‘Help and you are a criminal’: the fight to defend refugee rights at Europe’s borders | Global development

At the workplaces of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group in Budapest, András Léderer and his colleagues have a map on which they observe each asylum seeker – man, lady or youngster – who has been bodily pushed again by police from the Hungarian border and into the forests of Serbia.

The pushbacks are unlawful beneath worldwide regulation. But it’s Léderer and his fellow human rights activists who might face arrest and a jail sentence in the event that they went to the border to witness what is occurring there.

“We aren’t allowed to go to the border,” says Léderer. In 2018 it grew to become unlawful to assist migrants declare asylum and this consists of a ban on visiting the border. “Till the Covid lockdown we went to Serbia to communicate to individuals, to report the tales of violence and humiliation, however we will’t even journey now. Individuals are being overwhelmed, canine are used towards them, their sneakers taken, they’ve chilly water thrown over them. It nonetheless occurs however we will’t see it.”

All throughout Europe – from the Serbian forests to the Aegean Sea – asylum seekers are pushed again from the borders of their hundreds. As the authorities more and more flip their consideration to stopping the work of human rights activists and observers, a lot of it’s occurring with out witnesses.


A yr on from the begin of the world’s largest well being disaster, we now face a human rights pandemic. Covid-19 has uncovered the inequalities and fragilities of well being and political techniques and allowed authoritarian regimes to impose drastic curbs on rights and freedoms, utilizing the virus as a pretext for limiting free speech and stifling dissent.

Rights and Freedom is a new Guardian reporting sequence to examine and expose human rights abuses at this essential time, and elevate the voices of individuals on the frontlines, combating again for themselves and their communities.

“It’s laborious to think about,” says Léderer. “Anybody who’s caught by the authorities or who approaches them to ask for asylum, they are taken in a automobile or a van instantly to the border with Serbia. There isn’t a listening to, no administrative work. The police open a gate in the border fence and they actually push them into open forest, ladies, youngsters, everybody.”

András Léderer at the offices of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in Budapest, Hungary, 25 February 2021.

András Léderer at the workplaces of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. {Photograph}: Zsuzsa Darab/The Guardian

The Geneva conference on refugees states that individuals escaping warfare and persecution can cross borders with out papers if they’ve to. However rights teams are warning that violent and unlawful pushbacks of migrants throughout Europe are rising.

“We are globally in a worse place for individuals searching for asylum than at any time I can bear in mind,” says Steve Valdez-Symonds, migration director at Amnesty Worldwide. “The scenario with pushbacks is considerably worsening, simply look at Greece. However that is partly due to a full failure of solidarity proper throughout Europe.”

With the growing violence towards these making an attempt to declare asylum comes assaults on the human rights defenders, legal professionals, volunteers and NGOs making an attempt to assist them.

Earlier this month the Greek group Mare Liberum issued a report with different NGOs, describing an “unprecedented escalation of human rights violations in the Aegean, each at sea and on land”. The report paperwork more than 9,000 people on the move from March to December who have been violently pushed again to Turkey and disadvantaged of their proper to asylum.

However this monitoring is beneath risk, it says. Final September, 25 police and particular forces boarded its ship to search it and confiscated telephones and computer systems.

Greek authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of pushbacks and have even called them “Turkish propaganda”. The Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, has accused groups rescuing refugees at sea of people-smuggling.

The hostility on the floor has additionally affected these searching for asylum. Final November, a 25-year-old man from Afghanistan was charged by Greek authorities with endangerment of a minor, after his six-year-old son drowned on the crossing from Turkey to Samos.

A dinghy with 15 Afghan refugees, 5 children, 3 women and 7 men, approaches the Greek island of Lesbos on February 28, 2020 next to UK Border Force patrol boat HMC Valiant (background), a cutter patroling in Agean sea under European Union border force Frontex. - The head of the European Union’s border and coast guard agency faces a grilling on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 by EU lawmakers as pressure mounts over allegations that Frontex was involved in illegal pushbacks aimed at preventing migrants or refugees entering Europe through the Greek islands.

