[OPINION] Detention centers and pushbacks threaten European democracy

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Türkmen Terzi

UN and international human rights groups have come out in strong condemnation of China’s secret internment camps, in which more than a million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims have faced systematic rape, torture and forced labor since 2017. As many as 22 countries including Canada, France and Germany are calling on China to shut down the hundreds of camps in the Xinjiang region. On the other hand, recent reports indicate that currently the European border agency itself is risking the lives of asylum seekers at the European borders as thousands of migrants face inhumane treatment in Poland, Latvia and Lithuania’s detention centers.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) revealed shocking reports that Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have made the practice of pushbacks de facto legal since an increased number of people from Iraq, Congo, Syria, Cameroon and Afghanistan have tried to cross from Belarus into these three countries over the last year. The report mentioned that “over 4,000 people crossed the border from Belarus into Lithuania, where they experienced pushbacks and violence by border guards on both sides.”

“MSF teams have witnessed the physical and mental health distress caused by detention, People do not have access to a fair asylum process, and there is no specialized support for psychiatric disorders or survivors of torture and sexual violence. Prolonged arbitrary detention for migrants and asylum seekers in Lithuania must end immediately, and all asylum claims should be fairly assessed as quickly as possible,” MSF Lithuania representative Georgina Brown said, urging government officials to cease all unlawful practices against migrants. An MSF report detailed how more than 2,500 asylum seekers and migrants are still detained in inhumane conditions in Lithuania, nine months after they crossed the border from Belarus. Between January and March 2022, MSF’s psychologists treated 98 patients, 60 percent of whom reported anxiety-related complaints.” “I tried several times to kill myself without success,” a detainee who identifies as a member of the LGBTQI+ community told MSF. EU observer cited Hanna Machińska, Poland’s deputy commissioner for human rights, as saying on February 8 that “a 13-year-old girl had wanted to commit suicide and at least 400 children and 290 women are locked up in guarded detention centers at the Belarus- Polish border and that some are denied even basic aid. Media and humanitarian access are limited to non-existent.”

European Union member states have long denied illegal pushbacks; however, Fabrice Leggeri, the head of EU border agency Frontex, resigned on April 29, following a joint investigation report by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SRF Rundschau, Republik, Le Monde, ARD and TV Asahi. The report based on open source video and images, testimonies and internal documents, has revealed that Frontex, the EU’s best-funded agency with a budget of €758 million, was involved in the pushback of at least 957 asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea between March 2020 and September 2021.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Frontex has deployed about 600 European border guards to the Aegean with ships, drones, planes and thermal vision vehicles and has been assisting especially in Greece with the pushback of asylum seekers. The Greek government denies the illegal pushback allegations, but human rights groups and Turkey accuse Greece of carrying out systematic pushbacks in the Aegean Sea. The heartbreaking story of 19 migrants who froze to death on February 2 and were lying in the mud in Ipsala, a Turkish border town often used by people seeking to enter the European Union, dominated international headlines. Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu shared images of at least eight migrants, accusing Greek border officials of turning them back to Turkey after having stripped them of their shoes and clothing. An estimated 700 people protested against the Greek government in front of the Greek parliament over the illegal pushback of migrants and refugees following the incident. Greek Immigration Minister Notis Mitarachi denied Soylu’s allegations of wrongdoing. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to expose Greece’s alleged illegal pushbacks of migrants, while the Turkish defense and foreign ministers harshly criticized Greek authorities over their inhuman practices on land borders and at sea. Dutch MEP and a member of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group Tineke Strik also called for a suspension of Frontex’s operations in Greece following the incident.

“Greek authorities, including through proxies they use, are assaulting, robbing, and stripping Afghan asylum seekers and migrants, including children, before summarily pushing them back to Turkey via the Evros River,” Human Rights Watch reported on April 7.

Middle Eastern, Asian and African migrants fleeing war and poverty often use Turkey, since the country is strategically located among three continents, to reach European countries in the hope of a better life. The European Union pays Turkey billions of euros to keep around 5 million refugees in Turkey. The more worrisome development is that EU leaders agreed to strengthen Frontex by supporting the Warsaw-based agency with more border and coast guard forces until 2027.

EU leaders may have a strategy of using Frontex to push migrants back from Poland to Greece to Spain to maintain the well-being of European Union nations, but illegal pushbacks and detention centers threaten the gains of European civilization in human rights and democracy.

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