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EU pushback of refugees killed over 2,000 during pandemic, report reveals

Hundreds of migrants from different countries are gathered on Bosnia and Herzegovina's border with Croatia, awaiting an opportunity to continue on to the EU country, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 24, 2018 [Samir Yordamoviç/Anadolu Agency]
Hundreds of migrants from different countries are gathered on Bosnia and Herzegovina's border with Croatia, awaiting an opportunity to continue on to the EU country, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 24, 2018 [Samir Yordamoviç/Anadolu Agency]

European Union (EU) member states' pushback of asylum seekers and refugees seeking to enter Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the death of over 2,000, according to a report by the British newspaper the Guardian.

The report, based on joint investigations with European newspapers and data sourced from various organisations, revealed that some EU states have been using a series of coordinated tactics to push back tens of thousands of asylum seekers, and were reportedly supported by the EU's border agency Frontex.

The tactics, which include the outsourcing of private vessels, the beating and abuse of captured refugees, and the abandonment of refugees at sea, all resulted in the overall deaths of around 2,000 asylum seekers.

States such as Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain reportedly used the pandemic to accelerate hard-line agendas against the arrival of asylum seekers.

Croatia is one key country that used physical force against asylum seekers, with the report citing the paper's documentation of torture, whippings, theft and sexual assault against them at the hands of Croatian police. It also cited statistics by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) showing that Croatia had pushed back almost 18,000 asylum seekers since the pandemic started.

Another prominent EU member state held responsible for the deaths is Greece, which was reported by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) to have pushed back around 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores since January last year. The Guardian referenced BVMN's own report on the issue, bringing up Greek authorities' "disproportionate and excessive use of force" towards the refugees.

The report stated that "Extremely cruel examples of police violence documented in 2020 included prolonged excessive beatings (often on naked bodies), water immersion, the physical abuse of women and children, the use of metal rods to inflict injury." It also cited testimonies which detailed how the guards tied asylum seekers' hands to the bars of cells and put helmets on their heads before beating them in order to avoid bruising.

READ: EU states should not shirk their responsibility to uphold human rights

Other numerous human rights violations Greek border guards and police committed against refugees attempting to enter Europe include the pushing back and shooting at refugee boats, detaining and torturing them at secret black sites, and stripping them naked and stealing from them before sending them back across the border. It was also discovered in August that Greece had secretly expelled 1,000 refugees and abandoned them at sea to fend for themselves.

According to the hotline service for distressed migrants at sea, Alarm Phone: ''We have documented so many shipwrecks that were never officially accounted for, and so we know that the real death toll is much higher. In many of the cases, European coastguards have refused to respond – they rather chose to let people drown or to intercept them back to the place they had risked their lives to escape from." It insisted: "These deaths are on Europe.''

Another strategy used was that of enlisting private vessels to push back the refugees, which Malta in particular is reported to have used and was evidenced by leaked voice messages last May.

The pushback of asylum seekers by EU states also includes cooperation with non-EU states such as Libya, which was reportedly responsible for the drowning of 130 migrants lost at sea last month, after both Italy and Libya allegedly ignored a mayday call from the migrant boat. Following that incident, the Guardian revealed in a joint investigation with Italy's Rai News and the newspaper Domani a deliberate lack of response to the call by two Libyan coastguard commanders and an Italian coastguard officer.

Speaking to the paper, leading Italian human rights and immigration expert Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo stated: ''In this context, deaths at sea since the beginning of the pandemic are directly or indirectly linked to the EU approach aimed at closing all doors to Europe and the increasing externalisation of migration control to countries such as Libya.''

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