Newswise — Every week, hundreds of asylum seekers are facing extreme forms of police brutality, as well as being forcibly expelled from the EU without having their asylum claims processed by Croatian authorities, new independent research has found.
The EU’s illegal tactics, known as ‘pushbacks’, whereby refugees and migrants are forced back over a border – without being allowed to claim asylum – have been evidenced by activist groups and observed by UK researchers at the University of Nottingham, Aston University and the University of Liverpool.
Of these reported pushbacks:
More than half (53 per cent) involved children
One in 10 (10.4 per cent) involved gun shots
One in 20 (5.7 per cent) involved dog bites
Four in five incidents (80 per cent) involved torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, including: being beaten by police using truncheons, tasers, and tear gas; being stripped and having their clothes burned in front of them; and having their belongings stolen or destroyed.
Researchers also found that 17 per cent of documented pushbacks involve multiple EU countries ('chain pushbacks') where asylum seekers are covertly passed between countries like Italy and Slovenia, before their eventual expulsion from the EU via Croatia into Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Serbia.
Their research is one of the first academic studies to independently assess the scale of state-sanctioned violence deployed against asylum-seekers along the southeast borders of the EU and the forms of resistance that grassroots groups are undertaking in the region to monitor this illegal activity.
Monitoring groups that form the Border Violence Monitoring Network, have collected more than 1500 violence reports with witness testimonies detailing violent pushbacks, which involve groups ranging between 1 to 189 people at a time, which the researchers calculate has affected more than 25,000 people.
Dr Thom Davies, lead researcher and Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, said: “Our research has found that EU border authorities routinely use violent pushbacks to deny asylum to tens of thousands of people. The EU can no longer deny that this violence is occurring on a massive scale — the weight of evidence is too strong. The numbers featured in our report are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s happening in Europe. The frequency of recorded pushbacks suggests this is a systematic policy, not an anomaly.
“With Croatia about to join the Schengen Zone, these human rights violations stand in stark contradiction to the EU’s stated commitments to human dignity, freedom, and the rule of law.”
The researchers spent time on the Croatia–Bosnia border, predominantly in the Una-Sana Canton of northwest Bosnia. They observed survivors of pushbacks in migrant squats, informal encampments, and formal refugee camps near the Bosnian border towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša on the EU frontier. They also interviewed Frontex (European border management agency) and EU Commission staff.
They found that typical pushbacks from Croatia share several key characteristics - they almost always take place during the night along remote parts of the Bosnian and Serbian border. After confinement, sometimes for hours, inside overcrowded police vans within the EU, groups of migrants and asylum seekers are driven to the EU border by people wearing Croatian police uniforms.
At the border, pushback survivors report having torches shone into their eyes while being beaten by police, who often conceal their identities by wearing balaclavas. During these assaults, police routinely use truncheons, tasers, and tear gas to incapacitate detainees, as well as fists, boots, and police dogs.
Asylum seekers are often pushed into ravines and down slopes as they are forced out of EU territory during collective expulsions. Sometimes they are made to wade or swim through rivers at the border — something that is particularly dangerous during the freezing nights of winter. In addition to the physical harm that pushback survivors are subject to, many reported having their money stolen, their phones smashed, and the straps on their bags cut by Croatian police.
They are frequently made to undress at the border, and have their shoes and clothes burned in front of them, thus forcing them to walk semi-naked through the Bosnian or Serbian countryside in search of shelter.
Dr Arshad Isakjee, co-author of the study at the University of Liverpool, said: “At a time of heightened awareness and sympathy towards refugees in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this research reveals a very different reality facing thousands of displaced people who are attempting to claim asylum in the EU.”
Since 2017, the experts at the University of Nottingham, working with the Universities of Liverpool and Aston, have studied the experiences of asylum-seekers trapped in the Balkans on the border of Croatia-Bosnia, who are attempting to reach the EU to claim asylum.
Their findings have been published in one of the top-rated geography journals, Annals of the American Association of Geographers.
In the paper, the academics say that mounting evidence, including CCTV footage, whistle-blower statements, and first-hand testimony from hundreds of pushback survivors, suggests that during these collective expulsions, asylum seekers are routinely subject to serious human rights violations, including thousands of cases of severe police brutality, intimidation, and theft.
The researchers examined a database of more than 1500 reports of violent ‘pushbacks’ recorded by border violence monitors and conducted interviews with asylum seekers and activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Dr Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, co-authored the study at Aston University, said: “Refugees need safe routes to claim asylum. The violence perpetrated on behalf of the EU is shocking and shows total disregard towards the human rights of the men, women and children seeking asylum.”
The experts highlight that pushbacks contravene several international laws, including the European Convention of Human Rights (especially Article 18 and 19) and several principles of the Council of Europe, as well as international norms relating to refugees set out by the 1951 Geneva Convention (specifically Articles 32 and 33).