The anguish of refugees trapped in the Balkans

A Libyan refugee shows injuries from Croatian police brutality, sustained while trying to cross the Serbian border.

One of Feitas Moussa’s most treasured possessions is his incisor. The 29-year-old Libyan keeps the tooth in his pocket, carefully wrapped in a handkerchief. “They threw me to the ground and kicked me repeatedly,” Feitas tells Equal Times, showing a photo of his bleeding face just after the attack.

“They” are the Croatian border police. The beating occurred when the police caught a group of refugees, including Feitas, illegally crossing the Serbian-Croatian border. “It was violent,” recalls Ahmad Arabaout from Algeria, who was with Feitas that night. He got away with a cut to his right cheek.

Although the refugees had already entered Croatian territory, the police sent them back to Serbia. Feitas and Ahmad found themselves in Šid, a small, sleepy town of 16,000 inhabitants in rural Serbia.

About 150 people have now ended up in Šid. Some have been there for months or even a year, and not because they don’t want to leave. Although the Balkan route has officially been closed since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect in March 2016, many people, like Feitas and Ahmad, are still trying to reach Europe.

They are prepared to brave cold and hunger to reach the countries of western European – primarily France and the UK – which they still perceive as a fantasy El Dorado. Since Hungary closed its borders, Croatia has become the most common Balkan route towards western Europe.

There were 3,555 undocumented crossings into Croatia during the first nine months of 2017. Most of these were from Serbia, where about 4,000 refugees are currently registered at the five centres for asylum seekers and 12 migrant reception centres.

“The mountains and rivers in Bosnia make this a more difficult way to cross into Croatia…whereas from Serbia, you only have to follow the railway line,” explains Lidija Pentavec of the Illegal Migration Department within the Croatian Ministry of the Interior (MUP).

Although border police in Bosnia and Herzegovina have registered an increase in attempts to cross the border in recent months, the number of refugees passing through this country is still low, according to the Bosnian newspaper Between June 2017 and February 2018, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded a flow of 320 refugees, reports the newspaper. It is a similar story in Montenegro, which is still only seeing a trickle of refugees.

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Since the start of the migration crisis, Croatian police presence along the border has increased. There are now more officers guarding the border crossing points, and surveillance equipment such as infrared cameras and motion detectors have been installed along the length of the Serbian border.

The position taken by the Croatian government is that, in protecting its own borders, Croatia is primarily protecting EU borders.

This is because, as in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, the refugees are only passing through Croatia; few decide to stay in the region. With languages that are difficult to learn, rising unemployment and few prospects for integration, the Balkan countries still hold little appeal for refugees.

Moreover, although governments claim that everyone is welcome to apply for asylum, few people are granted it. In 2017, Croatia registered 1,887 asylum applications, but only 183 (about 10 per cent) were approved. In Serbia, there were 5,153 requests during the first six months of 2017, yet only three were granted asylum and ten were granted subsidiary protection.

To leave Serbia, some are paying smugglers up to €1,000 (US$1,230) to take them into Croatia or to the Slovenian border. Others attempt to cross the border in lorries or on trains. Most still try to cross the border into Croatia on foot. From Belgrade, the Serbian capital, it is about a three-hour walk to the border; Šid is close to the border and you can cross into Croatia in half an hour.

A lot of refugees therefore converge on the town of Šid, so they can be nearer the EU border. Two local refugee camps, Principovac and Andrijaševci, are mostly reserved for women with children and for families.

Young men have to fend for themselves however they can. They sleep along the railway tracks, in makeshift shelters made of tents and old tarpaulins, which do not provide enough protection from the cold. In the abandoned premises of a former printworks, a Spanish organisation called No Name Kitchen provides daily breakfasts and hot dinners and a German organisation, Rigardu, sets up temporary showers there every morning.

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Daily beatings and fractures

According to the refugees stuck on the wrong side of the border, it is Croatia’s fault. “Croatian police, big problem”, “Croatian police, no good”, “Is asylum in Croatia open?” – these are some of the remarks heard in the abandoned factory where the refugees have meals together.

There are numerous witness reports from refugees in Šid, of people being forced back and of Croatian police brutality.

Beatings, routine smashing of smartphone screens, extortion – it is not a pretty picture. A dozen other refugees we met in Šid reported similar stories to those of Feitas and Ahmad.

Mohammed, a 22-year-old Moroccan, had reached the town of Vinkovci in Croatia when the police caught him and escorted him back to Serbia. Marwan, a 26-year-old Algerian, managed to reach the Slovenian border by hiding under a lorry, before the border police found him and sent him straight back to Serbia.

Reports by the Croatian NGOs Are you Syrious and Inicijativa Dobrodošli have also featured many cases of people being sent back illegally, sometimes by violent means. “In most of the witness statements we have collected, people have told us that the Croatian police refused to register their asylum application. They then escorted them to the Serbian border and told them to follow the railway tracks, on foot, to return to Šid,” Milena Zajović of the NGO Are you Syrious told Equal Times.

The Serbian branch of Médecins Sans Frontières has recorded numerous cases of injuries – bruising, haematomas, cuts and sprains – allegedly inflicted on the refugees by the Croatian police. Yet the MUP denies all the allegations, insisting that the police have always observed the law. “Reports of the Croatian police operating so-called illegal pushbacks are incorrect,” was the response we received in an email.

The truthfulness of the accusations may soon be decided in court. In November 2017, a six-year-old Afghan girl named Madina was killed by a train while walking along a railway track towards Serbia, having been pushed back from Croatia with her family. In mid-December, Madina’s parents filed a complaint against the Croatian authorities, believing that Croatia had broken international law.

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