The Council of Europe (CoE) identified a ‘clear pattern’ of physical abuse and torture in the context of illegal pushbacks of migrants by law enforcement officials, according to the annual report of the CoE anti-torture committee revealed on Thursday (30 March).
The Strasbourg-based CoE is a human rights organisation with 46 member states and is not an EU institution.
The scathing report is the result of observations made during different monitoring visits, which revealed systematic use of both physical and psychological violence against third-country nationals, and operating collective expulsions, ignoring their requests to apply for international protection.
According to international law, any third-country nationals in one of the countries which adopted the Geneva Conventions have the right to apply for asylum. In addition, those who are granted refugee status cannot be returned to the country of origin, according to the principle of ‘non-refoulement’.
The CoE asked European countries “to put an end to unlawful pushback practices and the ill-treatment of foreign nationals deprived of their liberty in the context of forced removals at borders” the press release on the subject states.
The report said such practices mainly mean “foreign nationals being beaten upon their apprehension or at the time of their pushback – punches, slaps, blows with truncheons, other hard objects or non-standard items (such as barrels of automatic weapons, wooden sticks or the branches of trees) – by police or border guards, members of the coast guard, or other law enforcement officials”.
In addition, “it is not uncommon for these officials to remove their identification tags and police insignia and to wear balaclavas in order to hide their identity” while proceeding with such practices, the report explained.
Torture and humiliation
The CoE reported routine physical torture and humiliation practices, such as “firing bullets close to the persons’ bodies while they lay on the ground, pushing them into rivers (sometimes with their hands still tied), removal of their clothes and shoes and forcing them to walk barefoot and/or in their underwear and, in some cases, even fully naked across the border”.
Other common abuse included “the use of unmuzzled dogs to threaten or even chase foreign nationals, seizure and destruction of property, and deprivation of food and water for prolonged periods”.
The committee documented medical evidence from the bodies of the victims, such as “the classic “tram-line” hematomas consistent with truncheon blows” and “typical dog-bite wounds on their limbs”
Other facts have been confirmed by corroborative evidence such as CCTV footage and photographs that show “excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against foreign nationals and their summary removal across border fences”.
One of the common practices listed in the report is “informal detention” of third-country nationals in “inadequate conditions prior to their removal”.
People, including families with children or unaccompanied children, are usually located at “police and border guard stations or places of informal detention […], such as disused police stations, abandoned buildings, garages, containers or tents” the report said.
“Unsafe and appalling conditions” persist during removal practices, where foreign nationals were “crammed into the back of police vans and denied food and water or access to the toilet for prolonged periods of time”.
Pushbacks at sea
A “consistent” number of people were pushed back at sea by coast guard officials, “preventing boats carrying foreign nationals from reaching territorial waters, including excessive use of force and removing the fuel or engine of the boat”
Some of the pushbacks occurred after foreign nationals landed by boat, being re-embarked “on inflatable dinghies by state agents, deliberately towed back out to sea and cast adrift”.
Such well-established illegal practices are rarely prosecuted, the report said.
“Few investigations have been carried out by states into allegations of physical ill-treatment and other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment in the context of pushback operations, and that – when carried out – they often do not comply with the criteria of effectiveness”.
As a consequence, law enforcement officials responsible for such practices are seldom identified or held accountable.
A specific case for Italy
On the same day, the CoE Court in Strasbourg published a verdict which condemns Italy for “inhuman treatment” of four Tunisian migrants arrived in the island of Lampedusa (South of Italy), where they were deprived of freedom, and illegally pushed back.
The facts occurred in 2017, and according to the Court, the conditions of the Lampedusa hotspots were “inadequate” and these four people were first informally detained, without any official law enforcement reasons, and then collectively expulsed with other migrants without considering their individual case of international protection.
Commenting on the CoE report, the European Commission said it would “take note” of it and urged EU government’s to implement an “efficient border management” that “must be rooted in the respect of human dignity and of the principle of non-refoulement”.
“And of course, the Commission expects that now national authorities are investigating any allegations of pushbacks and violence at the borders”, Anitta Hipper, EU Commission spokesperson for migration, told the press.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]