Global Human Rights Defence

The Human Rights Abuses of Refugees Along the Balkan Route

Author: Marta Segone
Human Rights and United Nations Team

Nowadays, we live in “an era of global apartheid” in which borders are what “differentiate people” [1]. The Balkan Route crosses through various countries such as Turkey, Greece, Serbia, and more, and has been one of eight central routes utilized by migrants to access Europe, arriving into Italy, Germany or Austria [2]. The European Union (EU) has, for decades, been enforcing anti-migrant laws to prevent migrants from entering Europe and seeking asylum. In fact, in 2004, the EU created Frontex, the “European Border and Coast Guard Agency”, with the aim of limiting illegal entrances into EU countries [3]. This article will display the human rights abuses of refugees conducted by the EU and Frontex – as well as individual countries’ border police – along the Balkan Route through various analyses. Firstly, it will determine the effect of continuously restrictive laws implemented by the EU through Frontex. Next, it will explain the prison-like features of refugee camps throughout the route. Furthermore, it will highlight the Balkan Route as ‘The Game’ which refugees live through, as well as analyze different forms of violence and discrimination against refugees and migrants generated by the EU, Frontex, and national border-police. Lastly, it will conclude with the overall analysis of the wide-spread dehumanization of migrants inside and outside the Balkan Route. 

Recently, as the migrant crisis began drastically augmenting in mid-2015 as refugees escaped from “political crises and armed conflicts” [4], the EU conducted reforms of Frontex. Respecting the sovereignty of nations, Frontex is allowed to “intervene” within the borders of nations in which the flow of migrants has increased radically, but solely with the country’s approval [5]. Frontex, since its creation, has been enforcing “return operations” on the basis of individuals not having “well-founded fears of being persecuted” [6]. Officially, only those who have “exhausted all legal possibilities to get asylum” get returned to their country of origin [7]. However, in many cases, such as that of Afghan refugees until July of 2021, the EU does not consider their situation to vitally require asylum. Additionally, countries such as Hungary, have constructed border walls, which has led to the alteration of the route and further limited migrants’ ability to safely reach the EU and obtain asylum [8].

The EU is well-aware of the refugee’s need for asylum, but as the number of people in migrant waves are large, it resorts to blocking them at the outskirts of the EU and Schengen borders. On March 18th 2016, the EU turned to the establishment of a declaration, stating that all migrants entering Greece through Turkey must be ‘returned’ to Turkey [9]. The growth of refugees in Turkey and Greece inspired the “hotspot approach”, with which asylum seekers could only continue to the mainland after their “requests for international protection” were approved [10]. As a result, the responses to asylum requests were largely delayed, causing many to be blocked in refugee camps in several countries indefinitely [11]. Moreover, many refugees whose asylum applications were accepted, were “locked up in no-man’s land” between Serbia and Hungary, and kept in “open-air prisons”, some of which were closed in May of 2020 under the claim that the living conditions were inhumane [12].

In addition, the majority of refugee camps are “overcrowded facilities” in which the levels of hygiene are “below minimum humanitarian levels” [13]. In Bosnia for example, the Vuĉjak camp, built on a former trash dump, contained methane in the soil, and was surrounded by minefields, increasing the health risks [14]. Additionally, it lacked nearly all necessary infrastructure, as it had no working restrooms and only one doctor for the entire camp [15]. Furthermore, people were forced to use bottles as restrooms due to the camp and surrounding areas being infested with rats, augmenting risks of illnesses and diseases within the camp [16]. For these reasons, it is now closed due to inhumane conditions [17]. Nonetheless, many existing camps like Vuĉjak are still open. The push-back laws established by the EU and bordering countries which blocked “thousands of people in refugee camps” created, and still creates, open-air prisons [18]. Although many migrants reside in the refugee camp of a country for several months or years – such as in Serbia or Bosnia – they still view the camps as “a place of transit” instead of their “final destination” [19].

The journey which migrants endure along the Balkan Route is dangerous, and arrival is not guaranteed. For this reason, ‘The Game’ is the common term refugees use to explain the extent to which they put their lives at risk in the attempt to enter EU countries through the Balkan Route [20]. The central part of ‘The Game’ occurs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia, where border patrol generates a lack of in all humane aspects, leading to refugees attempting to cross the border numerous times, and “every country [they] cross is like a new level” [21]. It is a life-threatening journey [22]. Additionally, migrants that go through the Balkan Route are almost always faced with discrimination and violence by the police. The Croatian police, for example, take away the migrants’ and refugees’ shoes, bags, and clothing, and send them back into the forest without any belongings [23]. As a result, many migrants suffer from illnesses generated by injuries to their feet, all of which limits their possibility of succeeding in ‘The Game’.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all humans are born equal (article 1), everyone has the right to life (article 2), “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (article 3), and everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution (article 14) [24]. Despite this, the EU actively ensures all of these laws are only substantial for its citizens and for those with all of the necessary documents. Both within the Balkan Route and throughout the EU, migrants and refugees “are not considered refugees, nor are they guaranteed any rights” [25]. In fact, the EU’s responsibility in relation to the human rights violations currently occurring, are indisputable [26]. It leads and conducts “chain rejections, readmissions and collective expulsions”, all of which display the “real objective” of the EU: “to create monsters” and to dehumanize migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers [27]. The EU protects its borders militarily with a “policy of externalization of borders”, as well as “illegal push-backs” [28].

