Moria and the smouldering ruins of Europe’s humanity

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek in Lesbos

The refugees and migrants who survived the fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos find themselves in an even worse predicament as authorities repeat the same dire mistakes.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 8 October 2020

Safia R (not her real name), 17, from Afghanistan, was afraid: afraid for her future, her physical integrity, her ailing mother and her 12-year-old brother. After living on the streets and in the nearby forests following the devastating fire at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, her family was forced to enter Kara Tepe, the replacement camp hastily constructed overnight on a former military shooting range still riddled with bullets.

“On 9 September, at around two in the morning, I was woken up by the screaming of my neighbours,” Safia recounted, her voice trembling. “They were banging on our container and screaming that a severe fire had broken out. They said we should just drop everything and run.”

It was traumatic for her to recall how the Moria camp, the symbol of Europe’s thoroughly dehumanising (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies, was reduced to an ash heap.

“So we just got up and ran, heading for the highest ground in the camp. Flames were raging everywhere we looked, and people were scrambling for their lives,” the articulate and bright young woman continued. “Right then, I really believed we were all going to die. Oh God, I was so scared… All I managed to grab before I ran was my mobile phone and the charger. Everything else was lost in the fire.”

Losing her father at an early age made her all the more exposed and vulnerable to the horrendous conditions on Lesbos. “I am one of those Afghans who’s never set foot in Afghanistan,” she went on in her excellent English, partly picked up at the local language institute and partly on the internet. »My parents were refugees from Mazar-e-Sharif. I was brought up in Iran. Losing my father so soon was the worst possible blow for all of us. My mother and I used to agonise over setting off for Europe or not. But in the end, we realised we simply had no other choice. There was no future at all for us in Iran.”

Fright night

Before she got coerced into moving into the new camp, Safia spent 10 days sleeping rough, with only what passing strangers gave her for sustenance. These, she winced, were the worst days of her life. The experience was even more frightening than the savage four months she spent in the murky side streets of Istanbul and Izmir, waiting for her passage to Greece.

Yes, there was the proverbial kindness of strangers in the wake of the Moria fire. But there was also humiliation, harassment and bitter invective. Toward the end of her ordeal, Safia was reduced to a quivering wreck.

Moving into the new camp, which could easily be dubbed Moria 2.0, didn’t do much for her mental state.

Her new reality is quite simply overwhelming. Tents without even remotely adequate flooring, a single meal each day and a dire shortage of drinkable water. In the entire camp, there are only 35 chemical toilets for 12,000 people and a few appallingly filthy shower stalls. Then there is the lack of medicine and medical staff and the pitifully inadequate quarantine measures for the almost 300 refugees already infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds of children and teenagers in Moria are without their parents. The horrible overcrowding is stirring up ethnic hostilities. All the war trauma and PTSD leads to countless acts of petty cruelty. Racism. Despair. Mounting police violence. The understandable rage of the local population.

The list goes on and on.

Given the conditions in Moria, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head – before the whole thing went up in flames. Yet it now seems clear the Greek authorities have learned nothing from the debacle.

The conditions at Kara Tepe are direct proof that the authorities learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past. The surreal squalor of Moria 2.0 is the final confirmation that the authorities in Athens are deliberately failing to invest into improving the living conditions for migrants, despite the European funds collected specifically for that purpose.

There is a twisted logic to the Greek authorities’ actions. After all, improved infrastructure could greatly contribute to Greece being rebranded as a ‘safe country’ in the eyes of the other EU members. And this could trigger the so-called Dublin II Regulation, which has been described as exceedingly unfair to the southern EU states – and rightly so. The northern states would then be legally able to send their asylum seekers back to the state of their first asylum application. And due to basic geography, the vast majority of them had first set foot on European soil in Greece or Italy.

The Greek authorities are, thus, doing everything in their power not to be deemed a safe country. And Safia, her mother and brother and everyone else in the camp, are paying the price.

No more music

“When the flames started to settle, I ran to our container,” Safia explained, now on the verge of tears. “There was nothing left… Nothing. Even my most treasured possession, a pair of guitars I’ve managed to hold on to – both were lost to the fire.”

She went on to share that she was a self-taught musician. In addition to the guitar, Safia also played the piano and used to regularly post her recordings on the internet. “Without my guitars and my singing, I simply do not feel alive.”

