Macedonian police special forces block migrants on Greece's border with Macedonia from entering Macedonia, near the village of Idomeni in Greece, August 22, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters/Alexandros Avramidis

(Berlin) – Macedonian authorities should ensure an immediate end to the police violence against migrants at the country’s southern border with Greece, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should investigate the use of stun grenades, teargas, and rubber bullets on August 21, 2015, the day after the Macedonia government declared a state of emergency and sealed its border. Those found responsible for unlawful use of force, including those with chain-of-command responsibility, should be held accountable.

“These are very serious allegations of excessive force by the Macedonian police firing at people seeking protection,” said Emina Ćerimović, research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Macedonian authorities should be protecting migrants, including children and those among them who may be fleeing war and persecution, not giving the police a green light to fire at them.”

Based on reports from local organizations in Greece and Macedonia and the international organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders, MSF), and media reports, Macedonian police fired rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades at more than 3,000 migrants attempting to enter Macedonia from Greece on August 21. Video and photos from the site capture crowds running and ducking for cover as police fired teargas and stun grenades. One photo shows a man bleeding.

These are very serious allegations of excessive force by the Macedonian police firing at people seeking protection

Emina Ćerimović

Research fellow

MSF told Human Rights Watch its staff had treated 10 people with wounds from stun grenades and rubber bullets fired by Macedonian border police. According to MSF, at least one person needed treatment after a beating by Macedonian law enforcement.

Macedonia declared its state of emergency at both its southern and northern borders and sealed its southern border with Greece. A barbed wire fence has been rolled out across the southern frontier, and the Macedonian Interior Ministry said army forces will be deployed to prevent people from entering. 

Ivo Kotevski, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told Human Rights Watch that police were authorized to protect the border and themselves “when attacked” but did not comment on whether there had been any form of “attack.”

Kotevski said that police had been deployed to control the border with Greece and that the army will join with a view to preventing migrants from entering from Greece. He said that it was necessary to restrict the number of migrants who could enter because of Macedonia’s limited resources and that the government wanted “to ensure a more humane and appropriate treatment to illegal [sic] migrants according to our capacities to provide them with transportation and medical care.” He said that another objective was to protect Macedonian citizens living in the border area.

Macedonia should seek international cooperation and assistance in meeting its obligations in light of the increase in migrants entering Macedonia, not shut people in need of protection out, Human Rights Watch said.

Macedonian authorities said early on August 21 that it had allowed 181 migrants, most of them families with children, to enter the country.

A Macedonian nongovernmental group Legis, which is distributing food to migrants at the border, said that by the end of the day, according to its numbers, a total of 400 migrants had been allowed to enter Macedonia.

Legis also reported that more than 100 people who entered Macedonia in the early hours of August 21 were apprehended by the police, put in trucks, and taken back to Greece.

According to a BBC report, Macedonian security forces forced one migrant back by beating him with truncheons and riot shields. BBC footage shows crowds of people, including families with young children, trying to get through the police blockade.

According to local organizations, there are more than 4,000 people trapped by the police at the border crossing on the Greek side. MSF told Human Rights Watch that some of them are particularly vulnerable, such as pregnant women and children under five years old, without any shelter, food, or access to hygiene facilities.

In a forthcoming report, scheduled to be released on September 22, Human Rights Watch documents abuse of migrants and asylum seekers at the hands of Macedonian law enforcement at the border with Greece. Human Rights Watch sought information from the government about any disciplinary or other measures taken by the authorities to curb abuses, but has not been able to learn of any such measures being taken.

Macedonia has clear obligations under national and international law to undertake effective measures to prevent ill-treatment and use of unjustified and excessive force by police, and to investigate and prosecute offenders.

“Macedonia’s right to secure its border doesn’t trump its obligations to asylum seekers or give it a right to ignore migrants’ basic rights and wash their hands of all responsibility,” Ćerimović said. “The government needs to take action against excessive use of force against migrants and instead ensure they have access to shelter, food, healthcare, and special care and assistance for children and other vulnerable groups.”