10 July 2015

In Europe’s Borderlands published this week, Amnesty International reports on the obstacles and abuses faced by growing numbers of refugees and migrants in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. The western Balkans route has become one of the busiest for those seeking protection in the EU, with over 60,000 entering into Hungary, from Serbia, by 22 June 2015. Compared to the other main routes this is a unique, as people leave the EU from Greece (which has no functioning asylum system at present) only to then re-enter the EU, into Hungary, via Macedonia and Serbia.

The testimonies collected show that desperate people fleeing war, persecution and poverty, mainly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea are at risk of arbitrary detention in inhuman and degrading conditions, are subject to unlawful push-backs, contrary to international law, and suffer violent beatings by the police. Migrants are also vulnerable to theft, kidnap and exploitation from smugglers and armed attackers due to their irregular status. 

The report raised particular concerns about the systematic and arbitrary detention of migrants who were ‘criminalised’ for ‘irregular entry’ whilst being denied access to asylum procedures. Those interviewed described the conditions in the Gazi Baba detention camp in Macedonia where hundreds, including pregnant women and children, are detained in overcrowded, insanitary and inhumane conditions without legal safeguards. They were often beaten or subjected to humiliating treatment, such as strip searches by border police and at detention centres.

Amnesty International also condemned the reports of routine and violent illegal push-backs, which occurred not just at the borders but well within national territories. In one incident, a Syrian refugee described being shot at by Macedonian police. The poor conditions in these countries, and the desperation of migrants seeking safety, meant that many were pushed-back on multiple occasions and sought increasingly risky routes of travel, leading to 24 migrants being killed by trains while travelling along Macedonia’s railway line.

Amnesty International recognised that given the lack of access to protection, with ‘pitifully small’ numbers of applicants being granted asylum, Serbia and Macedonia were seen as ‘transit’ countries for those en route to other EU countries. Although this did not absolve these countries of their international obligations to improve their asylum systems and procedures, it considered that flawed EU migration policies had led to these conditions due to a focus on enhancing external border controls: ‘Fortress Europe’. This has caused increasing numbers of people to be trapped in a ‘Balkan no-man’s land’ between Greece and Hungary, both countries unwilling to receive them; a situation that will inevitably worsen when Hungary builds its proposed fence along the Serbian border.

The report calls on the EU and its Member States to offer more safe and legal routes for refugees to access protection, ensure access to asylum at the EU’s external land borders and to provide additional support to Serbia and Macedonia to improve their asylum systems. It also made a number of recommendations to Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary with respect to asylum procedures, border management and detention.

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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 10 July 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.