberately ignoring an emergency call from a migrant boat in distress in Libyan waters, when the waves reached six meters. A few hours later, an NGO rescue boat discovered dozens of bodies floating in the waves. That day 130 migrants were lost at sea.
In April, in a joint investigation with the Italian Rai News and the Domani newspaper, The Guardian saw documents from Italian prosecutors detailing the conversations between two Libyan coast guard commanders and an Italian coast guard officer in Rome. The transcripts appeared to expose the unreceptive behavior of the Libyan officials and their struggle to respond to calls for help that resulted in hundreds of deaths. At least five NGO ships remain blocked in Italian ports while authorities cite administrative reasons for holding them.
Malta, which declared its ports closed early last year, citing the pandemic, has continued to push back hundreds of migrants using two strategies: recruiting private vessels to intercept asylum seekers and forcing them to return to Libya or rejecting them with directions to get to Italy.
“Between 2014 and 2017, Malta was able to count on Italy to take responsibility for coordinating rescues and allowing landings,” De Bellis said. “But when Italy and the EU withdrew their ships from the central Mediterranean, to Libya, they left Malta more exposed. In response, since the beginning of 2020, the Maltese government used tactics to avoid helping refugees and migrants in distress at sea, including organizing illegal returns to Libya by private fishing boats, diverting boats rather than rescuing them, illegally detaining them. hundreds of people in poorly equipped ferries. facing the waters of Malta, and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta. “
Last May, a series of voicemails obtained by The Guardian confirmed the Maltese government’s strategy of using private boats, acting at the behest of its armed forces, to intercept the crossings and return the refugees to Libyan detention centers.
In February 2020, the European court of human rights was accused of “completely ignoring reality” after it ruled that Spain did not violate the ban on collective expulsion, as asylum applications could be made at the official border crossing. Based on this ruling, the Constitutional Court of Spain upheld the “border rejections” provided that certain safeguards are applied.
Last week, the The bodies of 24 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were found by the Spanish maritime rescue. It is believed that they died of thirst and hunger while trying to reach the Canary Islands. In 2020, according to UNHCR, 788 migrants died trying to get to Spain.
The Guardian has contacted Frontex for comment. Previously, the agency has said it will “cooperate fully” with Olaf.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism