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Europe/migration: Five-country police agreement exacerbates crisis and puts vulnerable migrants at risk -- Zeid

Migration crisis in Europe

25 February 2016

GENEVA (25 February 2016) – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday expressed serious concern at security measures adopted at a recent meeting of the heads of police of five European countries*, which are already having a negative impact on the human rights of refugees and migrants in southern and central Europe, and are compounding the already exceptionally difficult situation in Greece.

“In the wake of the adoption of these measures last week, the treatment of refugees and migrants moving through some of these countries already appears to have changed, with seriously negative implications for their human rights,” Zeid said. “Latest reports suggest chain deportations are now taking place all the way down the Balkan land route, which includes Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, towards Greece. In addition, hundreds of Afghans were reportedly stranded in abject conditions for over five days on the border between The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia, and many other Afghans have been blocked from entering The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia from Greece, apparently solely on the basis of their nationality.”

The High Commissioner also regretted certain authorities’ reported refusal of entry to any people arriving at their borders, if they were unable to produce the documents specified in the agreement. 

“Whether or not someone possesses a particular document has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not they are a refugee,” Zeid said. “There any number of reasons why a refugee may have to flee her or his country without valid travel documents. The lack of a valid document should never be a reason for refusing entry into an asylum procedure.”

“I understand the challenge facing the authorities in some European countries who are trying to cope with large numbers of migrants arriving on, or transiting, their territory, and efforts to improve the management of the situation would be very welcome indeed.” Zeid said. “However, this extraordinary agreement by police chiefs establishes a policy across five states that includes measures which seem to be incompatible with the human rights obligations of the countries concerned, all of which are bound by international human rights and refugee law.”

“I am particularly troubled that the agreement appears to enable the collective expulsion of non-nationals, acts explicitly prohibited under international law,” Zeid said.

The prohibition against collective expulsion entitles every non-national to an individualized examination of all the arguments used against his or her removal. It represents an important due process guarantee to prevent arbitrary expulsions of non-nationals. An integral element of the right to protection from collective expulsion and the right of access to an effective remedy is that an expulsion is stayed until its compliance with international human rights law has been finally determined.

The agreement, outlined in the “Joint Statement of Heads of Police Services” of the five countries, which was issued on 18 February, appears to authorize profiling people, and limiting “entry on humanitarian grounds,” solely on the basis of their nationality, and possession of identification documents, rather than on an individual assessment of whether or not they are in need of asylum or some other form of international protection of their human rights.

The agreement establishes extremely narrow criteria for allowing entry -- “fleeing war” – with no mention of “persecution” which is the key criteria for recognizing refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and related international law.  This narrow focus also appears to invalidate a number of other legitimate grounds according to which a person may be permitted to enter another State’s territory (for example, depending on circumstances, family reunification), under international and European human rights law.  

“Alarmingly, given the primary duty of the police to protect people, the agreement contains no measures aiming at protecting these extremely vulnerable women, children and men on the move – there is, for example, not even a mention of special measures to protect people who might be particularly at risk of human rights violations, including children, persons with disabilities, LGBT persons, older people, victims of torture or victims of gender-based violence or trafficking,” Zeid said. “Instead, the agreement appears to be solely concerned with applying stringent limitations of entry on people travelling along the so-called Balkan Land Route, and providing for the ‘controlled transfer of migrants,’ without sufficient safeguards.”  

The adoption of the police measures followed the announcement by the Government of Austria of limitations both on the number of refugees to be accepted in 2016, and on the number of people who will be allowed to transit the country.

“These measures are exacerbating the chaos and misery all down the line, and especially in Greece, which is already overwhelmed. The up-stream border closures, are putting massive pressure on the country that is most in need of help. This could have unforeseen and devastating consequences on Greece and on the large number of people currently on its territory. I urge the five countries who signed last week’s agreement to carefully recalibrate the approach of their police forces and bring it fully in line with international law.”

The High Commissioner noted the repeated calls by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Francois Crépeau, to the European Union to halt the continuous regression of the human rights of refugees and migrants.

Zeid urged EU and other European countries to “take steps to counter the myth-making, stereotyping, racism and xenophobia which have so distorted and politicized the migration debate, undermining efforts to govern the movements of refugees and migrants in rational ways that both protect their rights and ease the management challenges the whole of Europe is facing.”


* Austria, Croatia, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia.

OHCHR’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders (2014) are available at:

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