European governments are complicit in the systematic, unlawful and frequently violent "pushback" or collective expulsion of thousands of asylum-seekers to squalid and unsafe refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Amnesty International charges in a new report. Entitled Pushed to the Edge: Violence and Abuse Against Refugees and Migrants along Balkan Route, the report details how, by prioritizing border control over compliance with international law, European governments are not merely turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police, but actually funding such activities. In so doing, they are fueling a growing humanitarian crisis on the edge of the European Union.
"To understand where the priorities of European governments lie, one only needs to follow the money. Their financial contribution towards humanitarian assistance is dwarfed by the funds they provide for border security which includes equipping Croatian border police and even paying their salaries," said Massimo Moratti, research director for Amnesty International's Europe Office. "Meanwhile people fleeing war and persecution are beaten and robbed by the Croatian police and forcibly pushed back to legal limbo, left at the mercy of a failing asylum system in Bosnia and Herzegovina."
Currently some 5,500 women, men and children are trapped in two small Bosnian towns near the Croatian border, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, living in abandoned factories without basic amenities. Bureaucratic obstacles, inadequate legal assistance and limited administrative capacity mean that potential asylum-seekers are unlikely to get their asylum claims processed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most attempt to proceed to other European countries.
Having previously entered the EU through Greece and Bulgaria and been denied asylum there, many exit the EU to continue the journey along the "Balkan Route." In order to reach Slovenia or Italy, where the EU Schengen free-movement regime begins, they have to navigate dense forests, fast-moving rivers and, in some places, live minefields. In the first ten months of 2018, at least 12 people drowned in the Western Balkans, most of them trying to cross the river border from Croatia to Slovenia. Dozens more died in other ways.
Nearly all in the camps in Bihac and Velika Kladusa had been pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia or Slovenia, and nearly one third of those interviewed by Amnesty had experienced violence at the hands of the Croatian police. Many described how they were beaten, had their documents destroyed and possessions stolen, in what appears to be a "systematic and deliberate policy" by Croatian authorities to deter future attempts to enter the country.
Those apprehended in Italy or Slovenia are often subject to "chain pushbacks," summarily handed over to Croatian police and the forcibly expelled back to camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, without having their asylum claims considered.
As the allegations of violent pushbacks on the borders have mounted, Croatian authorities have increasingly discouraged public scrutiny of country's migration practices. NGO volunteers have been harassed, held for hours by police without formal charges and threatened with criminal prosecution. The Ministry of Interior has even accused some NGOs of assisting people to enter Croatia irregularly, resulting in a "chilling effect" on those working to support refugees.
In spite of these appalling practices at the border, the European Union has continued to allocate significant funds to assist Croatia in border security. The EU has also wilfully ignored the failures of the European asylum system that make these journeys necessary.
"As temperatures rise and the snows melt, the number of people attempting to cross Croatia will swell. But with Bosnia and Herzegovina ill-equipped to handle the arrival of an increasing number of people seeking protection, action must be taken to avoid a humanitarian crisis on the edge of the EU," said Moratti. "European leaders can no longer wash their hands of responsibility for the continued collective expulsions and violent pushbacks along the Balkan route that are the result of their determination to fortify EU borders, no matter what the human cost is." (AI, March 13)