When one of the humanitarian volunteers helping the refugees learned of her loss, he gave her his own guitar. There is only one thing, she says, which could bring her even greater joy. And that is for her family’s asylum request to be granted, so they could finally resume their journey to Germany.

This is something she daydreams about. Every day, every hour, all the time. She is also working hard to learn the German language over the internet.

Five years after the historically unique but temporary refugee corridor through the Balkans toward Northern Europe was closed down, Germany is still considered to be the promised land for the vast majority of the refugees and migrants here. Roughly 70% of those currently stranded on Lesbos arrived here from Afghanistan.

“A month and a half ago, we were summoned for an asylum interview,” Safia recalled. “During the whole year we spent waiting for it, most of the other single Afghan women with children were allowed to leave the island. I don’t know why they made us wait so long. Anyway, the interview was perfectly pleasant – they were actually quite nice to us. They promised we would get their reply in two weeks’ time. But once again, nothing happened. And then the fire broke out.”

Safia shivered again, only to clear her throat and resume: “My greatest fear is that the calamity has sort of reset the entire process. And that we will have to remain here, in hell for a good long while. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me, watching my sick and exhausted mother and all the other broken-down people here trying to make it through another day.”

Penal colony 

It wasn’t hard to understand the naked fear on Safia’s face. The first major downpour was certain to demonstrate just how pitifully misguided the choice of location for the new camp was. Its ramshackle ramparts seemed vulnerable even to the wind.

Kara Tepe was being set up on the land of a well-known local member of the ruling New Democracy party. Ever since its opening, the entrance to the camp had been a very crowded place. Adding to the crowds was the commendably high number of humanitarian workers alighting here daily from all over the world to help reduce the inmates’ plight.

The humanitarians were quick to inform me that they are increasingly being targeted for attacks. Not only by the extreme right-wingers from the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, but also by locals who had previously shown tolerance and understanding towards the refugees.

The locals were now truly starting to lose their temper, especially in the wake of the increased tensions with Turkey, which sent several thousand refugees and migrants over to Greece at the start of March. The people of Lesbos realised all too damn well that they – along with the local populations of Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros – had been sacrificed by Athens and Brussels on the altar of shameless political and economic opportunism.

It has to be said: the people of Lesbos have managed to hold out for an admirably long time. But now their empathy seemed to be running on fumes. And little wonder. Tourism, their main source of sustenance, was now officially dead. The agency buses have been replaced by police barriers, and the well-heeled travellers by desperate traumatised people on the run.

Possibly the greatest tragedy of all is how misguidedly the locals have started picking the targets for their justified rage. Once again, the most vulnerable and exposed are bearing the brunt of it. Humanitarian workers are also being increasingly punished for the cardinal sin of working around the clock to save lives, both at sea and on solid ground.

But the blame for sacrificing the island is of course not theirs. The main culprits why, in the words of brilliant British journalist Andrew Connelly, Lesbos has been turned into ‘a penal colony’, can be found in the governing chambers all over Europe.

The EU in its entirety has decided to look away. Granted, there is much talk about ‘a refugee crisis’, but at least in the bloc, there is no such thing. And there never was – not even in 2015 and 2016, when the European border was crossed by over a million of those fleeing war, abject poverty and the ever more devastating consequences of climate change.

Please allow me to repeat this crucial if direly under-reported point: there is and never has been no such thing as a refugee crisis in the EU. The 500-million-strong union has so far accepted fewer Syrian refugees than crisis-riddled Lebanon, with a population of just 5 million.

Nowhere to turn

As I entered the perimeter, the exhausted refugees and migrants were forming a long line in front of the new camp to wait for registration and a quick COVID-19 test. The choice they were facing was between moving to Kara Tepe or hunger and deportation. At first, while they still had some strength, many tried to resist. But then hunger and thirst broke their resolve, so they took their place in line.

Naturally enough, the Greek authorities are trying to frame the quick relocation to the new camp as a great success story. In this, they are greatly helped by the soft rhetoric of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is ignoring the dire conditions of the refugees in the new makeshift camp which are not very different to those that prevailed in the smouldering heap that was once Moria.

