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(Brussels) – The Macedonian police have verbally and physically abused migrants and asylum seekers at the border and in detention, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Macedonia is a key transit country along the Western Balkans migration route into the European Union, with thousands of asylum seekers and migrants –many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, or Somalia – entering the country every day.

The 59-page report, “‘As Though We Are Not Human Beings’: Police Brutality against Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Macedonia,” documents physical and verbal abuse at the hands of Macedonian officials at the border with Greece, ill-treatment by police guards in the Gazi Baba detention center between June 2014 and July 2015, and the failure of the authorities to investigate or hold those responsible to account. Human Rights Watch also documented arbitrary detention of migrants and asylum seekers in inhuman and degrading conditions in Gazi Baba. 

“It’s plain to see that Macedonia has a problem with police violence against asylum seekers and migrants,” said Emina Ćerimović, Koenig fellow at Human Rights Watch. “That’s not going to change unless the Macedonia authorities start thoroughly investigating allegations of police ill-treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, and holding anyone responsible to account.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 64 asylum seekers and migrants, including 7 children, in various locations in Serbia and Macedonia. Seven of the interviews were conducted by phone. Many of those interviewed, including three children, had experienced abuse at the hands of Macedonian police, particularly at the border with Greece and in Gazi Baba. People described being beaten with police batons, punched, kicked, and verbally abused when police apprehended them. In some cases, migrants and asylum seekers were forced to run a gantlet between rows of police officers, who struck them with police batons on their backs, shoulders, and heads.

Ayesha, a 16-year-old girl from Afghanistan, said that Macedonian police hit her and that she twice saw police beat her father and 17-year-old brother. The first time, in early January, Ayesha said the family had gone to a police station near the border with Greece to ask for asylum. Instead, police took them back to the border and ordered them to leave the country. Ayesha’s father protested.

“A police officer [then] approached my father and hit him with a police baton on his back and his arm. Another police officer hit my brother with a police baton on his shoulders and third police officer hit me with a police baton on my arms,” she said. The second time, also at the border, her father and brother were among a group of men forced to run the gantlet while police hit the men with batons. 

Until July, migrants and asylum seekers were also detained arbitrarily in the Reception Center for Foreigners, a detention facility in Skopje. It is known as Gazi Baba after the municipality where it is located. Macedonian authorities detained people, without any meaningful ability to challenge the detention, to ensure their availability to testify in criminal proceedings against people suspected of migrant smuggling, Human Rights Watch found.

Guards routinely ill-treated the detainees, including physical and verbal abuse, and conditions in the center were inhuman and degrading, Human Rights Watch said. Some of the women detainees experienced gender-based violence by guards.

In July, the Macedonian authorities shut down the center, which has since been refurbished. Macedonia is not currently routinely detaining migrants and asylum seekers, instead allowing them to pass through the country. But, in light of the fast-paced developments related to the flows of asylum seekers and migrants, Human Rights Watch is concerned that if routine detention is resumed, the abuses could also resume, unless Macedonian authorities act to prevent them.

Macedonian authorities told Human Rights Watch that they have initiated disciplinary proceedings against five Gazi Baba police guards and suspended one person. No specific investigation or disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against individual border police.

Authorities in Macedonia have a clear obligation under national and international law to protect migrants and asylum seekers from ill-treatment, to ensure they are not arbitrarily detained in degrading conditions, and to investigate and prosecute ill-treatment by the police. Children and their families should never be detained solely for immigration control reasons. This is particularly crucial as thousands of migrants and asylum seekers enter Macedonia every day, Human Rights Watch said.  

More concrete steps are necessary to prevent and punish police abuses against migrants and asylum seekers. Macedonia, formally the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is a candidate for EU membership. To qualify for EU membership, the country needs to fulfill certain membership criteria, which includes bringing its law and practice on asylum and treatment of migrants into line with EU standards.

“While Macedonia has stopped routinely detaining migrants and asylum seekers in degrading conditions, its asylum and migration practices still fall short of its obligations under national, EU, and international law,” Ćerimović said. “The European Union should press Skopje to tackle its problem of police abuse against migrants and asylum seekers through training and accountability.”

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