28th Sep 2021


Separating migrant families at EU borders must stop

  • While the previously-documented physical beatings, humiliations, use of electro-shockers continue, in some EU member states, several documented cases of forceful family separations indicate re-emerging trends in deterrence practices (Photo: European Commission)

Over the last couple of years, the alarming extent of violence and illegal practices carried out against migrants and asylum seekers seeking protection in Europe has increasingly come into the open.

EU commissioners and member sates have condemned the situation, vowing to put an end to flagrant violations of fundamental rights and ensure that the rule of law is respected.

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However, new findings from the latest report from the Danish Refugee Counil's Protecting Rights at Borders Initiative show that these vows have not sufficiently been turned into action.

On the contrary, a vast number of testimonies reveal that EU member states are resorting to different, but equally alarming, practices. While the previously documented physical beatings, humiliations, use of electro-shockers continue, in some EU member states, several documented cases of forceful family separations indicate re-emerging trends in deterrence practices.

The practice, already documented before, typically assumes the following pattern: after having been intercepted, the means of communication of the families are entirely disrupted. With damaged phones and no way to reach each other, parents and children are placed into different vehicles, to be then expelled at different border locations.

Without any information where their parents or children have been left, law enforcement tells them that if they return to (in these cases Croatia), the treatment will be "less mild."

On one occasion, after hours of searching, the Danish Refugee Council's outreach teams in Bosnia and Herzegovina were able to reunite a family of six, where the parents had been forcefully separated from their four underage children.

This practice has also been recorded at the French-Italian border, where local NGOs reported assisting an increasing number of people in locating their family members after a pushback incident. This suggests a new operational pattern aimed at separating migrants and asylum seekers from their family or group, in an attempt to discourage border crossings.

Trump Mexican border comparison

The comparison with border practices at the US-Mexican border under the Trump administration, where minors were also separated on purpose from their parents, and which have been widely condemned by EU decision-makers, cannot but spring to mind.

Regrettably these are not isolated cases.

The Protecting Rights at Borders Initiative, as well as UN's special rapporteur on the rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, have also reported the denial of access to asylum procedures, pushbacks of persons with legal status, abusive and degrading treatment, physical abuse, theft, extortion, and destruction of property.

In his June 2021 report, Morales concludes, "The practice of pushbacks is widespread. In many contexts it has become a routine element of border governance, with a serious negative impact on the human rights of migrants."

Morales further states that "the loss of life at international borders has been a tragic consequence of states increasingly relying on militarisation, extraterritorial border control and deterrence to attempt to control migration."

The responsibility to end these widespread and illegal practices lies on the member states. Further, the European Commission, with the self-declared objective of being the 'Rule-of-Law Commission', has previously condemned the practices.

The commission's inclusion of a human rights monitoring mechanism under article 7 of the pre-entry screening regulation in the proposed EU pact on asylum and migration – a proposal following the wake-up call by the clearly documented practices over the previous years – could have been an initial step in the right direction to ensure more accountability.

However, it is increasingly perceived as a stumbling block in the negotiations between the EU member states.

The first information about Croatia's long-awaited independent border monitoring mechanism has been reported in the media. The proposed mechanism raises a number of questions in relation to whether it will indeed create a credible path towards accountability.

The criteria on which organisations were chosen to participate in the mechanism and their prior experience in the monitoring process is unclear. Also, access to official border crossings will be limited while data from the Protecting Rights at Borders Initiative, and other organisations, has been highlighting that 95 percent of the rights violations happen away from official crossings. Finally, a lack of clarity remains on how complaints will be investigated.

While the publishing of the Croatian border-monitoring mechanism might take away some ambiguity, scrutiny and effective assessment of how, and if, it will work in practice will be required.

Or put in another way: the proposed monitoring mechanism will have to be monitored to ensure that it in fact becomes a guarantee of accountability - not an obstacle to it.

Croatia's neighbour, Slovenia, has just taken over the presidency of the European Council, under the slogan "Together. Resilient. Europe."

While Slovenia's role in chain pushbacks has also been widely-documented, the hope remains that the member states (including Slovenia) and EU institutions may jointly demonstrate their unity and resilience by leading by example: stopping illegal practices, strengthening accountability to ensure that just and rights-compliant systems are in place, and demonstrating that the "European values" can pass the reality check and not succumb under pressure.

Author bio

Charlotte Slente is secretary general of the Danish Refugee Council.Written in cooperation with: Ratko Bubalo, president of the managing board of the Humanitarian Center for Integration and Tolerance (HCIT), Vassilis Papadopoulos, president of the board of directors of the Greek Council for Refugees, Anna Brambilla, lawyer for Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull'Immigrazione (ASGI), András Léderer, senior advocacy officer Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and Loretta Malan, director of inclusion services for Diaconia Valdese


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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