In 2015 and 2016, more than a million people arrived in Europe after crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece and continuing their journey along the so-called Western Balkan route. In response, European Union Member States and other European countries hastily erected fences on their borders. In March 2016, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia shut their borders and left thousands
of people stuck in limbo, many in inadequate or unsafe accommodation.
At present, there are about 7,800 displaced people in Serbia, and 350 people in Macedonia. Many of these people have come from conflict affected countries seeking protection, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria. Roughly 1,100 of those in Serbia and over 200 in Macedonia are not housed in government-run facilities and are forced to sleep rough.
Rather than being places of safety, countries on the Western Balkan route have failed to offer protection or due process to many new arrivals and instead have pushed them back to their previous country of transit or even another country, without giving them a chance to claim asylum.
Pushbacks are happening in different ways. Hungary and Croatia – both EU member states – have used brutal tactics, such as attack dogs and forcing people to strip naked in freezing temperatures. The Serbian authorities have generated a climate of fear and uncertainty amongst migrants by expelling groups of people who have been legally registered and were expecting to receive their right to an individual hearing. This
practice meant that in mid-winter, in freezing temperatures of -20oC, people were afraid to stay in government centres for fear of being pushed back to Macedonia or Bulgaria. Interviewees also accused Bulgarian authorities of treating people in such a brutal manner that they are afraid to return.
The people who are moving through the Balkans, with cynical humour, call their efforts to continue their dangerous journey the ‘game’, a cruel ‘game’ where safety and protection are replaced with violence and intimidation from people in authority. As they attempt to move to a place of safety, people are forced to take enormous risks and suffer abuse at the hands of people smugglers, brave freezing temperatures in winter
and negotiate unknown and dangerous terrain, including forests and fast-flowing rivers. This is an often terrifying situation where beatings, dog attacks and robbery are rife, leading to serious injuries and even death. No one, regardless of their reason for moving via the Western Balkans route, should experience the violence and aggression which is being used by authorities. For refugees and others who have the right to
international protection from persecution and serious human rights violations, pushbacks stand in the way of seeking protection and enjoying their right to an individual assessment of their claims. Brutality, intimidation and devious tactics by authorities also engender a climate of fear and mistrust amongst people on the move. This report aims to firmly
put the spotlight on the acts of abuse being perpetrated by state authorities, and the failure of European countries to uphold people’s rights. We are calling for the responsible governments to immediately change their practises and hold perpetrators accountable.
Oxfam and its partners, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), are providing support to migrants, including refugees, in Serbia and Macedonia. Together, we call on the governments of Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria to:
• Immediately review all procedures at their borders to ensure that they are in compliance with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), i.e. the prohibition on inhumane and degrading treatment, and Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 to the ECHR, i.e. the principle of non-refoulement and the prohibition of collective expulsions. Also, ensure that the quality and outcome of these procedures can be scrutinized before a national authority, including by providing access to an effective remedy, in compliance with Article 13 of the ECHR.
• Conduct an independent and rigorous assessment of each individual’s claim for international protection in order to ensure that they have access to an individual asylum determination procedure, with full rights to representation and interpreter services and with the right to appeal the decision, with any deportation proceedings suspended pending the outcome of the appeal.
• Urgently investigate and take action against all perpetrators of crimes against migrants, including all forms of inhuman or degrading treatment by law enforcement officers, physical violence, and robbery
• Introduce preventive measures against future violations, including a rigorous hiring process for law enforcement officers before deployment, incorporation of improved technical equipment such as body-worn cameras, and mandatory training on European and international human rights and refugee law. A high level of applicants to the Hungarian police force did not pass a psychological test in 2016. Therefore all officers hired in 2015 – at the peak of the crisis in Hungary – should also be required to undertake a psychological test
and any who do not pass must be removed from the force
• Allow Ombudsman offices (in charge of existing National Preventive Mechanisms) and relevant civil society to have full and unimpeded access to border areas in all the countries concerned as a matter of urgency as outlined in Article 3 and 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.