According to a watchdog, refugees and migrants seeking to move from Serbia and into neighbouring European Union countries have been subjected to illegal deportations as well as systemic police brutality. A recent report by Rigardu, a German NGO and monitoring group, has detailed 857 instances of violence committed against people in 2017 so far and at least 110 cases of illegal deportations to Serbia conducted by Hungarian and Croatian authorities. Considering that push-backs and police violence so frequently go unreported, Rigardu also determined that the number of instances of this kind are likely far higher than their figures convey.
Lazara Marinkovic, a Serbian journalist who has been following and reporting on the refugee crisis in the region for several years, told Al Jazeera that the testimonies noted in the Rigardu report were “very common” and consistent with the injuries that she had witnessed in the course of her work. “I’ve met a lot of people who showed me their phones had been broken and their injuries”, she added. Meanwhile, the named Balkan states have consistently denied such claims. Al Jazeera reached out to police and government spokespeople in Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia, all of which expressed similar sentiments including denying the allegations and assuring that their border forces acted within the confines of the law.
Ignoring abuse claims against asylum seekers has broader implications for the refugee crisis in the region. Ruth Tanner, Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam South East Europe, told The Independent that the actions of law enforcement officials in the Balkans fosters “a climate of fear” among asylum seekers that “pushes many to rely on smugglers instead of attempting to use legal channels to claim asylum”. This is both a negative outcome for states, that are unable to monitor and integrate these individuals, as well as for refugees and migrants who are exposed to “the criminal underbelly of trafficking and violence”.
It is important to note that accounts of the kind disclosed by Rigardu are not new. Earlier in 2017, Oxfam also released a report detailing instances of abuse committed against refugees and migrants by authorities in European countries wherein they were seeking asylum. The researchers noted a “disturbing” pattern of mistreatment that included subjection to beatings, being stripped, robbed, and given electric shocks, committed against people seeking asylum by route of the Western Balkans. Those cited as responsible were border officials of Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has also previously condemned the regular, informal and arbitrary expulsion of migrants and refugees from territories across the region.
Alongside its findings, Rigardu launched an online database presenting individual cases of violence, using photographs and testimonies in order to document and raise awareness of the abuse suffered by those seeking asylum in the Balkans. Unfortunately, as Lydia Gall, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who focuses on the Balkan region, told Al Jazeera “the practices have been flagged time and time again to the European Union for several years now… and yet the European Commission has chosen not to act on the issue specifically,” and that continues to leave refugees at risk.