An extensive study carried out in Serbia and Macedonia reports on the harassment of refugees by the police and law enforcement. The Balkan route is seen as a hell for those seeking a better future in Europe.
Border police in Croatia have forced migrants to strip naked before returning them to Serbia while beating them with batons.
Hungarian officials have stripped migrants, sat them in snow and thrown frozen water over them. Bulgarian police have returned groups of migrants after searching them and stealing their belongings, even including their shoes.
These are not isolated cases, rather they show a pattern, politics affecting thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. These are acts of brutality and abuse that equally affect men, women and children.
A Dangerous “Game” is the name of a study carried out by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA) who, with help from Oxfam, conducted 140 interviews from different groups of migrants in the Balkan area earlier this year, from 30 January to 17 February.
The vast majority of families are escaping war, different types of persecution and poverty, and in their attempts to find a better future they describe beatings, robberies and inhumane treatment by the police, personnel working at the borders and different types of officials.
According to the study, migrants have reported on illegal deportations by officials, who in many cases deny them access to asylum proceedings established by international legislation.
Although affected migrants report of similar situations, the countries vary considerably, among them Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The majority of these migrants are fleeing Afghanistan, while others have come from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Libya.
Ruth Tanner, Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam South East Europe said: “The testimonies we have collected expose the horrendous treatment governments, including European member states, are letting happen in order to stop people entering their territory”.
While it might be thought that this level of mistreatment may convince asylum seekers to turn around and forget about their goal of crossing borders, Nikolina Milić from BCHR explained the opposite: “People tell us they have nothing to lose and will try to continue however dangerous it may be”.
What is the alternative? Milić added: “Violence and intimidation must be replaced with fair and effective access to asylum procedures, and authorities must investigate claims of abuse”.
According to international legislation that regulates human rights and the treatment of refugees, policies to return those seeking asylum are prohibited as it denies the possibility of due process.
The results obtained from the study are not the first of their kind but are reinforced by findings from by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
UNHCR has collected particularly dramatic cases, including a group of Serbian migrants –a 2-year-old child among them– who were told that they were being taken to a refugee reception center, only to be abandoned by police in a forest at the Bulgarian border in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures. The group was finally found; however, two of the migrants had already lost consciousness from hypothermia.
Ruth Tanner added: “The brutal illegal actions of law enforcement officials create a climate of fear among refugees and other migrants. This pushes many to rely on smugglers to continue their journey to other places in Europe, which is very dangerous as it leaves already vulnerable people exposed to the criminal underbelly of trafficking and violence”.
Photos taken in Belgrade, Serbia: Miodrag Cakic/Info Park – (Translated by Sydney Sims)