Rather than being allowed to apply for asylum, thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Slovenia and Croatia are being illegally and often violently spirited across the border to Bosnia, and out of the EU.
Tuesday 20 August 2019
Western Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a bottleneck for migrants and refugees who are fleeing through the Balkans. In the past year, many of them have been caught en route to Northern or Western Europe in Slovenia and then systematically handed over to Croatian authorities. In Croatia, they are often subjected to police violence. They finally end up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are condemned to an interminable wait.
The Slovenian police deny illegal migrants access to asylum and turn a deaf ear to their appeals. These are first-hand accounts of the migrants who we met along the Balkan route from Slovenia to Bosnia. Similar cases are also recorded by NGOs and are being investigated by the Ombudsman.
Such actions systematically contravene international conventions on human rights and are occurring in two EU member states.
The situation today is very different from the one that came as a rude awakening to the public in the fall of 2015.
Memories of those events, during which, according to rough estimates, a million displaced people entered the EU via the Balkans, are perhaps still freshly etched in our minds. The situation on the ground now, however, has changed dramatically.
This migration route to Western and Northern Europe became impassable after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey entered into force. Among other things, it provided for the return of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey. The deal’s effects included the termination of mass migrations and an almost complete closure of the Balkan corridor in the spring of 2016. This meant that many migrants were left stranded.
The following year, information emerged regarding the controversial return of displaced people in Slovenia and Croatia to the border with Bosnia, including reports of violence, confiscated and smashed phones, stolen money, thefts and damaged personal belongings.
Despite the existence of numerous testimonies and compelling evidence, the Slovenian and Croatian police outright deny the case put forward by NGOs, the media, migrants and refugees.
In the middle of July, the Croatian Ombudsman published an anonymous complaint from a group of Croatian police officers. In it, they admitted that their superiors had instructed them to return illegal migrants to Bosnia. Many of their colleagues used violence and took away migrants’ belongings while executing these orders. “If we stood up to this, we would get laid off and then how are we supposed to support our families?” wrote a presumably concerned but fearful police officer.
Many displaced people we met along what is left of the Balkan route confirm that such treatment routinely occurs. Among them was a young Syrian family from Hama who made it all the way to Slovenia this spring. “As soon as we crossed the border, we bumped into Slovenian policemen. We tried to apply for asylum but they said that this wasn’t possible; that there ‘is no asylum in Slovenia,’” the father recounted. “They returned us to Croatia where they took our phones. They treated us like savages even though we were travelling with kids. They threw us into a van and took us to near the Bosnian border.”
From there, they went on foot in pouring rain and biting cold to Velika Kladuša, a town in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently one of the hotspots on the Balkan migrant route. The Bosnian Ombudsman estimates that at least 60,000 migrants will enter the country this year, but local authorities warn that the country is ill-prepared for them.
In Velika Kladuša, innkeeper Asim Latić-Latan let the drenched and exhausted Syrian family into the dining room of a former pizzeria, now converted into a makeshift soup kitchen. He has been serving refugees and migrants for a year and a half. Every day, he prepares as many as 800 evening meals for them. His guests are fleeing from war, totalitarian regimes, poverty, violence and climate change, and he serves them dinner.
After arriving, one family ate dinner, their first real meal in a week, the father of two small children told us. He only gave us his initial, A. He was the only refugee who did not wish to reveal his full name among those whose testimonies are published below. He said he feared that the regime in his homeland, where his parents, brothers and sisters remained, would take revenge on his family.
He had left Syria for Europe with his family, brother-in-law and his partner in the hope of asking for international protection when he arrived. He did not expect any complications as he was coming from a war zone and was travelling with children. He was wrong. His family joined the ranks of a mounting number of people who were stripped of their right to asylum before they had even applied for it.
Slovenian police have denied many undocumented refugees and migrants the right to asylum and handed them over to Croatia.
This practice of blocking the filing of asylum applications and pushing back refugees and migrants began at the end of May 2018. At that time, a now former director-general of the Slovenian police, Simon Velički, issued instructions to police that people who are caught crossing the border illegally by mixed Slovenian-Croatian patrols “should be handed over to Croatian police to be handled by them.”
This was the moment when Slovenia systematically started to begin thwarting the possibility of claiming asylum by deporting refugees and migrants en masse.
Data published by the police on its own website confirms the changes in the treatment of migrants, and also possible irregularities in the procedures used for handling people who enter Slovenian territory with the purpose of applying for international protection.
