EU migration policies put lives and rights at risk

In their determination to seal off their borders, the European Union and its member states are putting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants at risk, Amnesty International said in a new report published today.

The human cost of Fortress Europe: Human rights violations against migrants and refugees at Europe’s borders, shows how EU migration policies and border control practices are preventing refugees from accessing asylum in the EU and putting their lives at risk in the course of increasingly perilous journeys.

“The effectiveness of EU measures to stem the flow of irregular migrants and refugees is, at best, questionable. Meanwhile, the cost in human lives and misery is incalculable and is being paid by some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

Border control

The EU is funding its migration policy to the tune of billions of Euros. Millions of Euros are spent each year by member states on fences, sophisticated surveillance systems and patrolling their borders.

In a revealing indicator of relative priorities, the EU spent nearly €2 billion protecting its external borders between 2007 and 2013, but only €700 million on improving the situation for asylum-seekers and refugees within the EU over the same period.

The EU and member states are also cooperating with and funding neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Morocco and Libya, to create a buffer zone around the EU in an effort to stop migrants and refugees before they even reach Europe’s borders. At the same time they are turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses migrants and refugees are suffering in these countries.

“EU countries are basically paying neighbouring countries to police their borders for them.  The problem is that many of these countries are frequently incapable of guaranteeing the rights of refugees and migrants that are trapped there. Many end up destitute, exploited, harassed and unable to access asylum,” said John Dalhuisen.

“EU member states cannot divest themselves of their human rights obligations towards those seeking to enter their territory by outsourcing their migration control to third countries. Such cooperation needs to stop.”

Illegal “push-backs”

Refugees and migrants that do make it to Europe’s borders risk being pushed straight back across them. Amnesty International has documented push-backs by border guards in Bulgaria and, in particular, Greece, where the practice is widespread. Push-backs are unlawful, deny people the right to seek asylum, typically involve violence and at times even endanger lives.

Push-backs do not only take place at EU’s south eastern borders. In February 2014, Spanish Civil Guard opened fire with rubber projectiles, blanks and tear gas against about 250 migrants and refugees swimming from Morocco along the beach towards Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. Fourteen people lost their lives. Twenty-three people who managed to reach the beach were immediately returned, apparently without access to any formal asylum procedure.

“According to the UN Refugee Agency there are more displaced people today than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Shockingly, the European Union’s response to this humanitarian crisis has been to add to it,” said John Dalhuisen.

“Almost half of those trying to enter the EU irregularly flee from conflict or persecution in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia. Refugees must be provided with more ways to enter the EU safely and legally so that they are not forced to embark on perilous journeys in the first place.”

Lives lost at sea 

In the face of ever greater obstacles to reaching Europe by land, refugees and migrants are increasingly taking the more dangerous sea routes to Greece and Italy. Every year hundreds of people die trying to reach Europe’s shores.

Following the tragedies off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, where more than 400 people lost their lives in 2013, Italy launched a search and rescue initiative called “Operation Mare Nostrum.” It has rescued more than 50,000 people since its launch in October 2013.

But it is not enough. In the first six months of 2014 alone, more than 200 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas; hundreds more are missing feared dead. Many of those who perished were clearly escaping violence and persecution.

“The responsibility for the deaths of those trying to reach the EU is a collective responsibility. Other EU member states can and must follow Italy’s lead and stop people drowning at sea by bolstering search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean and the Aegean,” said John Dalhuisen.

“The human tragedies unfolding every day at Europe’s borders are neither inevitable, nor beyond the EU’s control. Many are of the EU’s making. EU member states must, at last, start putting people before borders.”