Every day, thousands of displaced people enter the external-EU border spaces with the intention to ask for asylum in Europe and find safety there. One of the transit hot spots on the land became recently the Bosnian border with Croatia, around the small town of Velika Kladuša. Here on the Bosnian border with Croatia, around 200 people attempt the perilous crossing every week. This border does not only signify hope for a better life, but also a dangerous space, where anyone with dark skin and lack of legal documents can be violently attacked and forced back to Bosnian territory. In the forests and unmarked terrains of this Balkan border, Croatian police use the highest surveillance techniques – including around 150 cameras, a helicopter, night vision drones, police dogs, and snipers – all to detect persons who are trying to exercise their right to claim asylum in Europe. When the Croatian police detect the displaced people walking in the border zone, they frequently deny them this right, attack them with metal batons, steal their money, break their phones, and shoot live rounds near the people in order to scare them and push them back to Bosnia. The border violence has been increasing, and among the victims are also women and children who are either directly physically attacked by the border patrols or are forced to observe their husbands and fathers being beaten.
As part of my PhD research, I am daily providing aid provision in the makeshift camp in Velika Kladusa with the Spanish non-governmental organisation (No Name Kitchen) and collecting testimonies about the border violence. Recently, I have met an Iranian family, mother, father, one adult son and daughter, and one 15 years-old daughter – who were violently pushed back from Croatia to Bosnia. The mother of the family, Fatima*, told me their story, asking me to spread their voice as far as possible:
I want to share our voice around the world about the action of the Croatian police towards the women and children. It is very important for us to talk about what happened to help other women and children to prevent further violence to happen to them. Every woman and child are the same and every refugee is the same. It does not matter that the child that was attacked by the Croatian police was my daughter because primarily, she is a human, she is a girl, she is underaged (Fatima).
Fatima’s family and other men from their camp left early morning Velika Kladuša and walked through the Bosnian border to Croatia. The family hoped to reach the European land and apply for asylum, explaining to the EU authorities that they cannot live in Iran due to the oppressive and violent government. When the whole group walked through Croatia, around 25 km from the Bosnian border, they were detected by 5 police Croatian police men. The family tried to speak to the police and ask for asylum, but the only respond they got back was: “Shut up!”. The police started searching through the pockets of all people for their phones and money. The police stole all of their money and new mobile phones and destroyed their old phones. After that, the police stripped all the men naked and frisked their bodies. When they were done with the men, the police told all women to get naked and touched their all body parts, including the breasts and genitals:
They checked all our body, everything, took our clothes. Outside, all men could see us, our underwear. They just told the men to put their faces to the other side. All women were checked even under their underwear. They also checked my hair. They checked everything (Fatima).
One woman tried to resist the body frisk and pushed a police officer away from her, but the police officer started beating her so that the woman fell on the floor. Following the body check, the police transported all people in a big van to another location, which they could not identify because the van had dark windows. The car was driving so fast, that Fatima’s older daughter started vomiting. Fatima asked the police to stop and give them water because her daughter was not feeling well, but they got no response. After 30 minutes, they reached a location in the mountains and were told to get out of the vehicle. Then, the police stood in a circle and told all the single men (5) to come to stand in the middle of that circle, and started attacking them with metal batons:
The refugees were in the middle of the circle. The police like a circle, and they were beating them with batons. 5 police men on 5 single. Every police man was beating one single man and kept beating them. One man was crying and other was vomiting, they wanted to go back to Bosnia, but the police kept beating them. After they finished, we walked a bit to the Bosnian land and the police again kept beating them, again 5 policemen were beating 5 men.(Fatima).
