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, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) continues to witness people fleeing crises and being left to drown at sea, intercepted and pushed back at borders, denied humanitarian assistance, and criminalised 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.
From the Action Plans for the Central Mediterranean and Western Balkans, to the Migration Pact, as well as funding and outsourcing harmful border 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 control at borders, and prevent departures, while criminalising civil search and rescue operations.
“We call on EU leaders to put the protection of human lives first, and to provide dignified and humane treatment to the people seeking safety in Europe,” says Julien Buha Collette, MSF’s operations team leader for Europe. “People’s medical needs and their rights to a fair asylum process must be respected and prioritised above all else.”
Every day, MSF teams provide medical and psychological care to people, including children, seeking safety in Europe, but who have 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,” says a man from Morocco to MSF teams after being attacked by border authorities in Bulgaria. “They took my shoes, jacket, phone, and money. They kept beating me and laughing.”
On top of deaths at sea and violent pushbacks, we’ve heard reports of children locked up in shipping containers and teargassed in Hungary before being pushed back to Serbia. It’s inhumane.Julien Buha Collette, MSF’s operations team leader for Europe
MSF teams working along the Western Balkan migration route 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, our medical teams treat fractures, cuts, and wounds caused by five-metre-high razor wire fences.
Patients consistently report being physically assaulted, having their belongings stolen by border guards and police, and being attacked by dogs under their direction before being pushed back to the country they are escaping from. In Greece, Italy, and France, our teams have heard stories from people who experienced pushbacks at sea and on land.
Disregarding international law
Instead of investigating and stopping this violence, EU leaders manipulate public narratives as crisis situations to criminalise migrants and justify actions that neglect their obligations towards people seeking safety. 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.
Rather than increasing and improving reception facilities 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.
“Today, people who survive the deadly Mediterranean Sea crossing or the mountains and forests of Europe only do so to be subjected to undignified treatment when they reach EU soil,” says Buha Collette.
“Across Europe, we’ve seen the normalisation of violence at its borders. On top of deaths at sea and violent pushbacks, we’ve heard reports of children locked up in shipping containers and teargassed in Hungary before being pushed back to Serbia. It’s inhumane.”
Through the stories our teams hear 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,” says a man from Somalia to our 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 found me and 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, people are under 24/7 surveillance, must enter through x-ray machines, and are identified by bio-metric data, such as fingerprints.
I had no money and no family. I lost my sight in one eye after they beat me with a metal stick. They didn’t even take me to the hospital when this happened.a young man from Cameroon who was detained in Libya
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 the 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.
MSF’s mental health teams in Greece continue to treat patients experiencing distress and trauma — many of whom are at risk of further traumatisation due to these harsh restrictions and the rushed asylum procedure, which instills a fear of deportation back to danger.
Meanwhile, in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, we provide 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: this is the most lethal four-month period since 2017.
“After entering Libya, we were taken to a prison,” says a young man from Cameroon. “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 lost my sight in one eye after they beat me with a metal stick. They didn’t even take me to the hospital when this happened,” he says.
“EU deterrence policies will not prevent tragedies such as the recent shipwrecks, nor will they stop people from attempting to seek safety, they will only expose people to even more perilous sea journeys,” says Buha Collette.