Choosing violence: EU & UK policies deny safety and protection to refugees and migrants, while promoting systematic brutality

Since the so-called 2015 migration ‘crisis’, MSF has consistently called on the UK the EU and its member states to take responsibility in addressing urgent assistance and protection needs for migrants and refugees. However, far from improving, a normalisation of violence against refugees and migrants has taken root and anti-migrant sentiment and policies have been cemented with narratives of crisis and migrants as a “threat” to justify their actions.  

Across operations in Europe and beyond, MSF’s medical and humanitarian teams have treated the devastating consequences of restrictive migration policies and practices and seen first-hand their human cost. MSF teams have responded in places such as Libya, the Balkans, the Central Mediterranean, Poland, Greece, and Italy, which have become laboratories and testing grounds for increasingly harmful policies and practices.

The UK and the EU must urgently confront these policies that have, for far too long, resulted in senseless deaths, injuries and long-term trauma among people seeking protection at EU borders.

Some of the data included in the full report (attached)

Serbia-Hungary crossing:

Between August 2021 and August 2023, MSF provided medical assistance to 169 patients as a result of reported violence at the Hungarian-Serbian border, with over 95% of the violence reportedly linked to pushback practices from Hungary

Poland-Belarus crossing:

Between the months of January and September 2023, 66 (35.3%) patients seen by MSF in Poland, including children, families and individuals with serious medical conditions, proactively reported having suffered from push-backs at the Polish-Belarusian border, some multiple times. A total of 117 (62.5%) patients experienced trauma related to violence, most of which had reportedly taken place in the border area


Among the 57 survivors of torture assisted between January and August 2023 in Palermo Italy, 61% reported having been tortured in Libya, while 58% reported having been subjected to torture within a detention facility.

Central Mediterranean

The number of dead and missing in the Central Mediterranean Sea surpassed 2,000 between January and November 2023, making it the deadliest year since 2017 in the region.

By 2022, the EU had invested over €70 million in Libya’s border management capacity, including capacity building and technical support for the Libyan coastguard.


Between January and December 2022, MSF supported 245 new mental health patients on Samos – of these, 82% reported that previous violence was the precipitating factor in their mental health distress. On Lesbos, between August 2021 and July 2023, MSF’s mental health team supported 614 patients (515 adults, 99 children). Depressive disorders, PTSD and anxiety disorders were prevalent in all population groups, even children.


In 2021 in Paris, 85% of children in MSF’s mental health cohort reported having previously experienced violence, including detention, sexual violence and/or torture; of these, 58% reported that this violence had taken place during their journey to France.

In 2023, MSF teams supported people living in informal settlements in Calais. During 212 consultations between May - September 2023, 34% of people told our teams they had survived violence.

Italy-France crossing:

Among the 955 patients consulted by the MSF team in Ventimiglia between February and September 2023, 187 (19.5%) individuals proactively reported having experienced pushbacks at the borders and 23 of those (12.2%) reported having experienced violence during these pushbacks.


With the UK government's Rwanda plan in the House of Lords this week it is timely to discuss the variety of ways in which the UK is contributing to this web of violent policies.

  • The Rwanda plan – A hugely harmful and expensive policy from the UK government. How the complete outsourcing of the asylum system to another country breaks the spirit and the letter of the Refugee Convention (and other legal obligations), disregards the UK's responsibility to  process asylum claims of those seeking safety in the UK and will obscure from  scrutiny the human suffering caused.
  • Despite the known mental and physical damage caused by this approach and multiple successful legal challenges in the UK’s domestic courts, this policy has continued to attract interest from other EU member states, with Denmark, Austria and Germany having explored adopting ‘Rwanda-style’ deals of their own. The recent deal between Italy and Albania, whereby people rescued at sea by Italian authorities would be taken to Albania and placed in centres while their asylum claims are assessed by Italian authorities, is a clear indication that individual member states are exploring other ways to outsource their duties to people seeking safety, leading to more suffering and harm.
  • The UK government has consistently cited the highly damaging Greek containment model as one it wants to emulate and since 2020 has used former military sites and a barge in isolated locations to contain asylum seekers. This practice has had devastating health and humanitarian consequences. 
  • The recently passed legislation (the Illegal Migration Act, 2023) legalises some truly harmful policies and shocking abuses of power including essentially a ban on the fundamental right to claim asylum; the power to detain everyone who arrives irregularly into the UK – including children – with no specified time limit and no access to judicial review for 28 days, which in theory will lead to an enormous increase in the detained population in the UK; places a legal duty on the Home Secretary to remove anyone who arrives irregularly to another country and does not provide for any additional safe routes to the UK.
  • The UK government has also recently introduced legislation enabling biological age assessment of age-disputed children, referring to other European countries who implement these practices as justification when it is widely accepted that no method of age assessment can conclusively determine chronological age. Biological methods, such as bone and dental x-rays and pubertal assessments, have been widely criticised by medical and paediatric professional bodies internationally as being inaccurate, intrusive and potentially dangerous for assessing age.
  • The constant, institutional violence perpetrated by the French authorities is financed in large part by the UK government through multiple bilateral agreements. Since 2003, more than €1.28 billion of French and British public funds have been spent on policies focused on deterrence, securitisation, militarisation and enforcement. In March 2023, the UK government pledged another €540 million to France over three years to be spent on further militarisation of the French-UK border, including the deployment of 500 more officers and surveillance equipment, as well as the construction of a new detention centre in northern France.
  • Despite no longer being in the EU, the UK government have also directly assisted and funded hostile and dangerous EU external border enforcement by providing technical and human resource assistance to the governments of Lithuania and Poland in 2021 and 2022.
Contact us
Emma Parkin Senior Press Officer
Emma Parkin Senior Press Officer
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