KIEV, Ukraine — In recent years we have all discovered that law-based, civilized societies have used torture against terrorism suspects. Still, when I went to Ukraine in June to investigate the treatment of migrants, I did not expect to find torture. We knew that Ukraine’s asylum system was dysfunctional and thought we might find poor detention conditions. What we heard was much worse.
Ukrainian border guards caught and mistreated many of the 161 migrants, refugees and asylum seekers we interviewed before they crossed the western border, trying to reach the European Union. Of the 36 who were returned to Ukraine after crossing into Slovakia, 18 said they received ill-treatment at the hands of Ukrainian officials upon their return. Of 14 returned from Hungary, 12 alleged serious ill-treatment.
Many said they had been hit or kicked when they were caught, but described torture during subsequent interrogations about people-smuggling networks. A young Somali man told me how a Ukrainian official questioned him after his return from Slovakia:
“He said, ‘If you lie, you will not leave here alive.’ … Every time I hesitated to answer a question he punched my chest. Every time he punched me with his fist. I can’t count the number of times he punched my chest. He punched my chest for six hours, every 10 minutes.”
Eight of the people my Human Rights Watch team interviewed, including Iraqis, Afghans, a Somali and a Palestinian, said they had been subjected to electric-shock torture during interrogations.
None of them had any way of knowing what the others had told us. All eight gave consistent accounts, saying that while they were in the custody of Ukraine’s border guards, they were tortured by men in civilian clothes who questioned them about people-smuggling networks. They said the torture occurred in or near two towns on Ukraine’s western border, Chop and Mukachevo. One of the most striking consistencies in their accounts is that seven of the eight said that the electric shocks were put on their ears or ear lobes; none of them said that they were shocked on their genitals, toes, tongue, or nipples.
We conducted the interviews privately in various locations in Ukraine. To minimize any incentive to fabricate, each of us explained to each interviewee that they would receive no personal benefit for their testimony — no money, material aid, social or legal service. We also compared these testimonies with two similar accounts regarding the use of electric shock in Ukraine gathered by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in interviews with asylum seekers who succeeded in entering Hungary.
While the accounts were similar, details diverged. The migrants described individual interrogators using different devices or methods to conduct the same kind of torture — the different descriptions could stem from the trauma of the torture itself.
A Somali man said: “They told me not to move. When I made a movement they shocked me. I was traumatized; it’s very difficult for me to remember. I remember when I fell down on the ground they took me to another room. I don’t remember how they attached [the electricity] to my body.”
Detainees described torture aimed at getting information about smugglers and smuggling routes, but also torture when there was no information to be gained. According to an Iraqi man arrested by Ukrainian border guards in April: “The treatment was savage. They beat us and kicked us and abused us verbally. They also electric shocked me… . I admitted that I wanted to cross the border and that we were smuggled… . I felt my heart was going to stop… . I just admitted everything, but they didn’t stop torturing me.”
Hypotheticals about ticking bombs notwithstanding, it should be clear by now that torture is not really about gathering information. It is about dehumanizing, degrading and punishing— making the victim feel utterly helpless and alone.
Perhaps Ukrainian officials who torture migrants do so out of frustration. For the past year an EU-wide agreement has led to the return of migrants to Ukraine. Ukrainians may fear their country will become a human dumping ground for a European Union preoccupied with diverting migration flows to its neighbors.
Officials also see how ill-equipped their own government is to screen refugees and take appropriate action, so perhaps they decide to take matters into their own hands.
Whatever their frustrations, whatever the reason, there is no justification for torture. Ukraine must stop these inhuman and criminal acts, and EU member states, legally bound not to return anyone to face torture, must stop returning migrants to Ukraine.
Bill Frelick is director of the Human Rights Watch Refugee Program and co-author of a new report, Buffeted in the Borderland: The Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Ukraine.