Exposed: Abuse of migrants by state officials on Europe’s borders

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Violence, brutality and unlawful treatment by authorities on the Western Balkans route are a frequent occurrence, claim refugees and migrants in a new report today.

People fleeing war, persecution and poverty describe beatings, robbery and inhuman treatment at the hands of police, border guards and other officials. In many cases, people tell of illegal deportations with state officials denying them access to asylum procedures for those seeking international protection. 

The report A Dangerous ‘Game’ is based on 140 interviews with people on the move, with research conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA), and support from Oxfam.  It exposes a disturbing pattern of brutality and abuse by law enforcement officials against migrants, including children, with testimonies from Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. 

Ruth Tanner, Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam South East Europe, said: “People who are often fleeing unimaginable violence in their home countries are shockingly and unjustly thrown back into a reality of brutality here in Europe. The testimonies we have collected expose the horrendous treatment governments, including by European Union member states, are letting happen in order to stop people entering their territory.” 

All 140 people interviewed for the report claimed to have suffered mistreatment by officials. Accounts of abuse include: 

  • Border police in Croatia forcing migrants to strip and walk back over the border to Serbia, while running a gauntlet of officers who beat them with batons. 
  • Hungarian officials forcing migrants to take off their clothes and sit in the snow as they pour cold water over them.
  • Bulgarian police searching a group of migrants and taking all of their valuables, even their shoes, before sending them back over the border. 

Nikolina Milić of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights said: “These cruel and unlawful actions do nothing to stop the journey of people seeking safety and dignity. People tell us they have nothing to lose and will try to continue however dangerous it may be. Violence and intimidation must be replaced with fair and effective access to asylum procedures, and authorities must investigate claims of abuse.”

Many people have experienced problems in accessing asylum procedures in Serbia and Macedonia. People also tell of frequent collective expulsions from Serbia. These so-called push-backs are prohibited by international refugee and human rights law, because, among other reasons, they undermine a person’s right to seek asylum and deny the right to due process before a decision is made on whether they should be expelled or not. 

The report shows that authorities are pushing people from one country to another outside of the legal system without individual cases being heard, legal assistance or interpreters, or any possibility of appeal. 

These accounts reinforce findings from the UN refugee agency UNHCR that people are regularly being informally and arbitrarily expelled from one territory to another across the region. Examples of push-backs and difficulties to access the asylum system include: 

  • In Serbia some migrants, including a two-year-old child, were told that they were being taken to a refugee reception centre, but instead, police abandoned them in a forest on the Bulgarian border in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures. The group survived, but by the time they were found two of them had lost consciousness due to hypothermia. 
  • In a court in Serbia, a group of migrants said they wanted to claim asylum. Police officers who were supposed to take them to a reception centre destroyed the court documents and drove them to the border with Bulgaria instead. 
  • In Hungary, the asylum claim of a 22-year-old Syrian has been refused in a process where he did not have access to a legal representative, proper information about the process or an opportunity to effectively appeal the decision. 

Tanner said: “The brutal illegal actions of law enforcement officials create a climate of fear among refugees and other migrants. This pushes many to rely on smugglers to continue their journey to other places in Europe, which is very dangerous as it leaves already vulnerable people exposed to the criminal underbelly of trafficking and violence.”

Oxfam, BCHR and MYLA call on the governments of Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria to immediately cease violations of people’s rights, and to urgently take action against the perpetrators of crimes against migrants and refugees. 

The three organisations also urge the EU to ensure that international law and human rights are respected. EU governments should make sure all states along the Balkans route adhere to international laws and standards, and they must themselves respect these legal and moral obligations. 


Spokespeople from Oxfam and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights are available in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Brussels.

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact: 
• In UK: Kai Tabacek on / +44 (0)7584 265 077
• In Brussels: Florian Oel on / +32 2 234 11 15 / +32 473 56 22 60 

Download photos and broadcast quality interviews and b roll of migrants in Serbia:

Notes to the editor: 

  • Download a copy of the full report here:
  • The testimonies in this report were collected from 30 January to 17 February 2017 in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The vast majority of the interviewees came from Afghanistan, the others from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. The names in the report, and in this release, have been changed to protect the identity of the people we have spoken to. 
  • Of the 140 people spoken to, 75 had been expelled from Hungary to Serbia, 19 from Croatia to Serbia, 44 from Serbia to either Bulgaria or Macedonia, one from Macedonia to Greece and seven from Bulgaria to Turkey. Several people have reported multiple push-backs from different countries. 
  • Earlier evidence of unlawful push-backs and ill treatment at the hands of security forces in Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was released by Oxfam and partners in Closed Borders, a report from November 2016. 
  • A recent UNHCR report showed the harmful impact of border restrictions on people, with many relying on smugglers and facing deadly risks. The UNHCR also spoke of tens of thousands of reported push-backs by border authorities in Europe, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia, amidst alleged violence and abuses. 
  • Read more about Oxfam’s work with refugees and other migrants in Europe and across the globe.

For updates, please follow @oxfamgbpress