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With tear gas and razor wire, EU countries skirt international refugee law

Human rights experts question Europe’s heavy-handed approach to growing refugee crisis

Police in Hungary used tear gas on refugees trying to cross into the country from Serbia on Wednesday — the latest in several recent incidents in which member states of the European Union used force against asylum seekers, in what experts say may be a violation of international law.

Hungarian politicians resolved to send mounted police, dogs and even helicopters to the area in order to stem the tide of refugees pouring in each day, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the lawmakers would debate a possible military deployment next week.

Hungary is not the only European country to turn its refugee crisis into a law-enforcement issue. On Wednesday, Macedonian police fired stun grenades and tear gas at refugees to drive them back from their border into Greece. In July, French police used tear gas against thousands of refugees and migrants who attempted to enter Britain via the Eurotunnel in the French port city of Calais. And earlier this month, Greek police struck refugees with batons to control a crowd of 2,000 people, sparking small riots on the island of Kos.

European governments say they have been overwhelmed by the mass influx of refugees and migrants. About 340,000 have crossed European borders so far this year, representing a 175 percent increase over the number of asylum seekers who entered Europe over the same period last year. In total, 280,000 refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2014, EU data shows.

But refugee experts say that using law enforcement is not an appropriate response and absolves officials from their legal responsibility to provide shelter to people fleeing war and other violence. “You shouldn’t force someone to return to a country where they face a well-founded fear of persecution,” said Alexander Betts, professor at Oxford University and director of the Refugee Studies Center. "The use of force on refugees could be regarded as a violation” of international human rights enshrined in EU law.

On Wednesday, European Commissioner for Human Rights Niels Muiznieks said the “militarization” of EU borders was the wrong answer to migration, lauding Germany for its projected inclusion of 800,000 refugees this year.

Violent tactics may also be ineffective, said Francois Crepeau, United Nations special rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and a law professor at McGill University. “Violence is not going to stop those migration movements, simply because for most of these people the violence at home is so much more feared than anything the Europeans would do,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I think violence is the wrong answer,” Crepeau added. “How many stun grenades do you have? How many are you going to throw?”

Crepeau suggested that a more effective response would be to charter buses to transport people to nearby shelters, register newcomers and devise a system to more equally distribute the burden of resettlement across European countries. The majority of the work has so far fallen on southern and eastern states, including Greece, Italy, Spain and Hungary.

There is a provision in EU asylum law that mandates emergency relief to member countries who are unable to handle the mass influx of people and their relocation when shelters fill up. But those mechanisms are “dysfunctional,” Betts said. “The circumstances that define an emergency are not clearly defined. Its not clearly specified.”

For now, the lack of a comprehensive policy across the EU for asylum seekers is benefiting the United Kingdom, Denmark and other countries west of Europe’s main entry ways of Lampedusa, a tiny island off the Italian coast; the Canary islands; the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos near the Turkish coast; and Hungary. Under EU law, refugees are required to request asylum in their country of entry.

An attempt to address the imbalance failed in June when only 13 out of 26 EU member states supported a quota system to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc in accordance with the host country’s economic power, population and other metrics. Now, many refugees camp out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Rome, a dilapidated hotel in Kos, or Calais, a popular gateway to the United Kingdom.

According to Crepeau, Calais’ long history of repressing asylum seekers shows just how ineffective forceful tactics can be. Sangatte, a settlement of Iraqi and Afghan refugees established in 1999 near Calais, was torn down by French officials following complaints from the British government about a series of incidents involving people obstructing traffic in the Eurotunnel. Nevertheless, asylum seekers have continued to return.

With wire services

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