When the police stopped beating the men, they took the men into a car and deported them to close to Bihac, including Fatima’s son. The families were transported for deportation to a different place. The van was driving very fast and people were falling from one side of the van to the other. After one hour, the driver stopped in a mountainous place for their deportation:
When we opened the car, they [police] said to us to come out. We saw just tall mountains, very steep, surrounded by trees and thorny plants [showing scratches around her legs and feet]. The police said to us to come here, and my bigger daughter was vomiting in the car, she was sick, and my husband was holding her and coming with her out of the car. I was walking out of the car in front of my husband. I could hear that the police started beating him with batons, but I did not see it as I was with my back towards him, walking in front. My small daughter was walking as the last one and she saw her father being beaten. When my daughter saw her father being beaten, she said to the police: “Please, stop beating my father and beat me instead of him.” And the police started beating my daughter [pointing at her daughter’s swollen eye and crying]. In this mountain way, the police said to me: “Go straight go back!”. But I told him, “Where back? Where? I don’t know where.” as there was just a steep hill full of threes and thorny plants. The police took a gun and put it into my head and shouted: “Go, go, go!”. and I was so scared, I thought he was going to kill me [crying] (Fatima).
The whole family walked for one hour in a forest, trying to find the way back to Velika Kladuša. When they reached a road, they tried to wave to the passing cars to stop them, but none stopped. After a while, Fatima’s daughter jumped into the road in front of a car to make the driver stop and help them. The driver took them the whole way to Velika Kladuša and offered them food and water, which Fatima refused. After 20 km, the family reached Velika Kladuša and returned back to the makeshift camp comprised of shelters made from plastic sheets, where another 400 people live and wait for their chance to attempt to reach a safe life in Europe.
The No Name Kitchen first aid medics treated the whole family after their push-back to Bosnia, and according to them, a 15-years-old Kurdish young woman had second grade contusions on the left eye, caused by a physic aggression without object. On the left side, the medics found an injury caused by first grade contusions because of a non sharp object, causing an hematoma all along the left side.
At the end of the interview, Fatima aptly pointed out:
We are all women men and children. It does not matter from which country we are from and which religion, we are all human. The humanity is the only what important is and what I respect.
While I am sharing this testimony, I wish to highlight that practising such brutal “protection of borders” is a failure to protect the livelihoods of displaced individuals and is against international asylum law and human rights. Based on the so called non-refoulement principle, EU states are obliged to access the case of asylum seekers regardless of whether they are granted the status of a refugee1 and thereby international protection, and not to return her or him to a state where he or she faces a threat to life or liberty (UNHCR, 1967). Furthermore, according to the EU Directive on Asylum Procedures (2005/85/EC) those recognised as ‘irregular’ migrants are entitled to information about asylum, translation assistance, the ability to present their case to a competent authority, notification of the outcome, and the right to appeal a negative decision (Vaughan-Williams, 2015). These were all ignored by the Croatian border police.
I am asking here, how many more children, women and men need to be stripped of their basic human rights, beaten, have guns place to their heads, and on a daily basis have their search for sanctuary denied by EU external borders. When will someone start to respect their rights and care about their lives? The EU borders should be protected against potential threats and not against the people who have been displaced from their home states due to violent conflicts and poverty. The EU authorities can no more ignore illegal push-backs by their borders and need to address the special protection against the border violence owed to children and women. On behalf of Fatima and others who are daily physically attacked by the EU external borders, I am requesting from the Croatian authorities to stop the illegal and violent push backs, and further asking the EU authorities to create legal and safe pathways for the displaced people from the Balkans to Europe through the transit zones, where they can access the asylum procedures. As the story of Fatima and her family shows, violent ‘defence’ border mechanisms do not discourage displaced people from attempting to exercise their right to find asylum in the EU. These mechanisms only make their journey more hazardous and their lives, already scored with countless episodes of violence, that much more painful.
*The name of the mother has been changed to respect the anonymity of the whole family.
*The interview was conducted in Farsi with the help of translator to English.
UNHCR (1967) Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. [Online]. Available here [Accessed 23 July 2018].
Vaughan-Williams, N. (2015) Europe’s Border Crisis, Oxford: Oxford University Press.