Although large numbers of migrants succeed in crossing the Balkan Route and entering EU countries despite the unhygienic state along the route and of refugee camps, the systematic violence of police, and the illegal pushbacks, the discrimination continues at their arrival. In many cities, such as in Bihać, almost every bar contains signs with the inscription “migrants are not allowed to enter” [29]. These wide-spread forms of discrimination have become common in various societies, namely in Bosnia, and as a result, migrants themselves have been adapting to the suffering, despite the humiliation and dehumanization [30].

Through the implementation of Frontex by the EU, as well as EU and individual countries’ actions, the Balkan Route has become increasingly more dangerous and inhumane for migrants to cross. The establishment of return operations, the hot-spot approach, and of unhygienic refugee camps, all take a part in the furthering of violation of human rights of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. While this assessment focuses on the rights of refugees that cross the Balkan Route, it is also important to consider similar oppressions and violation of human rights of migrants and refugees entering the EU via sea-routes. More specifically, further research and discussion needs to focus on the violation of rights of refugees traveling through the Mediterranean. In relation to both of these situations, the European Union needs to respond to allegations of engaging in discrimination, dehumanization, oppression, and criminalization of migrants and refugees. 

Footnotes

 

[1] Cigognini, et al., ASCS, 2020: 126.

[2] Bukowski, Patryk. “Frontex Activities on the Western Balkan Route During the Migrant Crisis (2015-

…)”, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 104.

[3] Bukowski, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 97-99.

[4] Bukowski, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 102.

[5] Bukowski, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 99.

[6] Bukowski, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 99 & 103.

[7] Kas, et al. “The role of Frontex in return operations: Europe in the lead”, EU Law Enforcement, 2020.

[8] Bukowski, Polish Review of International and European Law 8, 2020: 104.

[9] ASGI, Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione.

[10] Astuti, M., Bove, C., et al. “The Balkan Route: Migrants Without Rights in the Heart of Europe”, ASGI, 

RiVolti ai Balcani, 2020: 13.

[11] Astuti, et al. ASGI, RiVolti ai Balcani, 2021: 13.

[12] Astuti, et al. ASGI, RiVolti ai Balcani, 2021: 14. 

[13] Astuti, et al. ASGI, RiVolti ai Balcani, 2021: 13.

[14] Bertramello, Barbara, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 07:45-08:17.

[15] Bertramello, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 08:45- 09:03.

[16] Bertramello, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 08:45- 09:03

[17] Council of Europe. Commissioner for Human Rights, Coucil of Europe, 2019.

[18] Astuti, et al. ASGI, RiVolti ai Balcani, 2021: 13.

[19] Minca, and Collins. “The Game: Or, ‘the Making of Migration’ Along the Balkan Route.” Political 

Geography 91, 2021: 3.

[20] Minca, and Collins, Political Geography 91, 2021: 1.

[21] Minca, and Collins, Political Geography 91, 2021: 5.

[22] Bertramello, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 03:50-03:53 & 03:59-04:13. 

[23] Bertramello, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 09:56-10:03.

[24] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. United Nations, 1948: 2, 4.

[25] Cigognini, et al., ASCS, 2020: 9. 

[26] Cigognini, et al., ASCS, 2020: 139.

[27] Bertramello, “Rotta Balcanica”, 2019: 05:12-05:16

[28] Cigognini, et al., ASCS, 2020: 139. 

[29] Cigognini, A., et al., ASCS, 2020: 118.

[30] Cigognini, A., et al., ASCS, 2020: 118.

Bibliography

ASGI, “Immigrazione, Rotta Balcanica: La Lunga Marcia Senza Diritti [Immigration, Balkan Route: the long 

march without rights]”, Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione, https://www.asgi.it/notizie/rotta-balcanica-marcia-senza-diritti/ 

Astuti, M., Bove, C., et al. “The Balkan Route: Migrants Without Rights in the Heart of Europe”, ASGI, 

RiVolti ai Balcani, June 2020: 6-42. https://www.asgi.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/The-Balkan-Route-Report-2020-by-_-Rivolti-ai-Balcani_-italian-network.pdf 

Beltramello, Barbara. “Rotta Balcanica”, Vimeo video, 2019. 

Bukowski, Patryk. “Frontex Activities on the Western Balkan Route During the Migrant Crisis (2015-

…).” Polish Review of International and European Law 8, no. 2 (2020): 97–111. https://doi.org/10.21697/priel.2019.8.2.04

Cigognini, A., Piovano, A., Pignata, D., Beltramello, Donazzolo, J., et al., “Umanita’ ininterrotta: Diario di 

Viaggio sulla Rotta Balcanica”, Agenzia Scalabriniana Per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo (ASCS), 2020: 1-144.

Council of Europe. “Bosnia and Herzegovina must immediately close the Vuĉjak camp and take concrete 

measures to improve the treatment of migrants in the country”, Commissioner for Human Rights, Coucil of Europe, 2019. https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/bosnia-and-herzegovina-must-immediately-close-the-vucjak-camp-and-take-concrete-measures-to-improve-the-treatment-of-migrants-in-the-country

Kas, Stefan, and Thijs. “The role of Frontex in return operations: Europe in the lead”, EU Law 

Enforcement, February 2020. https://eulawenforcement.com/?p=7389 

Minca, Claudio, and Collins, Jessica. “The Game: Or, ‘the Making of Migration’ Along the Balkan 

Route.” Political Geography 91, 2021: 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102490

United Nations General Assembly. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. United Nations, 1948: 1-8. 

https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/udhr.pdf 

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