A new European investigative journalism report alleges that migrants are being "abitrarily detained and tortured at secret facilities along EU borders before being illegally forced back across [those] borders."
Migrants are being arbitrarily detained and tortured and then forced back across Europe’s borders -- these are allegations contained in a new report from the Dutch investigative journalism network Lighthouse Reports.
The network has collaborated with several big European media houses and broadcasters, including France’s Le Monde newspaper, Germany’s new’s magazine Der Spiegel, German state broadcaster ARD, Swiss Radio and Television SRF, Sky News, and Radio Free Europe, and published their report on December 8.
European governments have repeatedly denied allegations of forcing migrants back across their borders, yet a series of exposés from Lighthouse and their partners purport to show that illegal pushbacks at Europe’s borders have and are "continuing regardless" to take place.
'Hundreds of witnesses'
"The full extent of the human cost and the damage to the rule of law that this campaign inflicts is still being uncovered," states a press release from Lighthouse Reports. However, they claim to have already gathered "hundreds of witnesses [who] have testified to the existence of 'black sites' --clandestine detention centers – where refugees and migrants are denied the right to seek asylum and held prior to being forced back."
The allegations center around the actions of security forces in Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia. Here, Lighthouse Reports says that authorities there are "using secret facilities to systematically detain people seeking refuge before illegally deporting them, in what has been denounced as a clear violation of international law."
The report depicts a photo where migrants appear to be held in a kind of "derelict cage-like structure in Bulgaria, sometimes for days at a time." Other migrants are allegedly held for "hours in overcrowded and dangerously hot vans in Croatia, and still others "held in containers and at an isolated petrol station in Hungary."
'Excluded from independent scrutiny or public access'
Lighthouse states that "because [these sites] operate outside of formal detention or reception systems, they are excluded from independent scrutiny or public access."
Although the existence of such sites has "long been rumoured" according to Lighthouse, it is only in the last 11 months that the group has gathered enough footage and testimonies from people who claim to have been held in them, to go public.
According to Lighthouse, the sites are not just isolated one-offs, but "part of a system – some of which is funded by the EU and operated in plain sight of officers from Frontex, the EU border agency."
The alleged shooting of a Syrian refugee at the Bulgarian border earlier this week, says Lighthouse, about which the EU has called an investigation, "wasn’t an isolated incident. Today we place it in a wider system at EU borders reliant on black sites, cages and torture."
In Bulgaria, the report found, migrants crossing from Turkey in the hope of journeying along the Balkan route can be placed in a "cage-like structure next to a border police station in Sredets, a town 40 kilometers from the Turkish border."
Some, claim the journalists, have been held there for as long as three days. Lighthouse says some of its journalists visited that site five separate days in the space of six weeks and "each time we observed and recorded that people were detained."
Some of those who say they were detained claimed they had been denied food and water. Another man said that his shoes had been confiscated by the police. On three separate occasions say the investigators, they found Frontex cars "parked within a few meters of the cage."
They also discovered that there were ten Frontex officers based in Sredets as part of an "Operation Terra, the agency’s largest land operation."
In Hungary, states the report, migrants have been held overnight in shipping containers, also in some cases with no food and water. Some have alleged they were sprayed with pepper spray, before being driven in prison buses back across the border with Serbia.
'Detained in a container'
In Serbia, the humanitarian medical organization Doctors without Borders (MSF) told the investigators that they had "documented numerous reports of people being detained in the container." Lighthouse also says it has drone footage and photographs of Hungarian civilian police officers carrying batons, forcing people to sit for hours on the ground before pushing them back to Serbia.
In Croatia migrants are often crowded into the back of police vans and "left to bake in the sun before being pushed back to Bosnia," states the report. In one video people can reportedly be seen dripping with sweat before being pushed back to Bosnia.
One Afghan woman claims she was in a van with 20 other people, including children, that should instead hold eight. A Croatian border policeman who has worked in the region told the investigators that this treatment "could be happening" but "only in the event of vans getting flat tyres."
Although the EU has frequently expressed concern over the allegations of illegal treatment of people crossing borders to claim asylum, "this has not stopped it from providing money to the border authorities responsible," according to Lighthouse. "Bulgaria has received €320 million in recent years, Croatia €163 million and Hungary €144 million."
Lighthouse investigators say they followed the EU money trail and claim they can "link EU funding directly to the secret detention and pushbacks we have documented." According to them, the Bulgarian border force renovated the police station at Sredets with €170,000 of EU funds in 2017.
Also in 2017, Hungary allegedly acquired two border police prison buses, which Lighthouse claims are "used to facilitate pushbacks." Roads near the Croatian-Bosnian border, which have been "apparently designed especially to facilitate pushbacks, were also financed by European taxpayers."
Of the migrants who claim to have been held at these sites, many said they felt "traumatized" by their experiences and felt "their rights had been breached." However, they said they would still try to cross again, claiming that the "brutal treatment does not constitute a deterrence."
Liz Bates, the lead doctor at Freedom from Torture told Lighthouse that this kind of detention was illegal and operates outside any official and legal framework. Bates added that "it’s being done to punish, deter and intimidate and therfore it meets the widely recognised UN definition of torture."
If you want to hear some tales of what it is like to cross some of these Balkan borders, you can listen to the InfoMigrants' podcast Tales from the Border 🎧 Subscribe to Tales from the Border, and listen to previous episodes here.