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Violence against refugees

Tamsin WalkerJuly 21, 2015

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Europe has risen dramatically over the past year, as have the violent incidences at the EU's external borders. One young Syrian talks to DW about his experience.

Image: Reuters

When a young Syrian refugee, known for the purposes of this story as Hamza, decided to flee the trauma of his recent past and head for Europe, he did so hoping for a future of opportunity. Traveling with little besides a belief in the EU tenet that claims to uphold human rights, he could not have imagined himself deprived of food and water and being beaten by Italian border officials. Yet that, he says, is exactly what happened.

Hamza was living as a refugee in Jordan when he made his decision. From there he traveled to Algeria then to Tunisia, where he boarded a boat to the promised continent at the far side of the Mediterranean. His vessel, like so many others that set sail from North Africa, sunk before it reached dry land. Of its 45 or so passengers, two boys and one man drowned. The rest made it to safety. Relatively speaking.

"We swam 500 meters to the nearest island, and when we got there, we saw it was deserted," he told DW.

Once there, the group used a satellite telephone, which survived the sinking and the swimming, to call the Italian border police. Although they made contact, it was still some time before support arrived.

"They didn't come for another six hours, and when they did turn up, they took the women and children, but left the men on the island," the refugee continued. "We were on the island for around 20 hours without anything to eat or drink."

When the border police eventually returned, they took the men to Sicily and put them on a bus to a police station. At this point, Hamza had been travelling for one month and 18 days, and although he had reached destination Europe, his journey was anything but over.

Dublin Regulation flaws

What came next brought his status in the EU into sharp relief, and underscored what human rights groups have long criticized as a fundamental flaw in the Dublin Regulation. Under its terms, a refugee must provide fingerprints in their country of arrival, and that county then decides where any subsequent asylum application will be processed.

mass of people Photo: Bundeswehr/Kleemann/dpa»
Critics say that flawed EU refugee policies are responsible for images this thisImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeswehr/Hptm Kleemann

Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, head of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims in Berlin says the procedure is leading to the systematic use of violence at the EU's external borders. Last month, her organization, which treats refugees who have experienced trauma and torture, published a document detailing the gravity of the situation.

"We first started to hear reports of violence on the EU's external borders in 2013, and we soon realized there was a pattern, so we started to collect data," she said.

Between March 2014 and May 2015, the bfzo documented 186 alleged violations - largely in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. Refugees reported being hit, kicked and in some cases, subjected to electric shocks. According to Wenk-Ansohn, most violence occurred because people were reluctant to provide the required fingerprints - either because they were scared or because they knew that doing so would mean they had to stay in the country where they complied.

While EU Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud describes the European Union's "common standards on asylum procedures and reception conditions" as "the highest in the world", there is no denying the fact that political orientation, economic wellbeing and recent history varies from one EU country to the next. And that has logical consequences for refugees.

"They know that if they remain in Italy they will end up living on the streets because there are not enough places for them to stay," Wenk-Ansohn continued. In the case of Hungary and Bulgaria, she adds, asylum seekers are more likely to be confined to detention centers with "prison-like" conditions, and even after being granted asylum, are not offered adequate support and help with integration.

police watching over a group of people Photo/Jan Koller
Refugees in Hungary are often subjected to prison-like conditionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Koller

"People don't want that. They want to bring their families over from Syria, so they want to go to Germany or Sweden. As a result, they refrain from giving their fingerprints."

Resistance equals violence

Hamza and the other men with whom he was taken to Sicily were among those to resist the Dublin Regulation rules.

"We had agreed among ourselves not give our fingerprints because we knew what that would mean for us," he said. "But they told us if we didn't do what they said, we wouldn't get anything to eat or drink."

Gradually the group gave in, until Hamza was one of just five people standing firm. It was at that point that the violence began.

"They used rubber batons to hit me on my legs and they beat my friend hard on his back," he explained. "They kept hitting us over a period of four or five hours, and asking us if we had changed our minds."

Eventually, he says, they had no strength left, and so pressed their fingertips onto the ink. After that, they were told to go to what he describes as a barracks-style home for asylum seekers. Although they had not slept for 48 hours, they decided not to stay.

"After what we'd experienced, we didn't think Italy would be good for us," he said. "We were always told about human rights in Europe, that there is no harassment and so on, but I don't think there is any real difference between Italy and Bashar al-Assad's regime."

He has since made it to Germany, where he is waiting for a decision on his asylum transfer application. Anyone in that situation, EU Commission spokesperson Bertaud says, "must be provided with certain necessities that guarantee them a dignified standard of living."

That seems to apply for Hamza, who says he has been treated well in Germany. He is learning German and hopes he might one day be able to study. But even if he does get that future of opportunity, his experience of reaching Europe and his treatment at the Italian border have left their mark. "I would never recommend anyone, neither my friends nor my enemies, to do what I did," he said. "I would advise them against it."