INVESTIGATIONS BORDERS

Europe’s Black Sites

How refugees are being arbitrarily detained and tortured at secret facilities along EU borders before being illegally forced back across borders

Despite government denials and technical arguments, the campaign of illegal pushbacks at Europe’s borders has been repeatedly shown by Lighthouse Reports and other investigative journalists to be real. And yet it continues regardless.

The full extent of the human cost and the damage to the rule of law that this campaign inflicts is still being uncovered. Hundreds of witnesses have testified to the existence of “black sites” – clandestine detention centres – where refugees and migrants are denied the right to seek asylum and held prior to being forced back.

Lighthouse Reports and partners can reveal that security forces along EU borders – specifically in Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia – are using secret facilities to systematically detain people seeking refuge before illegally deporting them, in what has been denounced as a clear violation of international law.

We have obtained visual evidence that refugees have been held in a derelict, cage-like structure in Bulgaria, sometimes for days at a time, held for hours in overcrowded and dangerously hot vans in Croatia, and held in containers and at an isolated petrol station in Hungary.

Because they operate outside of formal detention or reception systems, they are excluded from independent scrutiny or public access.

The existence of these sites has long been rumoured, there was no visual evidence or location data until now. During the last 11 months, we have gathered footage and collected testimonies from people who have been held in them.

Our investigation demonstrates that these are not isolated sites, rather they are part of a system – some of which is funded by the EU and operated in plain sight of officers from Frontex, the EU border agency.

METHODS

In Bulgaria, we documented how asylum seekers who cross from Turkey are routinely locked in a small, cage-like structure next to a border police station in Sredets, a town around 40 kilometres from the Turkish border. They are held there for anything from several hours to up to three days. The structure resembles a disused dog kennel, with bars on one side. It has been described by asylum seekers as a “cage”. We visited the site on five separate days in the space of six weeks. Each time, we observed and recorded that people were detained.

We gathered witness testimony from asylum seekers who had been held in the cage, who said they were denied food or water. One man can be heard in GoPro footage we captured saying his shoes had been confiscated by the police.

During our visits to the site, we photographed Frontex branded cars parked within a few metres of the cage on three occasions. We obtained internal documents showing there are ten Frontex officers based in Sredets as part of Operation Terra, the agency’s largest land operation.

In Hungary, we have gathered testimony indicating that refugees have been held overnight in shipping containers with no food or water, and sometimes attacked with pepper spray, before they are driven in prison buses and pushed back across the border to Serbia. We heard evidence from a medical charity (MSF) in Serbia that has documented numerous reports of people being detained in the container. We captured footage of a group being taken to a container by masked officers with batons.

Also in Hungary, we captured photographs of asylum seekers being caught and escorted to a petrol station by civilian police officers holding batons, then forced to sit on the ground for hours, before being passed onto the official police and pushed back. We captured drone footage of routine illegal pushbacks from Hungary to Serbia.

In Croatia, we found that people have been crowded into the back of police vans and left to bake in the sun before being pushed back to Bosnia. Video footage shows them crushed inside police vans with many other asylum seekers. In one video people are dripping with sweat from the heat. One Afghan woman told us she was held with more than 20 people, including small children, in a vehicle with capacity for eight.

One Croatian border police officer who is active in the border region admitted that detaining people in stand-still vans in the heat could be happening, though according to him this would only occur in the event of vans getting flat tyres.

STORYLINES

The EU has expressed concern over illegal treatment of people crossing borders to claim asylum, but this has not stopped it from providing money to the border authorities responsible: Bulgaria has received €320m in recent years, Croatia €163m and Hungary €144m.

By following the money trails we can link EU funding directly to the secret detention and pushbacks we have documented. The Bulgarian border forces used approximately €170,000 in EU funds to renovate Sredets police station, where the cage-like shed is located, in 2017. Two Hungarian border police prison buses, used to facilitate pushbacks, were acquired in 2017 with €1.8m from EU funds. The roads on which the Croatian vans drive the refugees to the border, apparently designed especially to facilitate pushbacks, were also financed by European taxpayers.

On December 9, 2022 the EU Council was due to vote on accepting Croatia and Bulgaria into the Schengen area. The Commission has made clear its support for this to happen, lauding the two countries in a recent report for having “effective structures in place to guarantee access to international protection respecting the principle of non-refoulement”.

The men and women we spoke to who have been held at black sites appeared to be traumatised by their experiences and felt that their rights had been breached. Most said they still planned to attempt to cross again, or had already succeeded in doing so, indicating that the brutal treatment does not constitute a deterrence.

Experts told us the secret detention sites this reporting exposes are clearly illegal because they operate outside any official and legal framework and that the treatment of detainees amounts to torture. “It’s being done to punish, deter and intimidate and therefore it meets the widely recognised UN definition of torture,” said Liz Bates, lead doctor at Freedom from Torture.


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