The Commission’s action plan on Western Balkans is centred around border management, returns and readmission to third countries. The new study “Black Book of Pushback” documents 25.000 violent pushbacks across the EU amid investigations underlining systematic violence towards refugees and uncovering the role of EU funds and agencies in perpetuating it. Croatia’s admission to the Schengen zone “sets a bad precedent for future Schengen enlargements and for the EU’s intention to enforce compliance with human rights standards inside the Schengen zone”.

Ahead of the “first-ever” EU and Western Balkans Summit on 6 December, the European Commission published an action plan to enhance cooperation with the region to “address common challenges” in light of an increase of arrivals due to visa-free policies and “flows of migrants” having following the Eastern Mediterranean route. “With this Action Plan we are now building on our good cooperation and we provide a path forward for continuing to work closely together”, said Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs. The plan sets out a series of measures based on 5 pillars: (1) strengthening border management along the routes; (2) swift asylum procedures and support reception capacity; (3) fighting migrant smuggling; (4) enhancing readmission cooperation and returns as well as (5) achieving visa policy alignment. Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) tweeted about the plan saying it “is centred around strengthened border management, returns and readmissions and safe third country concepts”. Meanwhile, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is standing by to assist DG Migration and Home Affairs in reducing “irregular flows in Western Balkans”. “Frontex currently has +500 officers in the Western Balkan region. We are ready to provide additional support to reduce irregular flows and fight-cross border crime, incl. firearms trafficking and people smuggling”, the EU agency tweeted. As a result of the summit on 6 December, the Tirana Declaration was agreed, concluding an increase of financial support with over EUR 170 million to “to address irregular migration on the Western Balkans route, including to combat smuggling of migrants and human trafficking” and “enhance return systems” including readmission programmes.

The action plan came out on the same day the Lighthouse Reports revealed footage of a refugee named Abdallah Mohammed being shot with live ammunition at the Bulgaria-Turkiye border. Mohammed says that the way he was shot at is direct with an obvious intention to kill, as the distance between him and the border guard was between 10-14 meters. Bulgaria commented on the video saying its border guards were at the scene but denied firing the bullet. “There are no cases of violence against migrants,” says Bulgaria’s Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev, adding that “There are clear conclusions from both sides (Turkish and Bulgarian) that there is no evidence that a shot has been fired by a Bulgarian border policeman and that no active actions have been taken to violate anyone’s human rights” despite testimonies from refugees and analysis from investigative media outlets proving the opposite. The analysis of the footage as well as eyewitness accounts establish that “the shot came from the exact spot where Bulgarian guards were standing”. The Left in the European Parliament said that “Violence at the EU’s external borders is systematic” and urged the commission to “act fast to end such brutality” ,and the European Commission has finally demanded Bulgaria to “thoroughly investigate” the incident. “We take all allegations of any wrongdoings at the European border seriously, and violence and loss of life is unacceptable”, said Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper. According to Commissioner, Johansson: “Bulgaria and Romania have provided even better protection of the external borders than during the Commission’s first inspection in October”. However, this incident is not “isolated”. It is a part of a “wider system at EU borders reliant on black sites, cages and torture”.  Lighthouse Reports revealed on 8 December other footage of a cage used to detain refugees before pushing them back and discovered “shipping containers in Hungary and prison vans in Croatia” are being routinely used by authorities to imprison people on the move and prevent them claiming asylum. The investigation also found that these cruel practices and equipment are partially funded by EU money and in some cases “operated under the noses of Frontex”. Following these revelations, in a press release, Human Rights Watch said: “EU institutions have effectively turned a blind eye to the abuse and violence by border officials at EU’s external borders”, and urged the commission to stop funding countries where abuses are documented as well as Frontex to “review and investigate serious allegations of abuses committed by border officials and witnessed by Frontex”.

The structural violence against refugees in Europe is highlighted as BVMN publishes a new study “Black Book of Pushbacks” documenting 25.000 violent pushbacks including torture, beatings, theft and destruction of personal belongings, arbitrary detention and threats with a gun at EU borders. “Pushbacks are illegal under international law, but [EU] member state authorities have long ignored such breaches of human rights which are contrary to the EU’s international obligations. The Black Book contains only the testimonies recorded by BVMN, the real number of people being pushed back and experiencing violence at the borders is likely much higher”, BVMN said in a press statement, adding that countries involved in these practices are Austria, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania. Meanwhile, Austria is blaming people on the move from India and North African countries for the “asylum wave” and consequently asking for “help” from the EU. Austria regards India and Tunisia as “safe” countries and people on the move from both countries “will have practically no chance of asylum”. Yet, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Austria’s concerns were justified, adding that “Austria is exceptionally hard hit. Austria is rightly asking for solidarity and needs help”. Furthermore, people continue to use Serbia as the main transit route towards the EU and so do pushbacks to Serbia from different member. Therefore, “informal settlements in the border area between Serbia and EU external borders increased, as well as the number of such settlements”.

Croatia received unanimous backing from member states and will join the Schengen Area as of January “despite substantiated reports of frequent breaches of EU and international human rights law” including denying access to territory and asylum and failing to investigate police misconduct towards refugees. A joint statement by 8 human rights and humanitarian organisations states that the council’s decision to welcome Croatia to the zone “disregards the EU’s commitment to fundamental rights” and is “a symptom of a higher EU policy imperative that repeatedly sacrifices fundamental rights for what is portrayed as border security”. Now that Croatia’s access to Schengen is imminent without fulfilling conditions in line with human rights standards, the organisations are calling for the focus to be on reforming the Croatian border monitoring mechanism, considering evidence by the Croatian Ombudsperson and civil society organisations in the programming and design of evaluations, and ensuring Croatia is cooperating with relevant human rights oversight bodies. In the meantime, Austria has blocked the accession of Romania and Bulgaria into Schengen and the Netherlands supported Romania’s bid but opposed Bulgaria’s. In this regard, Human Rights Watch stated: “The absence of any meaningful discussion on whether Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria met human rights criteria at borders before deciding on their accession to the Schengen area, where border and passport controls are effectively abolished, is a worrying illustration. Additionally, the EU Commission’s funding of border management in these countries enables continuing abuses.”

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.