Towards a non-violent European refugee response

 

The past few months have seen the continued arrivals of refugees and displaced people in Europe, most of whom have fled war and conflict, persecution or different forms of protracted emergencies such as pervasive poverty. Once they reach Europe, these individuals often face continuous human rights infringements, seemingly due to the combination of insufficient resource allocation towards the European refugee response, combined with the often unforgiving implementation of policies designed to regulate movement into and across Europe. Incidents of violence that are reportedly perpetrated by border guards and police officers are at times compounded with abuse from civilian citizens, which further intensifies a climate of instability surrounding European border zones.

 

Violence as the default position?

Refugees and displaced people continue to report experiences of violence at the hands of both the police and border guards, taking place at various stages of their journey in Europe. Through extensive independent field research carried out across the European continent, Refugee Rights Europe has documented a number of alarming reports of police violence. These accounts include incidents involving physical violence, verbal abuse and the excessive use of tear gas or pepper spray, as well as claims of arbitrary detention, including that of unaccompanied minors. Although many such claims by made displaced people have been impossible to verify through official channels because they mostly go unreported, their accounts appear to be corroborated by official reports published by Human Rights Watch and the Bar Human Rights Committee, as well as the international media and testimonies from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It appears therefore that the current default position of European border policies is highly problematic; it is an approach that seems to be characterised by violence and heavy-handedness, and fails to address the situation in a constructive, humane and sustainable manner.

Physical violence in border-zones

In different European border-zones, such as the town of Ventimiglia at the French-Italian border and the region of northern France around Calais and Dunkirk, refugees and displaced people have reported violent incidents involving the police, some of which have resulted in broken limbs and even hospitalisation. An 18-year-old respondent from Sudan recounted violence experienced from French police at the French-Italian border: “My right shoulder was broken and my neck was injured by French police at the border. […] In Ventimiglia my nose was broken by Italian police at the train station. I was sent back many times to Taranto, I don’t feel safe in Italy at all.” Another 24-year-old Sudanese man spoke of police officers throwing stones at him to knock him over and chasing him whilst attempting to cross the border to France in the mountains. This had caused him to fall, resulting in facial injuries. He was then put in jail without access to food and water before being taken by bus to the southern Italian city of Taranto. In Calais, France, a 16-year-old Eritrean boy told the research team about an incident that he had witnessed: “This didn’t happen to me, but I witnessed an Eritrean kid get beaten up with a police baton. He was injured on his head. I didn’t think he would survive, to be honest, the kid didn’t look physically strong.”

Unprovoked and disproportionate use of violence

Whilst the majority of reported police violence in border zones appears to take place during attempted border crossings, there are also incidents that are described as having occurred with no apparent provocation. Speaking of his experience with tear gas by the river in Ventimiglia, one 18-year-old from Sudan explained: “It was really bad. They came to me directly and they sprayed me with the gas on my face. I was really in a very bad situation by the river side of Ventimiglia.”

Meanwhile, in Calais, the vast majority of people interviewed by Refugee Rights Europe during October 2017 said that they had been woken up by the police whilst sleeping, and forced to leave their sleeping place without any viable alternative. Almost all of them described the incident as ‘violent’, with around half reporting that they felt ‘scared’ when this happened. A 25-year-old Sudanese man explained: “At night while sleeping we get woken up with tear gas and get kicked to move away.” Another male respondent, also from Sudan, stated: “While walking on the main road, we sometimes get sprayed by police driving by in their car.” A 17-year-old Sudanese boy in Calais reported on a separate occasion: “At night, while I was walking quietly, the police sprayed me with gas and beat me.”

 

Similar, unprovoked police violence has also been reported in Paris, where a 16-year-old boy from Guinea recalled: “They found me under the La Chapelle bridge, there the police found us lying down and they started spraying tear gas. Then I asked the police to ask where I can sleep, they took my papers and they didn’t give them back, they said they had lost them”. This type of incident was corroborated by another boy who explained separately: “The police often come in the night, open the tent when I am sleeping and spray tear gas in my tent and face. I wake up and feel like I am suffocating, it is a feeling of panic”.

 

Detention, arrests and push-backs

In Calais, more than two-thirds of respondents interviewed by Refugee Rights Europe during 2017 had been arrested or detained during their time in France. The same figure also applied to the minors who were interviewed. According to respondents, people in Calais are typically detained for variable periods of time ranging from a few hours to 45 days. A number of people explained that they had been physically abused in the detention centre in Calais, with very limited access to water and food. One 22-year-old man from Afghanistan recounted: “The police arrested me and took me to the deport centre. They have taken me four times and I was kept there for several days with little food and only one bottle of water.” Multiple respondents reported in separate interviews that they had been held in a cell without a toilet. They had no option but to relieve themselves on the floor next to their sleeping spot and felt humiliated.

 

In Brussels, Belgium, many people told individual stories of their peers having been suddenly arrested and detained for no apparent reason. One Sudanese minor said that his brother had been missing for four months following a police raid in the park where they were sleeping, and he had been unable to make contact ever since, because he had no idea where his brother was being held or what name he would have given to the authorities. Several respondents reported that the Belgian authorities were giving people injections during their time in custody, which would put them to sleep. Some said that this had affected their health and mood afterwards. In Ventimiglia, some interviewees similarly reported that they had been forced to swallow a pill which had made them sleepy.

