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Beaten back

asylum seekers
An Afghan refugee shows scars on his back, which he says were caused by the violent force used by Croatian border police to deter him from making a crossing from Bosnia. Credit: Michele Amoruso

Hamid* looks down a human corridor of Croatian police officers who are about to beat him. They will push him from one man to the next, slap him, kick him, take his possessions and burn his sleeping bag. If he’s lucky, he’ll stay upright. If he’s unlucky, he’ll fall and be kicked in the head. He fears for his life.

When the beatings finish, they will force him to cross the border into Bosnia.

When we speak on the phone, Hamid, an Eritrean refugee, claims this is what has happened to him many times over. He calls it torture. He has made the journey from Bosnia to Croatia to Slovenia 10 times, never quite making it to Italy, his desired destination. Each time he has been pushed right back to where he started by successive authorities.

This is known as a chain pushback, where displaced people are handed from country to country, each less safe than the last. According to the evidence, encounters with Croatian police are a reliable part of the experience.

If there were no NGOs in Bosnia, then half the migrants would be dead on the street

A report released by the End Pushbacks Partnership at the end of 2020 uncovered rights violations along various national borders in Europe, including chain pushbacks, or chain refoulement. It records testimonies from one common route, where people who have travelled through the Balkans and made it as far as Italy, Austria, or even France, are picked up by the police and handed from one authority to the next, forced to make the journey in reverse.

Hamid describes one of his pushback experiences, which started in Slovenia on Easter Sunday in 2019. After being picked up by the police, Hamid and his fellow travellers asked to claim asylum.

‘They locked us in the prison [police station cell] – three people together in one room.’

After spending a night in the cell, he says they were taken and handed over to Croatian police the next morning. They were then driven through Croatia, the police stopping at various stations to smoke, drink coffee and load up the van with more people on the move.

Upon arrival at the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, they were made to wait in the van until nightfall. No food. No toilet facilities.

‘They waited until dark to take you to the border, so they could beat you,’ Hamid says.

After the beating, there was little choice but to cross back into Bosnia.

Worldly goods: an Afghan asylum-seeker with blankets and a sleeping bag donated by a local NGO, January 2021.
Due to their existence in unheated makeshift shelters, refugees often risk hypothermia and serious illness. Credit: Michele Amoruso

Violent pushbacks

Hamid’s story is by no means unique. Multiple reports compiled by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) show similar experiences, and they believe pushbacks to be a ‘systematic and organized practice’. In one case, a group of five men were pushed back from Austria to Bosnia. They say they asked to claim asylum in every country on their route, but were ignored.

Chain pushbacks go against the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, which says that not only are collective expulsions prohibited, but that no-one can be removed to a country where they face serious risk. They are happening in spite of this, often with bilateral agreements between countries.

Pushbacks have continued through the Covid-19 pandemic, but the visibility of the issue has decreased as civil-society groups face greater difficulties in gathering evidence.

The Black Book of Pushbacks, published by BVMN in 2020, documents – over the course of 1,500 pages – a rising number of violent pushbacks. Asylum-seekers recount experiences of police violence, particularly in Croatia, saying they have been beaten with batons, shot at, had their belongings stolen, and their right to claim asylum ignored.

When asked for comment, a representative from the Croatian Ministry of the Interior sent a statement, including the following: ‘The Ministry of the Interior has, on multiple occasions, disputed claims of police brutality against migrants, and we hereby once again deny them completely.’

In Slovenia, according to self-organized migrant initiative Infokolpa, police take refugees from the Italian or Austrian authorities, then hand them to Croatia, who finally push them out of the European Union into Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia.

‘People are treated like objects,’ according to the Infokolpa collective. ‘There are no translators, no legal aid, and most of the time participants in the procedures are not even made aware of the goal.’

But there have also been a few victories. In one, a court in Slovenia ruled that a 2019 pushback of a Cameroonian asylum-seeker to Bosnia was unlawful. The Slovenian Interior Ministry has since appealed the decision and the process is ongoing. The asylum-seeker remains stuck in a Bosnian refugee camp.

‘According to what we have observed and according to the evidence collected, chain pushbacks are organized between authorities,’ says Caterina Bove, a lawyer and member of the Italy-based Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI).

She says that Italy considers Slovenia a safe country, and the number of pushbacks had increased since May 2020. Within a couple of days, people were pushed back to Bosnia or Serbia. But with a recent legal victory for ASGI, Italy seems to have suspended pushbacks for now. How long that will last only time will tell.

The morning shave, using water drawn from a nearby river.
This Afghan refugee lives in a decrepit, abandoned building and has undergone illegal pushbacks from Croatian police. Credit: Michele Amoruso

The hell that is paradise

For those pushed back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, grave conditions await. Camps are overcrowded and many are left destitute. Near the northwestern city of Bihać, the Lipa camp was dismantled in January, leaving people stranded in freezing conditions.

Migrants have taken to sheltering in broken-down, abandoned buildings. Hamid stayed in a container settlement in the town of Velika Kladuša near the Croatian border, preferable to the crowded hall that others had to share.

‘If there were no NGOs in Bosnia, then half the migrants would be dead on the street,’ he says. ‘We were in hell there in Bosnia.

‘People die in the river, in the snow, because they get frustrated and they need to run away from the situation.’

But when he talks about the reason he made his journey to Europe, he says: ‘Bosnia, compared to Eritrea, is a paradise.’

According to Infokolpa, in order to put an end to chain pushbacks, safe migration routes need to be established and EU nation states need to respect conventions and laws regarding refugee rights. Both international refugee law and the EU Charter stipulate non-refoulement, a prohibition on collective expulsions and a guarantee of the right to asylum.

After being in Europe for eight years, Hamid was finally able to put in an asylum claim in Slovenia, but he’s still waiting for an answer.

‘I ran away from hell and now I’ve got a new hell here,’ he says. ‘I need stability.’

In Europe Hamid probably expected safety, fairness, maybe even a home. Whatever he envisioned before making his perilous journey, it was not serious human rights violations on European soil.

* Not his real name.

All images accompanying this article are from Bihać, Bosnia, close to the border with Croatia.

Katie Dancey-Downs is a British freelance journalist who covers human rights and the environment. She has written for HuffPost, I News and Resurgence, among others.

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