World Refugee Day 2021: 20 years later, pushbacks everywhere

On 20 June 2001, the United Nations celebrated the first World Refugee Day to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention. Twenty years later, instead of enjoying better protection and respect, refugees’ and asylum seekers’ rights and the main principles of refugee law as enshrined in the 1951 Convention are increasingly violated across the whole Euro-Mediterranean region, from East to West, from North to South.

Worse even, the space available for refugees to claim asylum is now shrinking and many are being pushed back[1], in clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement. These unlawful practices, particularly during the ongoing pandemic, lead to enormous suffering, violence and deaths.

Pushbacks in the West and Central Mediterranean

At the Morocco-Spanish borders of Ceuta and Melilla, pushbacks are longstanding and include so-called hot pushbacks, whereby people are arrested and returned to Morocco without any identification nor access to a lawyer or interpreter. In mid-May 2021, most of the around 10,000 people who crossed the border between Morocco and Ceuta were sent back to Morocco, including unaccompanied children.

In the Central Mediterranean Sea, the return of migrants in distress at sea to Libya by the “Libyan Coast Guards (LCG)” is considered a pushback by proxy as Italy is providing training and funds to the LCG to intercept and return migrants to Libya, where they are subject to arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse. Similar pushbacks by proxy are also carried out from Maltese search and rescue zones. In just one day, on 12 June 2021, around 1,000 people were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, out of the over 12,000 people who have been returned since January 2021.

Pushbacks in the Eastern Mediterranean

In the Eastern Mediterranean, the situation is not different, with numerous reports documenting violent pushbacks from Greece to Turkey in the Aegean Sea and at the Evros River land border, often with the involvement of the European Border and Coast guard Agency, Frontex. Between May 2019 and November 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) documented almost 50 incidents of illegal and violent pushbacks at the Greek-Turkish border where Syrians, including children and families, were involved. In 2020 alone, the NGO Mare Liberum counted 321 pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, with some 9,798 people returned to Turkey.

These pushbacks increase the high risk of chain refoulement to Syria, where the situation is far from being normalised. The UN, researchers and civil society organisations have all documented how Syrians can be arrested, detained, tortured, killed and/or forcefully conscripted into the army upon return to Syria. Pushbacks have recently been reported from Cyprus to Lebanon and to Turkey (at least 500 people since March 2020 in different instances) with a high risk of chain refoulement to Syria. For example, on 1 and 3 June 2021, the Lebanese authorities deported to Syria at least six people, including a minor, who had previously been pushed back by Cyprus on 16 May 2021.

Pushbacks to third countries

The Balkan route is notorious for widespread chain pushbacks, i.e. where the person risks being repetitively pushed back, notably from Italy to Slovenia, from Slovenia to Croatia, from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia. Pushbacks by Croatia involve an unprecedented level of violence, including beating, sexual abuse, robbery and humiliation.

Violent pushbacks and deportations are also multiplying outside the European area: pushbacks from Algeria to Niger have been increasing since October 2020, with 4,370 people deported from January to April 2021 in total.

Pushbacks at EU’s internal borders

Pushbacks are also taking place at the EU’s internal borders and within the Schengen area: from Italy to Slovenia; from France to Italy, through the Alpine border and the Ventimiglia-Menton border, and from France to Spain. The civil society project Progetto20K documented around 10 to 60 pushbacks per day in April and May 2021 at the French-Italian border in Ventimiglia. At the French-Spanish border, in just five months, between November 2020 and March 2021, France returned almost 16,000 migrants to Spain (nearly 3,000 a month).

Civil society organisations, including EuroMed Rights, together with UN Institutions and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, are urging EU Member States and countries across the region to immediately stop these unlawful practices, respect the principle of non-refoulement and abide by their obligations under international law.

Let’s not wait another twenty years for the situation to get even worse.

[1] Pushbacks can be described as various measures taken by States which result in migrants, asylum seekers and refugees being summarily forced back to the country from where they attempted to cross, or denied of any individual assessment on their protection needs. See UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants’ definition.