The number of refoulements, i.e. the forcible return of refugees to countries where they are liable to face persecution, has risen dramatically since last year when, according to data from a report by the Slovenian police, as many as 4,653 people were deported to Croatia, which is 11 times more people compared to the previous three-year average since 2015, when the Balkan migration route was mapped out.
Slovenian and Croatian police deny entry to displaced people on the grounds of a bilateral agreement which the two countries concluded in 2006. This agreement provides for the return of migrants according to a summary procedure.
“It’s appalling that two EU member states simply get rid of some asylum seekers by using a summary procedure to bounce and return them into a third country,” says Amnesty International.
The Ombudsman’s office also warned that such treatment is controversial because the agreement does not absolve the police of the obligation to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Slovenian constitution, laws and other regulations.
If the Slovenian police hand over a foreigner who is caught by a Slovenian-Croatian patrol in Slovenian territory to Croatian security authorities, even though she or he has expressed an intention to apply for asylum, this infringes on the laws of international protection.
This conclusion was reached by the Ombudsman’s office in the report on the treatment of migrants by the police at the border. Due to allegations against the police regarding violations of the right of access to international protection, the Ombudsman’s office, as an autonomous and independent agency, reviewed the work of police.
Among other things, it highlighted the lack of (serious) consideration of the personal circumstances of each individual. From police documents, it was not clear whether a detained person stated his or her intention to claim asylum or whether he or she stated such an intention but was possibly ignored. Such inconsistencies could mean that the police denied some people asylum procedures.
The Ministry of the Interior assured the Ombudsman that everyone is able to find out their rights in police facilities and that brochures are available in various languages. Such provision of information is, according to the Ombudsman, undoubtedly useful, but should be accessible in places where people can leaf through the brochure’s contents.
The Ombudsman insists that an asylum seeker should be granted the possibility to apply for international protection and obtain it in line with the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, i.e. the Geneva Convention.
“The negligible number of intentions to apply for asylum actually recorded at Črnomelj police station reflects the seriousness of the allegation that some police procedures could be irregular, including collective expulsions which are prohibited in compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” explained Nataša Kuzmič from the Ombudsman’s office.
In its report from April 2019, the civil society initiative InfoKolpa found that “the practice of violating the legislation by denying the right to asylum” became systematic last June. It states that this practice spread from Črnomelj station to other police stations in the southern border region, such as Metlika, Ilirska Bistrica, and Dragonja.
A sudden slump in asylum seekers
Last June, soon after the above-mentioned instructions were issued, the volume of people stating their intention to apply for asylum at the Črnomelj police station decreased by 95% in only one month – from 98% to 3%.
We asked Slovenian police for updated data on asylum seekers from January 2018 to July 2019 (by individual border police stations), but received none. They explained that gathering the data would constitute a “disproportionate burden” on them.
The statistical report on illegal migration, however, confirms that “the number of foreigners handed over rose considerably due to a strengthened collaboration with Croatian security authorities. The increase was noticed especially in the second half of 2018.”
This year, numbers have hit an all-time high. The number of people whom Slovenian police returned to the authorities of other countries rose by as much as 406% in 2018 compared with 2017. There was also a spike in the number of people returned to the Croatian border – a staggering 507%.
The available official data from the police, nevertheless, shows that the number of filed asylum applications in the first half of 2019 was similar to the same period last year, but that the number of unauthorised crossings of the national border increased by as much as 47%.
The number of refugees and migrants who the Slovenian authorities returned to neighbouring countries under the guise of various bilateral agreements rose even more – by 200%. In the same period last year (from January to June), the authorities deported 1,117 people, whereas this year the number was as much as 3,534 people. By far the most (98%) were returned to the Croatian border.
Urša Regvar from the Legal Information Centre for NGOs (Centre PIC) stated that some asylum seekers still attest to being refused access to asylum procedures, “which confirms our observations and shows that individuals at the border are still being denied access to protection.”
The police claim otherwise: “We have already provided answers to such generalisations and unfounded accusations in the past, as well as explained that we verified each and every one of the concrete cases presented to us. Until now, these allegations were confirmed in none of them.”
For some time, journalists, activists and NGOs have warned that the police procedures at the border are untransparent, carried out systematically and en masse. Last year, these suspicions reached the Slovenian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. Suspicions of illegal police procedures and possible violations of human rights are being investigated by the Specialised State Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.
A crucial document was appended to the report which states that, last May, the Slovenian police command gave orders to all police stations about how to treat migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Until recently, the document was confidential. “The public, however, is not familiar with the entire content of these instructions, because the police is contesting the disclosure in court, despite the decision of the Information Commissioner that it involves public information,” InfoKolpa added. The procedure is pending.
