On October 6th, 2021, the non-profit organisation, Lighthouse Reports, published evidence which reveals that migrants have been beaten and shot at in recent months during so-called ‘pushback’ operations carried out by masked men in Croatia, Romania, and Greece. The report claims that while the clothes of these masked men have no emblem or badge, there is evidence that they are members of national police units which receive funding from the EU to patrol borders.
The report explains that “from the forests of the Western Balkans to the Aegean Sea consistent reports have emerged of physical assaults, illegal pushbacks, reckless endangerment and rights abuses of asylum seekers and migrants.” According to Al Jazeera, these allegations add to strong concerns among human rights groups that the EU has been complicit in the intensified use of violent pushback operations. Under international and EU human rights laws, it is illegal for EU states to automatically expel people without assessing their circumstances — particularly because EU law also guarantees the right to seek asylum.
These border areas are, according to The Independent, “hostile environments for reporting with restricted access and multiple instances of arrests of local and international journalists who have tried to approach and observe what is happening.” Therefore, it has been very difficult to determine the extent of the operations and how they are being funded. However, Lighthouse Reports led a joint investigation with Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, ARD Monitor, ARD Studio Wien, Libération, RTL Croatia, Novosti, and Pointer, through which they spent “eight months gathering testimony, tracing chains of command, tracking social media and satellite imagery and following the money trails back to EU funds.” According to Al Jazeera, the evidence was further corroborated by interviews with several serving and former police officers as well as pushback victims.
In response, Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has demanded that Frontex, the EU’s border agency, address these accusations of involvement in migrant pushbacks. Yet, concerningly, this is not the first time the EU has been accused of being involved in pushback operations. According to Euro News, the German magazine Der Spiegel published a report in 2020, accusing Frontex of being complicit in and aware of pushbacks at the EU’s external borders. The media that responded to this report led to a “heated hearing in the European Parliament where some MEPs demanded the resignation of the director of Frontex.” Many MEPs were unconvinced by his statement in the hearing that “there was no evidence that there was active direct or indirect participation of Frontex staff or officers deployed by Frontex in pushbacks.” According to Euro News, Frontex is currently under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog (OLAF) over allegations of harassment, misconduct, and unlawful operations aimed at stopping migrants from reaching EU shores.
According to The Independent, one Bosnian police officer described what was being done to migrants by the Croatian officers as “torture.” He says, “I’ve seen people beaten, injured, bloody, many times. There were minors, 16-year-olds.” In interviews with the migrants directly after the incident, many revealed marks left by the beatings on their bodies and explained that they were from Afghanistan and Pakistan hoping to request asylum, instead they met the masked police officers. This cannot go on, and the EU must conduct an investigation into these incidents and determine responsibility for what is a clear breach of the law — even if that responsibility falls on their institutions.