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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

Refugees subject to widespread physical ill-treatment, Council of Europe finds

A pro-refugee rally in Athens
A pro-refugee rally in Athens, Greece, this month. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

European countries are increasingly resorting to illegal pushbacks of refugees and asylum seekers “with minimal accountability”, a report from the continent’s leading human rights body, the Council of Europe, has found.

The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) said it had identified “clear patterns of physical ill-treatment” against people trying to cross borders all over Europe.

Refugees and asylum seekers were punched, slapped, beaten with truncheons, weapons, sticks or branches, by police or border guards who often removed their ID tags or badges, the committee said in its annual report. People on the move were subject to pushbacks, expulsion from European states, either by land or sea, without having asylum claims heard.

Victims were also subject to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, such as having bullets fired close to their bodies while they lay on the ground, being pushed into rivers, sometimes with hands tied, or being forced to walk barefoot or even naked across a border.

“One of the committee’s real concerns about pushbacks is often they are associated with a real risk of ill treatment,” said Alan Mitchell, the president of the CPT.

The Council of Europe’s 46 member countries have signed the European convention on human rights, which prohibits torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

“Pushbacks without regard to the individual circumstances of the migrants run a risk that persons who have a valid claim for international protection are being pushed back without being assessed,” Mitchell said.

The report does not name any states, but Mitchell said they had investigated “many hundreds” of cases of pushbacks in recent years on all migratory routes into Europe. The committee has recently visited Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, Malta and Italy to assess migration policies. Last November it conducted a rare “rapid reaction” visit to the Manston detention centre in Kent after it emerged thousands of people were being detained for weeks in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

The committee’s findings contrast sharply with the official position of many European governments that no illegal pushbacks take place.

As well as interviews with hundreds of people reporting pushbacks, the committee sought to corroborate personal testimony by examining custody records, logbooks and CCTV footage. It also carried out medical exams on injured asylum seekers, finding “classic ‘tram line’ haematoma” – pools of clotted blood inside the body – consistent with truncheon blows, as well as typical dog-bite wounds.

“The reports of the CPT are based on facts found during our visits,” Mitchell said. He said there were a number of occasions when the committee had interviewed people that had been pushed back without any effective investigation into what had happened. “An effective investigation process is in itself a procedural safeguard,” he said.

The report concluded there was an “increasing resort to pushbacks in recent years with minimal accountability by state actors”.

The committee is calling on states to ensure independent monitoring of borders – an idea floated by the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, in 2020 that has never been realised.

It criticised EU plans to loosen asylum laws when states face large numbers of people arriving, triggered by a government seeking to destabilise its neighbour – a response to Belarus’s efforts in 2021 to bring people from the Middle East and send them to Poland and Baltic states. The committee argues the proposals would “greatly increase the potential for informal pushback practices” and pose “a concrete risk” that states would violate the principle of non-refoulement ie returning a person to a place where they would be in danger.

The report comes as governments across Europe seek to tighten border controls. The EU has recently pledged to fund more cameras, drones and watchtowers at its external frontiers. The British government was criticised by another senior official at the Council of Europe this week for plans to detain and expel people arriving in the UK on small boats and in the back of lorries without hearing asylum claims.

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