How 6 Eastern European nations have hunted down refugees—in policy, and in practice

The European Union prides itself on being a bloc of fairness, justice and equality. But is it ignoring abuses against refugees in Eastern Europe?

It’s not just heads of state who have launched an all-out assault on refugees. Public officials, policemen—and an overwhelming majority of the public have joined in.

Refugees and migrants in Bulgaria have been holed up in unkempt camps like this one in the town of Harmanli. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has slammed Bulgarian authorities for detaining irregular migrants as they enter the country, and jailing them if they attempt to leave.

1. Hungary

“Every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.” —Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister.

Hungary was one of four EU members in September 2015 to reject the bloc’s quota that states how many refugees each country is supposed to take in. All four countries — Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia—part of the Visegrad group, otherwise known as the V4, backed out.

The public adopted a similar stance. Ninety-eight percent of Hungarians rejected the EU’s quota in a referendum that was held in October 2016.

“Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.” — Orban.
Thousands of children are caught up in what is the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since the Second World War. Hundreds of child refugees arrive unaccompanied.
“For us migration is not medicine but a poison. We don’t need it and won’t swallow it.” — Orban.
Hungary was the first EU country to erect a razor-wire fence on its border to keep refugees and migrants out. For refugees and migrants, entry to Hungary means gaining access to the Schengen Area, which would allow them to travel throughout most of Europe without facing checks.

In September 2015, Hungary built a 175-kilometre razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia to keep out refugees and migrants. Those caught within 8 kilometres of the border were sent back to Serbia.

Hungary is on the frontline of EU’s refugee crisis. Border guards are accused of beating refugees and migrants caught sneaking into the country through Serbia and forcing them back out.

Deportees said that they were handcuffed and beaten severely with fists, kicks and batons as they were ejected through small holes in the fence.

“Hungarian police are beating people. They injured many people by spraying [tear gas]. They use a very dangerous sort of spray.” — Wahed Khan, Afghan refugee in Hungary.
Refugees and migrants clashed with police in Hungary’s capital Budapest in late 2015 after they were temporarily prevented from boarding trains to Germany where they hoped to file for asylum.
“Hungary is breaking all the rules for asylum-seekers,”—Lydia Gall, regional researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Hungarian police were also condemned after video footage emerged of them tossing food at refugees at a camp in Roszke.

“It was like animals being fed in a pen, like Guantanamo in Europe.” — Alexander Spritzendorfer, visitor at Hungary’s Roszke refugee camp.

2. Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is another Eastern European country to reject the EU quota. Ninety-four percent of all Czechs believe that refugees and migrants in their country should be deported, an August 2015 poll conducted by Focus found.

Images of Czech security personnel writing numbers on the hands of refugees with permanent markers triggered comparisons to the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe during the Second World War.

Ruth Dureghello, a Jewish community leader in Italy, described Czech authorities numbering refugees and migrants as “an image we cannot bear, which recalls to mind the procedure at the entrance of Nazi extermination camps, when millions of men, women and children were marked with a number, like animals, and they were sent to die.”

Rights groups and activists accused Czech authorities of treating refugees and migrants like criminals.

“It’s just like a jail … there are fences, barbed wire, policemen, security guards. The people there are really desperate.” — Hana Kavanova, volunteer at the Bela-Jezova detention centre.
Women and young children are among the refugees and migrants being held at the Bela-Jezova detention centre northeast of the Czech capital Prague. They are made to pay for their own stay at the camp.

Hana Kavanova, a volunteer at the Bela-Jezova detention centre northeast of Prague, said that the authorities at the camp were holding a woman who had newly delivered a baby by cesarean. “Though she clearly needed medical treatment, they locked her overnight in a gym with other new arrivals: men, women and children,” Kavanova said.

What’s more, refugees at such detention facilities pay €9 per day to stay there, are regularly strip-searched and forced to hand over cash and mobile phones, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has said.

3. Slovakia

Refugees entering Europe are often confronted with an atmosphere of hatred and rejection by far-right groups like this one in Slovakia.

“Since Slovakia is a Christian country, we cannot tolerate an influx of 300,000–400,000 Muslim immigrants who would like to start building mosques all over our land and trying to change the nature, culture and values ​​of the state,” Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said in January 2015. He went further: “Islam has no place in Slovakia.”

Slovakia also rejected the EU quota, saying it was only willing to take in Christian refugees.

“I can tell you we will never — under a quota system — bring one single Muslim to Slovakia.” — Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico.
The refugee crisis has triggered questions over secularism within the EU, as most of the refugees are Muslims. Many leaders such as Slovakian PM Robert Fico (left) have reasserted the need to preserve the bloc’s Christian identity.

The country has also built a fence on its borders with Hungary and Austria to keep refugees and migrants out.

Last year, Slovakian border guards shot and wounded a 26-year-old Syrian woman in the back as she was trying to cross into the country from Hungary.

“It is outrageous that Slovak authorities are shooting at innocent people fleeing war.” — Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch.

4. Bulgaria

A Bulgarian militia in camouflage uniforms lurk the woods and countryside along the Turkish border, lying in wait to deport migrants and refugees captured while crossing the 70-kilometre razor-wire fence into the country. Police-sanctioned militia commander Vladimir Rusev claims around 40,000 volunteers take part in these operations.

