Refugee ‘Pushbacks’ In Europe: Choosing Between Protecting European Borders And Prioritizing Human Life?

The refugee crisis around the globe occurred as a result of war, violence and/or political instability particularly in parts of Africa, Middle East and South East Asia. As a result, millions of people and children have been displaced thus causing an overwhelming influx of refugees into Europe since 2011. As the number of refugees journeying into Europe continues to increase, the response from states within the region has proven ineffective in addressing this issue. The overwhelming influx of refugees have led E.U. member states to implement tighter border policies – policies that place more importance on the protection of European borders over the safety and wellbeing of refugees. Consequently, this has resulted in the abuse and arbitrary arrest of many migrants by police and border patrol officers. Part of the tighter border policy measures also includes the use of pushback practices on migrants forcing them to be sent back to the violence and conflict they tried escaping from in the first place. 

Several NGOs and independent charities in Europe have been monitoring and documenting evidence of human rights abuses that migrants face in the hands of law enforcement. Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVWN) is an independent network of NGOs and associations that have been documenting the violence and abuse occurring particularly in Greece and the Balkans. In their latest testimonial on September 6th, a young male refugee shared his experience of being sent back to the Turkish border by the Greek police. The victim had crossed the border from Turkey and was travelling to Thessaloniki, Greece where they were arrested by police officers for the failure to present proof of identification. The boys were taken to a detention center, locked up for 24 hours with no food or water and were detained with 70-80 other refugees who were all stripped of their clothing. Following their detention the boys were taken to the middle of the Evros River where they were forced by police officers to swim back to the Turkish border. Unfortunately, the victim has not heard from his friends ever since. 

The pushback practices and the abuse towards refugees is a clear violation of International Law and therefore European governments must act in holding those accountable for committing such horrendous acts and to address the gaps in their border policies. Under International Law, the 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Protocol, international humanitarian and human rights law each recognize the rights of refugees in a host country. This includes the principle of non-refoulement, which is mentioned in the 1951 Convention which recognizes a refugee’s right to be protected from forced return.  In addition, article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also highlights a refugee’s right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. The abuse and pushback practices by police and border patrol officers in Europe as seen in the example above presents a breach to their legal obligations under International Law. This issue also highlights the need for international pieces of legislation to clearly outline the consequences associated with breaches to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, especially for states who have ratified both treaties. Addressing such gaps in International Law is also key in better managing the refugee crisis around the globe and to safeguard the rights of refugees by ensuring that they are given the life that they deserve.

Currently, the new migration and asylum pact in Europe is still in its developing stages and is a system that encourages a more flexible approach, where member states are given the freedom to choose between relocating refugees, sponsoring their return or providing operational support. This flexible approach supposedly allows E.U. member states to avoid any breaches to the principle of non-refoulement. Arguably, this flexible approach may not be effective in addressing the migrant crisis in Europe as the success of this approach would depend on each member state’s willingness to prioritize and participate in this pact.

To conclude, there is still hope that more can be done to address the refugee crisis not only in Europe but also around the globe. In a time where human rights is evolving and becoming widely recognized, it is highly important that our attitudes and values as individuals and states adapt to reflect these changes, which are key factors in addressing this issue. Lastly, it is highly important that we stand together in solidarity in the midst of a global pandemic in ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are given fair opportunities in life.

Pasepa Katia