The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has today called on European governments to protect foreign nationals deprived of their liberty under immigration legislation from any ill-treatment and to put an end to pushbacks at land or sea borders, particularly at the borders of the European Union.
In its annual report for 2022, the CPT recalls that since 2009 it has received numerous allegations of ill-treatment of foreign nationals by police and border guards and has visited immigration centers close to borders with appalling conditions. The committee has also met increasing numbers of people who claimed to have been subject to “pushbacks” – violent removal by force, without consideration for their personal circumstances, during interceptions at sea, in transit zones at border crossings, at police and border guard stations, or following apprehension near land borders.
“Many European countries face very complex migration challenges at their borders, but this does not mean they can ignore their human rights obligations. Pushbacks are illegal, unacceptable and must end. Governments must have effective safeguards to protect people who are detained under immigration laws and put in place mechanisms to prevent any kind of ill-treatment at borders,” said CPT President Alan Mitchell.
The CPT acknowledges the right of states to control their sovereign borders and the disproportionate challenges faced by certain countries confronted with large migration flows because of their geographical situation. To address this, the committee has repeatedly underlined that these challenges require a concerted European approach but cannot absolve individual states from meeting their human rights obligations.
Over the years, the CPT has identified clear patterns of physical ill-treatment against foreign nationals in the context of pushback operations, mainly consisting of being beaten upon apprehension – consisting of punches, slaps, blows with truncheons – by police, border or coast guards, who sometimes remove their identification tags and police insignia to hide their identity.
Other forms of inhuman and degrading treatment were also deployed, such as firing bullets close to the persons’ bodies while lying on the ground, pushing them into rivers, removal of their clothes and shoes and forcing them to walk barefoot, even fully naked, across the border. The use of unmuzzled dogs to threaten or even chase foreign nationals and deprivation of food and water for prolonged periods were frequently reported.
The committee often found extremely poor conditions of detention in police and border guard stations or places of informal detention, as well as their transport during removal. It expresses particular concern about families with children, unaccompanied children and persons with vulnerabilities, who were often held in conditions that could amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.
The report calls on governments to reinforce safeguards to significantly reduce the risk of ill-treatment and collective deportations at borders. Every foreign national intercepted or apprehended at the border should be individually identified and registered, undergo health screening and a vulnerability assessment, and be offered the opportunity to apply for asylum. Removal orders should be individualized and allow the possibility of appeal based on an individual assessment. From the very outset of their deprivation of liberty, individuals should be offered access to a lawyer and a doctor and be informed of their rights and legal situation.
Other required safeguards against ill-treatment are that individualized custody records are kept and that law enforcement officials display visible identification numbers or tags on their uniforms, and do not wear balaclavas. Border control activities should be recorded to prevent ill-treatment and false accusations.
The CPT recalls that immigration detention should only be used as a measure of last resort for foreign nationals crossing borders and expresses concern about the attempt in certain Council of Europe member states to introduce measures that aim to legalize pushback practices – for instance, in the context of national emergency measures, by concluding protocols for police cooperation, or applying a customized interpretation of the Schengen Borders Code and making extensive use of the exclusion clause of the EU Return Directive.
During its visits, the CPT has found that very few investigations of ill-treatment of foreign nationals in the context of pushbacks were carried out, and those conducted have often failed to be effective. It therefore calls for all allegations of ill-treatment to be effectively investigated and that officials found to be responsible are subject to adequate disciplinary and criminal law sanctions. Finally, the committee urges governments to establish independent monitoring mechanisms at national level with a mandate and powers to conduct regular and unannounced inspections.
More generally, in 2022 the CPT carried our seven periodic visits (Croatia, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and San Marino) and nine visits to examine specific issues (Azerbaijan, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Montenegro, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Türkiye and the United Kingdom).