Croatia, Greece Accused of Forcing Out Asylum-Seekers

(CN) – With mounting evidence in hand, non-government groups are renewing accusations that authorities in Greece and Croatia are using harsh, even violent, and illegal methods to keep asylum-seekers and immigrants out of the European Union.

The accusations were made this week by Human Rights Watch and a watchdog group called Border Violence Monitoring.

In this Wednesday, May 2, 2018 file photo, children play inside the Moria refugee camp on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesbos, Greece. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Both groups accuse authorities of a practice known as “pushbacks.” A pushback is the act of forcing someone who may have a legitimate claim to asylum away from a border. Under human rights law, pushbacks are considered unlawful because they do not allow people to make asylum claims and may send someone back to a country where he or she could face human rights violations.

The Europe Union is a destination of choice for tens of thousands of people fleeing war-torn and impoverished nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. These people, fearing they won’t receive asylum status, often seek to enter Europe unlawfully.

The most egregious charges were made against Greek authorities. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report accusing Greek police in the Evros region of detaining people who’d crossed into Greece and handing them over to unidentified masked paramilitaries who take people back to Turkey.

In the report, Human Rights Watch released a video of the bruised and lacerated backs of people who had allegedly been beaten before being sent back to Turkey.

The group also alleged that Greek police officers confiscated money and destroyed the belongings of people who had been pushed back to Turkey. Seven people reported being stripped of their clothes and sent back to Turkey in their underwear, the group said.

“People who have not committed a crime are detained, beaten, and thrown out of Greece without any consideration for their rights or safety,” said Todor Gardos, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

The group said it based its report on interviews with asylum-seekers and immigrants. Most of the pushbacks occurred between April and November, Human Rights Watch said.

The International Organization for Migration, a UN agency, estimates that more than 13,780 asylum-seekers and immigrants have sought to enter Greece by crossing the Evros River, a large increase from last year.

Greek authorities deny the charges and say police are acting properly.

Meanwhile, in Croatia authorities also deny police were forcing people back across the border unlawfully.

Border Violence Monitoring on Sunday released videos showing Croatian police escorting a total of about 350 men, women and children through a forest and allegedly forcing them to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The group said hidden video cameras were installed along a path where Croatian police were conducting these pushbacks. The alleged pushbacks took place during the day and night, the videos show.

Courthouse News and other media outlets previously have reported on allegations of police brutality at the Croatian border.

“This new material can now prove the illegal actions of the Croatian police,” the watchdog group said in a news release.

The group declined to disclose who provided the videos, citing security concerns. The videos, the group said, were authentic and shot between late September and early October. News media, including Courthouse News, reviewed the videos.

As in Greece, the watchdog alleges Croatian authorities have beaten asylum-seekers and destroyed their belongings. In August, a Courthouse News reporter spoke with asylum-seekers in Bosnia who said Croatian police destroyed their cellphones and passports.

The non-government groups called on EU, Greek and Croatian authorities to investigate the allegations.

So far, the EU has been slow to respond to the allegations.

“We and many others have been filing complaints for months and years now,” said Max Büttner of Border Violence Monitoring in an email. He said little action has been taken.

He said the videos show that the pushbacks are occurring and contradict Croatia’s insistence that they are not.

Pressure may be building on the EU to take the pushbacks more seriously.

On Dec. 13, the European Parliament debated the situation in Croatia.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, an EU commissioner, told Parliament that the European Commission was “actively and closely monitoring” the situation in Croatia and he added that EU laws must be followed on the border regardless if people were crossing the border illegally.

He said the commission raised the allegations with Croatian authorities and it was “confident Croatian authorities will take the allegations seriously and conduct swift and thorough investigations.”

During the debate, Marina Albiol Guzmán, a left-wing Spanish member of Parliament, accused the European Commission and European nations of willfully carrying out a harsh policy toward asylum-seekers in breach of EU laws.

“What’s worst of all is that what the Croatian government is doing is in perfect sync with the European commission’s migratory policies,” she said through a translation. “It’s the EU’s model of shutting down borders, not allowing people to set foot in Europe, deporting.”

She charged that asylum-seekers have died as a result.

Croatian members of Parliament denied that Croatian police were acting improperly, but they called the situation along the Bosnian border an emergency. They also said Croatians were afraid for their safety due to the illegal border crossings.

“We try to help these poor people who want protection and safety,” said Željana Zovko, a center-right Croatian member of Parliament.

About 5,300 people are believed to be seeking entry from Bosnia into Croatia, according to Red Cross estimates.

As winter approaches and temperatures plunge, conditions for the thousands of asylum-seekers hoping to get into Europe are becoming ever more difficult. In many cases, they are given shelter in crowded government-run facilities. But many live in abandoned buildings and on the streets.

“In recent weeks more people have attempted to cross the border to avoid becoming trapped in Bosnia for the winter,” Büttner said. “Likewise, the number of pushbacks and the level of violence has increased.”

This month Turkish and Italian media have reported the deaths of at least four people who allegedly froze to death after trying to get into Greece and being pushed back.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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