Since 2015, when deepening crises across Asia and Africa coupled with the war in Syria resulted in a significant increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, stopping so-called “irregular migration” has been a priority for the European Union.
As more and more people fleeing bloody conflicts, totalitarian regimes, climate change-related catastrophes and extreme poverty started showing up at Europe’s gates, EU member states began to fortify their borders. Electric fences, watchtowers, dog patrol units, helicopters and surveillance drones mushroomed across European frontiers, and the budget of the EU border agency, Frontex, ballooned to more than $800m (754 million euros), making it the best-funded among all EU agencies.
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The EU also moved to export its border control strategies and technologies to countries in its neighbourhood, from the western Balkans and Turkey to North Africa and the Sahel. The resulting regional border architecture, designed specifically to keep refugees out of the EU, left almost no safe and legal paths to asylum in member countries, compelling many to embark on dangerous journeys to try and enter Europe without authorisation in the hopes of applying for asylum once they reach their desired final destination.
As a researcher and activist, I spent years tracing refugee journeys and documenting the treatment of asylum seekers at the hands of European border security officials. The worst incidents I documented took place in the borders between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Many who tried to migrate through these states told me that they have been abused by border security officers and showed me marks of torture, ranging from electric burns to still-bleeding cuts and bruises, on their bodies.
“When the Croatian police caught us as we were trying to enter the country from Bosnia-Herzegovina, they put us all into a very dirty van,” Mazin*, a young journalist from Pakistan, told me. “It was hot and there was not enough oxygen, so many people were vomiting.”
He recounted how the police officers beat him and other asylum seekers before illegally pushing them back into Bosnia without processing them. “They drove us to the Bosnian border, made a line in front of the van, and told us to get out one by one,” Mazin said. “As we passed through, police officers in the line all beat us hard with their batons.”
Many other asylum seekers told me that their experiences with security personnel at those borders had been similar to that of Mazin – experiences marked by cruelty, sexual violence and torture. Thousands of similar testimonies have also been recorded and published by rights groups and international organisations.
But while documenting the violence directed at people migrating across European borders, I also encountered rare stories of humanity and kindness: stories about individual border officers refusing to be violent and resisting illegal “pushbacks”; stories about officers defying their supervisors’ commands in order to help asylum seekers; stories about officers taking personal risks to blow the whistle on their organisation’s illegal practices.
Empathy, kindness and adherence to international law, which means respecting the human rights of all those attempting to cross borders, should be standard in all border security work anywhere in the world. But in the current climate, where migration is being perceived as a threat by many, acting against international refugee law and inflicting violence on those classed as “irregular migrants” became part of the job description for most European border officers. And thus, even the simplest acts of kindness, empathy and humanity towards asylum seekers are rare, and require much courage on the part of officers at Europe’s borders.
“When we were spotted by border officers in Macedonia,” Mustafa from Afghanistan recounted, “one of them saw the conditions we were in, saw how our shoes were broken from weeks of walking, and said to me ‘I will pretend that I did not see you. Walk this direction for five kilometres, and there, you can pass the border without anyone seeing you’.” Mustafa told me this unnamed officer’s kindness helped him complete his long and dangerous migration journey. “This person did not return us like the others. Thanks to him, we managed to cross to Serbia and moved closer to our destination.”
While the officer who helped Mustafa did so simply by looking the other way, others who wanted to support refugees and end illegal border protection practices followed different paths of resistance. For example, in 2019, a police officer in Croatia anonymously reported his border unit to the county’s ombudswoman for abusing refugees. In his complaint, he said that out of fear of losing his job, he personally participated in more than 1,000 illegal pushbacks. He said the pushbacks he participated in were often very violent, and involved beatings and theft. He asked the ombudswoman to take action to stop these illegal practices.
Some refugees talked about individual officers who stopped their colleagues from beating detainees or stealing their money. Others spoke fondly of officers who, even when they were not able to offer any practical help, acknowledged their humanity and showed empathy. Members of one Afghan family, for example, remembered a Croatian officer who cried with them as he led them back towards the Bosnian border. They recalled the officer saying “Please, don’t cry. Sorry. I don’t want to do this, but I must follow the orders.”
Similarly, Hamid from Algeria said a group of officers who spotted him near the Italian border in Croatia showed him kindness and even encouraged him to continue with his efforts to find a haven in Europe. “I was very scared that they were going to beat us as others do,” he told me. “But they took us to a restaurant and bought us warm food. One of them said: ‘Sorry, we cannot let you go because we have orders to return you [to the country you entered Croatia from]. But please, come back and try again.’”
These few uplifting stories of solidarity are important and should be shared – not to humanise the European border regime that is underpinned by extreme brutality, but to show that small acts of compassion, kindness and resistance from inside of the border units are possible and must be encouraged. Individual border officers can make a difference.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.