Bulgaria, Hungary, and Croatia are on the firing line as recent reports and footage have emerged of illegal refugee pushback centres being created along their borders. Here, instead of international protection seekers being transferred to processing, they are detained, beaten, and then forced back to where they came from. These “black sites,” as referred to by people who had previously been held in the cage-like containers, are operating in plain sight of Frontex, the EU border agency.
Lighthouse Reports, a non-profit that investigates and brings to light the truth behind migration, conflict, and corruption, documented the systematic pushbacks at European borders. Over the last 11 months, the organization has gathered footage and testimonies from previous detainees on their experiences, with Sky News and other European media partners starting to shine a light on the issue in recent days. Journalists found that asylum seekers who cross from Turkey into Bulgaria are routinely locked in cage-like structures next to border police stations for anywhere from a few hours to three days. Witnesses claim that while detained they had no access to food, water, or toilet facilities. Furthermore, Doctors Without Borders published reports of people in Hungary being detained in shipping containers before being loaded into prison buses and brought back to Serbia. In Croatia, international protection seekers were filmed being crammed into the back of police vans in unbearable heat where they were kept until being pushed back into Bosnia. The lead doctor at Freedom from Torture, Liz Bates, described how such detention centres were being used to “punish, deter and intimidate, and therefore it meets the widely recognised UN definition of torture.”
Sky News managed to capture footage of “the cage” in Bulgaria, where migrants and asylum seekers were being held each of the five times recordings were retrieved during a six-week period. The videos show a wooden shed where people were held, along with footage of migrants being beaten with canes by official Bulgarian police. To further the atrocities, one refugee describes how after being thrown into the cage, police unleashed dogs onto himself and a twelve-year-old boy, both of whom sustained serious injuries.
At the time of writing, the Bulgarian government have refused to comment on specific incidents but has reiterated that their police act in accordance with national and international laws. When interviewed, border police claimed to not hold any migrants in the centres and that everyone who enters the country is sent to processing stations. Following suit, Hungary has also rejected these claims, stating that officers act legally and humanely. However, reports from international protection seekers outline how they were beaten and tied up outside for hours by Hungarian officials. Furthermore, they claim that they were held in containers, sometimes with up to 60 other people, where they were sprayed with pepper spray, and in one instance teargas if they were seen to be protesting their internment.
Lighthouse Reporters’ investigation was published just as the EU voted on accepting Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania into the Schengen Area, after being praised for their border control practices that respected human rights, particularly access for asylum seekers. Furthermore, EU funding that was given to the three countries has been linked directly to supporting the illegal pushback centres. While everyone in Europe is quick to judge countries such as the U.S. for their border policies, international protection seekers in their own backyard are alleging abuse in clandestine prisons. The EU can no longer claim moral superiority and need to tackle the protection of migrants and international protection seekers head-on.
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