MSF patients report alarming incidence of violence by authorities at the Hungary-Serbia border

Violent practices against migrants

Serbia 2022 © Evgenia Chorou

BELGRADE/BRUSSELS/NEW YORK AUGUST 4, 2022—Testimonies and medical data from patients treated by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) indicate that an alarming level of violence is being committed against migrants crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary, allegedly at the hands of Hungarian authorities. People have reported beatings with belts and batons, kicking and punching, various forms of humiliation, and the use of pepper spray and teargas as common deterrence practices before they are denied assistance and pushed back into Serbia.

For more than eight years, MSF medical staff have recorded accounts from patients who were systematically beaten, humiliated, and abused at borders for attempting to seek safety in the European Union. “Every week we see several patients—including children—with severe bruising, deep wounds, cuts, dislocations, and fractures,” says Dr. Andjela Marcetic, who works with MSF in Serbia. “The physical injuries we treat in medical consultations are consistent with the testimonies of patients who describe violent beatings at the hands of Hungarian police prior to pushbacks to Serbia. While we can treat some of the wounds, we are also concerned about the long term repercussions of such trauma on their psychological wellbeing.”

Since January 2021, MSF mobile medical teams have treated 423 patients with injuries reportedly due to violent incidents at the Hungary-Serbia border. Most of these accounts follow a similar pattern of beatings, denial of access to basic needs, verbal harassment, including racial slurs, and humiliation. People report being forced to undress—even in freezing temperatures—and being urinated on by border officials. People also report theft or destruction of personal belongings.  

MSF also treats injuries resulting from people falling off the fences built along the border, which are about 13 feet high. “One patient had a 2-centimeter-deep [about half an inch] cut on his upper lip because of the razor blades on the border fence. Many others report fractures all over their bodies from falling while trying to cross [the border],” said Dr. Marcetic. 

Several patients, including two unaccompanied minors, reported to MSF that they were transported to a small shipping container before being expelled to Serbia. They said that in the shipping container border officials assaulted them and regularly sprayed pepper spray inside the container. Two patients reported the use of teargas, which is apparently dispersed inside the container to force people to create space for newcomers. 

“We were brought to a small white container in between the fences with 40 other people,” a patient told MSF staff. “We spent approximately 12 hours in the container. I asked to go to the bathroom, but they did not allow me to go. [Border authorities] were repeatedly spraying our faces with pepper spray and regularly spraying the inside of the container from a small window on the side.” 

Another patient added: “It made me cough. It had a bitter taste, and we were not able to breathe.” 

The container was described as being 2 by 4 meters in size (approximately 6.5 by 13 feet), with a single door and sometimes windowless. In their testimonies, patients said they were denied water, food, and access to toilets and were sprayed if they demanded any of these basic needs. Further exchanges with other community members have highlighted that this practice is not isolated but frequently observed on a larger scale. 

“These accounts indicate that European Union member states continue to intentionally use violence and harmful [tactics] to deter people from seeking asylum in the European Union,” said Shahbaz Israr Khan, MSF’s head of mission for the northern Balkans. “They’re investing in razor blade fences and drones and turning a blind eye to disturbing and unprecedented levels of violence at borders. Not only do these practices cause serious physical and psychological harm, but they also push people to [take] more dangerous routes.” 

MSF has worked in Serbia since 2014, providing medical care to migrants in transit through the Balkans. In 2022, MSF teams provide primary health care, psycho-social support, and health promotion activities through two mobile clinics in informal settlements in northern Serbia, near the Hungary and Romania borders. To date our medical teams have treated 1,844 patients. All patients who reported a violent incident at the border also reported being pushed back into Serbia.