As the new authoritarianism spreads like wildfire all over the globe, both the international conventions and the international structures tasked with upholding them are crumbling fast. And the abject dehumanisation on Lesbos continues unpunished. The banality of evil is gaining momentum and the rights of asylum-seekers are by now nothing more than a threadbare joke.

“For ten days, we slept out in the open. Though we hardly slept… We were hungry. The children got very ill. They cried and cried all through the night. They need medical help, but there are so many of us, and most of us need help. I don’t know what to do, where to turn,” said a Hazara mother of four waiting to gain admission to the new camp.

The woman refused to give me her name. But at least she was willing to talk to me. Most of her fellow sufferers did not do so. Covered with face masks, figure after passing figure declined to speak, using apologetic gestures to convey their utter exhaustion.

The ruins of civilisation

Like a David Lynch scene, the remains of the Moria camp are huge and frightening, dealing a rough blow to the senses. The smell of burning is exceptionally strong and soon sort of etches into the skin. In spite of the sun’s blaze and the blue of the Aegean sky above, the site seems strangely drained of colour, except for black, white and grey.

Burnt-out containers. The smouldering remains of what used to be a cot. A thoroughly blackened teapot. One half of a sooty teddy-bear. A shoe. Lots and lots and lots of charred metal. A number of olive trees braving this apocalyptic landscape like spent matches about to crumble. A clump of possibly still live electrical wiring. Fresh human excrement. Discarded face masks, a half-melted mobile phone, a trampled baby pacifier. A portable stove, a shard from what used to be a plate, heaps of refuse and blackened clothes. And among them rummages a playful and frighteningly trusting puppy with eyes of two different colours. Life had not yet kicked him in the teeth.

A number of local labourers were carrying off large chunks of metal and heaving them onto a truck. The process of recycling the former site into Moria 2.0 was already in full swing. A lone policeman was assigned to keeping vigil over the ash and dust. He seemed blissfully unconcerned by a pair of local teenagers combing through the site.

“Next week I’m going to have to close the place down. The fire put me out of business,” grimaced the owner of a local bar, who used to do quite well for herself before the fire.

The place itself was left untouched by the flames. Yet this made its red, blue and yellow plastic chairs and the advertisements for a famous Italian coffee brand seem only more surreal amid the cinders.

This was less David Lynch and more like Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Out of the Taliban frying pan, into the Moria fire

“Yesterday, my wife and me moved into the new camp. We got our quick COVID tests and then we got registered. Both of us are on our final legs: the lack of sleep is killing us. We want to go somewhere else – anywhere – just as long as we can go right now. But we’re stuck here,” winced Asif, 36, standing by the reeking exit of Moria 1.0. “Almost everything we had was burned in the fire. I suppose we’re glad to have survived. But the problem is that we now have to live.”

Asif is from the Afghan city of Helmand, a notorious Taliban stronghold. After we exchanged a few memories from some of the Afghan war’s bloodiest battle-fronts, he opened up.

“Two days before the fire, my wife and me, we finally got the asylum interview,” he said. “We told the Greek officials that we were fleeing for our lives. We said we were quite prepared to remain here in Greece. We kept promising that we really were fleeing horrible bloodshed, and that we weren’t out to steal anyone’s job. And then, after spending a year in Moria, we almost died in the fire. It was unbelievable. It was like nothing I had ever seen.”

Asif shook his head as he pushed a shopping trolley filled with sooty junk from the old camp to the new one. He was exhausted and might have been suffering from the initial stages of sunstroke. For the high UN and EU officials’ information, this is what ‘relocation’ really looks like on the island of Lesbos.

“The conditions in the new camp are even worse than in Moria,” Asif sighed and halted his progress, leaning onto his trolley to gather strength. “Perhaps the worst thing is the filth. We’ve been reduced to washing in the sea, but even the sea is now dirty. The people are so angry. Lots of fights break out during the night. I’m afraid we are about to see a lot more violence.”

On the concrete wall by the road to Kara Tepe graffiti reading ‘Welcome to Europehas been supplemented with the appropriate qualifier ‘Human Rights Graveyard.

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Bordering on inhumanity: How Slovenia and Croatia illegally deport refugees and migrants

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, Mašenjka Bačić, Nerminka Emrić, Maja Čakarić and Klara Škrinjar, with the support of Journalismfund.eu

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. 

Image: ©Matej Povše

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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.

Fast-track refoulement

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.”

Bosnian camps

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.

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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