More people than ever recorded are currently forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict, human rights violations, climate change, and the economic consequences resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Across Europe, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) continues to witness people fleeing crisis being left to drown at sea, intercepted and pushed back at borders, denied humanitarian assistance, and criminalized for seeking safety.
Instead of upholding their international responsibilities towards people looking for safety at their doorstep, European Union (EU) member states continue to pass violent policies that cost lives. In its response to mass displacement stemming from the war in Ukraine, the EU has shown us it is capable of creating and implementing humane migration policy: the only thing lacking is the political will.Instead of upholding their international responsibilities towards people looking for safety at their doorstep, European Union (EU) member states continue to pass violent policies that cost lives. In its response to mass displacement stemming from the war in Ukraine, the EU has shown us it is capable of creating and implementing humane migration policy: the only thing lacking is the political will.
From the Action Plans for the Central Mediterranean and Western Balkans to the Migration Pact and funding and outsourcing harmful boarder practices to other countries, such as Libya, the EU is actively eroding the asylum system and failing to provide meaningful protection to people seeking safety. EU countries, including Italy, are going to extraordinary lengths to tighten the control at the borders, and prevent departures, while criminalizing civil search and rescue operations.
Every day, MSF teams provide medical and psychological care to people, including children, who were searching for safety in Europe, but instead found violence, inadequate living conditions, and insufficient access to basic necessities, such as food, water, and sanitation. Here is a closer look at how the EU’s deadly migration policy is impacting migrants across Europe.
Violence along the Balkan Route
“They removed my shoes and jacket, put a plastic cord on my wrists, pushed my face to the ground, and beat me with sticks on my leg,” a man from Morocco shared with MSF after he was attacked by border authorities in Bulgaria. “They took my shoes, jacket, phone, and money. They didn’t say anything but kept beating me and laughing.”
MSF teams working along the Western Balkan migration route—which runs from Albania to Serbia—and along Belarus’s borders with Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are frequently treating more people with injuries sustained by attempting to cross the EU’s ever expanding border walls and fences. At the Poland-Belarus border and Serbia-Hungary border, MSF’s medical teams treat fractures, cuts, and wounds caused by five-meter-high razor wire fences.
In Greece, Italy, and France, MSF has heard stories from people who experienced pushbacks at sea and on land.
Disregarding international law
In the past years, we have seen a terrain rife of violent pushbacks and denial of access to territory, through these crisis narratives and extraordinary measures seized upon by various European member states, such as Greece, Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania. Instead of investing in increasing reception facilities and improving reception with dignified living conditions across the EU, member states focus on restricting the number of people they allow to enter and outsource their international responsibilities to other—often less safe—countries, such as Libya.
Through the stories MSF hears from patients, we continue to witness the EU’s complete disregard of international law, including the right to seek asylum, the obligation to render assistance at sea to people in danger, and the prohibition of inhumane, cruel, and degrading treatment and torture.
“Before my first arrival in Greece, I experienced six pushbacks,” a man from Somalia told MSF teams in Greece. “The [most recent] time, [we] arrived at Lesvos in the morning [by] boat. [When we reached] the shore, we split [up] and ran into the bushes. After many hours hiding, some men [wearing balaclavas found me], threw away my jacket and my shoes. They beat us, loaded [us] on a plastic boat, and pushed us back to sea—back to Turkey.”
EU-funded Closed Controlled Access Centers (CCAC) in Greece are marketed as an improvement in living conditions for migrants arriving on the islands. Yet, in reality, they severely restrict people’s movement and keep them contained in prison-like facilities. On Samos, the CCAC is surrounded by barbed wire fencing, they are under 24/7 surveillance, people must enter through x-ray machine, and are identified by bio-metric data (such as fingerprints).
Rather than learning from past mistakes, the EU continues to double down on the “hotspot” model, which focuses on deportation and detention rather than assistance and protection. If approved, legislative proposals currently being pushed through EU will replicate this model across EU countries, including fast-track asylum procedures, which severely shortens the time given to process asylum applications. This leads to the deportation of many people who have not had the chance for their case to be heard fairly. On top of this, the age limit of detention will be decreased to 12.
Meanwhile, in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, MSF is providing care to asylum seekers—including unaccompanied minors—who are sleeping on the streets as they have not been given access to safe shelter.
Outsourcing violence to other countries
In 2022, approximately 23,600 people were intercepted by the EU-funded Libyan coastguard and forcibly returned to Libya. In Libya, migrants are at constant risk of being arbitrarily detained and subjected to crimes against humanity according to the latest UN report. This year, more than 4,200 people have already been forcibly taken back to Libya and 938 have lost their lives or are missing after risking the deadly route across the Central Mediterranean from Libya to Europe: It’s the most lethal four-month period since 2017.
“After entering Libya, we were taken to a prison,” a young man from Cameroon told MSF teams in Libya. “I spent eight months there. They beat us very badly until we paid them. If we didn’t have any money, they called our families and demanded money from them to release us. They made our families listen on the phone while they beat us. Sometimes they even took videos of us being abused and sent them to our families. I had no money and no family; I spent eight months locked up and being beaten. I lost my sight in one eye after they beat me with a metal stick. The stick injured my eye so badly that now I can’t see with it. They didn’t even take me to the hospital when this happened.”