Pushbacks at European Union’s external border – the new normal?

Lack of evidence is not the problem. In the last years, different civil society and research organizations have collected numerous testimonies of migrants and refugees that have been violently sent back by authorities after they crossed the border of the Westens Balkans, Morocco, Sebia, Turkey or Belarus into the European Union (EU). In many cases, these people – looking for dignity and international protection – reported abuse, humiliation and beatings. In the so called ‘pushbacks’, access to the asylum procedure is denied; asylum seekers are not registered but immediately returned to the other side of the border. Member of the European Parliament Tineke Strik is worried this inhumane and unlawful way of pushing people out of the EU is becoming a normality. On February 18, during the breakfast briefing organized by the Greens/EFA and the Open Society European Policy Institute; ‘Strengthening borders, weakening the rule of law?’ Strik, together with experts in the field, brought the attention to the pushbacks that take place at EU’s external borders. It was concluded that the approach for EU border control needs to be reconsidered and an independent border control mechanism should be implemented to stop the unlawful pushbacks from happening.

Issues with border Control
“In order also to preserve free movement within the Schengen area, we need strong external borders,” said Malik Azmani in a debate on the situation of refugees at external borders. During the breakfast briefing, Commissioner Borbala Szigeti further highlighted the importance of border control and stated external borders are controlled to “prevent illegal entry’’ into the EU. Still, fundamental rights should be protected and all persons should always have access to international protection, Szigeti said.

Is it possible to protect EU’s external borders and, at the same time, respect human rights and provide access to international protection? Milena Zajovic Milka, President of ‘Are you Syrious’ does not believe that can be achieved within the current system. A border monitoring mechanism is missing, she argues. The data and testimonies on the pushbacks come mainly from non-governmental organisations and are not always recognized by the authorities. According to Eleni Takou, Deputy Director and Head of ‘Advocacy of Human rights 360’, Turkey denies pushbacks are happening at their border with Greece. “Not even at the state of acceptance, pure denial,” Takou said.

Due to the lack of ‘official’ monitoring, no one is held accountable for the violations that happen in the border areas. “Lawless zones” emerged where border guards can abuse migrants and shoot at refugees without being convicted. Another problem is that some countries feel they have to protect the EU’s external borders at all costs. Countries like Serbia and Bosnia believe this will help them to join the EU, Milka argues.

Pushbacks as a security threat
András Léderer, advocacy officer at the ‘Hungarian Helsinki Committee’, explained that pushbacks have been legalized in Hungary in July 2016. First anywhere within 8 kilometres from the border, now everywhere in the country; if you are found without identification, you have no right to seek asylum and you will be escorted out of the country immediately.

EU border control should prevent illegal entry and “protect internal security of all EU Member States,” according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. But what about illegal exit? Pushbacks can be a serious threat for security as well, argues Léderer. If you committed a crime in the EU: “Go to Hungary, you get a free ride out of the Schengen zone without them knowing who you are,” Léderer advises.

Spreading disease
Violently pushing individuals out of the EU without providing access to the asylum procedure – denying them the right to seek international protection – seems to be the new normal. The lawless zones around the external borders are expanding, “spreading like a disease”, the experts find. This has implications for society as the pushbacks can not be seen as disconnected events. It relates to the identity and policy of the European Union as a whole.

The situation has to change, according to Debbie Kohner, Secretary General of the ‘European Network of National Human Rights Institutions’. Kohner argues an independent monitoring mechanism should be implemented to find more evidence. This evidence should be used to ensure accountability, while the EU takes the pressure off the external borders. But more importantly, Kohner said, citizens, border guards and policymakers have to realize international human rights and refugee protection law applies. For everyone, everywhere.