This month, a Moroccan complainant who was pushed back by the Austrian border police won a case against this illegal return practice with the support of a group of activists and lawyers. The case was brought before the administrative court in Styria. This is an important verdict that sets a precedent for future transnational struggles against violence and torture of people on the move across Europe.
In September 2020, Ayoub N. was travelling in a group of seven coming from Bosnia and entering Austria via the Slovenian border. After walking for nearly two weeks under harsh conditions, they were met by a huge contingent of Austrian police which had started a significant manhunt to catch the group. What happened next was the subject of a four month long court hearing. According to Ayoub N., repeated pleas for asylum by the group were ignored, and the men were humiliated by the Austrian authorities before being pushed back to Slovenia. This illegal action at the Austrian border started a chain pushback via Croatia to Bosnia where the group arrived less than 48 hours after being captured in Austria.
Against the law
Anyone entering Austria and stating their intention to apply for asylum has the right to file an application and to due process of the law; local police officers have no right to refuse or pre-empt such a decision. The court case of Ayoub N. is extremely relevant as it helps to set precedent against the opaque practices of Austrian police and their role in numerous chain pushbacks along the Balkan Circuit which have gained increasing notoriety with hundreds of cases of violence and torture at the Croatian-Bosnian border and inhumane conditions suffered by thousands trapped in the border region there. Clemens Lahner, the lawyer who supported the case stated “What we demanded was that Austrian law, Union law and international law be respected, no more and no less. The law applies to everyone, including the police.”
The court hearings and the concluding verdict provided an important space to investigate the illegal pushback practices happening at the southern Austrian border with Slovenia. Key elements were the video testimonies by Ayoub N. and another person who was affected by the same pushback. The recorded statements which lasted up to an hour described the humiliating and racist practices by the Austrian police in detail. Not only were the claims for asylum ignored, the police also carried out a violent manhunt, kept the group without food and in confinement, and forcefully strip-searched them in front of others.
Interrogations took place without a translator. Contradictory and inconsistent statements of the police in front of the court suggested that Ayoub’s case was not an exception but part of routine practices at the Austrian border.
It is next to impossible to get exact information on these illegal practices as, on the one hand, the police department consequently denies that those concerned asked for asylum, and on the other hand, Austria is one of the last EU countries lacking a freedom of information act. However, already in 2016, the same judge heard a series of cases on push-backs in Spielfeld and ruled in favour of complainants in the majority of cases.
Furthermore, at the beginning of 2021, the Ministry of Interior Affairs specified in an answer to a parliamentary inquiry that, in 2020, Austria had denied 494 persons entry from Slovenia and 547 persons were sent back to Hungary. Among these persons were citizens of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran. It seems at least doubtful that none of them asked for aslyum.
Austria as a key player
These illegal practices are part and parcel of Austria’s prominent role in fortifying Fortress Europe, e.g. by creating the EU Platform against illegal Migration announced at a conference in July 2020.
Austrian police units are present in at least seven countries along the Balkan route, based on bilateral agreements or as part of Frontex missions. For example, the Austrian special police force – established for Anti-Terror-Operations – patrolled the Greek-Turkish border for three weeks in March 2020 in a joint operation with the Greek Antiterrorist Unit EKAM employing drones and armed vehicles, while the Austrian minister of Interior claimed the mission was of historic dimensions with regard to Austrian security policy. “At the border river Evros we did not only protect EU external borders but we protected our own border.”
Recently, the same minister visited North Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia to negotiate joint activities against so-called “illegal migration”. Concretely, migrants with “a low probability to stay”, seen as a “security risk”, will be deported from these Non-EU countries with Austrian support. A first joint declaration of intent was signed between Austria and Bosnia.
At the same time, the minister announced that Austria will provide financing to improve the conditions in the infamous Bosnian camp Lipa. NGOs and investigative journalists have the suspicion that Austria plans to accommodate unwanted asylum seekers captured in Austria in this camp. A similar agreement, although not realized up to now, was made with Serbia in 2019.
Austria also regularly deports rejected asylum seekers, especially to Afghanistan, in spite of ever more urgent warnings of NGOs and even th eUNHCR that Afghanistan cannot be defined as a safe country for anybody. And within Austria, anti-migrant sentiments, and, especially, antimuslim racism, are fueled by politicians and media alike and enshrined in highly problematic so-called anti-terror laws.
Resistance and Hope
However, along the Balkan Circuit and in other EU countries, activists and NGOs fight for the rights of asylum seekers, many of them organized in the Border Violence Monitoring Network thar recently published two volumes of 1500 pages on illegal push-backs in the EU.
As a direct result of the push-back of Ayoub and the other members of his group, Austrian activists recently created the 24/7 hotline “Push-Back Alarm Austria” to support people on the move: People who want to apply for asylum in Austria can contact the hotline in order to get support for their asylum claim and to be protected from push-backs.
Similar grass-roots initiatives were started in Slovenia and Croatia years ago.
In spite of these traumatizing experiences at the Austrian border, Ayoub N. stated after being informed about the verdict: “After hearing that I won the case, I was very happy.I was confident that we would win the case, because it is a human case. It is a painful blow to the Austrian police.”
Push-Back Alarm Austria +43 1 345 1 444
* is a 24 hour hotline for people who are affected by a pushback in the Austrian border area
* works with translators to ensure a trustful exchange
* provides legal advice to people affected by pushbacks
* provides contact with free legal representation
* intervenes in and documents pushback