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15th Apr 2024

Migrant pushbacks inside EU to be codified in law, say critics

  • The border between Austria and Italy (Photo: Alice Latta)
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The EU is set to pass a law allowing police to return suspected irregular migrants to bordering EU member states — in what critics are describing as internal pushbacks based on racial profiling.

Described in the bill as transfers, the reforms are part of wider efforts to tweak the rules underpinning free movement throughout the passport-free Schengen zone, spanning most EU member states.

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The broad goal is to scale back the regular introduction of 'temporary' internal border checks among member states, which has threatened Schengen, sacrosanct to the EU.

But Marta Gionco, a policy expert at the Brussels-based advocacy group Picum, says this comes at the expense of racial profiling that will further stigmatise migrants of all ages.

"It's not a situation in which the state says 'okay, there is an exceptional circumstance, we have border check'," she said.

Instead, she said authorities will be able to stop people near their shared internal borders and then send them back across without proper safeguards.

It means a person stopped in Belgium could be returned to France, for instance, if that individual has a train ticket or a supermarket receipt from France, she said.

"No one is going to ask why you came into Belgium. Do you have family members in Belgium? Are you a childhood friend whose parents are in Belgium," she said.

The bill was spearheaded by French socialist MEP Sylvia Guillaume, who says it protects the free movement of people by introducing clear and limited time lines for EU states when it comes to unprecedented challenges, such as future pandemics.

And a Socialists & Democrats spokesperson said extra precautions had been included in the bill to exclude asylum seekers, the right to appeal and that the best interest of a child be taken into account.

He also disputed that the reform allows for racial profiling, noting that its implementation must be done in full respect on non-discrimination and fundamental rights.

But Gionco says that this cannot be applied in practice, noting it will have to rely on prejudices and vague generalities.

"We're asking the police to identify, based on their information and general experience, undocumented people or people who are likely to be migrants among the general population," she said.

Gionco concerns were echoed by 85 other NGOs in a joint-letter last week that said there are no exemptions for unaccompanied children, families with children, or individuals in a state of vulnerability.

Caterina Rodelli, a policy analyst at Access Now, a digital rights organisations based in Brussels, also raised other issues. She said the reforms explicitly mention the use of surveillance technology.

"This is really worrying because we read this in conjunction with other types of developments outside of this law," she said.

This spans EU-funded Horizon 2020 research projects dealing with thermal cameras, drones, and other technologies, she said.

"It is all about strengthening internal EU capacities of border surveillance rather than at the external border," she said.

Earlier this week, a majority of MEPs sitting in the civil liberties committee voted in favour of the reforms known as Schengen Borders Code. All the centre-right European People's Party at the committee voted in favour, as did the liberal Renew Europe, and most of the S&D. It is now set for a plenary vote in April.

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