Fortress Europa

Karolina Augustova
Saturday, Mar 18, 2023

Since 2015, when deepening crises across Asia and Africa coupled with the war in Syria resulted in a significant increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, stopping so-called “irregular migration” has been a priority for the European Union.

As more and more people fleeing bloody conflicts, totalitarian regimes, climate change-related catastrophes and extreme poverty started showing up at Europe’s gates, EU member states began to fortify their borders. Electric fences, watchtowers, dog patrol units, helicopters and surveillance drones mushroomed across European frontiers, and the budget of the EU border agency, Frontex, ballooned to more than $800m (754 million euros), making it the best-funded among all EU agencies.

The EU also moved to export its border control strategies and technologies to countries in its neighbourhood, from the western Balkans and Turkey to North Africa and the Sahel. The resulting regional border architecture, designed specifically to keep refugees out of the EU, left almost no safe and legal paths to asylum in member countries, compelling many to embark on dangerous journeys to try and enter Europe without authorisation in the hopes of applying for asylum once they reach their desired final destination.

As a researcher and activist, I spent years tracing refugee journeys and documenting the treatment of asylum seekers at the hands of European border security officials. The worst incidents I documented took place in the borders between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Many who tried to migrate through these states told me that they have been abused by border security officers and showed me marks of torture, ranging from electric burns to still-bleeding cuts and bruises, on their bodies.

“When the Croatian police caught us as we were trying to enter the country from Bosnia-Herzegovina, they put us all into a very dirty van,” Mazin*, a young journalist from Pakistan, told me. “It was hot and there was not enough oxygen, so many people were vomiting.”

He recounted how the police officers beat him and other asylum seekers before illegally pushing them back into Bosnia without processing them. “They drove us to the Bosnian border, made a line in front of the van, and told us to get out one by one,” Mazin said. “As we passed through, police officers in the line all beat us hard with their batons.”

Many other asylum seekers told me that their experiences with security personnel at those borders had been similar to that of Mazin – experiences marked by cruelty, sexual violence and torture. Thousands of similar testimonies have also been recorded and published by rights groups and international organisations.

But while documenting the violence directed at people migrating across European borders, I also encountered rare stories of humanity and kindness: stories about individual border officers refusing to be violent and resisting illegal “pushbacks”; stories about officers defying their supervisors’ commands in order to help asylum seekers; stories about officers taking personal risks to blow the whistle on their organisation’s illegal practices.

Excerpted: ‘At Europe’s hostile borders, the smallest acts of kindness matter’.