Exposed: Abuse of migrants by state officials on Europe’s borders

Exposed: Abuse of migrants by state officials on Europe’s borders

April 6th, 2017


Refugees and migrants using the Western Balkan route to reach Europe claim that violence, brutality and unlawful treatment by authorities are a frequent occurrence.

In a new report published by NGOs today, people fleeing war, persecution and poverty describe beatings, robbery and inhumane treatment at the hands of police, border guards and other officials. In many cases, people describe illegal deportations with state agents denying access to asylum procedures for those seeking international protection.

The report A Dangerous ‘Game’ is based on 140 interviews with people on the move and exposes a disturbing pattern of brutality and abuse by law enforcement officials against migrants, including children. With the support of Oxfam, the research was conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA). It includes testimonies of incidents in Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

One of the interviewees, Isaaq from Afghanistan, describes his treatment in Bulgaria: “They put us in a cage and didn’t give us food for three days. They beat us so badly. They even gave us electric shocks.”

The ‘game’ is how migrants in search of safety and dignity cynically refer to their attempts to cross borders without interception and ill-treatment by government agents. All 140 people interviewed for the report claim to have suffered mistreatment by officials. Accounts of abuses include:

●      Border police in Croatia forcing migrants to strip and walk back over the border to Serbia, while running a gauntlet of officers who beat them back with batons.

●      Hungarian officials forcing migrants to take off their clothes and sit in snow as they poured cold water over them.

●      Bulgarian police searching a group of migrants and taking all of their valuables, even their shoes, before sending them back over the border.

Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland’s Chief Executive, said: “The testimonies we have collected expose the horrendous treatment governments, including those of European Union member states, are condoning in order to stop people entering their territory. These people are fleeing unimaginable situations in their home countries – violence, persecution, disaster and poverty – and for them to be met with brutality and worse here in Europe is shocking and unjust.”

Nikolina Milić of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights said: “These cruel and unlawful actions do nothing to stop the journey of people seeking safety and dignity. People tell us they have nothing to lose and will try to continue however dangerous it may be. Violence and intimidation must be replaced with fair and effective access to asylum procedures, and authorities must investigate claims of abuse.”

Many people have experienced obstacles in accessing asylum procedures in Serbia and Macedonia. People also describe frequent collective expulsions from Serbia. These so-called pushbacks are prohibited by international refugee and human rights law, because, among other reasons, they undermine a person’s right to seek asylum.

The report shows that authorities are pushing people from one country to another outside of the legal system without individual cases being heard, without legal assistance or interpreters being provided, and without any possibility of appeal. This is illegal and unethical.

These accounts reinforce UNHCR findings that people are regularly being informally and arbitrarily expelled from one territory to another across the region. For example, in Serbia a group of migrants, including a two-year old child, were told that they were being taken to a refugee reception centre. Instead, police brought them to a forest on the Bulgarian border in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures and left them there. The group survived, but by the time they were found two of them had lost consciousness due to hypothermia.

Mr Clarken continued: “The inhumane and illegal actions of law enforcement officials is fuelling fear in refugees and migrants, forcing many of them to rely on smugglers to continue their journey, a dangerous risk which exposes them to exploitation and abuse. This reinforces the need for EU leaders to provide safe and legal pathways to Europe. The Irish Government must also play its part by honouring its relocation commitments under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, which have been unforgivably delayed. We should expand our Humanitarian Admissions Programme and allow those fleeing conflict and persecution from countries outside Syria to apply for humanitarian visas. Many people Oxfam assists are trying to reach their families, and are entitled to the sanctity and protection provided to the family by law. Ireland must defend these people by increasing options for family reunification.”

“This unlawful behaviour has been reported on before but the European Union has done very little to stop it. On the contrary, EU Council President Donald Tusk has been praising the migration “management” of the same governments exposed in this report. The European Union must ensure that international law and human rights are respected and that all states along the Balkans route uphold these laws and standards.”

Oxfam, BCHR and MYLA call on the governments of Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria to immediately cease violations of people’s rights and to urgently take action against the perpetrators of crimes against migrants and refugees, and for the EU to act immediately to prevent further abuse of migrants on their territory and guarantee the right to due process before the law.


CONTACT: Alice Dawson on +353 (0) 83 198 1869 or at


Notes to editors:

●      Spokespeople from Oxfam and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights are available in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Brussels.

●      Images and videos in broadcast quality are available for use here:

●      To read the full report, click here.

●      The testimonies in this report were collected from 30 January to 17 February 2017 in Serbia and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The vast majority of the interviewees came from Afghanistan, the others from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. The names in the report, and in this release, have been changed to protect the identity of the people we have spoken to.

●      Of the 140 people spoken to 75 had been expelled from Hungary to Serbia, 19 from Croatia to Serbia, and 44 from Serbia to either Bulgaria or Macedonia, one from Macedonia to Greece, and seven from Bulgaria to Turkey. Several people have reported multiple pushbacks from different countries.

●      Earlier evidence of unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment at the hands of security forces in Serbia and Macedonia was released by Oxfam and partners in ‘Closed Borders’, a report from November 2016.

●      A recent UNHCR report showed the harmful impact of border restrictions on people, with many relying on smugglers and facing often deadly risks. The UNHCR also spoke of tens of thousands of reported push-backs by border authorities in Europe, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia, amidst alleged violence and abuses.

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