Revealed: 2,000 refugee deaths linked to illegal EU pushbacks

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EU member states have used illegal operations to push again a minimum of 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders throughout the pandemic, strategies being linked to the dying of greater than 2,000 folks, the Guardian can reveal.

In one of many greatest mass expulsions in a long time, European nations, supported by EU’s border company Frontex, has systematically pushed again refugees, together with youngsters fleeing from wars, of their hundreds, utilizing illegal techniques starting from assault to brutality throughout detention or transportation.

The Guardian’s evaluation relies on reviews launched by UN companies, mixed with a database of incidents collected by non-governmental organisations. According to charities, with the onset of Covid-19, the regularity and brutality of pushback practices has grown.

“Recent reports suggest an increase of deaths of migrants attempting to reach Europe and, at the same time, an increase of the collaboration between EU countries with non-EU countries such as Libya, which has led to the failure of several rescue operations,’’ said one of Italy’s leading human rights and immigration experts, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo. ‘’In this context, deaths at sea since the beginning of the pandemic are directly or indirectly linked to the EU approach aimed at closing all doors to Europe and the increasing externalisation of migration control to countries such as Libya.’’

The findings come as the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, Olaf, has launched an investigation into Frontex over allegations of harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping asylum seekers from reaching EU shores.

According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2020 almost 100,000 immigrants arrived in Europe by sea and by land compared with nearly 130,000 in 2019 and 190,000 in 2017.

Since January 2020, despite the drop in numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hardline migration agenda. Since the introduction of partial or complete border closures to halt the outbreak of coronavirus, these countries have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept boats in distress at sea and push back passengers into detention centres. There have been repeated reports of people being beaten, robbed, stripped naked at frontiers or left at sea.

In 2020 Croatia, whose police patrol the EU’s longest external border, have intensified systemic violence and pushbacks of migrants to Bosnia. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) recorded nearly 18,000 migrants pushed back by Croatia since the start of the pandemic. Over the last year and a half, the Guardian has collected testimonies of migrants who have allegedly been whipped, robbed, sexually abused and stripped naked by members of the Croatian police. Some migrants said they were spray-painted with red crosses on their heads by officers who said the treatment was the “cure against coronavirus”.

According to an annual report released on Tuesday by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a coalition of 13 NGOs documenting illegal pushbacks within the western Balkans, abuse and disproportionate power was current in almost 90% of testimonies in 2020 collected from Croatia, a ten% enhance on 2019.

In April, the Guardian revealed how a woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused and held at knifepoint by a Croatian border police officer throughout a search of migrants on the border with Bosnia.

“Despite the European Commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms,” mentioned Nicola Bay, DRC nation director for Bosnia. “Every single pushback represents a violation of international and EU law – whether it involves violence or not.”

Since January 2020, Greece has pushed again about 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores, in accordance to information from BVMN. The report acknowledged that in 89% of the pushbacks, “BVMN has observed the disproportionate and excessive use of force. This alarming number shows that the use of force in an abusive, and therefore illicit, way has become a normality […]

“Extremely cruel examples of police violence documented in 2020 included prolonged excessive beatings (often on naked bodies), water immersion, the physical abuse of women and children, the use of metal rods to inflict injury.”

In testimonies, folks described how their palms have been tied to the bars of cells and helmets placed on their heads earlier than beatings to keep away from seen bruising.

A lawsuit filed against the Greek state in April at the European court of human rights accused Athens of abandoning dozens of migrants in life rafts at sea, after some had been crushed. The case claims that Greek patrol boats towed migrants again to Turkish waters and deserted them at sea with out meals, water, lifejackets or any means to name for assist.

BVMN mentioned: “Whether it be using the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown to serve as a cover for pushbacks, fashioning open-air prisons, or preventing boats from entering Greek waters by firing warning shots toward boats, the evidence indicates the persistent refusal to uphold democratic values, human rights and international and European law.”

According to UNHCR information, for the reason that begin of the pandemic, Libyan authorities – with Italian help since 2017, when Rome ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya – intercepted and pushed again to Tripoli about 15,500 asylum seekers. The controversial technique has prompted the pressured return of hundreds to Libyan detention centres the place, in accordance to first hand reviews, they face torture. Hundreds have drowned when neither Libya nor Italy intervened.

