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Pushback tactics: a European-wide violation of fundamental rights

By Helen Barber

Multiple people are feared to have died in a tragedy near Essex after trying to cross UK waters from France in a dinghy earlier last week. Sadly, as many as three people were unable to be accounted for. At the end of October, two men, both Somali nationals, were rescued off the Essex coast but further searches for any remaining survivors have now been abandoned.

This comes after recent news circulating in the past weeks about how UK Border Force staff - who push back the boats of asylum seekers - could be given immunity from conviction over refugee deaths, officials have confirmed. In the controversial new Borders Bill, the home secretary is aiming to introduce a provision that would grant officials legal protection if a person was found to have drowned during their operations, while existing regulation state that officials would be at risk of facing prosecution if an asylum seeker was found to be endangered or to have drowned

Last month, the Home Office announced that it was training Border Force guards to carry out “turn-around” tactics at sea. However, the Border Force is now refusing to enact the home secretary's plan to turn back migrant boats, repeatedly rejecting requests by the Home Office to implement the approach, due to fears that it will result in the death of even more people at sea.

Similarly, recent allegations of refugee pushbacks carried out on Greek waters have arisen and, according to the UN Human RightsOoffice spokesperson, in recent times there has been ‘mounting evidence’ of pushbacks of refugees from Greece to Turkey.

Speaking at a press conference about the recent tragedy of the sinking of a dinghy off the island of Chios that cost the lives of four children, the Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi announced that he has requested for these reported pushbacks to be investigated by Greece’s National Transparency Authority. Commenting on that tragedy, he observed that “it highlights the cruel reality of migrants’ exploitation by criminal gangs in the Aegean Sea.”

When speaking at a U.N. press conference, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (ONCHR) spokesperson Marta Hurtado, said: "pushbacks are illegal under international law and should not happen.”

Greece’s illegal practice of using pushbacks have repeatedly been censured by human rights groups for the reason that such tactics breach international law by putting vulnerable people, including women and children, in danger; yet such incidents keep recurring.

A delegation of the LIBE Committee (the European Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee), made up of 7 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), recently spent three days in Athens and on the island of Samos to hold talks with Greek officials, NGOs and to examine the situation for refugees on the ground. In the joint-news conference held at the end of the visit, Lopez Aguilar (chair of the LIBE Committee) said that: “Illegal pushbacks must not happen in the European Union, they have no place in the EU law.”

Through a joint investigation carried out by leading European media outlets released last month, it was revealed that pushback tactics - including evidence of Greek police thwarting and disabling refugee boats in the Aegean- by security forces have been systematically used in various EU countries and that represent a breach of EU and international humanitarian law.

Greece is not, however, the only EU country to be using pushback operations to turn away people on the move. Earlier in the year, an analysis by the Guardian revealed that EU member states have been using these illegal operations to pushback at least 40,000 asylum seekers crossing the EU borders during the pandemic.

Moving to the northern borders of the European Union, In the midst of a deepening humanitarian crisis at Poland’s border, the Polish parliament last month legalised pushbacks of asylum seekers from its borders. Moreover, not only is this an open breach of international humanitarian law, but it also allows border guards to immediately expel people on the move who have crossed the Belarus-Poland border via irregular routes.

Poland is also planning to build a €350m permanent barrier on the Belarusian border, Infomigrants has heard. The wall is expected to replace the temporary barbed wire that currently marks much of the border, and will come with a “surveillance system of cameras and movement sensors”.

Human rights groups and activists have accused Poland of pushing back refugees for months, warning that this new legislation will lead to potential mass deaths along the border.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International's European institutions office, said: “Forcing people back who are trying to claim asylum without an individual assessment of their protection needs is against European and international law.”

We at EuropeMust Act are deeply concerned by the widespread use of pushbacks in various European countries. The provisions to protect Border Force staff from prosecution and the legalization of pushbacks by Poland represent a breach of the fundamental right to asylum.

We strongly condemn the EU’s use of illegal and violent pushback operations - and maintain that it is only through the provision of safe and legal pathways that more unnecessary tragedies can be avoided.

Use your voice to contact your national and European representatives, and especially the members of the LIBE Committee, to ask for the establishment of an independent border monitor mechanism to investigate pushbacks allegation and violations of fundamental rights.


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