Today, 80 Amnesty International activists from 30 countries across the globe joined forces in the heart of Sofia to symbolically transform Europe's external border into a memorial wall for migrants and refugees. This action, kept secret for many weeks, was organised to remember the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives or been abused seeking safety and sanctuary at Europe's borders.
"European member states are building their walls higher and higher. This is at the expense of the rights and lives of refugees and migrants," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.
The activists were joined by passers-by, refugees and local civil society. Collectively, they took over Vitosha Boulevard, the main street in the heart of Sofia. Starting next to Sofia's Court House, protesters moved slowly, in silence, and single file along the street towards a reconstruction of Europe's external border at the end of the boulevard. The two-metre high fence was held in place by activists representing the leaders of the European Union's (EU) member states. Activists and bystanders approached the leaders tying messages and personal objects to the fence, turning Europe's recreated barrier to refugees and migrants into an object of solidarity.
"Today's action not only shone the light on the failings of Bulgaria's and the wider EU's migration policies which are increasingly focussing on border control measures. It also demonstrated the public outrage at the ill-treatment of vulnerable people seeking refuge at Europe's borders," added John Dalhuisen.
Desperate people fleeing war-torn countries, persecution, and poverty are repeatedly facing Europe's sealed borders. This is leaving many people with almost no safe and legal ways to enter Europe. Border countries including Bulgaria are effectively acting as gatekeepers to Fortress Europe.
Increased border control operations and sophisticated surveillance systems are just some of the practices that have been employed to effectively keep people in need of protection out. For example, at the end of November 2013, the Bulgarian authorities started to construct a 30 kilometre long, 3 metre high fence along its border with Turkey. Hundreds of police guards were additionally deployed to patrol the borders.
This security-based approach reflects the EU's overall migration policies and practices, with millions of Euros spent each year by member states on fences, and border patrols. In a revealing indicator of priorities, the EU allocated close to 2 billion Euro on protecting and policing its external borders between 2007 and 2013. In stark contrast, it spent only 700 million Euro on improving the situation for asylum-seekers and refugees in the same period.
"Rather than keeping people out, these preventative migration measures are simply forcing migrants and refugees to take increasingly dangerous routes to Europe," said John Dalhuisen. "Today as the world witnesses more displaced people than at any other time since the end of the Second World War, the response of the EU member states has been to turn their backs on this humanitarian crisis. Now more than ever is the time to act. And finally put people before borders."
The action was the culmination of Amnesty International's third human rights action camp, part of the S.O.S. Europe campaign . The campaign works to protect the lives and rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The camp was organised between 12 and 19 July, in association with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
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Yana Buhrer Tavanier
Media and Communication
Bulgarian Helsinki Committee
Media and Communications
Amnesty International European Institutions Office