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Pushbacks on the European borders: Unravelling the Perils Along Migration Journeys in Europe

Migration has always and will always exist. And, while most people search safety close to home, others have throughout the years, found safety in Europe. Migration routes to Europe are marked by both hopeful journeys and the harsh challenges faced along the way.

Posted on 31 Jan 2024

Some fleeing from conflict, persecution, natural disasters, or looking for better ways to take care of their families and build better futures, thousands of people leave their homes. Only a small percentage of those end at Europe’s doorstep – as most displaced remain close to their home.

However, as migrants arrive hopeful at European borders to seeking safety, they are often met with pushbacks at borders, where they are forcibly turned away and are subjected to violence and human rights abuses.

This article aims to delve into the complexities of the European migration routes and the harsh realities that come with pushbacks at the borders.

While pushbacks are illegal, they are widespread and are being systematically used for Europe’s internal and external borders. Countries are using violent and inhumane methods to send vulnerable people back across the border they have attempted to cross.

According to the recently published Protecting Rights at Borders (PRAB) report: “Pushbacks at Europe’s borders: a continuously ignored crisis”, more than 28,609 migrants faced pushbacks and other human rights violations at European borders in 2023 – more than 8400 of which taking place within the last four months of year alone.

While the numbers documented by PRAB during the past four months may seem a high number, it is evident that these represent only a small sample of the actual number of illegal pushbacks at European borders.

Violence and mistreatment at the borders

For years, violence and abuse against migrants and asylum seekers by border officials have been documented by several human rights organisations.

People have told stories of facing violence and beatings, and being held in crammed places, for hours and days, without access to their basic needs.

A Syrian who faced push back at the Belarusian borders shared his story; “They found us, and they were beating us and spraying us at the same time. (...) And they beat the lady, woman. They were trying to attack kids, but we did not let them. (…) They were beating us because we were defending the kids and they used rubber bullets, and they took us back to the border.”

The struggle did not end there – the Syrian man and those with him continued to be treated this way until they had no choice but to go back.

This inhumane treatment is not a rarity but has unfortunately become the common practice. According to the PRAB report, 83% of arrivals at the Croatia – Bosnia and Herzegovina border experienced degrading treatment, and the figure stood at 61% for France – Italy border.

They took us back to the forbidden area. (...) At that time we were so thirsty and hungry, and we asked the Polish soldiers. We asked them for a drink or a little food. And there was a woman, a soldier and she gave us a bottle of water and while we drunk it, we wished we did not drink that, but we already did, but before the children. We realized that she put pepper spray inside the water. After we drank it, me and another guy – our stomach got burned and it was so painful.

/  A Syrian who faced push back at the Belarusian borders

Left with no belongings and no way to safety

As migrants navigate perilous journeys in search of safety and opportunity, they find themselves confronted by the brutal reality of pushbacks and forced returns.

These forced returns do not only involve physical violence, but leave individuals stranded and stripped of their belongings.

Many migrants have spoken about personal belongings being confiscated and being left behind, vulnerable and without viable paths to safety.

There, at border, they were beating us and punching us all.

/  A Moroccan man who tried to cross the borders into Croatia

A Moroccan man tells his story as he tried to cross the borders into Croatia

"We are three men from Morocco, and we crossed the border yesterday in Hadzin Potok. We walked 6 hours, and we came near Slunj in Croatia. In a forest near Slunj, one policeman stopped us.

He called more police. Soon, there came 2 more policemen. They searched us and our things. They took our mobile phones.

Some phones they broke and then returned, while some phones they kept. Then, there came a van with border police. We had to sit in the van. When we came in the van, there were already men, children and families from Afghanistan and Syria in the van.

They drove us all back to border near Hadzin Potok. There, at border, two more policemen were waiting us, although there were already three policemen in the van.

All of us, including us three men from Morocco and five men and three boys from Afghanistan, had to come out from the van except families from Syria.

There, at border, they were beating us and punching us all. Then, we had to come back to Bosnia, while they drove families from Syria in the van and they probably drove them to camp in Zagreb."

Reports about pushbacksView all documents

Border Monitoring Factsheet

15 Mar 2024

PRAB reports

31 Jan 2024

Recording Mechanism of Informal Forced Returns Annual Report 2022

25 Jan 2024

Joint NGO Statement: The EU must not be complicit in the loss of lives at sea and in rights violations at Europe’s border

16 Jun 2023

PRAB policy notes

30 May 2023

D(i)ritti al confine, Project at the Northern Borders Report 2022

01 Jun 2022

Read more stories and the full report

These stories are mirrored in countless stories where vulnerable individuals, having faced adversity and danger to escape their home countries, are now left with no resources or means to secure refuge.

The abandonment of migrants without belongings and devoid of a way to safety highlights the urgent need for humane and compassionate responses to the complex challenges posed by migration, urging a collective re-evaluation of policies and practices that respect the dignity and rights of those seeking a haven in Europe.

For more information, you can read the full PRAB report here: “Pushbacks at Europe’s borders: a continuously ignored crisis”.

23 Apr 2024

129 civil society organisations call on MEPs to uphold fundamental rights and reject the harmful Schengen borders code recast

31 Jan 2024

New report: “They started beating us, used a stun gun and pepper spray on us and then threw us into the forest. We couldn't walk for three days because of the pain, and we had vision problems.”

02 Oct 2023

Beaten by police, bitten by dogs, and robbed of all rights: New Report Reveals Alarming Pushbacks and Violations at Europe's borders

16 Jun 2023

Joint NGO Statement: The EU must not be complicit in the loss of lives at sea and in rights violations at Europe’s borders

30 May 2023

Protecting Rights at Borders VI: What we do in the shadows

13 Feb 2023

Heaven or hell at Italy’s northern borders

09 Feb 2023

EU migration management: Wilful blindness to evidence of harmful human rights consequences

26 Jan 2023

Protecting Rights at Borders: Beaten, punished, and pushed back

12 Jan 2023

Protecting Rights at Borders (PRAB)

08 Dec 2022

EU admits Croatia to Schengen Without Regard to Abuses at the Border

16 Dec 2021

12,000 pushbacks in 2021 reflects worrying normalization of illegal practice

03 Dec 2021

Need for calm and proportional response at the EUs external borders

26 Nov 2021

Joint Statement: Call on the EU: Restore Rights and Values at Europe’s Borders

03 Aug 2021

Croatia/EU Border Monitoring System: Effective Mechanism Needed - Independent, Broad Mandate, Adequate Resources

23 Jul 2021

Using family separation as deterrent – new report documents alarming illegal push-back methods

12 May 2021

Push back of responsibility: Human Rights Violations as a Welcome Treatment at Europe’s Borders

18 Mar 2021

Open letter: Five years after the EU-Turkey Statement, European Civil Society Demands an End to Containment and Deterrence at the EU’s External Borders

10 Nov 2020

Turning rhetoric into reality: New monitoring mechanism at European borders should ensure fundamental rights and accountability

05 Feb 2024
Life Amidst Landmines: Ahmed's Journey of Survival and Hope
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