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I was not prepared to document torture and severe abuses when I started researching the human rights situation for migrants in Europe. After all, I was working on Western Europe, the developed world with a rule of law, independent judiciaries, functioning social services, and oversight bodies. Yet, speaking with hundreds of adult and child migrants across Europe over the past several years, I heard credible, detailed and consistently corroborated accounts of serious abuses:

  • Greek coast guards punctured rubber boats carrying adults and children before pushing them back toward Turkey. Some migrants never made it to shore.
  • Ukrainian officials tortured migrants and asylum seekers with electric shocks after Hungary and Slovakia deported them, often after denying them an opportunity to lodge asylum claims.
  • The French airport border police tried to deport a 5-year-old Comorian boy alone to Yemen, a country he had passed through, not knowing where his parents were or why he had arrived by himself.
  • Various ships passed by and ignored a damaged, leaking, overcrowded rubber boat drifting for days in the Mediterranean. After finally being rescued by a Turkish freighter, the 140 sick and exhausted African migrants had to wait another four days to disembark as Italy and Malta debated which was responsible for taking them.

These abuses do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are the consequence of European governments' boundless efforts to deter, stem, or divert the flow of migrants and asylum seekers trying to enter Europe.  

The European Union applies carrots to encourage neighboring countries to stop the flow of migrants seeking to enter the Union. It has dangled prospects for easing visa restrictions on those countries' nationals and various financial and development initiatives, many of them aimed at enhancing migration control capacity.

In that spirit, the European Commission has concluded a readmission agreement with Ukraine, recently finalized the language of another withTurkey, and was on the verge of concluding one with Libya before unrest there derailed it.  Whatever the intention, the reality is that Europe's approach is at odds with the binding obligation in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to guarantee the right to seek asylum.  

European governments have also tightened the screws in their own countries.  Many detain migrants and asylum seekers, including children in some cases, for a year or more, even though these migrants have committed no crime. And governments actively seek to legitimize deporting unaccompanied Afghan children by building "reception centers" in war-torn Kabul that provide virtually no long-term prospects. Political parties across the spectrum view such policies as vote-winners, but largely ignore the fact they come at enormous human cost.  

If  European leaders are as concerned as they say they are about the fate of the brave people who have been facing repressive leaders in North African countries, as well as the people trying to escape the fighting,  then they need to fix their migration policies.

The EU and its member states individually should stop concluding readmission or cooperation agreements with countries that fail to protect refugees or treat migrants in inhuman and degrading ways.  

They should stop providing funds to abusive governments to boost their enforcement powers and detention capacities. Such money only risks fueling human rights abuses. Instead, any assistance from the EU should be conditional on a country's adherence to human rights standards when dealing with migrants. It should help establish fair asylum systems, protection systems for vulnerable groups, and humane alternatives to detention.

If the EU is serious about setting an example for its neighbors on the need to respect human rights and provide protection for refugees, it needs to take a hard look at its own record. That will require a willingness by the European Commission, as guarantor of the Charter and the Common European Asylum System, to hold EU member states to account when they fail to live up to those standards.  

Last but not least, the EU should revisit its internal rules and come up with a real burden-sharing mechanism. It should reform the Dublin II regulation, which undergirds its asylum system. The regulation says that the first country an asylum seeker enters is responsible for that person, and is based on the false assumption that all EU states offer comparable standards of protection. As Greece's broken asylum system shows all too clearly, these rules put an unfair burden on countries at the EU's external border.

Europe's legitimate interest in securing its borders should not come at the expense of asylum seekers' and migrants' rights. Unless it assures each migrant or asylum seeker full respect for his or her rights and dignity, it will fail to live up to the values it claims to stand for and send a disturbing signal to its North African neighbors.  

Simone Troller is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

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