In the glaring absence of sufficient safe and legal routes to Europe, people are left with little choice but to embark on irregular journeys fraught with risks either in the Mediterranean or now increasingly the western Balkans. It’s time to show the red card to Europe’s response to the refugee crisis and ensure an urgent rethink.
Spokespeople available (London)
(Brussels 26 August 2015) As European and Western Balkans leaders meet in Vienna at the European Union (EU)-Western Balkans Summit on 26 and 27 August, Amnesty International is urging an immediate rethink and rewrite of Europe’s asylum policies and practices. Leaders will discuss the current refugee crisis in the western Balkans on day two of the Summit, following meetings on regional cooperation and a football match on day one. The discussions come amidst increasing arrivals at Europe’s Balkans borderlands, reports today of Hungarian police using teargas against refugees and migrants, deteriorating reception conditions in Greece (one of the EU’s frontline member states), and the ongoing sealing of Fortress Europe’s borders to those in need of international protection.
“What we are witnessing at Europe’s borderlands is symptomatic of the absurdity of the European asylum system,” said Gauri van Gulik, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia. “Having fled fear and desperation, refugees are confronted with an impossible choice – to stay and apply for asylum in the country of arrival with, in the case of Greece, appalling reception and detention conditions; or to travel further, and embark once more on a potentially clandestine and hazardous journey”.
Under the Dublin regulation, refugees are required to register asylum claims in the country of first arrival. For those arriving in Greece, given the limited or lack of access to medical or humanitarian support and often squalid conditions in overcrowded detention centres or open camps, many continue their journey North through Macedonia and Serbia, returning to the EU through Hungary. But their passage along the western Balkans route (through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary) is fraught with obstacles to claiming asylum. And increasingly Macedonia and Serbia are unable to cope with the rising numbers of refugees who are essentially being pushed into crossing their territories as a result of EU asylum polices, subsequently with little support from the EU.
Most recently, on 19 August, Macedonia declared a state of crisis, sealing its southern border for two days with paramilitary police and military forces applying excessive use of force, and using firearms to prevent refugees entering the country. In Serbia, reception conditions remain inadequate, and access to asylum is extremely difficult. In July, Amnesty International reported on ill-treatment, push-backs and unlawful detention along the western Balkans route.
Hungary is working on completing its 175 km long fence along the Serbia-Hungary border, which will erect yet another barrier to refugees seeking protection. The government also plans to criminalise irregular border crossing in the coming weeks. In July, Hungary changed its asylum law so access to an asylum procedure could be denied to asylum-seekers who first pass through a list of countries the Hungarian authorities have deemed “safe”, including Serbia and Macedonia.
“There is a real concern that refugees are getting trapped in a Balkans no-man’s land without protection or support, whilst EU countries turn their backs. This is leaving them vulnerable to further human rights abuses,” said Gauri van Gulik.
However, with boats carrying refugees continuing to arrive on the Greek islands, and UNHCR’s announcement that up to 3,000 refugees and migrants are expected to cross into Macedonia on a daily basis throughout the next several months, the authorities in the western Balkans countries must still live up to their international obligations towards asylum-seekers, including allowing those seeking asylum to do so in a prompt and effective manner.
“It is true that Europe’s borderlands are facing an unprecedented arrival of refugees. But it’s also true that this is only a fraction of the numbers of refugees being hosted by developing countries as the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The increase in arrivals also doesn’t absolve countries along the Balkans route of their legal obligations,” said Gauri Van Gulik. “In the glaring absence of sufficient safe and legal routes to Europe, people are left with little choice but to embark on irregular journeys fraught with risks either in the Mediterranean or now increasingly the western Balkans. It’s time to show the red card to Europe’s response to the refugee crisis and ensure an urgent rethink.”
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