The systematic and collective expulsion of asylum seekers continued this year. We gathered testimonies that prove this.
Entering the bureaucratic triangle
Not far away from Plitvice National Park, one of the most important Croatian tourist sites, lies the town of Korenica. It looks slightly forlorn, its buildings rather dilapidated.
Although it is just a stone’s throw away from a national treasure, it is off the beaten tourist track. According to Croatian NGOs, the Korenica police station compound has become a “bureaucratic triangle” or “temporary accommodation centre” for a different type of visitors.
Migrants who are captured during unauthorised border crossings are first taken to this faraway police station and then onward to the green border from where they are expelled to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It’s true that they bring migrants here,” confirmed a resident of Korenica. As to why, how and how many, she did not know.
However, the report on illegal push-backs and border violence published in April of this year by the NGOs that collaborate in the Border Violence Monitoring initiative contains more testimonies about this particular police station or, to be precise, a garage next to it. According to the news published by the H-alter.org portal, people are detained and mistreated there, and then returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Croatian police categorically deny that they are carrying out push-backs. However, the testimonies of refugees, a series of photographs and videos prove the opposite. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović herself recently asserted that “a touch of force” is necessary. The irregularities in police treatment are reflected also in official statistics, or rather in their incongruities. The civil initiative Dobrodošli (Welcome) and two NGOs, the Center za mirovne študije (The Center for Peace Studies, CMS) and Are You Syrious, discovered inconsistencies in official data.
In 2018, 8,207 people crossed the Croatian border without permission, 71% more than in the previous year. The rise in unauthorised border crossings was most obvious close to the border with Slovenia and amounted to as much as a 158% increase. In the vicinity of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian police noted an 88% increase in unauthorised crossings, whereas such crossings in the rest of the country increased by 55%. Of those 8,207, 1,438 were returned to third countries, 1,068 applied for asylum and 536 were detained.
This means that there is only data on a total of 3,042 people who Croatian police detained who attempted to cross the border clandestinely. “Where are the remaining 5,165 people and how did police treat them?” asks Julija Kranjec of CMS. In its report, CMS assumes that these people were illegally refused entry in Croatia. It speculates that the police do not register all of the people they capture.
According to CMS, there are no official statistics on expulsions of refugees from Croatia. In light of data collected by international organisations, they conclude, however, that Croatian police have illegally pushed at least 10,000 people back to neighbouring countries. “I constantly repeat the question: where are these people?” says Maja Kević from the Croatian Ombudsman’s office that receives complaints about illegal returns of migrants to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of complaints in the last annual report of the Ombudsman refer to police procedures against migrants who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border or immediately after.
The Ombudsman’s office also discovered unpublicised internal rules which allow the Croatian police to carry out the push-backs.
According to the statements of XY, one of these rules is supposedly based on an oral order from the end of 2016 and the other on a written document from 15 February 2018. According to instructions from the then Director General of Police Marko Srdarević, police officers must send undocumented migrants found deep inside Croatian territory to a police station near to where they crossed the border and not to the station closest to where they were found – as stipulated in the regulations.
In addition, according to Kević, the Ombudsman’s investigations revealed the existence of a form that is presented to migrants “which, among other things, says that they agree to be returned, do not need a translator, can communicate also with the help of Google Translate and the like.” This is flies in the face of Croatian law. Refugees should be given the option to apply for asylum if they wish to do so. They should be treated individually in order to find out why the entered the country, says Kević.
The form they receive is actually a decision on their departure which demands that they leave the country within seven days. In order to cross the border, they would need to possess valid identity documents which the majority of migrants neither have nor can obtain. “Therefore we think, and also state it in [our] report, that they take them to these outlying police stations in order to get them over the green border,” continued Kević. She thinks that this actually constitutes a violation of human rights, which, considering the large numbers of returns, are being committed en masse.
The Croatian Ministry of the Interior – as is the case with its Slovenian counterpart – consistently denies that border police are engaged in such illegal conduct, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This May, a Swiss television channel published footage of a policeman pushing migrants over the green border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When questioned about it, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović said: “This is another futile attempt at throwing accusations against the Croatian police that abides by national and European laws.”
The migrants and refugees caught by the Slovenian or Croatian police upon crossing the border end their journey in Bosnia and Herzegovina for an indefinite period of time. Bira, a former factory which produced air conditioners in the northwestern town of Bihać, is one of the largest migrant centres in the country. Every migrant that lives there has attempted to cross the border with Croatia at least once, and then to continue their journey towards Slovenia. Some of them were returned; others succeeded in their attempt, or ended up in Serbia.
