In recent years, the European Union has made stopping “irregular migration” a top priority. This was prompted by the increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe due to crises in Asia and Africa, as well as the war in Syria. As a result, EU member states have fortified their borders with electric fences, watchtowers, dog patrol units, helicopters, and surveillance drones. The budget of the EU border agency, Frontex, has also ballooned to over $800 million, making it the best-funded among all EU agencies.
The EU has also exported its border control strategies and technologies to neighboring countries, from the western Balkans and Turkey to North Africa and the Sahel. This regional border architecture is designed to keep refugees out of the EU and has left almost no safe and legal paths to asylum in member countries. This has compelled many to embark on dangerous journeys to try to enter Europe without authorization in the hopes of applying for asylum once they reach their desired final destination.
As a researcher and activist, I have spent years tracing refugee journeys and documenting the treatment of asylum seekers at the hands of European border security officials. The worst incidents I documented took place in the borders between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Many who tried to migrate through these states told me that they have been abused by border security officers and showed me marks of torture, ranging from electric burns to still-bleeding cuts and bruises, on their bodies.
However, while documenting the violence directed at people migrating across European borders, I also encountered rare stories of humanity and kindness. These stories were about individual border officers refusing to be violent and resisting illegal “pushbacks.” They were about officers defying their supervisors’ commands to help asylum seekers and taking personal risks to blow the whistle on their organization’s illegal practices.
Empathy, kindness, and adherence to international law should be standard in all border security work anywhere in the world. But in the current climate, where migration is being perceived as a threat by many, acting against international refugee law and inflicting violence on those classed as “irregular migrants” became part of the job description for most European border officers. Thus, even the simplest acts of kindness, empathy, and humanity towards asylum seekers are rare and require much courage on the part of officers at Europe’s borders.
While documenting these stories of humanity and kindness, I found that some refugees talked about individual officers who stopped their colleagues from beating detainees or stealing their money. Others spoke fondly of officers who acknowledged their humanity and showed empathy. Members of one Afghan family remembered a Croatian officer who cried with them as he led them back towards the Bosnian border. They recalled the officer saying “Please, don’t cry. Sorry. I don’t want to do this, but I must follow the orders.”
Similarly, Hamid from Algeria said a group of officers who spotted him near the Italian border in Croatia showed him kindness and even encouraged him to continue with his efforts to find a haven in Europe. “I was very scared that they were going to beat us as others do,” he told me. “But they took us to a restaurant and bought us warm food. One of them said: ‘Sorry, we cannot let you go because we have orders to return you [to the country you entered Croatia from]. But please, come back and try again.'”
These few uplifting stories of solidarity are important and should be shared – not to humanize the European border regime that is underpinned by extreme brutality but to show that small acts of compassion, kindness, and resistance from inside of the border units are possible and must be encouraged. Individual border officers can make a difference.
In conclusion, while there are many reports of violence directed at people migrating across European borders, there are also stories of humanity and kindness from individual border officers. These stories are important because they show that small acts of compassion, kindness, and resistance from inside of the border units are possible and must be encouraged. Individual border officers can make a difference in ensuring that refugees are treated with dignity and respect.