Pushed beyond the limits. Urgent action needed to stop pushbacks at Europe’s borders

“The scale and normalisation of pushbacks at Europe’s borders requires urgent and concerted action by governments and parliamentarians”, said today Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while releasing a Recommendation to member states’ governments and parliamentarians outlining the widespread occurrence of pushbacks and related human rights violations at land and sea borders across Europe.

“This Recommendation comes at a time of a great challenge for human rights protection in Europe”, said the Commissioner. “The war in Ukraine has caused death and destruction and has forced more than 4 million people to leave the country in search for safety elsewhere in Europe. The immediate response of European countries shows that it is possible to put the protection of human dignity and the observance of international obligations at the centre of state action.”

Such a principle should apply also to the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants coming from other parts of the world. Regrettably, in many Council of Europe member states, they have been subjected to pushbacks over several years. As this Recommendation underscores, “pushbacks are at odds with member states’ human rights obligations, because they violate the principle of non-refoulement, undermine the right to asylum, deny key safeguards in return procedure, and often lead to violence, torture and other serious ill-treatment, and sometimes even jeopardise the right to life.” The Recommendation describes how pushing back refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is becoming an official policy in several states, even formalised in domestic legislation in some instances, and warns against attempts to further limit scrutiny.

Four key areas of action that are needed to halt the phenomenon are identified.

Firstly, states must ensure good faith implementation of their human rights obligations, including under the European Convention on Human Rights, and stop avoiding responsibility. “States’ disregard for their obligations is undermining the rule of law and hard-won human rights protections. This endangers everyone, not just refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.”

Secondly, states should enhance transparency and accountability, including by strengthening independent border monitoring mechanisms, which are crucial to preventing pushbacks, bringing violations to light and fighting impunity.

Thirdly, all Council of Europe member states must recognise pushbacks as a serious, pan-European problem, requiring all of them to act, including by speaking out against such violations of human rights and holding their peers to account. “In the face of overwhelming evidence of pushbacks across Europe, all member states, including those not directly carrying out pushbacks, must step up and speak out. Not doing so will amount to silently condoning human rights violations”, warned the Commissioner.

Fourthly, parliamentarians must mobilise and take their responsibility to prevent legislative proposals that allow for pushbacks from passing and to repeal any such legislation that is already in place, call governments to account, and use their mandates to raise human rights violations when they occur.