Additional cases concerning the Röszke transit zone have been lodged before the European Court of Human Rights. This comes as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and others submit contributions to the third cycle of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Hungary. Violent pushbacks are continuing in Croatia, where a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by a Croatian police officer, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where NGOs discovered a group of 50 men who had been victims of physical violence near the border with Croatia.

On foot of the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in R.R. and others v Hungary, further cases concerning the Röszke transit zone have been communicated by the Court. The cases concern unaccompanied Afghan minors who stayed in the transit zone and allege suffering inhuman and degrading treatment during their stay. In both cases, the applicants allege the authorities failed to take appropriate measures that would normally be required by the specific needs of children, among other things.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) and Menedék, Hungarian Association for Migrants recently published joint submissions which assessed the situation of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees and provided recommendations to the third cycle of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Hungary on the rights of migrants. The HHC and the Global Detention Project also published joint submissions to the UPR, focusing on migration related detention and border enforcement issues.

The former submission highlights the key legislative and physical changes introduced in Hungary since the previous cycle of UPR. It also points out that legal changes were accompanied by xenophobic statements from leading figures of Government, government majority and state-funded advertisement campaigns against migrants. The submission outlines the deterioration in cooperation between state authorities and CSOs and the lack of access to migrants in asylum and immigration removal facilities resulting in detrimental effects on the provision of essential services and human rights monitoring. Among other things, the contribution discusses the lack of vulnerability screening and guidance on age assessment for vulnerable or unaccompanied minor applicants. Recommendations are also made on how the management of cases concerning national security can be improved, and how integration of and non-discrimination against migrants can be improved.

The submissions of the HHC and the Global Detention Project noted the very recent, de facto detention of asylum seekers in border transit zones with little or no access to procedural safeguards. The transit zones were closed following the ruling of the CJEU in May 2020 that stated that the conditions of their confinement there amounted to “a deprivation of liberty”. However, non- citizens continue to be detained in Hungary’s three remaining immigration detention centres, often in inappropriate and arbitrary circumstances and in violation of the country’s legal commitments and the human rights of detainees. Moreover, since the termination of cooperation agreements in 2017, the HHC were denied access to immigration detention centres, resulting in no free legal assistance available. It noted that while lawyers can visit their clients if they request to do so in writing in advance, detainees are often not aware of this possibility. Other issues such as the limited monitoring of detention conditions, arbitrary detention, ineffective mechanisms of judicial review were included in submissions. Additionally, the contribution to the UPR explained the continued practice of pushbacks of migrants into Serbia and Croatia, the CJEUs ruling on the illegality of the practice in December 2020 and the non-implementation of that judgment thus far.

Reports have come to light that, on 15 February 2021, a woman from Afghanistan was sexually abused, held at knifepoint and forced to strip naked by a Croatian border police officer, during a search of a group of migrants on the border, a few kilometers from the Bosnian city of Velika Kladuša. The Afghan woman stated: “he asked to take me to the forest and asked me if I understood what he meant. I gestured to him that I didn’t understand. I did… The officer that had touched me pulled out a knife and put it on my throat. He told me that, if I ever said anything to anyone, he would kill me, and, if I ever came back to Croatia, I would meet my end, in the forest, under him.”

Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) said that “the testimony is truly shocking” and emphasised the urgent need for systematic investigations. Slente further noted that “despite the European commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms, to prevent violence at the EU’s external borders.” In response, the Croatian interior ministry said the police would investigate the allegations but from a preliminary check, no such records from that day were found.  The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BMVN) said dozens of women and young girls travelling the Balkan route have reported being “searched everywhere” by male Croatian police officers.

Last week, on 2 April 2021, UN and NGO teams encountered a group of 50 men walking close to the border with Croatia in Una Sana Canton in North West Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The men had been subject to physical violence and were visibly exhausted, wounded and in need of clothes and shoes. The UN mission in BiH said in a statement “the men described that while crossing the border, they have been deprived of their belongings, including their mobile phones and money, and been beaten with wooden sticks while forcibly returned to the territory of Bosnia”. The UN mission in BiH highlighted that pushbacks of migrants, including families with children, have been regularly reported in recent years. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales expressed that it was “very worrisome that Croatia continues to practice violent pushbacks of migrants, seriously violating their human rights” and noted that the situation has been ongoing for several years.

On the same day, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) published its 1000th testimony, marking a sad landmark in the documentation of systemic violence against people on the move at borders in the Balkans. Each entry into the database pertains a single pushback incident which often affected transit groups of over 50 people. Therefore, the archive now consists of testimonies relating to over 15,000 people and exposes high levels of violence and abuse faced at the borders.

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Photo: (CC) Bastian Walthierer, March 2016

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