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The Response to Migration in Europe: A Short History

The end of the Cold War in 1991 saw a renewed commitment to the European project of harmonisation; the passing of the Single European Act in 1992 completed the creation of an internal market and system of free movement for people and goods, as initiated by the Schengen acquis. A byproduct of abolishing internal borders was the necessity of strengthening the EU’s external borders as a means of protecting the internal free market movement system. External migration was seen as a potential threat to this system, which set the stage for the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 that birthed from the idea of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). Member States (MS) of the EU agreed that they needed a harmonised system for those seeking asylum in the bloc to ensure that standards were equal across states to discourage secondary movements. As a result, MS delegated power to the EU level rather than having individual systems and the CEAS was created, between 1995 and 2005, as six legislative instruments establishing minimum standards for asylum across MS.

Even as this system was being developed, the securitisation of migration – a process in which migration discourse shifts towards an emphasis on security concerns – was taking place. This process was accelerated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) in the US, and the Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bombings. These events were rhetorically linked by Western leaders to incoming migratory flows, and marked the initiation of a ‘state of emergency’ in handling migratory movements, where the necessity of respecting international and Union human rights law needed to be balanced with ‘protecting’ the internal security of the bloc. There was a shift in European migration management that saw policies around movement and security concerns merging within policy frameworks, shifting focus to the management of ‘irregular/economic migrants’, ‘smugglers’, and ‘bogus asylum seekers’.


The So-Called Balkan Route

The so-called Balkan Route is the union of two migration flows: the Eastern Mediterranean Route – which leads from Turkey by sea to Greece – and the Western Balkan Route, i.e. the route that crosses through the Balkan countries overland, through the states of North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and then through the Member States Romania, Hungary or Croatia, until it reaches western Europe.

The route, which was popularised in 2012, peaked in May 2015 when – with rising tensions and violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – it represented the quickest and safest route to take, not only for people on the move and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Central and South Asia, but also for hundreds of people who, in order to stop risking their lives in the central Mediterranean, travelled from Africa to Turkey and then tried through Greece to make their way to central Europe. Today, the same route is a place of the most violent atrocities against the people on the move, who are systematically stripped of their right to seek asylum or other forms of international protection.


2015: The Humanitarian Corridor

In the summer of 2015, the number of people crossing the Aegean sea on the route from Turkey through Greece exceeded the number of people using the Central Mediterranean route. Hundreds soon became thousands of new arrivals per day, at the time mostly refugees from Syria, and later Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and other countries. They were passing from Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria, and then through Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary and further, towards the Western EU countries. At the time, the humanitarian imperative was dominating the narrative in most countries on the route, with some striking exceptions: hundreds of beaten, robbed, hungry people of all ages were coming from Bulgaria to Serbia every day.

In September 2015, Hungary stemmed the free flow of the refugee route through its territory, and the Serbian police redirected the people towards the border with Croatia. The states along the new route – Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria – developed the so-called “corridor” as a tool to manage these movements. This opened up a channelled pathway that allowed people on the move, once they arrived on the Greek islands, to arrive within four days to Vienna. The mechanism meant that people on the move were no longer considered illegal, but with provisional transit permits, were entitled to take public transportation to move freely from one country to another to reach the EU.

Thus, in the context of the 2015-2016 so-called crisis, passage through the region, which for years had been one of many irregular entry routes, became the only legalised gateway into the continent.


2015-2016: The Politics of Walls and (Re)Borderisation

However, the events of the early 2000s that initiated a shift in the management of movement to a migration-securitisation nexus quickly set the stage for an alternative EU response to the so-called 2015 crisis, where 1.3 million individuals sought asylum in Europe. Member States began to see the increase in movement as a strain on the newly developed CEAS, commitment to the broader European project began to decline and a process of rebordering began.

In the summer of 2015, Hungary was the first state along the so-called Balkan Route’ to erect a fence, 4m tall and 175km long, along its border with Serbia. In the following months, Hungary launched new measures to guard its border, legitimised by a “state of emergency”. Electronic sensors, electric wire, helicopters, drone patrols, the extension of up to 10,000 Hungarian authorities tasked with managing the border all marked the rapid securitisation of Hungary’s borders, and the initiation of a Europe-wide trend. With the Orban government’s construction of the wall, the Balkan Route underwent its first detour, and people from the northern Serbian border no longer headed toward the Hungarian border, but pushed west toward Croatia. In the same period, first mass pushbacks from Hungary were observed.

From November 2015, crossing borders has become increasingly difficult. Individual States began to decide from day to day how many people to let through their borders and impose restrictions based on the country of origin of the people-on-the-move (the logic being that only those who have a better chance of obtaining asylum than others are allowed through).

