BRUSSELS/BELGRADE/NEW YORK—In recent months, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams in Serbia have treated an increasing number of patients reporting widespread violence and cruel and degrading treatment allegedly perpetrated by Hungarian authorities at the Serbian/Hungarian border, MSF said today, calling on Hungarian authorities to investigate and take immediate action to stop these brutal practices.
From January 2016 to February 2017, MSF treated 106 patients with intentional injuries allegedly perpetrated by Hungarian border patrols. All cases treated by MSF teams follow similar patterns of violence including beating injuries (54 cases), dog bites (24 cases), irritation from tear gas or pepper spray (15 cases), and other injuries (35 cases). Vulnerable people, such as unaccompanied minors, were not excluded from this abuse; out of the 106 patients, 22 were under 18 years old.
"People tell us that they are beaten, made to lie on the ground while police officers stomp on them wearing boots, and that their clothes and shoes are often confiscated in the snow so that they have to walk back to Serbia barefoot through the cold," said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director, who recently returned from Serbia. "The bruising and the other symptoms that we see and treat are consistent with the type of abuses described."
These accounts should concern European leaders gathering tomorrow for the European Union Council meeting, according to Stokes.
"It's like a 'standard package of abuse,' a ritual of brutality at the European Union's own border, designed to stop people from trying to cross again," Stokes said. "It is just shocking that this is happening with European leaders turning a blind eye. During the European Union Council meeting, which will be held exactly one year after the official closure of the Balkan road, European leaders should discuss if this brutality is how they plan to continue to protect their borders."
According to recent testimonies collected by MSF teams, this violence has become repetitive and more humiliating in the last few weeks. On the night between February 21 and 22, almost 240 people were allegedly pushed back from Hungary. The next day, the MSF clinic in Belgrade was crowded with more than 20 people seeking medical care after being severely beaten.
"This probably represents only the tip of the iceberg, as many of the people we meet at the border, for a variety of reasons, do not seek medical care for their injuries," Stokes said. "The volunteer groups that we are working with at the border encounter similar cases in large numbers."
MSF calls on European authorities and European Union institutions to ensure full respect for the right to seek asylum and to strongly condemn all forms of ill-treatment at borders.
"Fences, push-backs, and deterrence are not only cruel and inhumane, they are also ineffective and do not prevent people from crossing," Stokes said. "We continue to call for safe and legal channels to be open for people seeking protection in Europe."
MSF has been present in Serbia since late 2014 providing medical and mental health care, shelter, and water and sanitation at the entry and exit points of the country. Since January 2016, MSF has been present in Belgrade with a mobile clinic providing primary health and mental health care to those stranded in informal settlements in the city center. MSF has also distributed relief supplies and advocated for access to health, shelter, and protection for the vulnerable population stranded in Serbia.