The UK Border Power cutter HMC Valiant patrols in the background as a dinghy with 15 Afghan refugees on board approaches Lesbos, Greece, a yr in the past, watched by officers. {Photograph}: Aris Messinis/AFP through Getty

In the event that they make it by way of Greece, households might be pushed again at a number of locations in the Balkans, from Bosnia or Romania again into Serbia. At each level activists monitor rights abuses and present humanitarian assist.

Prof Sue Clayton interviewed activists working with migrants throughout Europe for her e book, The New Internationalists: Activist Volunteers in the European Refugee Disaster.

She informed the Guardian: “I spoke to lots of of grassroots volunteers throughout Europe who’ve stepped in the place nations are failing – first to hold individuals alive, and more and more to monitor state violence towards migrants.

“Now these volunteers supporting them are additionally being more and more criminalised. Governments don’t need this human rights work going down as a result of they need to press forward with their ‘Fortress Europe’ plan.”

Isabella Anderson works for Human Rights Observers in Calais. She says that regardless that legally she is allowed to perform her monitoring work, the police make it tough.

“The evictions go on all through the chilly winter climate, all through the lockdown. We have been fined 30 instances throughout the latest lockdown for breaking ‘confinement’ guidelines whereas we carried out our human rights observations. In January alone we skilled violence from the police 61 instances. I had a policeman driving and revving in direction of me as six others pushed me about. I’ve had a police officer pushing me and saying, ‘I’m the regulation’.

“Each time I am going face to face with police, my coronary heart beats quicker and I feel: I don’t need to do that. We are unarmed, they are armed.”

French police evacuate about 800 migrants after they dismantled their camp near the hospital in Calais, France, last September.

French police evacuate about 800 migrants after they dismantled their camp in Calais, France, final September. {Photograph}: Bernard Barron/AFP/Getty

In Budapest, Léderer says the regulation that bans individuals serving to asylum seekers has a chilling impact. “It hangs there as a sword of Damocles. We work with problem, we offer authorized help, we attempt to litigate towards pushbacks, however we will’t monitor violence at the border now.

“The regulation has a very chilling impact right here. To assist refugees means you threat being a felony so individuals favor not to become involved. The variety of teams offering help has shrunk considerably and state authorities are very reluctant to cooperate with us.”

But regardless of all they are up towards, the activists say their work is difficult the anti-asylum narrative.

Final week the advocate basic of the European courtroom of justice, the EU’s highest courtroom, issued a statement advising that the Hungarian authorities’s crackdown on teams that assist or advise asylum seekers is prohibited beneath European regulation.

In December the European courtroom of justice dominated that Hungary’s coverage of refusing to let individuals declare asylum is a breach of EU law. Since then, in January alone, Léderer has counted 4,903 pushbacks. He sends this proof on to the EU.

Migrants display their mobile phones that they say were destroyed by Hungarian police in Horgoš , Serbia, in January this year.

Migrants show their cellphones that they are saying have been destroyed by Hungarian police in Horgoš , Serbia, in January this yr. {Photograph}: Marko Đurica/Reuters

Frontex, the EU border company, introduced final month that it might now not give you the chance to function in Hungary due to illegal pushbacks.

“Regardless of the legal guidelines that criminalise our work we are nonetheless working and serving to these individuals. And we fought for 5 years to get to the level final month the place Frontex had to go away Hungary due to the proof we gave of unlawful pushbacks, so though we are not widespread right here, we’ve got some optimism,” says Léderer.

The Hungarian authorities responded to the judgment of the advocate basic saying it stood by its insurance policies: “The fee and the advocate basic, sadly, agree that it’s fully acceptable to assist, facilitate and organise unlawful migration. In distinction, the Hungarian felony code classifies these actions as a felony offence. The federal government will proceed to shield the borders of Hungary and Europe and will do its utmost to stop the creation of worldwide migrant corridors.”

In response to latest criticism of police actions, the prefecture of Pas-de-Calais stated that the evictions “put an finish to unlawful occupations … with a twofold goal: to stop the reconstitution of insalubrious camps and to present shelter for the migrant inhabitants”. It added: “The motion of the police throughout these operations responds to strict guidelines of ethics.”

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