Pushbacks at the North-Macedonian border: managing irregular migration by illegal means

Migrants waiting at the North Macedonia Greece border

At a food distribution centre in 2020 in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, we were informed that a group of approximately 50 of our usual attendees had gone ‘on game’ the previous night, in an attempt to cross into North Macedonia. Going ‘on game’ is a term used by people in transit to refer to illegal attempts at crossing a border, usually occurring at night. Such movements have become increasingly dangerous at the North Macedonian – Greek border since its securitisation (framing migration as a security issue to justify restrictive border management) in 2016. To understand the implications of increased security, it is important to explore the phenomenon of ‘pushbacks,’ a now “routine element of border governance” and management. They are often violent, dehumanising experiences for migrants, that violate human rights. Pushbacks are illegal, yet at this specific border this illegality is compounded by the presence of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, which currently has no legal jurisdiction to operate in North-Macedonia.

What is a ‘pushback’?

‘Pushbacks’ have become synonymous with borders along the Balkan Route which, prior to the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ and its subsequent securitisation, was the main pathway for migrants and refugees to reach Western Europe. The North Macedonian – Greek border, following rapid border wall construction throughout the Balkans, was fortified in March 2016 by a barbed-wire fence and increased military presence. It has also become a site across which pushbacks frequently occur. Typically characterised by violence, the term ‘pushback’ describes the process of forcibly returning migrants back across a border, preventing progress towards Western Europe while disregarding individual contexts and asylum claims. Testimonies collected throughout Europe chronicle border guards subjecting migrants to traumatising treatment during pushbacks, including beatings, property theft, water submersion, and electric shocks. They demonstrate how securitisation produces violence – they are a physical manifestation of the “undesirable other” rhetoric that borders produce, discounting and rejecting certain racialised bodies that are deemed a threat to society and security.

Balkan Route to Western Europe
The Balkan Route to Western Europe (BVMN, 2019)

Despite currently lacking an internationally agreed legal definition, the nature of pushbacks makes them illegal due to their violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A clear breach of Article 5 (that states no person should be subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment) and Article 14 (the right to claim asylum), among others, pushbacks also defy the 1951 Refugee Convention. While States reserve the right to determine who can enter their borders, this must be conducted within international laws – pushbacks clearly neglect these.

Thessaloniki is only 70km from the North Macedonian border and it is the first large city after crossing into Greece from Turkey. The combination of the city’s geographical location along with the number of refugee and migrant focussed NGOs operating there, makes Thessaloniki a migrant base, especially for those pushed back from North Macedonia. Men would often return to food distribution centres after a few days, some receiving treatment from the medical team operating alongside us for wounds they sustained while ‘on game’. Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) conducted migrant interviews from our food storeroom to collect accounts of pushbacks. BVMN has recorded at least 40 incidences of pushbacks at this border since the start of 2020, involving varying numbers of people. While this is already a significant contribution, most are reluctant to speak about their experiences and therefore the vast majority go unreported.

Illegal Frontex involvement

Since 2019, BVMN has documented seven separate testimonies alleging Frontex’s participation in pushbacks from North Macedonia to Greece, involving over 130 people. They are particularly concerning as, at present, Frontex cannot legally operate on the North Macedonian side of the border. Frontex is the European Union’s (EU) agency tasked with securing and protecting Europe’s external borders and has been gaining increasing power and funding since 2015: but this power does not yet extend to North Macedonia, as it is outside the EU. Similar to those already finalised in other non-EU Balkan states, an agreement has been drafted to enable Frontex operations there, but Bulgaria (an EU member-state) is refusing to sign it. Bulgaria does not recognise North Macedonian as its own language, as specified in the agreement, but as a variant of Bulgarian. Until this political tension concerning language and identity across borders is resolved, Frontex’s presence in North Macedonia is illegal.

The BVMN accounts, including the use of electroshock batons, tasers, and beatings, are, therefore, troubling. It seems contradictory that those so concerned with “illegal” actions of migrants can overlook their own illegality: firstly, their involvement in brutal pushbacks and secondly, conducting these in areas outside their legal jurisdiction. Their activities around this border breach several laws, thus setting a concerning precedent for the rest of Frontex’s operations. Unsurprisingly, Frontex claimed there is “no credible evidence” to demonstrate their illicit activities in North Macedonia and insisted they are only active on the Greek side of the border. Considering the widespread evidence of Frontex’s participation in pushbacks across Europe and their proven complicity in Greek Maritime pushbacks in 2020, reports of their activity at this border carry weight. It speaks volumes that the 2020 Frontex Management Board investigation into the Greek Maritime pushbacks declared no evidence of wrongdoing.

Justice for the future

If a border is a site of state power and violence, it should also be considered one of resistance by those willing to contest this power by going ‘on game’ – despite securitisation, the Balkan route is still utilised for migration to Western Europe. Instead of preventing migration, securitisation forces people to seek clandestine and dangerous methods, including smuggling, to facilitate their journeys, often resulting in pushbacks. Considering contexts such as the most recent Afghanistan crisis (and Europe’s completely inadequate response) and climate change, attempts will only continue. Frontex, North Macedonian, and EU member-state border guards must therefore be held accountable for their operations and investigated for human rights abuses. Frontex activity in North Macedonia also needs to be investigated, following a serious overhaul of its internal reporting system, which is not fit for purpose. This needs to be carried out by external actors, as Frontex repeatedly denies involvement in illegal activity. Migration should not be managed by illegal methods.

Lucy Cheetham is a MSc student studying Humanitarianism, Aid and Conflict.

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