Asylum under attack at Europe's borders, says UN refugee agency

The number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe has been steadily declining. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - The United Nations voiced alarm on Thursday (Jan 28) at increasingly frequent pushbacks and expulsions of refugees at Europe's borders, warning that the very idea of asylum itself was under attack on the continent.

The UN refugee agency called on countries to create independent monitoring mechanisms to ensure the right to seek asylum and to investigate violations.

Ms Gillian Triggs, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the agency had "received a continuous stream of reports of some European states restricting access to asylum, returning people after they have reached territory or territorial waters, and using violence against them at borders".

She said: "The pushbacks are carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way.

"Boats carrying refugees are being towed back. People are being rounded up after they land and then pushed back to sea. Many have reported violence and abuse by state forces."

The UNHCR also warned that people arriving by land were also being informally detained and forcibly returned to neighbouring countries "without any consideration of their international protection needs".

The 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and European Union law requires states to protect people's right to seek asylum and protection, even if they enter a country illegally, the agency pointed out.

International law also protects against so-called refoulement - returning asylum seekers to places where they risk persecution and torture, it said.

"Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it's a legal and moral obligation," Ms Triggs stressed.

"While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights," she added. "Pushbacks are simply illegal."

UNHCR said it had made its concerns clear to European countries and had called for "urgent inquiries into alleged violations and mistreatment".

The agency pointed out that the number of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe has been steadily declining.

In 2020, some 95,000 arrived by sea and land, down 23 per cent from 2019, and down 33 per cent from 2018.

"With so few arrivals to Europe, this should be a manageable situation," the UNHCR said. "It is regrettable that the issue of asylum remains politicised and divisive despite such declining numbers."

The agency said it realised that some European countries were carrying a "disproportionate responsibility" in taking in new arrivals and called on other countries on the continent to do their share and demonstrate solidarity.

It also urged European countries to uphold commitments to refugee protection, meaning they should admit asylum seekers at their borders, rescue those stranded at sea and allow them to promptly disembark.

UNHCR has repeatedly lambasted countries which close their doors to desperate refugees, in particular European nations that have left migrants stranded at sea for long periods of time and supported repatriation to chaos-wracked Libya.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.