In January 2016, Germany declared that its reception capacities were exhausted and that it would limit the daily influx of new arrivals, causing the so-called “domino effect,” as all countries along the Balkan route limited entry until the corridor ceased to exist.

In March 2016, a period of rapid securitisation spread across the region with the signing on March 18 of the agreement between the European Union and Turkey, the borders of states along the Balkan route are permanently closed and impossible to legally cross. Within several weeks of each other, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia all announced the closure of their frontiers to people in transit. Some 60,000 people on the move were left stranded inside transit countries. This was a glimpse of what would continue to develop: the further outsourcing of migration management and control of the EU’s external borders, new internal measures implemented by different EU member states and agreements with Balkan countries, without sufficient safeguards and often in violation of international and Union human rights law.

Ultimately, this policy of closed borders did not reduce migration flows, nor did it close the route. Instead, people on the move began to seek more dangerous paths towards the EU. Since there remain few, if any, accessible and legal pathways to access international protection, many people are forced to go on ‘game’: an expression used by people on the move to refer to crossing attempts, which often include days of traveling under the cover of night, hiding in lorries, or clinging to freight trains.


2016: Monitoring Systematic Violent Deterrence

The fortification and securitisation of borders across Europe has been matched with an increase in the violent pushbacks of transit groups. In Hungary, pushbacks were legitimised through a law passed in July 2016 which allowed for authorities to return people caught within a 8km-area zone from the border.² At this time, the systematic nature of violent practices at the borders was observed; many transit groups began to report similar stories of mistreatment and abuse. They described being picked up and, despite expressing an intention to claim asylum, being mistreated and driven to the Serbian border. These testimonies were often accompanied by descriptions of violence, including being forced to undress, being chained to the ground naked after being doused in water, being beaten by police batons or makeshift weapons like tree branches, and being bitten by dogs. People described being forced to walk back to the border, sometimes 30km, without having their clothes returned to them. Mobile phones were frequently destroyed, and money taken. These procedures were, and continue to be used indiscriminately towards children.³ “They treat us like animals“ one individual recalled after returning from the Hungarian border.

After the closure of the humanitarian corridor in March 2016, other countries on the route started following Hungarian example, effectively creating the reverse route of chain pushbacks, in most extreme cases people being pushed back from Croatia or Hungary via the Western Balkan countries all the way to Greece.


2017: Extension of the Routes = Extension of Violence (Part I)

With Hungarian migration politics becoming more restrictive, during Spring of 2017, transit groups increasingly opted to travel through Croatia. At the same time, volunteers reported observing an increase in violence against people on the move along the Croatian borders. Through inflicting physical, material, and emotional costs to people on the move, border authorities intended to discourage future transit attempts. The tactics which people on the move described experiencing at the hands of Croatian authorities were reminiscent of those used by Hungarian authorities on its own Serbian border, reinforcing the suspicion that these procedures were part of a systematic European deterrence strategy.

During this time, observations from the field began to indicate a dynamic in which Slovenian authorities cooperated with Croatian authorities to carry out ‘chain pushbacks’. In these instances, Slovenian police hand over apprehended transit groups to Croatian officers who then push them back to Serbia.⁴ In many cases, the Slovenian officers force the individuals to pay fees for entering the country illegally or make them sign papers in languages they do not speak, which violates a number of human rights safeguards, including the Asylum Procedures Directive.


2018: Extension of the Routes = Extension of Violence (Part II)

Towards the end of 2017, the routes again began to shift through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia and then Slovenia. The number of people on the move who have arrived to Bosnia has grown rapidly. The UNHCR counted 2,557 new arrivals in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2018, compared to only 237 people in January 2018.⁶ Throughout 2018, practices of illegal and violent pushbacks were observed along the Bosnian-Croatian border. These actions were again similar to those previously observed along the Serbian-Hungarian and Serbian-Croatian borders. Faced with a lack of safe and legal pathways to claim asylum in Europe, the only way to escape poor living conditions during transit and to exercise the right to seek asylum in Europe became to undertake even more dangerous border-crossing attempts. Violent border defence mechanisms do not deter those seeking protection, they only serve to make people on the move’s journeys more hazardous.

During the 2018, the Western Balkans witnessed unprecedented backlash against human rights defenders who’ve been advocating legal access to asylum system in the EU. Volunteers and NGOs have been threatened, attacked and legally persecuted for the crimes they didn’t commit. In Croatia, BVMN member Are You Syrious? has been directly targeted and even brought to the court by the Ministry of Interior, which requested the ban of their work in Croatia following the strategic litigation case they’ve been supporting.


