Amnesty International: ‘Where There Are Fences, There Are Human Rights Abuses’

Amnesty International: ‘Where There Are Fences, There Are Human Rights Abuses’

European Union member states asking for more support to deal with the continent’s growing refugee crisis have already spent more than 175 million euros building fences intended to keep the migrants and asylum-seekers out.

But according to a report released by Amnesty International on Tuesday, barricading borders has proved essentially useless: The 235 km of fences on European borders are simply forcing asylum-seekers determined to reach the EU to embark on more dangerous journeys, including by way of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Roughly 800,000 people have arrived in Europe this year alone, compared to the roughly 280,000 who arrived by both land and sea in 2014 — before the continent started its latest fence-building push.

Now, with the region reeling from Friday night’s attacks in Paris, EU leaders are warning they intend to tighten border controls to ensure terrorists are not disguising themselves as refugees and using the flood of migrants to sneak into their countries. One of the suspected terrorists in Friday’s attacks is thought to have used a Syrian passport that was registered on a Greek island in October, though it is not yet clear whether his passport was forged or whether he tried to arrive in Europe by posing as a refugee.

Amnesty determined that travel by sea increased in part when refugees realized they may not be offered the opportunity to apply for asylum if they traveled by land. At land border checks, refugees reported systematic refusal to process their asylum claims, which the watchdog organization said could amount to a violation of international law. In interviews with refugees who crossed through Greek, Bulgarian, and Spanish land borders, Amnesty officials determined that border officials physically pushed refugees back across their borders without offering them the opportunity to apply for asylum.

One refugee who was forced back into Turkey after trying to cross into Greece told Amnesty he was beaten by Greek police officers after being refused the opportunity to file for asylum. “They took me away from the group and started beating us with their fists and kicking us on the floor,” he told investigators for the rights group. “They held me by my hair and pushed me towards the river.”

And anecdotes of that type of pushback are reportedly increasingly common. “Illegal push-backs of asylum-seekers have become an intrinsic feature of any EU external border located on major migration routes and no one is doing much to stop them,” said John Dalhuisen, who directs Amnesty International’s programs in Europe and Central Asia.

According to Amnesty, fences built around Spain’s enclaves in North Africa, on the borders between Hungary and Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey, and Greece and Turkey in many instances violate states’ obligations to accept those fleeing persecution and war.

And Amnesty said it’s not just physical barriers that are illegally denying shelter to refugees. The watchdog group also condemned the EU’s recent migration proposal with Turkey, which is intended to slow down the flow of migrants from the Middle East by “preventing irregular migration.” 

Amnesty claims the proposal encourages Turkish authorities to prevent refugees from seeking asylum in Europe and ignores Turkey’s own violations of asylum-seekers’ rights. “Turkey has been detaining intercepted migrants and asylum-seekers without access to lawyers and forcibly returning refugees to Syria and Iraq, in clear violation of international law,” the report said.

In August, François Crépeau, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, warned that the EU’s policies were having adverse effects.

“Let’s not pretend that what the EU and its member states are doing is working,” he said. “Building fences, using tear gas and other forms of violence against migrants and asylum-seekers, detention, withholding access to basics such as shelter, food, or water, and using threatening language or hateful speech will not stop migrants from coming or trying to come to Europe.”

But those warnings haven’t done much good. Hungary moved forward with plans to hastily erect a fence on its border with Serbia, and authorities there used tear gas and water cannons to push back asylum-seekers trying to pass through the country on their way to Austria and Germany. And in recent days, those anti-migrant sentiments seem to have worsened: On the border of Slovenia and Austria this weekend, both countries’ armies there reportedly strip-searched migrants and asylum-seekers as they traveled westward. And on Monday, right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Europe is “adrift.”

“In Brussels, they continue to say that immigration is good, even while we get new evidence every day that immigration is a bad thing,” he said.

Photo credit: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images