Amnesty slams Serbia and Macedonia for 'ill treatment' of asylum seekers

By bne IntelliNews July 7, 2015

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Amnesty International warned on July 7 that thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers have been trapped in humiliating conditions and suffer violent abuse by police in Macedonia and Serbia, on their way to the prosperous Western European states, as the European Union’s asylum and migration policy fails to provide them with adequate protection and guidance.

During their dangerous journey across the Balkans, an ever-growing number of refugees are subject to ill-treatment by both authorities and criminal groups, and this mounts the pressures on Serbia and Macedonia to do more to respect human rights, Amnesty International said in a special report based on interviews with more than 100 refugees and migrants in Serbia, Hungary, Greece and Macedonia between July 2014 and March 2015.

The report, however, acknowledges that a much broader rethink of the EU migration and asylum policies is needed in order to improve the attitude towards asylum-seekers along the Balkan route.

“Refugees fleeing war and persecution make this journey across the Balkans in the hope of finding safety in Europe only to find themselves victims of abuse and exploitation and at the mercy of failing asylum systems,” Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, was quoted as saying in the report.

“Serbia and Macedonia have become a sink for the overflow of refugees and migrants that nobody in the EU seems willing to receive.” 

According to the report, the Western Balkans route has turned into “the busiest irregular passage to the EU”, overtaking the more deadly Mediterranean route. This is confirmed by the over 2,500% surge in the number of refugees crossing the Serbia-Hungary border since 2010 (from 2,370 to 60,602).

Typically, the refugees travel from Turkey to Greece by sea and reach first Athens before attempting to cross into Macedonia, then Serbia and Hungary en route to other EU countries. Amnesty says that at the Greece-Macedonia and Macedonia-Serbia border the migrants are often “subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by border police”, while many are forced to pay bribes.

Some of those interviewed by Amnesty International reported they have been “badly beaten” by Serbian and Macedonian police, adding children and pregnant women also suffered ill-treatment.

“Hundreds, including families, pregnant women and unaccompanied children, are detained for prolonged periods at Macedonia’s Reception Centre for Foreigners – known as Gazi Baba - without any legal safeguards or any opportunity to claim asylum,” the report said. “Many are held unlawfully for months in inhuman and degrading conditions so they can act as witnesses for the Macedonian prosecution in criminal proceedings against smugglers.” 

At the same time, even if refugees try to end their road in Serbia or Macedonia, they are discouraged to stick to this choice by tedious asylum application processing, and therefore decide to continue to Hungary. For comparison, Macedonia granted refugee status to only 10 asylum seekers in 2014, while Serbia to just one.

In Hungary, however, the migrants face another wave of human rights violations and abuse, and are often detained in overcrowded and humiliating conditions. Many of them wish to reach other EU states, hoping for a better life, and therefore do not claim asylum in Hungary. Last year, Budapest granted 240 refugee status – a small fraction of the overall applications.

Amnesty’s report urges the EU to revise its asylum and migration approach and focus on improving the asylum systems of the countries along the Balkan route – since the current practice of investing heavily only in border management systems has proved to be a failure. “Placing the primary responsibility for processing asylum applications on the first EU country of entry and limiting safe and legal avenues of entry has put an unsustainable strain on the EU’s outer fringes and neighbouring states,” it underlined.

Hungary’s recent decision to build a 175-km fence along its border with Serbia to stop migrants flowing into the country has been sharply criticised by international human rights organisations, but it also shows the EU’s failure to act united in order to resolve the growing crisis along its borders.

In order to relocate thousands of migrants who have arrived in Italy and Greece after fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, the European Commission tried last month to introduce mandatory quotas for its member states, but these plans were blocked by fierce opposition from Central Europe and the Baltics. As a result, EC officials decided to make the quotas system voluntary, again failing to deliver any sound solution to the refugee crisis, which is rapidly turning into an unbearable political, economic and social burden for the EU’s poorest members.


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