At the French-Italian borders, many minors told Refugee Rights Europe of having been forced back onto the train to Italy by the French border police. NGOs have been campaigning widely against these illegal push-backs, because minors arriving on French soil should then become the concern of the French authorities.

Unconventional forms of violence

In Calais and Dunkirk in northern France, it is widely known that the authorities continuously uproot settlements and destroy tents and sleeping bags as tactics to prevent people from settling there. In October 2017, one 23-year-old Eritrean man explained: “While I was sleeping, they came over and sprayed me on my face, they hit me with their baton on my knees which left me numb. They took my shoes and told me to leave.” A 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan described a typical night in Calais: “They [the police] spray tear gas in my face, they take my blanket and sometimes my shoes. Then they beat us with sticks and we run away.” A large number of respondents gave similar reports of having had their shoes confiscated, which meant that they had to run away barefoot in the wet and cold conditions.

 

Some people interviewed during April 2017 in Calais said that the police at times use tasers that give an electric shock. One 16-year-old respondent from Eritrea reported that he had been tasered when the police found him in the port area attempting to reach the UK. Another boy explained that he was about to be crushed by some wooden panels whilst hiding inside a truck, and therefore had to come out voluntarily. When he emerged, the police gave him an electric shock. A 16-year-old boy from Eritrea recalled: “They gave me an electric shock. It happened in Calais port because they were searching the area.”

 

A number of respondents reported the use of police dogs. Whilst these dogs would usually wear a muzzle, some people said that they had been bitten. Several Afghan respondents showed the injuries allegedly sustained from dog bites, including one incident when it was claimed that a police dog had bitten the respondent near his crotch, damaging his trousers. Meanwhile, a 27-year-old Sudanese man recounted: “The police once released a dog. I was very scared. Then they broke two people’s phones.”

 

Meanwhile in Brussels, a number of Eritrean respondents told researchers on separate occasions that police officers had forced them to take off their clothes in a cold, underground basement, where they had subsequently been left for several hours. One 17-year-old Eritrean girl recalled being arrested and handcuffed in an underground room.

Citizen violence and abuse

The police violence being reported by people in displacement across Europe is often compounded by violence perpetrated by non-police, civilian citizens. This tends to take the form of verbal abuse, such as racial slurs and other forms of abusive language. One 29-year-old Eritrean woman in Calais explained: “On the road they always make monkey chants whenever they pass me by.” An Eritrean man, also aged 29, reported separately: “They shout monkey noises at me and give me the middle finger.” In Ventimiglia, several respondents interviewed by Refugee Rights Europe reported separately that they had been attacked by citizens throwing buckets of water on them from their balconies; or of being denied access to drinking water in the city centre.

 

Citizen abuse towards refugees and displaced people may also take the form of physical violence and what has been referred to as intentional road accidents, that purposefully target this group when they are walking next to main roads. Alarmingly, one 17-year-old boy from Ethiopia explained during a research study in Calais: “While I was in town, I was threatened with a knife.” A 15-year-old boy, also from Ethiopia, said that he had similarly been threatened with a knife when he walked past someone’s home, whilst a 19-year-old Eritrean respondent explained that there was a group of French citizens circulating in the Calais area who were using a lug wrench (a heavy-duty tool) to intimidate refugees in the area. Another Eritrean minor reported that he had been abducted by a gang of “racists”, who had taken him in a van and driven for about an hour, then beat him and left him there so that he had to find his own way back to Calais. A 12-year-old Afghan boy added: “They don’t react to us like we are human beings. People come on motorcycles to where we are sleeping and shout bad things.”

 

Towards a non-violent European response

The current European refugee response, characterised by high levels of violence, appears untenable and counter-productive. In the interest of ensuring a sustainable and humane refugee response grounded in human rights, European governments, through their Interior Ministries, must provide unequivocal instructions to police forces not to resort to the disproportionate use of force or the excessive use of tear gas and pepper spray against displaced people. This is of particular importance when people are posing no threat, e.g. whilst asleep, or in other, similar circumstances. In addition, governments, through the relevant agencies, must provide training for border control officials and police forces to ensure awareness of, and compliance with, international human rights obligations. In particular, child safeguarding training must be provided for border officials and the detention of children must end under all circumstances.

Furthermore, police officers deployed to address unrest amongst refugee communities must be accompanied by social workers and interpreters, and should endeavour to de-escalate situations by adopting a more humane approach. Authorities need to work with local NGOs and grassroots groups, to find a more tenable approach and to prevent the escalation of further violence.

To ensure accountability for disproportionate violence, states must put in place monitoring processes to ensure that allegations of police violence and abuse can be independently investigated, and appropriate enforcement action can be taken through a transparent process. Moreover, local and national law enforcement officials must ensure that impunity for citizen violence committed against displaced people is reversed as a matter of urgency, to create a climate in which people in displacement are able to report any verbal abuse or physical violence that is perpetrated against them by civilians.

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About Marta Welander

Marta Welander

Marta Welander is the Executive Director of Refugee Rights Europe. Prior to founding Refugee Rights Europe, Marta worked as Deputy Director of a small international human rights and peacebuilding organisation. Before that, she facilitated collaboration between member NGOs of a vast global partnership, and was a founding member of a women’s rights coalition in the Middle East & North Africa. She has previously served a number of non-governmental organisations including the Refugee Council UK, Front Line Defenders, and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. Marta holds an MA in Human Rights & Democratic Governance and an MA in International Relations. She is currently a doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and International relations at University of Westminster.

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