Left to right: freelancers Benjamin Hindrichs, Sandra Abdelbaki and Helena Rodríguez

A team of freelancers has exposed a pattern of humiliation and abuse directed towards asylum seekers.

By Lauren Beauchamp

Among reports of human rights violations at the European Union’s external borders, cases of sexualised violence intended to humiliate and deter irregular migrants and asylum seekers have received little attention. Until now.

Supported by an IJ4EU grant, a team of freelance journalists has investigated abuse by border authorities and their accomplices during illegal pushbacks. The indignities include forcing people to undress in front of others and unsanitary genital searches conducted without privacy. 

As the journalists from Spain, Germany and Lebanon took a closer look, they uncovered not just isolated incidents but a systematic pattern of abuse. The findings of the investigation, Giving Up Your Body to Enter Europe, were published in six languages. 

The idea for the investigation came from fragmented reports and firsthand accounts from the peripheries of the EU — testimonies collected by the Border Violence Monitoring Network and the Danish Refugee Council.

“We had read scattered media reports of sexual violence and forced undressing at the Greek-Turkish border and along the Balkan route in The Guardian and Al Jazeera, but a comprehensive investigation into this pattern of abuse across EU borders was conspicuously absent,” journalist Helena Rodríguez told the International Press Institute in a joint interview with her teammates.

This gap in reporting motivated Rodríguez and fellow freelancers Benjamin Hindrichs and Sandra Abdelbaki to apply for an IJ4EU grant and dig deeper.

Approaching this topic fraught with trauma required a delicate balance from the team. Equipped with insights from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the journalists placed the utmost priority on the well-being and consent of survivors. 

Workshops with experts like Lauren Wolfe, director of a journalism project on sexualised violence in conflict at the Women’s Media Center, and sessions at the Dataharvest investigative journalism conference equipped them with essential skills for trauma-sensitive reporting.

“We wanted to make sure that we had the necessary tools to approach such a sensitive topic in a correct, responsible way,” Rodríguez said.

Harrowing accounts

The investigation’s findings are harrowing.

Personal accounts depict a disturbing pattern of forced undressings and invasive genital searches by border authorities, practices aimed at humiliating and deterring asylum seekers.

“The refugees were made to crouch down,” the team reported in one Al Jazeera feature. “Then, one by one, the men forced them to stand up and undress, in front of everyone else.”

The article continues:

Those who fought back were threatened and beaten with truncheons, she said. Their clothes were cut off and ripped apart while the men shouted at them: “Are you going to come back to Greece?”

Once fully naked, one of the masked men started to assault their bodies, touching their breasts and genitals.

Ngono* tried to resist at first.

“But when they got on top of me, they hit me. So I pulled my pants down myself,” she told Al Jazeera.

“He searched us everywhere,” she said, pressing two fingers together and pointing to her abdomen.

“That’s how he put his hand in my vagina. And in my anus.”

These accounts are supported by reports from organisations such as the Council of Europe and Médecins Sans Frontières, indicating that such abuses are part of a broader, troubling pattern at the EU’s borders.

Internal reports from Frontex, the EU border agency, suggest that these are not isolated incidents but indicative of a systemic issue.

More than 200 sources

With a shared vision and divided responsibilities, the team collaboratively contacted more than 200 sources, drawing on their polyglot linguistic skills and maintaining regular emotional and strategic support meetings.

“The diversity of our languages combined allowed us to communicate with more sources on the ground,” Abdelbaki said.

Conversations with non-governmental organisations confirmed awareness of these allegations, underscoring the prevalence of various forms of sexual violence at the EU borders.

NGOs expressed the difficulty in gathering evidence, as “survivors rarely report, and thus, it is a silenced phenomenon”, Hindrichs said. 

Legal experts who reviewed the journalists’ findings were clear: if the accounts are accurate, the actions described would constitute “inhumane or degrading treatment” in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, directly undermining the EU’s foundational principles of dignity and respect for human rights.

Despite their groundbreaking work, official investigations or actions by EU authorities in response to the allegations remain absent. The investigation, however, has shone a light on a dark corner of Europe’s border policy, challenging the silence surrounding such human rights violations.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

For more on this investigation, see Giving Up Your Body to Enter Europe