MIGRATIONThe EU Border “Pushbacks” May Have Become a De Facto Migration Policy

By Ella Joyner

Published 20 July 2023

 The word “pushback” has entered the EU’s lexicon along with hundreds of thousands of people who have sought asylum in the bloc since 2015. Campaigners say “pushbacks” are now so systematic, they are de facto policy.

The term “pushback,” though widely employed by human rights organizations and government officials alike, doesn’t actually have a specific legal definition. In a report from 2021, UN expert Felipe Gonzalez Morales defined them as “measures, actions or policies effectively resulting in the removal of migrants, individually or in groups, without an individualized assessment in line with human rights obligations and due process guarantees.”

These can be carried out by state actors, such as police, border guards or the military or non-state actors, which may include paramilitaries, private security personnel or staff on commercial transport, Morales noted.

While pushbacks aren’t defined in international law, they tend to go against well-established principles and legal obligations.

EU states have a right to police their national borders and to deny entry to individuals crossing borders illegally, but as signatories to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the European Convention of Human Rights they are also bound to respect a number of commitments.

These include, according to Morales, the prohibition of collective expulsions, the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids returning asylum seekers back to a country that would clearly be dangerous for them.

What Do Pushbacks Look Like?
A  pushback can take a variety of forms. At its simplest, it could be a single border guard stopping a single person intending to claim asylum from crossing a border using violence (or the threat of it), be it physical or verbal. 

In May, the US New York Times daily newspaper published explosive footage allegedly showing the summary illegal expulsion of a group of asylum seekers, including children, in Greece. The people were first loaded into an unmarked van, then put onto a Greek coast guard boat, offloaded onto an emergency dinghy and set adrift, according to the newspaper. They were ultimately picked up by the Turkish coast guard, concluded the investigation — deemed some of the most complete visual evidence of pushbacks to date.

Some of the highest-profile incidents have involved much larger groups of people and more complicated circumstances. An example is the deadly crush at the Spanish-Moroccan border in the Spanish enclave of Melilla last June. An extensive investigation by the BBC, among others, found that not only had at least 24 people died, more than 450 people had been pushed back from Spanish territory into Morocco during the chaos.