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. 



[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.


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

march without rights]”, Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione, 

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. 

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.

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.

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

Enforcement, February 2020. 

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

Route.” Political Geography 91, 2021: 1-11.

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

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.