2019: The Systematic Fortification of Borders Continues

In 2019, the systematic fortification of borders continued across South-Eastern Europe, exacerbating the situation for people on the move. Where borders were not yet physically sealed, they remained heavily controlled by police who use violence as a deterrent. Individuals are subject to attacks, beatings, humiliation, theft and illegal pushbacks; forced to live in precarious squats, without adequate support, in transit zones. They find themselves caught in limbo at EU borders for months on end, often in an endless cycle of ‘games’, where they are repeatedly abused and humiliated by border guards.

Creation of Vučjak, a squalid camp near Bihać city in Bosnia, has come to exemplify the lack of dignity and humanity for people attempting to claim asylum in Europe. Built on a toxic landfill, with no access to basic services or even drinking water, the remote camp was presented as an alternative for the solid-structure camps insite the urban areas.

At the same time, BVMN’s work shows that practices of illegal and violent pushbacks along the route continue unabated. More than 80% of our case reports collected in 2019 contained one or, in most cases, multiple features of violence indicating either torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment during the pushback. Focusing on six patterns of abuse and misconduct by authorities identified from within our data, case reports show a systematic practices of mistreatment ranging from physical force (like violence, abuse and disproportionate force as well as abusive use of Electric Discharge Weapons) to psychological violence, humiliations and threats (such as forced undressing for an extended periods of time or excessive force with firearms) to brutality during detention or transport (such as detention lacking basic facilities).


2020: Expansion of the Pushback Practice

With the onset of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020, pushbacks and violence at the EU’s borders reached a zenith. Several unfolding events have characterised the strengthened position of illegal pushback apparatuses at borders across the Western Balkans, Greece and wider Europe. First, the findings issued in February by the ECHR on the seminal Melilla case (N.D. and N.T. v Spain) showed the court in Strasbourg to be vindicating collective expulsions by EU states. This would continue to have devastating consequences for those seeking protection, and be utilised in later cases (see A.A. and Others v North Macedonia). Second, further licence was then exercised in March with the violence dealt out by Greek authorities to tens of thousands of people who approached the Evros border from Turkey in the hope of safe passage. Since then, systematic pushbacks by masked and armed authorities have been a recurrent feature, across the wider so-called Balkan Route. Third, 2020 also marked an expansion of these pushback practices, with the apprehension of groups from within refugee camps, detention centres and urban areas. Fourthly, whilst previously most chain pushbacks occurred from Slovenia to Bosnia or Serbia through Croatia, in 2020 Italy also initiated informal pushback practices. In fact, some groups of people on the move, having reached the city of Trieste, were apprehended by Italian police and chain pushed back within 24 hours to Bosnia. In July, the Italian Ministry of Interior stated in a letter to the Italian Parliament that the ‘readmissions’ are taking place under a long-standing agreement between Italy and Slovenia and are within the limits of the law. However, in January 2021 the Court of Rome, in an order upholding an urgent appeal filed by an asylum seeker who was pushed back first to Slovenia by Italy, then to Croatia, and then to Bosnia according to an established mechanism of chain pushbacks, declared these pushbacks illegal.

One of the key catalysts in these changes has been the securitised response taken by the EU and regional states towards the COVID-19 pandemic. The movement of armed forces into migration management, pushbacks from reception centres and the development of targeted torture like practices within the pandemic period (such as spray tagging by Croatian police officers) have highlighted the way lockdown measures were used as a period to stage more aggressive rights suspensions against people-on-the-move.

In September 2020, the European Commission presented its plans for the future of migration and asylum management in Europe. Whilst it has been widely acknowledged that an overhaul of the current system is imperative, the New Pact on Asylum and Migration does little to quell concerns from NGOs, civil society groups, and human rights watchdogs. It has been widely criticised as a repackaging of the EU’s failed ‘hotspot’ approach which saw thousands trapped in camps at borders and on islands in geographically disadvantaged states least equipped to deal with influxes, such as Greece and Italy.


2021: Torture peaks, EU courts start condemning pushbacks

Testimonies from pushback survivors across the Western Balkans recall lengthy attacks by multiple police officers, sometimes lasting up to an hour, resulting in severe and long-lasting injuries. These attacks have been carried out indiscriminately, with men, women and children all being subjected to extreme brutality at the hands of police or border authorities. It is now rare for people-on-the-move not to experience some form of excessive force during their detention and expulsion; 5.6% of testimonies collected by BVMN in 2021 do not recall excessive force being used against people-on-the-move.

