North Macedonia did not break human rights laws when its soldiers forced hundreds of refugees to return to Greece in 2016 during the European migrant crisis, a court has ruled in Strasbourg, France.
The eight Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis claimed they had been victims of an illegal “collective expulsion” after they were surrounded only a few kilometres inside North Macedonia – then called Macedonia – and forced to return through holes in a border fence.
They were part of a group of 1,500 refugees who joined a “March of Hope” that crossed into North Macedonia in March 14, 2016 from a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp at Idomeni on the northern border of Greece.
The migrants said they were surrounded by the military and threatened with violence unless they left the country, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said. Journalists were also arrested and threatened with confiscation of their cameras if they continued recording events inside North Macedonia.
Soldiers formed two lines leading to the frontier and forced the refugees to run between them to the fence while they beat them with sticks and they were then forced to crawl under the border fence or climb through holes, the court heard.
But a panel of seven judges ruled that North Macedonia had not breached a ban on “collective expulsion” of the migrants. The claim by the eight that they were given no opportunity to have the deportation legally reviewed was also rejected.
The ruling said the migrants had “placed themselves in an unlawful situation by deliberately attempting to enter North Macedonia by crossing the border … as part of two large groups and at an unauthorised location".
“They thus chose not to use the legal procedures which existed in order to enter the territory of the respondent State lawfully,” it said.
The eight, who include a family of four from Aleppo, Syria and a man in a wheelchair, are now considering appeals, their legal advisers said.
They had joined the march from the Greek camp a week after North Macedonia said it would no longer let anyone else into the country as Europe started closing some of its borders. The move effectively blocked the Balkans route that had been used by thousands to flee war and crises in the Middle East and North Africa.
But the migrants said they were left with no option but to try to cross the border due to conditions at the camp that was home to 14,000 people. The United Nations described conditions at Idomeni as “abysmal” and human rights groups said people had been forced to sleep without shelter and with a lack of sufficient sanitary facilities.
"The court ignores the actual conditions at the border at the time, as well as the fact that for months it was completely impossible to apply for asylum anywhere in North Macedonia," said Hanaa Hakiki, of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, which is supporting the eight.
The group said the episode “marked the beginning of the systematic expansion of pushback practices across Europe”.
The ECHR ensures that members of the 46-state Council of Europe respect rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.