Croatia, Greece and Romania have carried out hundreds of illegal pushback operations at the European Union’s external borders since early 2020 as part of a “violent campaign” to deny access to asylum, a new report alleges.
The findings, published on Wednesday by the Amsterdam-based investigative news organisation Lighthouse Reports, reveal that masked security forces and police units in the three EU member states have repeatedly taken coordinated, clandestine action to prevent asylum seekers from crossing their borders.
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The allegations add to concerns among rights groups, which have been documenting an intensified use of pushbacks and slammed the EU’s alleged complicity in the operations.
Under international and EU human rights laws, it is illegal for states to automatically expel people without assessing their circumstances. EU law also guarantees the right to seek asylum.
EU governments deny the existence of a violent campaign by masked men to turn away asylum seekers at EU borders. A months-long investigation by @LHReports & leading media unmasks these groups, reveals who commands & finances them pic.twitter.com/nGNFs5Epsi
— Lighthouse Reports (@LHreports) October 6, 2021
The investigation by Lighthouse Reports took place over eight months, in collaboration with European media partners including the German news magazine Der Spiegel and French newspaper Libération.
With video footage, satellite imagery, witness testimony and interviews with more than a dozen serving and former police and coast guard officers, they determined that at least 189 people had been illegally denied access to the European asylum system, which they claimed was “a small sample of pushbacks”.
Pushbacks ‘commonplace’ at EU’s borders
Lighthouse Reports documented 11 pushbacks in Croatia, the newest EU member state, between May and September this year at four locations along the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Croatian riot police carried out the pushbacks as part of a national strategy codenamed “Koridor”, which is part-funded by the EU, police whistleblowers told the outlet.
In one incident in June, a group of Afghans and Pakistanis requested asylum when they encountered Croatian police, but were forced across the Korana river, back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During the pushback, police allegedly beat the refugees with batons, leaving them with bruises.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify those claims but undated video footage shared by Lighthouse Reports appears to show several people crossing a river while being beaten by at least two armed individuals dressed entirely in black and wearing balaclavas.
Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s Balkans researcher, said it was “clear” the masked men were Croatian riot police, as their uniforms, weapons and equipment were identical to those issued to members of the unit.
“This is the latest evidence that unlawful pushbacks and violence against asylum-seekers and migrants are commonplace at the EU’s external borders,” Sesar said.
“In numerous countries … people in search of safety and protection are being met with barbed wire and armed border guards,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that the EU’s migration policy had “for years now prioritised border security over the rights of people and its fundamental values”.
In Greece, Lighthouse Reports collected publicly available video footage of 635 alleged pushbacks since March 2020.
Masked individuals were involved in 15 incidents, the news outlet alleged, including one which saw 25 asylum seekers on a rubber dinghy reportedly blocked from reaching shore on the Aegean island of Kos. They were told to “get a passport if they want to travel”. The Turkish coast guard reportedly picked up the group later.
Current and former officers in the Greek coast guard who were shown footage of that incident identified the masked individuals as members of elite coast guard units.
The whistleblowers described how orders to repel refugees were “always” given orally, because of their illegality.
In Romania, Lighthouse Reports used remote, motion-activated cameras, to film uniformed border guards forcing men and women into neighbouring Serbia in three separate incidents.
Tracked down by the investigative team, some claimed to have been physically assaulted during the pushback.
Two border guards speaking anonymously to Lighthouse Reports said Romanian police routinely conduct pushbacks to Serbia.
Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of more than 100 NGOs in 39 European countries, said the findings added to “emerging evidence that pushbacks are taking place systematically” at EU borders with the bloc’s “complicity”.
She told Al Jazeera that some member states act with “impunity” and called for EU action to protect human rights laws.
“We currently have a situation where there is tolerance or even normalisation of some of these violations, up to and including the use of extreme violence against people seeking protection,” Woolard said.
“There’s an unwillingness of the EU to act, because the general strategy in Europe is based on prevention of arrivals of people seeking protection, regardless of the costs and the consequences.
“So there is either a lack of action, which means the states can continue to carry out these pushbacks with impunity or in the worst cases, support for the member states.”
Brussels turning ‘blind eye’
Amnesty’s Sesar said it was “alarming” that the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, continues to turn a “blind eye to the staggering violation of EU law, and even continues to finance police and border operations in some of these countries”.
“These pushbacks and the funding that facilitates them must end now,” she said.
In response to the latest findings, the European Commission said it “strongly opposes any pushback practices, and has repeatedly emphasised that any such practices are illegal”.
“National authorities have the responsibility to investigate any allegations, with a view to establishing the facts and to properly follow up on any wrongdoing,” a spokesperson for the EU’s executive arm said.
Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi denied the allegations.
“Europe remains the target of criminal gangs who are exploiting people who wish to enter the EU illegally,” he tweeted. “We make no apology for our continued focus on breaking up these human trafficking operations, and protecting Europe’s border.”
Croatia said it would investigate the allegations.
At the time of publication, the Romanian foreign affairs ministry had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.