European Union member states were involved in pushing back some 40,000 migrants and refugees into Turkish waters, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 individuals during the pandemic, according to an investigation by the Guardian.
The report noted that EU countries and their border agency Frontex systematically pushed back irregular migrants, including children, “using illegal tactics ranging from assault to brutality during detention or transportation.”
The probe was carried out taking into account reports by the United Nations, as well as a database of incidents compiled by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Some 100,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Europe last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The report noted that Greece, Croatia, Italy, Spain and Malta have been paying non-EU states and private vessels to intercept boats carrying migrants and force them to detention centers.
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) alone recorded nearly 18,000 pushbacks in Croatia in 2020 and the Guardian investigation revealed that police whipped, robbed, sexually abused migrants and spray-painted them with red crosses to allegedly treat them against COVID-19.
Nearly 90% of migrant testimonies compiled by 13 NGOs in the western Balkans confirmed abuse and disproportionate force in Croatia in the same year.
Greece has also pushed thousands of migrants and refugees from its shores and has frequently been criticized by Turkey over pushbacks.
Data by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) confirmed Greek violence against migrants.
In 89% of pushbacks, the network observed excessive use of force, which it said 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.”
Greek authorities tied migrants’ hands to the bars of cells and put helmets on their heads before beating them to avoid bruising, according to testimony.
“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,” the BVMN said.
In recent years, Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It has also accused the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements that say people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group. Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants it can constitute refoulement – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Earlier this year, the managing board of Frontex said it did not find evidence of rights violations in cases it reviewed where guards were accused of illegal migrant pushbacks from Greece toward Turkish territorial waters. But the body added that its conclusions only applied to some of the disputed incidents, saying it needs additional clarifications to complete the remaining reviews.
Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri has been under pressure for months over the allegations as Frontex takes on a greater frontline role in patrolling EU borders. EU lawmakers and activists have called for him to resign over the operations, but he has refused, insisting the agency is key to the fight against human trafficking. A working group of 14 members of the European Parliament was formed to investigate the EU border agency's involvement in pushbacks of asylum-seekers in Aegean waters.
Whether Frontex is willing to hold itself liable for the numerous pushbacks and violations against migrants and asylum-seekers at Greece's border with Turkey has come into question, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report last month.
A joint investigation by several international news outlets reported in October that Frontex had been complicit in maritime pushback operations to drive away migrants attempting to enter the EU via Greek waters. A month later, Brussels-based news outlet EUobserver revealed that Frontex exchanged letters with Greek authorities on Athens' orders to push back migrants to Turkish waters.