Unlike Slovakia, Bulgaria already has a significant Muslim population. Yet Bulgaria’s former prime minister, Boiko Borisov, said — while in office — that Bulgarians are concerned that more Muslims coming from outside would “abruptly change” the country’s demography.

Bulgarian militias round up and deport refugees and migrants entering the country through Turkey. The Bulgarian authorities have been accused of not doing enough to prevent abuses. Right-wing media outlets in Bulgaria hail the volunteers of these militias as heroes.

Refugees and migrants being held in Bulgarian detention centres also reported serious mistreatment at the hands of the authorities.

“They hit me and took my money,” said Alan Murad, a 17-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker. “I ran away from hell at home, trying to find paradise in Europe. Instead, I found another hell.” Other refugees also reported that their phones—and coats were stolen by border police.

Refugees trying to enter Bulgaria are caught and handcuffed by a militia. One militiaman is heard telling them in broken English: “No Bulgaria. Go Turkey, immediately!”

One volunteer worker on the Bulgarian-Serbian border claimed that Bulgarian police were torturing refugees.

“They beat them, they use water torture, they set dogs on them, so they come with a lot of dog bites, they taser them and they beat them, missing teeth, cut faces, they do it every day, it is not just one off.” — Sharon Silvey, volunteer worker on the Bulgarian-Serbian border.
Corrupt officers and officials in Bulgaria are reportedly colluding with people smugglers to extort cash and belongings from refugees and migrants as they cross the country.

Refugees in Bulgaria were forced to pay bribes to corrupt police officers to avoid being arrested.

One group of refugees were taken to a camp where authorities “deprived [them] of food and water for three days and constantly physically and psychologically molested [them].”

Refugees and migrants trying to make the land crossing to Europe via Turkey are immediately confronted by Bulgarian border guards. Many taking the route enter Europe hoping to find safety in a land of freedom and justice, but instead they are welcomed with abuse and robbery.

“They shot in the air, they set dogs on us and one father who tried to defend his daughter from the dogs got beaten by the police,” an Iraqi Yazidi refugee, said. “They took our phones that we were using for GPS and €200 each. They looked everywhere, even our underwear.”

“There was a man with disabilities who couldn’t understand what the police were telling him. But they beat him anyway.” — Ali, Iraqi Yazidi refugee in Bulgaria.
Refugees and migrants in Bulgaria can be found living in squalid conditions, like this camp in Harmanli.

5. and 6. Croatia and Slovenia

Slovenia began building a razor-wire fence along its border with Croatia in late 2015. The country’s prime minister, Miro Cerar, announced that the Balkan route for refugees trekking northwards was closed.

Slovenia has razor-wire fences on its borders with Croatia in the south, and Austria in the north. Refugees and migrants trying to make it to Germany have therefore been trapped in the Alpine country, many of them in no-man’s land zones between the borders.

Many refugees who had already made it to Slovenia got stuck there when Austria also erected its own barrier on its border with the country.

Refugees and migrants stranded on the Serbian-Croatian border were left out in the open with no shelter. Neither country wanted to grant them entrance.

In October 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Slovenia rioted against poor treatment at the hands of the authorities. They complained of a lack of food, water and blankets in the Brezice camp on the border with Croatia.

A number of tents were set on fire out of protest when refugees and migrants stuck in Slovenia were refused passage to Austria and were left in dire conditions.
“I am sorry for Europe … We did not think Europe is like this. No respect for refugees, not treating us with dignity. Why is Europe like this?” — Ari Omar, an Iraqi refugee in Slovenia.
With the onset of winter, refugees making the journey to central Europe on foot were exposed to extreme hunger, thirst and cold.

Croatia, which is not in the Schengen Zone or an area established to ensure free passage throughout most of Europe, also refused transit for refugees and migrants taking the Balkan route northwards.

As a result, some 2,000 refugees and migrants attempting to enter Croatia from Serbia were left stranded without shelter in the no-man’s land between the two countries.

“At the back end you have the Serbian police, and at the front end you have the Croatian police … Police didn’t want it to become another refugee camp so they haven’t allowed tents to go up.” — Ahmed Twaij, a British doctor working on the Croatian-Serbian border.

Bachar Khan, a 24-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who was stuck on the Serbian side of the border, said he was being denied passage to Croatia where his family was waiting for him. “I looked and there is my wife, on the other side, and I was here — I wanted to go with my wife but I couldn’t get through. My wife is pregnant. I don’t know where she is now. I don’t know anything… I lost everything.”

Refugees and migrants were also stuck at the border with Slovenia. “You kill us” and “We are dying here, open (the) gate,” refugees called out after Croatian border guards who let them through to Slovenia refused to take them back when Slovenian border guards refused to let them in.

Hanya Sheik, a 30-year-old woman escaping the war in Syria said she and her children were left outside with no food or water for 12 hours. “My children are cold, my baby is sick,” she said. “I would rather die in Syria with my family than here in this horrible place.”

“Croatian police tried to justify their actions by telling us ‘everybody is doing it — look at Hungary’,” Amnesty International said, condemning the Croatian authorities.

“This attitude is appalling and dangerous. If EU member states race to the bottom in terms of how they deal with the refugee crisis it could spark a domino effect with drastic consequences for thousands of people arriving daily.” — Amnesty International.
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