#MeToo at Fortress Europe’s borders

During the first two weeks of August, when most people in Western Europe were enjoying their summer holidays, volunteers from No Name Kitchen, a group helping migrants in Bosnia, recorded 17 cases of violence against people on the move at the country’s border with Croatia. (The UNHCR recently reported that their partners in Bosnia and Serbia recorded over 700 allegations of violence at the borders of Croatia since the beginning of this year.)

In at least five of the 17 cases recorded by No Name Kitchen, the victims were vulnerable women who were trying to reach safety in the European Union. Volunteers said these women were treated brutally by the authorities and subjected to sexual violence, racism and Islamophobia. 

Marva, from Afghanistan, told them the group she was travelling with was stopped by police after they crossed the Slovenian border. She said the officers ordered the women in the group to remove their niqabs. When she refused to do so and started to cry, a policeman forcefully removed the garment and threw it on the floor. “Here is not Afghanistan, here is Slovenia,” the policeman allegedly told her. “Here is no Islam.” 

Fatima, from Iran, had a similar experience, but in Croatia. Her husband and daughter were beaten up by police officers. She was held at gun point and they were all ordered to walk back to Bosnia. She said she was scared to death. She thought they were going to kill her and her family.

Several victims said officers inappropriately touched their bodies, including their breasts and genitals, during these violent encounters. They said the abuse happened in front of their children and husbands. The abusers were always in uniform.

Police violence and brutality is nothing new at the borders of European Union. Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Greek police officers have long been resorting to violence in order to keep Fortress Europe “safe”. Croatian police joined in this brutality last year, and now even Slovenian police is abusing people on the move at their borders.

As always, this violence is affecting the women the most. They are not only violently prevented from finding safety and security in Europe, but also subjected to sexual violence. And their abusers act with impunity.

No one in Brussels, or in any other European capital, has punished or even condemned these officers for their treatment of women at Europe’s borders – not even in countries led by women or where leftist, progressive parties are in power. 

In the last two years, the #MeToo movement encouraged the world to have a conversation about sexual harassment and condemn men who use their positions of power to abuse women. However, the abuse women (as well as men and children) experience at the hands of border officials at the gates of Europe was never included in this conversation.

European media also contributed to this problem by failing to give a voice to these victims.

On New Year’s Eve 2015 many local women reported being robbed and assaulted in Cologne, Germany and authorities said most of the accused were North African, migrant men. The media was quick to sensationalise the issue and create a narrative which implied European women are in need of urgent protection from brown, Muslim, migrant men. Authorities were quick to take action.

However, now that migrant women are the victims, the media is largely silent, and the same EU officials urging action on the Cologne attacks are looking the other way. 

The violence at the borders of the EU is a message to all migrants – and everyone who is not a citizen of Fortress Europe – that they are not welcome, not even when they are running from wars, persecution, authoritarian regimes, poverty or the devastating effects of climate change. It doesn’t matter that Europe is responsible for many ills that are forcing these people to leave their homes and seek safety in foreign lands. 

:iberals in the EU are still refusing to acknowledge this loud and clear message sent out by their official representatives. They congratulate themselves on their “humane treatment” of migrants, and refuse to acknowledge the human rights abuses taking place at their doorstep. They hypocritically condemn the US administration for separating families trying to cross US borders, but talk nothing of the abuse of migrants at Europe’s borders. 

Is the violence migrants endure in Europe any more acceptable than what happens in Trump’s America? In “liberal”, “progressive” Europe human beings are being physically and sexually abused at borders, threatened and kept in camps indefinitely. Children are often left alone, unprotected, and deprived of an education and a future.

What the EU border police is doing to vulnerable women, men and children is a crime and it cannot go unpunished. 

If Europe does not act now, it will soon become a place where violence against “the other” is acceptable. This has happened many times before in recent history, and humanity at large suffered its consequences. Europe should learn from its past mistakes, and this time make sure it’s on the right side of history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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