UNHCR warns of increasing violence and human rights violations at European borders

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Greece. Arrivals from Turkey inundate Evros reception centre

A barbed-wire fence marking the land border between Greece and Turkey.  © UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is deeply concerned by the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders, several of which have resulted in tragic loss of life.

Violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks continue to be regularly reported at multiple entry points at land and sea borders, within and beyond the European Union (EU), despite repeated calls by UN agencies, including UNHCR, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs to end such practices.

We are alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020. Disturbing incidents are also reported in Central and South-eastern Europe at the borders with EU Member States.

Although many incidents go unreported for various reasons, UNHCR has interviewed thousands of people across Europe who were pushed back and reported a disturbing pattern of threats, intimidation, violence and humiliation. At sea, people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water, showing a callous lack of regard for human life. At least three people are reported to have died in such incidents since September 2021 in the Aegean Sea, including one in January. Equally horrific practices are frequently reported at land borders, with consistent testimonies of people being stripped and brutally pushed back in harsh weather conditions.

With few exceptions, European States have failed to investigate such reports, despite mounting, credible evidence. Instead, walls and fences are being erected at various frontiers. In addition to denial of entry at borders, we have also received reports that some refugees may have been returned to their country of origin, despite the risks they faced there, which may be at variance with the international legal principle of non-refoulement.

The right to seek and enjoy asylum does not depend on the mode of arrival to a country. People who wish to apply for asylum should be allowed to do so and they should be made aware of their rights and provided legal assistance.

People fleeing war and persecution have few available options. Walls and fences are unlikely to serve as a meaningful deterrent. They will just contribute to greater suffering of individuals in need of international protection, particularly women and children, and prompt them to consider different, often more dangerous, routes, and likely result in further deaths.

What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop. Protecting human life, human rights and dignity must remain our shared priority. Progress on preventing human rights violations at borders as well as the establishment of truly independent national monitoring mechanisms to ensure reporting and independent investigation of incidents are urgently needed.

We fear these deplorable practices now risk becoming normalized, and policy based. They reinforce a harmful and unnecessary ‘fortress Europe’ narrative. The reality is that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries with far fewer resources, often bordering countries of origin in crisis.

Under EU law, border surveillance activities must be implemented in full compliance with fundamental rights. It is possible to manage borders and address security concerns, while implementing fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers that are in line with States’ obligations under international human rights and refugee law including the 1951 Convention as well as European law.

European countries have long been strong supporters of UNHCR’s work and are providing important contributions that help to protect refugees and support host countries. Yet financial and capacity support abroad cannot replace States’ responsibilities and obligations to receive and protect refugees in their own territory.

While essential as a demonstration of external support to main hosting states, resettlement and other legal pathways cannot substitute for obligations towards people seeking asylum at borders, including those who have arrived irregularly and spontaneously, including by boat.

States must uphold their commitments and respect fundamental human rights, including the right to life and right to asylum. How Europe chooses to protect asylum-seekers and refugees matters and is precedent-setting not only in the region but also globally.

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