Action – Response – Effect… This is our hope for our commitment to the “Border Violence” project.
Since the spring of 2017, we have been trying to document as many cases of human rights violations at the EU’s external borders as possible. Interviews with victims of police violence, photos of the resulting injuries and audio recordings form the basis for 135 reports that we have published on a database since December 2017: www.borderviolence.eu
The response we hoped for: Highest possible press coverage and the attention of the (responsible) of political actors.
The effect we hoped for: An end to the approved practice of protecting the EU’s external border against immigration with the means of human rights violations.
The publication of the database is now ten weeks back, so an opportunity for us to take a look back and see if reaction and effect have occurred as hoped.
The public media
With a widely published press release by the dpa (German Press Agency) we have reached numerous media in Europe and even beyond. 33 reports are known to us, including coverages in many European languages, but also in Taiwanese. Some large media houses conducted their own research which have additionally attracted many readers. As part of their research, Al Jazeera English and BalkanInsight have submitted inquiries to the relevant interior ministries of Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. The subsequent denials cannot be surpassed in brazen ignorance. The Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, for example, writes that it wishes “to draw attention to the fact that the Hungarian police is protecting the borders of the EU and Hungary” ¹. Human rights violations are to be legitimized by referring to the protection of EU borders.
A spokesman of the Croatian police wrote in an e-mail to Al Jazeera that the authorities have “not found unprofessional or unlawful conduct of police officers toward migrants” in the cases they investigate ². According to the Slovenian Ministry of Interior, the Slovenian police has committed themselve to “maintaining high standards of professionalism and legality of their work …”. It goes on to state that “… in particular with regard to the respect for human rights, your allegations were a great surprise and we are not aware of such cases of push-backs and violence by the Slovenian police”.
We still receive inquiries from editors investigating these matters. For example, as part of the coverage of a report published in January on Spiegel Online or an interview of the web radio station detector.fm about our Border Violence Project. We were also in contact with the political magazine MONITOR of ARD during their research.
Political actors (don’t) react
We had to learn a lot about structures and competencies within the European Union. Above all, however, which EU institutions are or are not responsible for our concerns. The responses from German politicians of the Bundestag fractions all fall into the category “not worth mentioning”, if any were issued at all.
There is an EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, whose task specifically is to ensure that the “fundamental rights of the people in the EU are protected“, as can be read on their homepage. It was set up “by the European Union to provide independent EU-based evidence-based fundamental rights consultation” to the EU institutions and Member States ³.
The first answer to our request: The link to the database does not work. After repeated inquiry about the further proceedings of the agency on this matter the answer came: “Thank you. We plan to address this in the next annual report of the Fundamental Rights Agency. MfG, Adriano Silvestri “.
Another attempt to contact the Fundamental Rights Agency provided us with the clues as to which other (!) EU institutions could be responsible for our concerns. Information that we had already discovered through our own research.
The answer from the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament (DROI) is similar. Ms Kammerevert writes: “In the cases you describe, parliamentary competence does not lie with the Subcommittee on Human Rights (…), which deals exclusively with human rights violations in third countries, but with the Committee on Civil Liberties, which fully respects the Charter of Fundamental Rights within the EU (and) ensures compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights (…). “ Since this response did not reach us until mid-February, the reaction of the said Committee on Civil Liberties is still pending.
The German representation of the European Commission states in its reply that it shares our interpretation of the legal situation: “Indeed, EU law requires that fleeing persons may apply for asylum at the external borders of the European Union. Border guards must comply with the requirement of non-refoulement when carrying out border checks. People should not be returned to a third country where they may face torture or other serious human rights violations.”
Mr. von Peter (German EU Commission Representation) emphasized the close exchange of views with his colleagues in the countries concerned (local Commission representations): “Members of the Commission Representations in Zagreb, Ljubljana and Budapest have told me that they are following closely the national authorities and are in regular contact with the responsible entities.“
He also refers to the cooperation with local NGOs in his reply mail. Bewildered and stunned, we were under the impression that our documentation was insufficient to get the European Commission involved:
“The European Commission will follow up any information you provide, provided that it is concrete enough. The articles linked in your e-mail report possible violations of European and international standards, but they are too general to be used in order to legally review the circumstances described. The information you provide is nevertheless valuable because it feeds into our ongoing assessment of the situation on the ground. So I would like to thank you again for your e-mail.“
But it is the EU Commission, which has by far the most possibilities to achieve an impact, for example by the initiation of an infringement procedure.
Al Jazeera’s report also brought the attention of the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and The Responsibility to Protect to our database, who asked for our data to be used in their monitoring work.
In two cases we were contacted by researchers and scientists (Harvard University and the International Relations / Political Science Department, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies from Switzerland). In one case, we were able to arrange a meeting with our local team to help with their research.
This shows us that we are taken seriously as experts in our area of work – an additional motivation to continue working on this project.
The bottom line
A sluggish EU system supports and protects the practice of human rights violations for the protection of the EU’s external borders, thereby fulfilling the European desire to shield itself from migration flows. This is also the – less encouraging – feedback from large human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, who have already had to make the experience of how little European interest is in addressing these abuses.
Despite the medial publicity, and although the competent institutions, such as the ministries of the Interior of the countries concerned and respective EU bodies, are now fully aware of the human rights violations, we know of no effort that has undertaken to change the current situation. In sum, the feedback is a sobering: denial, no response, “no jurisdiction” or “factual inadequate”.
Even if our documentation can not be used as court-proof evidence: Are these concrete references to acute law-breaking by EU Member States enough so that EU institutions perform their duties and investigate these allegations? Is it the job of small NGOs to research these cases?
Or should it not be the task of for example the Commission or the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) to review Member States’ compliance with human rights? (Quotation from the mission statement of the FRA: The FRA achieves its objectives “by collecting and analyzing objective, reliable and comparable data on a variety of fundamental rights issues in the European Union.”.). A well-funded suspicion should be the minimum that our and other reports provide. What remains is a lot of disillusionment and at the same time the realization of how important this tedious work is.
In the coming weeks we will engage ourselves with the complaints procedure of the European Commission. After a legal consultation, we want to bring the first case to an appeal and hope for further reactions on the side of the commission.
At the end of 2017, we also documented two cases in which allegedly German police officers (whose presence on the Hungarian-Serbian border can be explained by a foreign mandate to protect the EU’s external borders) were involved in acts of violence against fleeing people. We will file these cases with Frontex through another appeal procedure. We will not let go, continue to work for the protection of human rights, and demand for political reactions.
¹ BIRN: „The Hungarian Interior Ministry told BIRN that it wished to draw ‚attention to the fact that the Hungarian police protect the borders of the EU and Hungary’“ (http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/police-violence-against-refugees-on-balkan-route-12-08-2017)