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The hardest edge of Europe’s migration policy is encountered on land and at sea in the form of masked men. Their violent actions against vulnerable people on the move, often seeking international protection, are far removed from discussions on managed migration in Brussels, Berlin or Warsaw.

From the forests of the Western Balkans to the Aegean Sea consistent reports have emerged of physical assaults, illegal pushbacks, reckless endangerment and rights abuses of asylum seekers and migrants. But the masked men operate in a grey zone of deniability which considerable efforts by activists and other civil society actors have only been able to partially penetrate. It is a thin veil that most informed observers can already see through but it has provided sufficient cover for the perpetrators to escape any meaningful accountability.

While these forces remain, in effect, shadow armies it prevents any detailed examination of how they are equipped and financed from either national or European Union budgets. Thousands of personal testimonies from people caught up in these often violent operations have been unable to shift official denials that they occur. What has been needed is irrefutable visual evidence and corroboration from confidential sources among the same officer corps — some of whom are unhappy with being ordered to undertake these actions.

But these border areas have in recent years become hostile environments for reporting with restricted access and multiple instances of arrests of local and international journalists who have tried to approach and observe what is happening.

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