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Go Back: A Discussion of Pushbacks and Mass Expulsion at Europe's Borders

“The more pushbacks become the rule not an exception, the more people are forced into the hands of smugglers and organized crime groups” - Andras Lederer

States are increasingly becoming hostile towards migrants and immigration, due in part, to a rise in nationalist ideology. This has resulted in most European countries taking a pushback approach in dealing with the migrant crisis in their territories. In light of the rise in migrant push backs, Daniel Eichner of In-Sight Collaborative hosted a panel discussion on Pushbacks, with Franscesco Luigi Gatta, Ulrike Brandl , Rina Sarfraz and Andras Lederer as the panelists.

This particular issue is important to keep in the spotlight as authorities continue to endanger asylum seekers and deny them their human rights. Recent articles from major publications like PBS, The New York Times, and the Associated Press have reported on these incidences, shining a light on the particularly distressing acts of violence and endangerment happening at sea borders where asylum seekers are set afloat by the very authorities who are theoretically supposed to help them.

What is a pushback?

Andras Lederer identified two types of pushbacks; administrative and extra-judicial push backs. Administrative push backs is a process whereby officials fail to record that the person asked for asylum or record that the person did not ask for asylum. On the other hand, extra-judicial pushback happens when a person is not recorded in any official database, this form of push back is usually violent. This violence is particularly geared towards the men.

“During my time in Turkey talking to the refugees, mainly men, and hearing how they were treated crossing into Greece or other Balkan countries versus the families was really interesting. In my experience, I heard families were also beaten or not allowed to enter, but with single men, the case seemed to be that they were not seen as a vulnerable group, so they often have the worst case of the pushbacks.” - Rina Sarfraz

In both cases the end is the expulsion or sending back the person back without investigating the consequences of doing so. There are instances where authorities have sent minors back to Afghanistan regardless of the security and humanitarian crisis there, referred to as "refoulment".

Some of the pushback cases which are well documented have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights, but for a vast majority of these incidents, they go unreported, undocumented, and most importantly, the perpetuators of these violent, illegal acts are never held accountable at any level.

There is a rise in collective expulsion within the European Union; Hungary is leading European countries in collective expulsion, having legalized it in July of 2016 despite contravening the Hungarian constitution. Pushbacks are usually violent, with the rise of hostility towards immigration the violence has become indiscriminate, that is, there have been reports of children and women being violently removed. Pushbacks have resulted in inaccessibility of the system, making it difficult for even a genuine asylum seeker to get protection. Any kind of legal effective asylum procedure is increasingly becoming impossible to access due to pushbacks. Ulrike Brandl concurred with fellow panelists in that authorities have become desperate to conceal human rights abuses that stem from pushbacks with some European countries having criminalized border monitoring for human rights purposes; an offense that attracts up to a year in prison. Pushbacks have led to unwarranted abuse of power by border authorities, with reports of confiscation of electronic gadgets such as phones so that human rights violations at the border are not documented.

There are varying factors that have contributed to the rise in pushbacks, Franscesco Luigi Gatta claims that "migratory pressure that states are facing, partly due to the Syrian conflict, have become one of the contributing factors to push backs”. Rina Sarfaraz identified the rise in nationalism in Europe as a factor for pushbacks, further stating that regardless of pushbacks, people from Afghanistan and Pakistan are still eager to undertake the journey to Europe. Pushbacks have undoubtedly made migratory pathways more difficult and unsafe but people continue to brave these journeys because there is no security in their homelands. Although Article 4 Protocol 4 of the European Court of Human Rights expressly prohibits the use of collective expulsion by states, it has however failed to hinder States from adopting it in dealing with migratory pressures within their territories. Push backs are not only a violation of the ECHR but the United Nations principle of Non Refoulment. States are increasingly breaching international law and in some cases they violate their own domestic laws in their attempt to deal with a perceived immigration crisis.

“The more pushbacks become the rule not an exception, the more people are forced into the hands of smugglers and organized crime groups” - Andras Lederer

The use of collective expulsion or pushbacks have consequently led to the strengthening and encouragement of smuggling and trafficking. Andras Lederer observes that “if you have money you can pay for smuggler, if not you become a victim of human trafficking”.

Pushbacks have led to both a humanitarian and security crisis. Many humanitarian actors, legal experts, and human rights advocates are raising the alarm about the increasing frequency and brutality of this practice as well as incremental changes to policy that, as mentioned, make both documenting and reporting on these incidents impossible. Additionally, the increasing trend of criminalizing humanitarians and human rights defenders has led to indirect censorship of those working on these types of issues.

“Normally what we’ll try and do is try and get a panel with a wide variety of experiences and diversity of backgrounds and something I’ve found with his [topic] is that a lot of people who were originally very interested in participating pulled out fairly close to the day because they were worried. They were worried about appearing and speaking out. That was especially the case amongst people who are very much on the front line, and that really says something both about the nature of pushbacks and the increasing criminalization of humanitarians that we are seeing at the moment.” - Daniel Eichner

This practice must be stopped, and authorities responsible for the practice of pushbacks and the intimidation or outright criminalization of human rights defenders must be held accountable for their actions.

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