SOS Méditerranée operates the Ocean Viking one of the few remaining NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean.
SOS Méditerranée operates the Ocean Viking, one of many few remaining NGO rescue boats within the Mediterranean. Photograph: Flavio Gasperini/SOS Mediterranee

“In 2020 this practice continued, with an increasingly important role being played by Frontex planes, sighting boats at sea and communicating their position to the Libyan coastguard,” mentioned Matteo de Bellis, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “So, while Italy at some point even used the pandemic as an excuse to declare that its ports were not safe for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea, it had no problem with the Libyan coastguard returning people to Tripoli. Even when this was under shelling or when hundreds were forcibly disappeared immediately after disembarkation.”

In April, Italy and Libya were accused of deliberately ignoring a mayday call from a migrant boat in misery in Libyan waters, as waves reached six metres. A couple of hours later, an NGO rescue boat discovered dozens of bodies floating within the waves. That day 130 migrants have been misplaced at sea.

In April, in a joint investigation with the Italian Rai News and the newspaper Domani, the Guardian noticed paperwork from Italian prosecutors detailing conversations between two commanders of the Libyan coastguard and an Italian coastguard officer in Rome. The transcripts appeared to expose the non-responsive behaviour of the Libyan officers and their struggling to answer the distress calls which resulted in a whole bunch of deaths. At least 5 NGO boats stay blocked in Italian ports as authorities declare administrative causes for holding them.

“Push- and pull-back operations have become routine, as have forms of maritime abandonment where hundreds were left to drown,’’ said a spokesperson at Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress at sea. ‘’We have documented so many shipwrecks that were never officially accounted for, and so we know that the real death toll is much higher. In many of the cases, European coastguards have refused to respond – they rather chose to let people drown or to intercept them back to the place they had risked their lives to escape from. Even if all European authorities try to reject responsibility, we know that the mass dying is a direct result of both their actions and inactions. These deaths are on Europe.’’

Malta, which declared its ports closed early last year, citing the pandemic, has continued to push back hundreds of migrants using two strategies: enlisting private vessels to intercept asylum seekers and force them back to Libya or turning them away with directions to Italy.

“Between 2014 and 2017, Malta was able to count on Italy to take responsibility for coordinating rescues and allowing disembarkations,” mentioned De Bellis. “But when Italy and the EU withdrew their ships from the central Mediterranean, to leave it in Libya’s hands, they left Malta more exposed. In response, from early 2020 the Maltese government used tactics to avoid assisting refugees and migrants in danger at sea, including arranging unlawful pushbacks to Libya by private fishing boats, diverting boats rather than rescuing them, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries off Malta’s waters, and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta.”

Last May, a series of voice messages obtained by the Guardian confirmed the Maltese authorities’s technique to use non-public vessels, appearing on the behest of its armed forces, to intercept crossings and return refugees to Libyan detention centres.

In February 2020, the European court of human rights was accused of “completely ignoring the reality” after it dominated Spain didn’t violate the prohibition of collective expulsion, as asylum functions may very well be made on the official border crossing level. Relying on this judgment, Spain’s constitutional court docket upheld “border rejections” offered sure safeguards apply.

Last week, the bodies of 24 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were found by Spain’s maritime rescue. They are believed to have died of dehydration whereas trying to attain the Canary Islands. In 2020, according to the UNHCR, 788 migrants died making an attempt to attain Spain.

Frontex mentioned they couldn’t touch upon the whole figures with out realizing the small print of every case, however mentioned numerous authorities took motion to respond to the dinghy that sunk off the coast of Libya in April, ensuing within the deaths of 130 folks.

“The Italian rescue centre asked Frontex to fly over the area. It’s easy to forget, but the central Mediterranean is massive and it’s not easy or fast to get from one place to another, especially in poor weather. After reaching the area where the boat was suspected to be, they located it after some time and alerted all of the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres (MRCCs) in the area. They also issued a mayday call to all boats in the area (Ocean Viking was too far away to receive it).”

He mentioned the Italian MRCC, requested by the Libyan MRCC, dispatched three service provider vessels within the space to help. Poor climate made this tough. “In the meantime, the Frontex plane was running out of fuel and had to return to base. Another plane took off the next morning when the weather allowed, again with the same worries about the safety of the crew.

“All authorities, certainly Frontex, did all that was humanly possible under the circumstances.”

He added that, in accordance to media reviews, there was a Libyan coast guard vessel within the space, however it was engaged in one other rescue operation.

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