Forced displacement from conflict has doubled over the past decade. There are many reasons for flight, including war, conflict, persecution, natural disaster, deep-set destitution and repression. Those traveling to Europe continued to face considerable dangers on certain parts of the routes, with many refugees and migrants dying along the way.
UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said that more than 3,000 migrants died in 2021 or went missing while trying to reach Europe. Of them, 1,924 people were reported dead or missing on the central and western Mediterranean routes. Another 1,153 died or went missing on the sea route from northwest Africa to the Canary Islands,” she added. Meanwhile, officials have warned that at least 478 people have already died or gone missing while trying to reach Europe in 2022.
National human rights institutions, international bodies and civil society organisations regularly report cases of pushbacks at the European Union’s land and sea borders. According to those reports,
pushbacks often involve excessive use of force by EU Member States’ authorities and EU agencies operating at external borders, and degrading and inhuman treatment of migrants and their arbitrary
The International Organization for Migration said that since January 2020, and despite the drop-in migrants’ numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hard line migration agenda. Since the introduction of partial or complete border closures to halt the outbreak of coronavirus, these countries have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept boats in distress at sea and push back passengers into detention centers. There have been repeated reports of people being beaten, robbed, stripped naked at frontiers or left at sea.
Frontex and allegations on illegal migrant’s pushbacks
The European Council has gradually been shifting focus to prioritize strengthening the EU’s external borders and preventing irregular migrants from reaching EU territory. To this end, the aim has been to stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes and extend the EU’s partnerships with third countries, notably Turkey and Libya. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has been reinforced and provided with stronger means and powers to contribute to this goal.
Meanwhile, the head of the European Union’s border protection agency Frontex has resigned following allegations that the agency was involved in illegally forcing migrants and refugees back from Europe’s borders.
Recently, a joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik and Le Monde has revealed Frontex’s involvement in what appear to be pushbacks, according to its own database. The act is considered a violation of international refugee protection agreements, which state people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where they are in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or being members of a social or political group.
Furthermore, a report published one year ago on May 2021 by the Guardian revealed the biggest mass expulsions in decades, while European countries, supported by EU’s border agency Frontex, has systematically pushed back refugees, including children fleeing from wars, using illegal tactics ranging from assault to brutality during detention or transportation. The Guardian’s analysis is based on reports released by UN agencies, combined with a database of incidents collected by non-governmental organizations. According to charities, with the onset of Covid-19, the regularity and brutality of pushback practices has grown.
The EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, as well, opened, last year an investigation into Frontex, over allegations of harassment, misconduct and migrant pushbacks. The investigation revealed that Frontex has been involved in the pushbacks of at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021.
“Recent reports suggest an increase of deaths of migrants attempting to reach Europe and, at the same time, an increase of the collaboration between EU countries with non-EU countries such as Libya, which has led to the failure of several rescue operations,’’ said one of Italy’s leading human rights and immigration experts, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo. ‘’In this context, deaths at sea since the beginning of the pandemic are directly or indirectly linked to the EU approach aimed at closing all doors to Europe and the increasing externalization of migration control to countries such as Libya.
Alarm bells raised
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, expressed deep concern over an increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders, several of which have resulted in tragic deaths. Despite repeated calls by UNHCR, other UN agencies, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs, the violence continues within and beyond the European Union, the statement continued.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged on 21 Feb 2022 for greater protection for refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe. Mr. Grandi reminded that financial and capacity support abroad cannot replace States’ responsibilities and obligations to receive and protect refugees in their own territory.
He also called on States to uphold their commitments and respect fundamental human rights, including the right to life and right to asylum.