Croatia's president has tried to downplay reports of bruises and injuries | Photo: Picture-alliance/P.Macek
Croatia's president has tried to downplay reports of bruises and injuries | Photo: Picture-alliance/P.Macek

In recent months there have been increasing reports, from humanitarian organizations and migrants themselves, about the mistreatment of migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Croatia. Now organizations like CARE International are calling on the international community to act.

"They made crosses on our heads [with red spray paint] and on some guys they colored their mustaches or foreheads," an unnamed asylum seeker told The Guardian newspaper about his experience of trying to cross the Balkans from Bosnia, through Croatia towards Slovenia in early May. 

"They then made us take off our clothes and shoes, took our money and mobile phones and set fire to our clothes and belongings. Around 10 of them stood in a line and made us walk past them while they beat us with wooden sticks and police batons. After this they pushed us into the river and told us not to come back."

The man's allegations concern Croatian police officers who caught the men "close to the Slovenian border".  The man told the Guardian reporter that they were rounded up by police officers near the border by military personnel and later handed over to local police officers. His account is backed up by "dozens of testimonies" collected by the Guardian and "numerous charities." The Guardian said they have also collected photographs of some of the events described.

The group of about 30 migrants allege that the Croatian police told the men that the spray-painted crosses were a "cure against the coronavirus." The migrants say the officers were "laughing and drinking beer" while they carried out these actions.

The Guardian notes that the Croatian authorities have denied any wrongdoing.

Driven back to the border

The majority of the migrants rounded up that night came from Pakistan and Afghanistan, writes the Guardian. After spending several hours in the police station being photographed and forced to sign a statement, they were "piled into four vans and driven back close to the border with Bosnia." Many migrants moving along the Bosnian-Croatian border resort to various improvised solutions in a bid to defy border fortifications such as barbed wire | Photo: picture-alliance/PixsellIn March 2020 the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) was among 152 organizations to sign an open letter to the EU and the international community calling for the new EU migration pact to "dust off fundamental rights." In the letter they mentioned that they too had born witness to "daily pushbacks by the Croatian border police of refugees and migrants moving on the Western Balkan route."

Violent pushbacks

Practices include "theft, extortion, destruction of property, physical abuse and degrading treatment, and denial of access to asylum procedures," DRC confirmed. They added that in several cases violence had also "been reported against children."

On one occasion, the letter stated, "DRC staff assisted two single mothers traveling with five children. The women had their personal belongings confiscated and reported being beaten by the police. One of the mothers stated that even her four-year-old child experienced violence."

Situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

CARE International, one of the oldest humanitarian organizations working to "eliminate global poverty," also released a report about treatment of migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in March, updated in mid-May 2020. The report also detailed incidents of violence at the hands of the Croatian police and authorities.

In its report, CARE described the humanitarian provisions for migrants in Bosnia as "inadequate."A group of migrants attempting to cross into Croatia and gathering around tents erected near the Maljevac border crossing in Bosnia-Herzegovina | Photo: EPA/FEHIM DEMIRCARE noted that in 2019, a total of 29,196 migrants were recorded to have entered BiH and that in the first months of 2020 the numbers entering were recorded as "30% higher than compared to the same period in 2019."

In the colder months, some migrants leave for Serbia, says CARE where humanitarian provisions are known to be better. Just before the lockdown restricitions were imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 7,200 registered migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Bosnia. CARE expects that many more will return "once the temperatures rise and the restrictions are lifted," as they attempt once again to cross the border from Bosnia into Croatia.

Migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan

Almost 40% of migrants in BiH say they come from Pakistan and just over 10% say they come from Afghanistan. Migrants from Bangladesh, Iraq and Syria make up the other significant population groups, although migrants from Algeria, Morocco, Iran, Egypt and India are also present.

About 20% of those "on the move" in BiH are children, says CARE "of whom more than a third are unaccompanied minors."Migrants attempting to cross into Croatia holding banners | Credit: PHOTO/ARCHIVE/EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIRMany migrants in BiH do not want to seek asylum in the country, their aim is the EU. However, CARE said that just over 3,000 migrants "declared their intention to seek asylum in the country" in December 2019. It followed up the figures with the remark that no one had been granted refugee status in Bosnia since 2014 and only very few had been offered subsidiary protection.

'Crimes against humanity'?

The IOM offers a voluntary return policy from Bosnia but only a few hundred migrants took them up on their offer in 2019. CARE said that "desperation and tension" was increasing among migrants in Bosnia due to the "many pushbacks" suffered at the hands of the Croatian police.

CARE said that these pushbacks were "in almost all cases achieved with the use of some form of violence." They said that a network of local human rights organizations calling themsevles the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) "documents violent pushbacks every day." Most reports from BVMN "contain records about severe beatings, verbal threats, insults, sexual harassment, humilitation, electcuting, dog attacks or shootings." CARE said that some human rights activitsts and advocates "involved in the monitoring," have even termed some of the pushbacks "crimes against humanity."

CARE notes a "big discrepancy" between reports of these injuries from UN Refugee Agency (IOM) staff and migrants themselves, saying that most IOM staff say injuries are "insignificant," whereas migrants and local organizations say they have suffered "broken limbs, critical head injuries, deep cuts and deep trauma."

'Stripped fully naked'

There is a big need for "non-food items" (NFIs) (like clothes, blankets and tents) noted CARE. This is partly due to new arrivals entering BiH but mostly due to the "pushbacks." In most pushbacks, wrote CARE "police take away people's mobile phones, tents, jackets and shoes." They too had recorded some cases of migrants being "stripped fully naked and thus had to return without any clothing." They said that after these pushbacks, migrants usually received NFIs from the Red Cross, an organization called No Name Kitchen or the IOM. This man and others claim that Croatian police abused themSome health services are provided to migrants in the country but distribution is patchy. Tuzla canton was marked out as a place where provision was inadequate. Humanitarian organizations noted that migrants coming from that canton "are in a bad state both in psychological and physiological terms." They said that fights broke out more frequently in that canton because of the lack of provision and that self-harming behavior and drug use had been observed as "coping mechanisms" for migrants who had spent time there.

Some refugees and migrants had turned to buying prescription drugs, including one usually prescribed for epileptic seizures, to cope with their situation. CARE said that "many pharmacies in BiH bypass the prescription only rule when selling to migrants and refugees."

Sexual exploitation

Situations of sexual exploitation also existed, both among vulnerable young men in and outside the official camps and for women in the family camps, although most cases reported by women happened "within the family context," and could be described as domestic violence.

Before the restrictions placed on the country by the novel coronavirus outbreak, most migrant children were registered in local schools. However, since mid-March all public schools shut down and children are only able to access learning online which is "practically impossible" for most migrant and refugee children. Bosnian police officers escorting migrants to a migration center in Sarajevo | Photo: EPA/EPA/FEHIM DEMIREU: 'Stop tolerating violent pushbacks'

In conclusion, the CARE report said that because of a high degree of under-funding all organizations operating in the country "struggled to meet their set targets to fulfill the basic humanitarian needs of refugees and migrants." It said that the lack of professional provision in the country "posed a high-risk to refugees and migrants" as well as the volunteer staff of the organizations themselves.

CARE said that things had just been made worse by the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and that all international non-governmental organizations predicted that things would worsen still further as temperatures increased and restrictions were lifted. They fear that "both refugees and migrants and people working with them will only face more and more stigma and repression" in the future.

The report calls on the EU to "stop tolerating" violent pushbacks at its external borders. It also calls for an increase in funding to the country and the international NGOs working there and to enact a redistribution mechanism not just for migrants arriving in the Mediterranean but also in the Balkans too.


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