Landmark ruling wins Afghan refugees rare victory in Serbia pushback case


Serbia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the border control officers unlawfully deported a group of Afghan refugees and violated their rights. The court also ordered Serbian authorities to pay the 17 members of the group 1,000 euros (US$1,180) each in compensation.

The Serbian border police regularly engaged in a pushback or collective expulsion of migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe while passing though the Balkan nation’s borders.

But unlike most such illegal deportations, the officers’ actions in February 2017 resulted in the Afghan refugees winning an unprecedented legal victory in Serbia’s highest court.

“The importance of this verdict is immense for Serbia,” said Belgrade lawyer Nikola Kovacevic, who represented the refugees in the case. It sends a “clear message to state authorities to harmonize their border practices with domestic and international law.”

The ruling last December is a rare official acknowledgment that countries in Europe conduct pushbacks in violation of European Union and international laws which ban forcibly returning people to other countries without looking into their individual circumstances or allowing them to apply for asylum.

On a cold February night four years ago, refugees from Afghanistan thought they were headed to an asylum-seekers’ camp in eastern Serbia. Instead, Serbian police brought them near the country’s border with Bulgaria in the middle of that night.

In below-freezing temperatures and desperately in need of help, they had no choice but to head to Bulgaria — the country they had left just a day earlier.

“I will not forget it as long as I live,” said Hamid Ahmadi, who was 17 at the time and now lives in Germany. “Even after a period of good life and stability, one cannot forget the tough times.”

Although refugees and economic migrants passing through the Balkans regularly give accounts of the practice, authorities routinely deny that their agencies carry out pushbacks, which are difficult to prove and mostly go unpunished.

Turned back and forth at various borders, people fleeing war and poverty spend months, if not years, on the road, exposed to harsh conditions and danger in the hands of people-smugglers and human traffickers. Sometimes, refugees and migrants are sent back over two or three borders it had taken them months to cross.

Human rights groups have called repeatedly for governments to uphold their responsibilities involving refugee rights and accused the European Union of turning a blind eye to the illegal activity taking place at its doorstep.

The United Nations mission in Bosnia called this month for urgent action to halt pushbacks along EU member Croatia’s border with Bosnia after a UN team encountered 50 men with wounds on their bodies who reported authorities pushed them back and took their possessions away when they tried to enter Croatia.

According to the UN refugee agency’s office in Serbia and its partners, 25,180 people were pushed back into Serbia from Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and Romania last year.

Kovacevic, the lawyer in Serbia, said collective expulsions became increasingly common after the EU and Turkey made a 2016 agreement intended to curb migration to Europe.

More than a million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia had streamed to the continent the year before. The agreement called for Turkey to control the flow of people departing its territory in exchange for aid for the large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as other incentives.

“All the borders have introduced the practice of systematic violations of the ban on collective expulsions,” Kovacevic said. “But at least now in Serbia, this was officially confirmed, not by a non-government organization, local or foreign, but the highest authority for protection of human rights.”

Ahmadi, who was granted asylum in Germany five months ago, said he plans to use the damages to help him and his wife start a new life in Europe. He is now taking German language lessons before looking for a job.

“This compensation means a lot to me,” he said. “I will be able to buy a bed and a little something for our flat once we rent it.” (Source: Mainichi Japan)