According to data from Bihać’s communication office, around 11,000 migrants arrived in Bihać between last April and this June, whereas the Ministry of the Interior of Una-Sana Canton counted 17,000 of them. These were only how many they actually registered. No one can explain this discrepancy since both authorities say they are registering them correctly.
Various displaced people converge on the streets of Bihać: from Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Many of them sleep outdoors. Some of them find shelter in abandoned buildings, of which there are plenty in Bosnia. For a long time, no one took care of the migrants without a place to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July of last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took over the care of refugees and migrants in all of the reception centres across the country. These centres, however, are often full, meaning that many migrants are left on the streets without a roof over their head.
Outside the entrance to the Bira centre there are reception facilities where, during our visit this spring, around 500 people were milling around. When we talked to them, they asked us for help and told us that no one in the Bira centre wants to help them. They claimed that they were not given food or water. Melisa Kljuca, the IOM representative who manages the Bira centre, assured us that everyone is getting regular meals but that the centre is overcrowded.
We also witnessed how security officers from Bakrač, the private security company that protects the Bira centre, used electric stun devices to force the migrants away from the entrance to the reception centre. The use of such devices is prohibited by Bosnian law. We contacted a representative of the Bakrač security company but they were not willing to explain why they use them. Melisa Kljuca of IOM told us, however, that the individual security guards had already been suspended and relocated due to the use of these batons.
That night many migrants were left outside, sleeping in a meadow close to the Bira centre. Not far from Bihać, Bosnian authorities set up tents in a field previously used as a landfill site. The police now send the migrants that they find on the city streets to this improvised camp, called Vučjak. Living there is worse than being in prison, they say.
The Balkan bottleneck
Migrants usually enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from its eastern border, where there are no reception centres for them. Then they head to the country’s interior, towards Tuzla. As we witnessed on the ground, the brunt of the migrant crisis is borne by a handful of volunteers. They act on their own initiative and are occasionally aided by humanitarian organisations and a few of Tuzla’s residents. Among the most active is local Senad Pirić. He says that they cope as best they can and that they are already exhausted. Their supplies of food, sanitary material and other basic necessities of life are almost gone, but there are more and more migrants pouring in every month.
Displaced people enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Republika Srpska from the neighbouring Serbia over the Drina River. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that it will not help migrants but that it can provide a humanitarian corridor. Hence, police direct everyone who enters the Republika Srpska to the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tuzla.
During the late evening hours, several migrants arrive in Tuzla on foot, usually in groups of up to 30 people. They are soaked, hungry and afraid. They gather in front of the assembly centre, in the park or at the main bus station. From there, they continue their journey to Sarajevo. “There is no location in Tuzla that is suitable for living. Public toilets do not operate in the evening. There is also no provision of health services or any help from the responsible authorities,” explained Pirić.
The authorities are intentionally indifferent to this problem, says Pirić, the tireless volunteer, who offers help to refugees and migrants day and night. He says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no systemic solutions to deal with the migrant crisis. “They are not allowed to enter the EU and here, where they are stranded, they are also not provided with anything,” reflected Pirić, sadly. “They are stuck and can go neither backwards nor forwards.”
“By being unresponsive, the country blatantly infringes on the basic human rights of refugees and migrants, while the EU encourages non-member states to use repressive methods,” finds Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian activist and journalist who has been following the migrant crisis since 2015.
Denial and indifference
Following three months of intensive fieldwork and data processing, we conclude that the practice of push-backs – denial of entry to refugees and migrants at the border without the possibility of applying for asylum – on the Balkan route continues unhindered in 2019, despite the warnings of national Ombudsmen, NGOs, journalists and other activists in this field.
The clearest proof of this is the testimonies of numerous refugees and migrants to whom we spoke in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Velika Kladuša and Bihać – and our verification of the facts on the ground, as well as our combing through and analysis of the available data. The testimonies are of key importance because they provide evidence of the systematic treatment of migrants that contravenes the international conventions on human rights and refugees.
It is impossible to know with any accuracy how many refugees and migrants Slovenian police pushed straight back to Croatia after they crossed the border illegally, because many of them are not included in the Slovenian statistics and often not in the Croatian ones either. In Croatia, the local police – also confirmed in the collected testimonies – employ brutal and cruel measures to return refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where inhumane conditions prevail in the IOM accommodation centres. Many must fend for themselves.