While Croatian, Hungarian and Greek authorities continue to undermine and dismiss any complains regarding pushbacks and other forms of violence against people on the move, 2021 brought unprecedented victories for survivors of pushbacks in the courts in Slovenia, Italy and Austria, and at the European Court of Human Rights.

In the landmark judgement issued in July 2020 by the Slovenian Administrative Court, it was found that the Republic of Slovenia violated a Cameroonian nationals right to asylum, the prohibition of collective expulsions and the principle of non-refoulement by readmitting him to Croatia, from where he was pushed back to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The verdict was confirmed by the Slovenian Supreme Court in April 2021, and the case was supported by the BVMN member Infokolpa. In the case brought to the court by ASGI, based on a report from the BVMN database, the Court of Rome created a legal precedent and stated that readmission procedure implemented on the Italian Eastern border violates international, European and Italian law. The case concerned the readmission of a Pakistani national to Slovenia, who was then pushed back to Bosnia. In the case supported by Alarmphone Austria, Regional Administrative Court of Styria confirmed the practice of chain puchbacks and found the Austrian police guilty of violating the right to human dignity and the right of documentation.

The verdicts of the national courts forced Slovenian, Austrian and Italian police officers to put a pause to the practice of readmissions that led to chain pushbacks, for the first time reducing the number of people being chain-pushed back via Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In addition to that, the most significant legal development concerning the so-called Balkan Route in 2021. was the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), that found Croatia guilty of illegally expelling a family of Afghan refugees, in the infamous case of a pushback that killed a 6-year old girl Madina Hussiny. The case was supported by the Centre for Peace Studies and Are You Syrious. Border Violence Monitoring Network was also among organisations that submitted a Third Party Intervention to the Court.

The ECtHR verdict will become one of the key factors forcing the Croatian authorities to change their border management practices in 2022, by refusing to accept every announced readmission from Slovenia and reducing the number of pushbacks from that country in general.


2022: The New ‘Action Plan for the Western Balkans’

One of the biggest developments on the route in 2022 is introduction of the expulsion orders that are now issued en masse by the Croatian police, ordering the people on the move to leave the European Economic Area within the seven days, but at the same time granting them a 7-day stay in Croatia – enough to make it to the safety of other EU countries.

At the same time, Serbia recorded a 170% rise in new arrivals, many of them coming into the country legally, thanks to the liberal visa regime with countries such as Cuba, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Burundi, India and Turkey, and then irregularly crossing into the neighbouring EU countries.

Increase of arrivals from Croatia and Serbia triggered a harsh response from the EU, which claimed that Serbia was fuelling an increase in the number of people on the move entering the bloc. Following weeks of diplomatic pressure from Brussels, Serbian authorities halted visa-free travel from Tunisia and Burundi, and announced potential visa restrictions to 18 other countries.

This was not the first time the EU intervened in the migration policies of the Western Balkans. In fact, since the closure of the humanitarian corridor in 2016, the EU Agencies have been at the forefront of migration management in the region. To this end, personnel of European Asylum Support Office (EASO), European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), EU Police Cooperation Agency (Europol), and EU Judicial Cooperation Agency (Eurojust) are deployed on the ground, even in the non-EU countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania. In the late 2022, the European Commission proposed the Western Balkans Action Plan that will further legitimize EU’s interventions in the region. Western involvement, however, is not aiming at creating safe, legal pathways for the people on the move: it is externalising EU’s border management in a way that encourages the Western Balkan countries to do the dirty work of pushbacks, readmissions and deportation for the EU.

Encouraged by the promise of smoother entry into the EU, Western Balkans countries started perpetrating more and more pushbacks in 2022. Especially prominent are the pushbacks from Bosnia to Montenegro and/or Serbia, and pushbacks from Serbia to North Macedonia. Pushbacks from Albania and North Macedonia are also on the rise, with Frontex being present or announcing its presence in most of the aforementioned borders.

The Term Pushback

Pushbacks are the informal cross-border returns of individuals or groups of people from one territory to another, without due process. The term pushback is contrasted with the term “deportation,” which takes place within a legal framework, and the term “readmission,” which is a formal procedure rooted in bilateral and multilateral agreements between states. The expulsion of a group of people, in the absence of legal procedures and without an individual examination of each case, is prohibited under international law.

In the past five years, pushbacks have become a central, though unofficial, pillar of migration management in the EU. The term “pushback” itself is a definition that initially came to the fore to describe the events that occurred along the EU borders of Hungary and Croatia with Serbia in 2016, after the closure of the humanitarian corridor. The practice is now a hallmark of border control from the Greece-Turkey through to the Slovenia-Italy border.