VIOLENCE AND ABUSE AGAINST REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS ALONG THE BALKANS ROUTE
“This report sheds light on human rights violations against refugees and migrants along the Western Balkans route, focusing on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia. It finds that widespread pushbacks and collective expulsions – often accompanied with violence – and routine denial of access to asylum are a regular occurrence on the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. They are also a part of the systemic and deliberate policy of the Croatian authorities to discourage future irregular entries and demonstrate that Croatia can effectively protect the EU’s external border. Similar trend of pushbacks and collective expulsions has been documented on the Slovenian and, to a lesser degree, Italian borders.”
With these words, Amnesty International has presented to the press its report Pushed to the Edge – Violence and abuse against refugees and migrants along the Balkans Route.
The northwestern Bosnian towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, nestled at the very border with Croatia, have become a temporary refuge for some 5,500 refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty.
They arrived via the so-called “Balkans route”, passing through Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, and are now on what they hope will be the last leg of their long journey. Very few people will decide to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the vast majority will try to reach the European Union (EU) by crossing into neighbouring Croatia – braving unfamiliar, and often inhospitable, terrain and unwelcoming police on its borders.
While a member of the European Union, Croatia is not a Schengen area country, but is eager to demonstrate its readiness to join the border-free area in 2020 by decisively protecting the EU’s external borders from irregular migration. Owing to its mountainous terrain and underdeveloped road and rail infrastructure, Bosnia and Herzegovina had previously remained largely outside of the established refugee route. As Hungary erected impenetrable fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia in 2015 and virtually choked off a key access point to EU territory, and Slovenia fortified its borders, people stranded in Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece gradually forged a new route to Western Europe – through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.
The two countries share a 950 km long border, much of it on the so-called “green area” outside of official crossings. The porous border is not a significant obstacle for most refugees and migrants. But in order to reach Italy or Slovenia, where the EU Schengen open border regime begins, they have to navigate an unfamiliar and challenging terrain through Croatia, lined with dense forests, fast moving rivers, and live minefields – a legacy of the wars from 1990s.
The multi-day track becomes more dangerous in winter, as the heavy snowfall and low temperatures render the unmarked forest paths virtually impassable. Those who make it into Croatia are not welcomed. Instead, they are routinely denied an opportunity to seek international protection and are often violently pushed back by the Croatian police to Bosnia and Herzegovina. But even this combination of dangerous journeys and border violence does not deter people from making multiple attempts at what migrants and refugees ironically call “the game” – a risky undertaking that for some ends badly. At least 12 people died in the Western Balkans in the first ten months of 2018; most of them drowned trying to cross the border from Croatia to Slovenia. Dozens more died in other ways, including after being hit by trains or cars while walking in remote areas.
Amnesty International’s research that was carried out between June 2018 and January 2019 found that systemic and deliberate pushbacks and collective expulsions – sometimes accompanied with violence and intimidation – are a regular occurrence at the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The 5,500 men, women and children currently stranded in Bihać and Velika Kladuša occupy defunct former factories without basic amenities. Limited capacity and resources, along with the political stalemate and institutional dysfunction that has paralyzed the country since the end of the war in 1995, mean that Bosnia and Herzegovina has been ill-prepared to provide adequate protection or living conditions to refugees and migrants.
In the report there are some key recommendations, which could be very useful – on the eve of the European elections – for governments and especially for voters.
TO CROATIAN AUTHORITIES
▪ Immediately instruct border police and local police to stop using force and intimidation to prevent migrants and refugees from accessing Croatian territory;
▪ Promptly, effectively and impartially investigate the allegations of excessive use of force by the police against migrants and refugees at its borders and take appropriate action against the perpetrators;
▪ Stop the campaign that seems to be deliberately designed to target and harass the organizations promoting refugee and migrant rights and their activists and instead provide safe and enabling environment for their work.
TO AUTHORITIES IN CROATIA, SLOVENIA AND ITALY
▪ Immediately halt the pushbacks and collective expulsions of refugees and migrants;
▪ Ensure that all asylum-seekers have access to fair and effective asylum procedure, including an assessment of their claims for international protection on their merit through an individualized procedure;
▪ Refrain from returning persons to other countries without providing the necessary human rights and safeguards and guarantees against returns that could put people at risk of human rights violations in the country to which they may be directly or indirectly returned.
TO THE AUTHORITIES IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
▪ Take concrete steps, including seeking additional financial and technical assistance from EU and improving internal coordination, to ensure that the country is better prepared to adequately respond to the needs of refugees and migrants transiting through or staying on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including by providing them with adequate and safe accommodation, food sanitation, primary education, medical care and legal aid, as required by national and international law;
▪ Take over from International Organization for Migration (IOM) the full control and management of temporary accommodation centres for refugees and migrants.
TO THE EUROPEAN UNION
▪ Decisively call on Croatia to immediately halt police violence at its borders and use appropriate measures to ensure Croatia’s full compliance with international and European Union law;
▪ Put in place an effective monitoring and oversight to ensure that the funding provided to Croatia for the purposes of border protection does not encourage or contribute to human rights violations;
▪ Provide additional financial, logistical and technical assistance to Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure dignified reception of those arriving in the country.
by Christian Elia