The findings by Europe’s top anti-torture body that authorities across Europe have used practices which amount to torture to target refugees and migrants who tried to cross Europe’s borders, strengthen calls for urgent change, said Amnesty International.
The report released today by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) finds widespread use of violence, intimidation and prolonged detention and identifies “clear patterns of physical ill-treatment” against people in the context of pushback operations. It also finds persistent disregard for basic legal safeguards and the right to access asylum across Europe.
“This damning report adds to the growing mountain of evidence of serious and systemic human rights violations perpetrated against people at borders by European states’ authorities,” said Eve Geddie, Head of Amnesty’s Europe Office.
This damning report adds to the growing mountain of evidence of serious and systemic human rights violations perpetrated against people at borders by European states’ authorities.Eve Geddie, Head of Amnesty’s Europe Office
“It confirms the testimonies of thousands of people who have experienced violence at Europe’s land and sea borders.”
The CPT report identifies general trends at Europe’s borders though does not specify individual countries. It cites cases of police, border guards and other law-enforcement officials hitting people with batons, firing bullets over their heads; pushing them, sometimes with their hands bound, into rivers; forcing them to walk barefoot, in their underwear, and in some cases, fully naked across the border; and using unmuzzled dogs to threaten or chase them.
These brutal and illegal practices, often perpetrated in the context of unlawful summary returns, or ‘pushbacks’, are used by national authorities to prevent people in need of protection from reaching their borders. The Committee’s findings, on the systemic nature of these abuses, are corroborated by Amnesty International’s research on Europe’s borders including, more recently, on Spain, Croatia, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The report comes as the Lithuanian Parliament are currently debating a bill that aims to legalize pushbacks under domestic legislation. If passed, it will effectively deprive people who have crossed into Lithuania irregularly of any possibility of seeking international protection, and forcibly returning many to places where they face the risk of torture.
Since the summer of 2021, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia invoked states of emergency to legalize the repeated use of pushbacks at their borders with Belarus, exposing large numbers of people to physical violence, summary returns and abysmal conditions in detention. In this period, at least 37 people lost their lives on the Polish border, while more people died at the border with Latvia and Lithuania.
The findings in the CPT report that authorities generally failed to properly investigate the allegations of torture, ill-treatment and other abuses in the context of border operations, echo Amnesty International’s evidence.
“The gruesome catalogue of violence and intimidation detailed in this report is sadly all too familiar. Lack of accountability for serious violations allows for the cycle of violence to continue unchallenged and betrays a shocking disregard by European countries for the lives of people seeking protection,” said Eve Geddie.
“There is an urgent need to ensure prompt and independent investigations of reports of allegations of violence, hold perpetrators to account and to establish robust independent border monitoring mechanisms.”
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In March 2022, Amnesty International reported how hundreds of refugees and migrants, including families with small children, were stranded in forest between Belarus and Poland trying to survive in sub-zero temperatures without shelter, food, water or medical care. They faced repeated and violent pushbacks by Polish border guards who fired live rounds above their heads and used unmuzzled police dogs to force them into freezing cold rivers and swamps.
Border authorities in Latvia and Lithuania subjected refugees and migrants at their borders to similar abuses, including cruel and gratuitous attacks with batons or tasers, of migrants and refugees being pelted with stones and rubber bullets and beaten as they lay on the ground semi-conscious after being subjected to tear gas in an enclosed space.
The violent repression by both Spanish and Moroccan authorities at the Melilla border in 2022 resulted in at least 37 deaths and dozens of injured people. Some people who had managed to reach Spanish territory were immediately and forcibly removed by Spanish border guards, not only without a due process to assess risks to their safety, but also despite the fact that they were in evident need of medical care.
In 2022, Amnesty International reported how the Polish authorities detained thousands of asylum seekers who crossed the country from Belarus and subjected many of them to abuse, including strip searches, forcible sedation and tasering, in abysmal and overcrowded facilities.
In Latvia, Amnesty International found that in-between violent pushbacks, border authorities arbitrarily detained refugees and migrants in secret locations in the forest, often having first confiscated their phones, a practice possibly amounting to enforced disappearance. In some cases, people could only leave the border area after agreeing to return to their countries “voluntarily”, sometimes having spent extended periods in the woods, or having endured physical abuse or threats. Other people were misled or forced into signing return papers after being transferred to detention facilities or police stations.