EU member states have used illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, linked to the death of more than 2,000 people, the Guardian can reveal.
In one of the biggest mass expulsions in decades, European nations, supported by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, or Frontex, systematically pushed back refugees, including children fleeing from wars, in their thousands, using illegal tactics ranging from assault to brutality during detention or transportation.
The analysis is based on reports released by UN agencies, combined with a database of incidents collected by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). With the onset of COVID-19, the regularity and brutality of pushback practices has grown, charities said.
Illustration: Mountain People
The findings come as the European Anti-Fraud Office has launched an investigation into Frontex over allegations of harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping asylum seekers from reaching the EU.
Almost 100,000 immigrants arrived in Europe last year by sea and land compared with nearly 130,000 in 2019 and 190,000 in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Since January last year, despite the drop in numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hardline migration agenda.
Since the introduction of partial or complete border closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these nations have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept boats in distress at sea and push back passengers to detention centers.
There have been repeated reports of people being beaten, robbed, stripped naked at frontiers or left at sea.
Croatia, whose police patrol the EU’s longest external border, has intensified systemic violence and pushbacks of migrants to Bosnia.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) recorded nearly 18,000 migrants pushed back by Croatia since the start of the pandemic.
Over the past year and a half, the Guardian has collected testimonies of migrants who have allegedly been whipped, robbed, sexually abused and stripped naked by Croatian police officers. Some migrants said they were spray-painted with red crosses on their heads by officers, who said the treatment was a “cure against coronavirus.”
The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a coalition of 13 NGOs documenting illegal pushbacks in the western Balkans, says that abuse and disproportionate force was present in nearly 90 percent of testimonies collected from Croatia last year, a 10 percent increase on 2019, according to an annual report released on Tuesday.
The Guardian last month revealed how a woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused and held at knifepoint by a Croatian border police officer during a search of migrants on the border with Bosnia.
“Despite the European Commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms,” DRC country director for Bosnia Nicola Bay said. “Every single pushback represents a violation of international and EU law — whether it involves violence or not.”
Greece since January last year has pushed back about 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores, according to data from BVMN.
The report said that in 89 percent of the pushbacks, “BVMN has observed the disproportionate and excessive use of force. This alarming number 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), water immersion, the physical abuse of women and children, the use of metal rods to inflict injury.”
In testimonies, people described how their hands were tied to the bars of cells and helmets put on their heads before beatings to avoid visible bruising.
A lawsuit filed last month against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights accused Athens of abandoning dozens of migrants in life rafts at sea, after some had been beaten. The case claims that Greek patrol boats towed migrants back to Turkish waters and abandoned them at sea without food, water, life jackets or any means to call for help.
“Whether it be using the COVID-19 pandemic and the national lockdown to serve as a cover for pushbacks, fashioning open-air prisons, or preventing boats from entering Greek waters by firing warning shots toward boats, the evidence indicates the persistent refusal to uphold democratic values, human rights and international and European law,” the BVMN said.
Since the start of the pandemic, Libyan authorities — with Italian support since 2017, when Rome ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya — intercepted and pushed back to Tripoli about 15,500 asylum seekers, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees data.
The controversial strategy has caused the forced return of thousands to Libyan detention centers where, according to firsthand reports, they face torture. Hundreds have drowned when neither Libya nor Italy intervened.
“In 2020 this practice continued, with an increasingly important role being played by Frontex planes, sighting boats at sea and communicating their position to the Libyan coastguard,” Amnesty International migration researcher Matteo de Bellis said. “So, while 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 coast guard returning people to Tripoli. Even when this was under shelling or when hundreds were forcibly disappeared immediately after disembarkation.”
Italy and Libya last month were accused of deliberately ignoring a mayday call from a migrant boat in distress in Libyan waters, as waves reached a height of 6m. 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 a joint investigation last month with Rai News and the newspaper Domani, the Guardian saw documents from Italian prosecutors detailing conversations between two commanders of the Libyan coast guard and an Italian coast guard officer in Rome. The transcripts appeared to expose the nonresponsive behavior of the Libyan officers and their struggling to answer the distress calls, which resulted in hundreds of deaths.
At least five NGO boats remain blocked in Italian ports as authorities claim 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: enlisting private vessels to intercept asylum seekers and force them back to Libya or turning them away with directions to Italy.
“Between 2014 and 2017, Malta was able to count on Italy to take responsibility for coordinating rescues and allowing disembarkations, but when Italy and the EU withdrew their ships from the central Mediterranean, to leave it in Libya’s hands, they left Malta more exposed,” De Bellis said. “In response, from early 2020 the Maltese government used tactics to avoid assisting refugees and migrants in danger at sea, including arranging unlawful pushbacks to Libya by private fishing boats, diverting boats rather than rescuing them, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries off Malta’s waters and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta.”
A series of voice messages obtained by the Guardian in May last year confirmed the Maltese government’s strategy to use private vessels, acting at the behest of its armed forces, to intercept crossings and return refugees to Libyan detention centers.
The European Court of Human Rights in February last year was accused of “completely ignoring the reality” after it ruled Spain did not contravene the prohibition of collective expulsion, as asylum applications could be made at the official border crossing point. Relying on this judgement, the Spanish Constitutional Court upheld “border rejections” provided certain safeguards apply.
The bodies of 24 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were found last week by Spain’s maritime rescue agency.
They are believed to have died of thirst and hunger while attempting to reach the Canary Islands.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that 788 migrants died trying to reach Spain last year.
The Guardian has approached Frontex for comment. Previously the agency said that it would be “cooperating fully” with the European Anti-Fraud Office.
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