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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Katy Fallon and Lorenzo Tondo

Videos show migrants stripped of clothing in freezing temperatures at Serbian border

Videos appearing to show groups of men stripped of their clothing in near-freezing temperatures and being forced back from Serbia into North Macedonia are evidence of escalating mistreatment of migrants at European borders, according to human rights groups.

Two videos shown to the Guardian by Legis, a North Macedonian NGO, show a line of semi-naked men on a stretch of road near the Serbian-North Macedonian border.

Legis says that the videos were filmed by a local person near the village of Lojane, close to the Serbian border, and handed to them on 10 February. The Guardian has not independently verified the videos.

The NGO claims the incident was the second of two abusive and “degrading” pushbacks over a 24-hour period, when it claims more than 50 people were forced to strip naked or down to their underwear by the Serbian authorities before being forced back into North Macedonia.

Legis says its local staff later managed to talk to the men, who identified themselves as Syrians.

Jasmin Redjepi, president of Legis, said the “disturbing and degrading” pushbacks came shortly after an EU-Serbian border cooperation summit, aimed at strengthening the Serbian border against people-smuggling operations.

“These incidents occur when the EU prepares restrictions for migrants on the route, and in this case just days after an EU-Serbia border cooperation summit. We then see the direct impact and consequences,” Redjepi said.

Although there have been reports of migrants being stripped of their clothing at other European borders, Redjepi says that this is the first time this has been reported on the border between Serbia and North Macedonia.

Rados Djurovic, executive director at Asylum Protection Centre in Serbia said that its staff had seen an increase in accounts of pushbacks from Serbia to North Macedonia since the beginning of the year. “We can say it is now a regular practice,” he said.

Dunja Mijatović, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, said: “Recent reports of alleged pushbacks by Serbian police officers at the border with North Macedonia, characterised by ill- and degrading treatment and robbery of migrants, possibly including those attempting to seek asylum, require prompt and effective investigation by state authorities.”

“These incidents are not only disturbing, but also indicative of a wider, worrying trend among Council of Europe member states,” she said. “These actions appear to violate the European convention on human rights, which prohibits refoulement and collective expulsions, as well as other international standards which require ensuring genuine and effective access to asylum for those who seek it.”

Mijatović said the abuse that appeared to be happening on the North Macedonian border was indicative of mistreatment of vulnerable people on borders across Europe, calling the widespread phenomenon of illegal pushbacks an “urgent pan-European problem”.

“What I have observed and warned about is that migrants have been subjected to treatment that might constitute degrading treatment or torture in several European countries for years, in clear violation of states’ human rights obligations,” she said.

A report by 11.11.11, a Belgian NGO, estimated that more than 346,000 forced pushbacks occurred at Europe’s external borders in 2023.

Redjepi called for “an investigation by the Ombudsman offices of North Macedonia and Serbia, and for human rights monitors to be permitted to observe police operations, ensuring violence and dehumanisation cannot continue in the dark.”

Serbian police did not respond to requests for comment.

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