In a groundbreaking court ruling earlier this month, exclusively translated on behalf of transform! europe, the Regional Administrative Court of Styria (Southeast Austria) upheld the complaint by a young Moroccan man who was pushed back by the Austrian border police and declared this practice illegal and inhumane.
The case was brought after intense cooperation between Austrian NGOs and the plaintiff with the support of a group of activists and lawyers. The important verdict not only makes visible the role of Austrian police in the ongoing chain deportations along the ‘Balkan Route’, but also sets a precedent for future transnational struggles against violence and torture of people on the move across Europe.
Please find an English translation of the verdict on the right/below (mobile version) in ‘Documents’ (PDF) – translated by Push-Back Alarm Austria on behalf of transform! europe
The not so unusual case of Ayoub
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 reported by a local to police who mounted an extensive manhunt with a huge contingent of officers. What happened to Ayoub and his co-travellers became the subject of a four-month-long court hearing. According to the young man, their repeated pleas for asylum were ignored, and the men were denied food and humiliated by the Austrian authorities before being pushed back to Slovenia. As is so often the case, this illegal step by the Austrian border police resulted in a chain pushback via Croatia to Bosnia where the group arrived less than 48 hours after being captured in Austria.
Illegal practices are becoming the norm
Anyone entering Austria and stating their intention to apply for asylum has the right to file an application and to due legal process. While officers have the right to stop and detain persons crossing into Austria, ask for their ID, and in some instances even search them, in no case do they have the right to decide on whether a person asking for asylum is a valid candidate or whether that person has a right to make such a claim at all. However, this seems to be common practice along the border with officers wilfully ignorant of the illegality of their actions. Clemens Lahner, the lawyer who defended Ayoub 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.’
Making the case against illegal pushbacks
While informal accounts of illegal pushbacks from Austria abound, it is hard to find people who will state their case in the face of a country they have experienced as hostile and who have little to gain personally from such an action. The complaint by Ayoub N. was made possible through the intense collaboration of activists in Bosnia, Slovenia, and Austria and thanks to the brave cooperation of the young Moroccan man involved who lent his voice to the countless people who have experienced the same mistreatment in past years. Key elements of the complaint were the video testimonies by Ayoub N. and another victim of the same pushback. The interviews were conducted by activists of the Austrian initiative Push-Back Alarm Austria with the support of interpreters. 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, but police also carried out a violent manhunt which lasted several hours and chased the group through the woods and corn fields of the area employing dozens of police officers. Local residences who witnessed the manhunt mentioned that they were not afraid of the asylum seekers but of the massive police presence at that day. After that, the police kept the group without food and in confinement, and forcefully strip-searched them in front of others.
Interrogations by the police took place without a translator in broken English. Statements by the police officers in front of the court suggested that Ayoub N.’s case was not an exception but part of routine practice at the Austrian border, so routine that the officers themselves seemed to see nothing wrong in their actions.
Shining light on invisible police practices
It is next to impossible to get exact information on these illegal practices as, on the one hand, the police department consistently denies that those concerned asked for asylum, and, on the other hand, Austria is one of the last EU countries without a full-fledged freedom of information act. Parliamentary inquiries can shed some light, but even then information is sparse as some cases are simply ‘not counted’ and therefore no records are available. Bringing test cases to trial is therefore an essential tool of human-rights supporters and activists opposing illegal and inhumane police practices at the border. In 2016, after mass pushbacks at the Austrian-Slovenian border near the city of Spielfeld in the course of the final weeks of what was then called the ‘Balkan Corridor’, a whole series of cases was brought before the same court; the same judge who now dealt with Ayoub’s case, also ruled in favour of the plaintiffs in the majority of cases after days of hearings that helped document practices in the so-called ‘black box’ of Spielfeld.
At the beginning of 2021, the Ministry of Interior Affairs, in reply to a parliamentary inquiry, specified that in 2020 Austria had denied entry from Slovenia to 494 persons while 547 persons were sent back to Hungary. While no breakdown of circumstances was provided, among these persons were citizens of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria. It seems, to say the very least, doubtful that none of them would have asked for asylum.
Austria as a key player on the Balkan Circuit
While border violence at the external border between Croatia and Bosnia has received much international attention, Austria’s role is far less known. In fact, Austria has long been a prominent proponent of a rigorous anti-migration policy promoting the ever greater fortification of ‘Fortress Europe’, for example by creating the EU Platform Against Illegal Migration announced at a conference in July 2020, continuously militarising its own borders including through the purchase of high-tech drones, and exporting its model throughout the region. At present, Austrian police units are present in at least seven countries along the Balkan circuit, based on bilateral agreements or as part of Frontex missions. We refer to circuit rather than route because this term highlights that
“together with people, securitarian practices are circulating, ranging from learning how to directly prevent movement to developing and implementing various deterrence techniques. The circulation of the humanitarian regime organisations is not a new phenomenon; even before the inclusion of WB [Western Balkan] states into the European border regime, its concepts and practices were introduced to (future) practitioners through various trainings.” (Peović Vuković 2017, 174).
A chain of support against chain pushbacks
However, parallel to the inter-state coalitions against people on the move, there is a growing network of activists and NGOs, many of them active and interconnected since the days of the Balkan Corridor, dedicated to supporting asylum seekers along the Balkan Circuit and throughout Europe. Many of them also contribute to the Border Violence Monitoring Network, which recently published two volumes of about 1,500 pages on illegal pushbacks in the EU.
As a direct result of the pushback 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 be protected from pushbacks. Similar grassroots initiatives were launched in Slovenia and Croatia some years ago.
In spite of these traumatising 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.’
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Katarina Peović Vuković, 2017. ”Refugee Crisis” and the Speech of the Unconscious. In Emina Bužinkić and Marijana Hameršak (eds), Kamp, Koridor, Granica: Studije Izbjeglištva U Suvremenom Hrvatskom Kontekstu. Zagreb: Institut zaetnologiju i folkloristiku, pp. 169–198.
A modified version of this article was recently published on LEFTEAST.