Europe accused of illegal treatment of refugees amid COVID fears

European governments have been accused of using violence to turn back refugees and asylum-seekers in actions that have been branded illegal.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has said their actions flout existing international law adding the claim that it was to restrict the spread of COVID was no excuse for the actions being taken.

“UNHCR has received a continuous stream of reports of some European states restricting access to asylum, returning people after they have reached territory or territorial waters, and using violence against them at borders,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs. “The pushbacks are carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way. Boats carrying refugees are being towed back. People are being rounded-up after they land and then pushed back to sea. Many have reported violence and abuse by state forces.”

The organisation added people arriving by land are also being informally detained and forcibly returned to neighbouring countries without any consideration of their international protection needs.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law require states to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection from refoulement, even if they enter irregularly. Authorities cannot automatically deny entry to or return people without undertaking an individual assessment of those in need of protection.

“Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal.” said Ms Triggs. “The right to seek asylum is a fundamental human right. The COVID-19 pandemic provides no exception; it is possible to protect against the pandemic and to ensure access to fair and speedy asylum processes.”

UNHCR said it had made its concerns clear to European states. The refugee agency has called for urgent inquiries into alleged violations and mistreatment based on credible testimonies that are corroborated by non-governmental organisations, media and open-source reporting.

“We advocate for national independent monitoring mechanisms to be set up to ensure access to asylum, to prevent rights violations at borders, and to ensure accountability. Independent monitoring is also proposed by the EU Pact and we urge EU Member States to support this”, said Ms Triggs.

UNCHR added the number of refugee and asylum-seeker arrivals to the EU continue to decrease each year. The numbers of those arriving by sea and land in 2020 (95,000) decreased by 23 per cent when compared with 2019 (123,700 individuals) and by 33 per cent when compared with 2018 (141,500).

“With so few arrivals to Europe, this should be a manageable situation. It is regrettable that the issue of asylum remains politicized and divisive despite such declining numbers,” it added.

UNHCR added it recognised that some states carry a disproportionate responsibility in hosting new arrivals. It called on other European States and the EU to “demonstrate solidarity” by supporting them.

“UNHCR also calls on European countries to uphold their existing commitments to refugee protection by admitting asylum-seekers at their borders, rescuing them at sea and allowing disembarkation and registering and supporting new asylum seekers,” it said.