The visual that circulated in September 2021 of U.S. Border patrolmen chasing Haitian asylum seekers on horseback made many who saw it think of the slave patrols that roamed the Southern U.S. states before emancipation. This event was made worse happening just days after the collapse of the negotiations on the bipartisan bill in Congress to overhaul policing in the U.S. Coming amidst the continued protests over the disproportionate killing of Black Americans by the police and calls to make police forces more accountable to the people, this incident at the border serves as a grim reminder that continued public pressure is necessary until real changes are made.
Police Brutality, Migrants, and Human Rights
When refugees arrive from war-torn nations or fleeing oppression, they are often unfamiliar with their new country’s laws, individual rights, and even property ownership, putting them at risk of unfortunate encounters with the police. In every country, we need innovative ways of interacting with refugee communities and building trust.
Worldwide, police often have tense relationships with minority and especially with immigrant and refugee communities. Although the European Union (EU) generally has a good record in human rights, there are still some areas of concern. As the EU expands, it must learn how to deal with asylum and migration. France has long struggled with rampant police targeting and abuse of Black and Arab people particularly those who are – or are perceived to be – recent immigrants, which has at times sparked mass protests. Human rights activists have accused police in several countries, including Greece and Italy, of arbitrarily detaining, torturing, or otherwise abusing refugees and immigrants.
This Twitter post from 2015 shows the dehumanizing treatment refugees received from law enforcement in the Czech Republic. The Huffington Post reported in 2015 on a poll that found 94 percent of Czechs believe the EU should deport all refugees. This may be based on the perception that an influx of asylum seekers and refugees will stretch a country’s resources and not become a useful part of their society. In reality, refugees are rarely a burden, and in economic terms often boost an aging workforce. Utilizing the knowledge, skills, and training those refugees bring with them can help fill in the gaps in the labor market, and when formally employed they contribute to the host country’s revenue.
Sadly, many countries around the world have elevated their use of force and these governments unjustly use their security forces to exert control over parts of their population. For example, this month on the Poland-Belarus border, a combination of Belarusian and Afghan refugees are attempting to enter Poland. This number has increased dramatically since last year, going from 100 to 6,000 people over the last month alone. Poland is using its border control force, along with their police and military, to patrol the barbed wire fence that has been erected to keep out the asylum seekers. There is grave concern that the rights of these asylum seekers are not being met and the security forces are blocking entry regardless of their status. There is also concern that the Lukashenko regime in Belarus (which is not an EU member) is using the push of these refugees into Poland (which is part of the bloc) as a ploy to undermine the EU and try to destabilize its neighbor.
There is no excuse for this type of militarization, where the police force has morphed into a vigilante arm of the regime that is currently in power. It is worrisome that even in relatively peaceful democracies, like in Europe, the use of an aggressive police force can create instability.
It is not the role of the police force to exert undue force or kill people; the police force is not the judge and/or jury. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 6 mandates that “everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” regardless of their status as citizen, immigrant, or refugee, and therefore they are entitled to a fair trial. By using the security apparatus to carry out violence, authoritative governments and biased police forces are robbing migrants of their human rights.
How can this tide be changed? What does accountability in policing mean?
If the state or country does not ensure accountability, then there are international bodies that were created by the United Nations to protect human rights. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10 affirms the right to a fair trial, while Article 14 gives the right to migrate and seek asylum. There must be more pressure exerted from the international community to ensure that these rights are upheld and respected.
Public awareness and outrage against these incidents is intensifying, fueled by the use of technology like mobile phones to film real-time incidents of police brutality and killings worldwide. If Darnella Frazier had not had the courage and foresight to film the brutal murder of George Floyd, we wouldn’t have had the proof to convict the officer of his killing. In 2020, bystanders took in footage of the police attacking and brutalizing migrants in central Paris. Similarly, in 2020, a police officer at the Greek/Turkish border was caught on camera beating an asylum seeker while he tried to save his wife and young daughter from being sexually assaulted. These brave record-keepers, and the use of other forms of social media, like live Facebook streaming of racist police encounters during simple traffic stops, inspire hope that police will finally be held accountable for their actions. At last, the public can witness the raw and brutal racism and disregard for human life that many chose to ignore or disbelieve for decades.