Violent pushbacks – no news from the European external border

This article was originally published in a shortened Version at Photo source: WDR.

In the beginning of October, reports from a European research collective about illegal pushbacks at the EU’s external border went online in European media. Many outlets reported on Croatian intervention police violently preventing fugitives from entering the European Union. The videos published in this course reveal what refugees experience every day when trying to cross the border – arbitrary violence by border guards at the EU’s external borders. The images of the beating police officers quickly spread on social media and caused outrage and incomprehension. The accusations are directed primarily against the Croatian police and the Croatian Ministry of the Interior.

The media response to these images is appropriate and important. However, the timing and the reactions also show the gaps in the reporting. For years, refugees have reported violence at the European border, particularly in the Balkans. Organizations and collectives, such as the Border Violence Monitoring Network, have been working violent pushbacks up since 2016 and make the experiences of People on the Move available to the public. However, reactions from the broader society have been lacking. Border violence is seen as a human rights violation detached from the EU – even though it is co-funded by Brussels. That the focus is now on the Croatian authorities ignores the responsibility of the EU, its decision-makers and the electorate. The suspension of a handful of police officers in response to systematic violence is also obviously failed crisis management.

Everyday life in the European border area

The isolated perception of pushbacks in the center of Europe and the everyday life directly at the borders could hardly be more different. The vast majority of those seeking protection in the Bosnian-Croatian border area have had a double-digit number of attempted border crossings, all of which have ended in illegal returns. Passports, cell phones and clothing are regularly burned or otherwise destroyed as part of the pushbacks. But physical violence is also a bitter daily occurrence at the gates of the EU. People regularly come back to Bosnia with injuries, obviously caused by batons. In a globalized world, these images of daily violence are freely available. Admittedly, the recordings of the research collective are important for the documentation of human rights violations. But they do not report anything new.

In order to hide this reality, decision-makers must actively look the other way. The announced investigations of the Croatian Ministry of Interior will not bring any changes, because Croatian politicians know very well what their police officers are doing. “A little bit of force is needed when doing pushbacks,” said former Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic in a television interview.  Likewise, the EU, which financially supports the Croatian police, is aware of the human rights violations. Pressure on the Croatian Ministry of Interior and EU Commission is important, but it is equally crucial not to be seduced by smoke grenades. However, the announced investigations are exactly that.

Collectively looking away

It is necessary to hold politicians accountable for these abuses. The fact that systematic violence is only discussed more broadly after a report by larger media outlets reveals a society in which the realities of refugees’ lives have no place. The metaphorical wall around Europe also seems to apply to reporting: People outside Europe’s borders are hardly given space in the discourse of majority society, and the credibility of their statements is systematically denied.

Even collectively looking away cannot conceal the fact that border violence at the EU’s external border is a fundamental component of the EU’s policy of closure and migration. The border police of the states at the external border and the border protection agency Frontex are financed by EU funds, European companies contribute their part to the militarization and technologization of the border regime. Airbus, Glock, Heckler & Koch – the list is long.  

Humanitarian intervention as part of the border regime

Even humanitarian aid – carried by the EU and the UN – cannot make up for what member states are committing at the border. But this supposed aid is less humanitarian than an attempt to maintain the image of a Europe of integrity in human rights. Instead of granting refugees access to protection and asylum, they systematically restrict the freedom of movement of those seeking protection.  However, this image misses the fundamental focus of EU-funded organizations and projects for people on the move. In particular, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) places people in camps far from the border, making it virtually impossible to attempt to cross them. In Bosnia, for example, IOM works directly together with the police in forcibly evicting self-organized camps, while its funds police border patrols along the Balkan route: drones, thermal imaging cameras, and special vehicles – funded by the EU through IOM. All this information is freely available and the decision makers behind these policies are often re-elected. We as taxpayers are partly responsible for this border. Shifting the blame to the Croatian Ministry of the Interior ignores our own responsibility and ignores the possibilities of political action.

As long as border violence is seen as an isolated event and not as an inherent part of the EU, such images can create a media echo. We must not limit our dismay to the crimes of the Croatian police: the violence is enabled by our looking away and our tax money. Time to look at ourselves and finally act.

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