Freedom’s refugee support correspondent Chiara Lauvergnac reports from Bosnia and Balkans.
A growing number of refugees and other migrants are using the new Balkan route through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia to reach the EU. Many passed recently to Bosnia from Serbia. An estimate 4000 to 5000 migrant people are now in Bosnia, most of whom want to continue northwards. Numbers are a matter of guess, since people are on the move and most are not in official camps. They are forced to the most squalid living conditions by the deliberate abandonment by the State. According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, Bosnia is ‘failing to protect asylum seekers’.
According to the authorities, 3270 are in the official camps in Serbia, but there is no data for those who are not in the camps. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees passed through the Balkan route in 2015, trying to reach Western Europe, however, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania were mostly not part of that route, which was partly shut down in 2016 through increased border controls and miles of razor wire fences. People still pass through the Balkans but it is much more difficult, smugglers are getting fat, while the ‘human flood‘ has become a trickle.
To tackle this new ‘refugee crisis’ the authorities in the region, together with Hungary and Austria, held a meeting in Sarajevo on the 7th of June. Objective of the meeting was to avoid the ‘crisis’ of 2015, and strengthen co-operation between the States in order to stop people from crossing borders. The need for a new database of biometric data has been mentioned, to ensure those entering haven’t already been refused by other EU States. On the same day, the EU announced 1.5 million euros to Bosnia to manage the ‘crisis’.
The Croatian border is already very difficult to cross, and police violence there is very high. On the night between 30 and 31 May, Croatian police opened fire on a van carrying migrants from Bosnia, seriously injuring two 12 years old children: a boy and a girl. Both children had facial wounds from gunfire and needed to be put in intensive care. There were 29 people in the van, including 15 children (the youngest 7 years old). In total, 7 people ended up in hospital. One of them was transferred to Zagreb hospital for the additional reconstructive surgery of the jaw and face. Another man was shot and injured by Croatian police on the 6th of June.
There are many other reports of police brutality in Croatia, including pepper spraying, dog attacks, savage beatings and some broken bones. A woman had an abortion after being beaten by Croatian police. Confiscation of money and personal belongings, though illegal, is a common practice, as well as destruction of mobile phones. Push backs of people who are already on Croatian territory are illegal but a common occurrence. The UNHR recorded 3000 cases of illegal push backs from Croatia in 2017, but this number may be only the tip of the iceberg. Medicins Sans Frontieres recorded 7 deaths at the Croatian border that same year, and real numbers may be higher. A 6 years old Afghan girl, Madina Hussiny, died after being run over by a train, after an illegal push back by Croatian police at the Serbian border. Her family, children included, was detained for weeks after the incident.
There are also reports of illegal push-backs from Slovenia. Slovenia has placed barbed wire over 170 km along the Croatian border in 2017, improving the barbed wire of 2016. People still pass if they are lucky, but sometimes have to wander in the woods for days. Many migrants complain of local people calling the police, in Croatia and also in Slovenia too. A group of Iranians including a woman told me that near the Italian border they were stopped and arrested by Slovenian police, who then handed them over to Croatian police. The Croatian policemen took their money and belongings, telling them they will return them at the border, but at the Bosnian border the policemen refused to return money and belongings, and when people kept asking for their property back, they hit them with truncheons. One man lost more than 1000 euros: all he had. The police also broke all their mobile phones, and returned them to Bosnia with only the clothes they were wearing. Another woman told us, crying and broken after the umpteenth pushback, that she had 18.000 euros: in a few months she lost everything to pay the smugglers, and the police took her last money. She and her husband were engineers in Iran and they had a good life, but they were forced to flee the regime.
We saw police arresting an Afghan family in Slovenia, not far from the Croatian border. A policeman, unexpectedly polite and almost friendly, told us they were taking them to hospital. We spoke to the family, a man who speaks good English and two women: his mother and his young wife. They had been walking in the ‘jungle’ for four days. The man had a sprained ankle and the two women were totally exhausted and lying down. We gave them water, fruit, biscuits and chocolate, all the food we had as they were hungry and dehydrated. Then a police van arrived to collect them. We are unable at this stage to verify if they were really taken to hospital.
This family were coming from Bihac, where we had just been. A local Red Cross worker estimates up to 2000 migrant people may be there, 1500 in the small town of 60.000 inhabitants, 500 sleeping in woodlands. Again, numbers may be a guess. Local people are very welcoming. There are an estimate 300 to 500 at Velika Kladusa including many families with young children and pregnant women, camping out, and there are some 800 migrants in Sarajevo. There is food and aid distribution in all these places, done by volunteers and the donations come almost exclusively from local people. Migrants are taken from Sarajevo, 250 at a time, put on coaches quite forcibly and taken to Salakovac, an official camp near Mostar, 129 Km south of Sarajevo. Most leave again to go nearer the border.
In Bihac there is no official camp but two dilapidated buildings where people are sleeping. One is a huge building whose construction was abandoned because of the war, it is squatted and houses only single men. In the other building, in no better conditions, people have been allowed to stay by the local council, but the building is very unsafe and unhealthy. The windows have no glass and there are no railings to the stairs. Overcrowding is very severe, and families with young children and babies are mixed with adult men. There are no safety exits: if a fire or a fight broke out people would have no escape. There are many women, children and teenagers. I saw an old women holding a baby, both members of a family sleeping in the most overcrowded of the rooms, as most families, because it is dry, elsewhere the rain filters inside. A Kurdish woman, part of a group coming from Afrin, told me in broken English her husband was killed, and she is here alone with three children. There is one water tap in the courtyard for up to 600 people. There are some chemical toilets that don’t get cleaned very often.
There are tensions sometimes between different nationalities. There are Afghans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Indians, Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Iraqi Arabs, a few other Arabs from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, sometimes Syrians, and a couple Black Africans. There is a lot of solidarity among people, they understand they are all suffering and sympathize with each other. I would think it is a good community, in fact the situation does not explode, the atmosphere in the broken and overcrowded house is good most of the time but sometimes there are fights. Many people complain about being mixed all together, especially the families.
The park where this 5 star hotel is situated is very beautiful, many people go to sit there under the trees during the day, instead of staying in the smelly building. There is a monument to the Resistance in the park, with a freedom fighter holding a gun, another is lying down, wounded or dying, and hundreds of stones are scattered in the park carrying the names of the people of Bihac who lost their lives fighting historical fascism.
This informal camp of Bihac is receiving no support whatsoever from the State. All support comes from local people, who are very poor themselves, and most local young people have to migrate in search for work. Refugees say Bosnian people are very good. Aid is distributed via volunteers: whatever I think of the Red Cross in general, the local group in Bihac are very good, though badly starved of cash and resources. Most of the work is done by unpaid volunteers, most of whom are of school age: the minors stay in the warehouse sorting clothes, those who are 18 or over go to the camps, working very hard and for long hours under the guidance of a few supervisors, many of whom not much older. The volunteers are great, very nice and with great communication skills, a bright example of the generosity of the Bosnian people, who also suffered the most devastating war very recently. Many houses are still scarred by bullets.
The Red Cross distribute a small lunch, and clothes when they have clothes to distribute, while the IOM give some tents and run some showers. There is no medical care whatsoever except in emergencies because there is no funding for it. There is a scabies epidemic, and people with respiratory diseases and sick stomachs.
The Italian group One Bridge To Idomeni have paid a visit to Bosnia (Bihac and Velika Kladusa) on the 2nd -3rd June, pledging to send humanitarian aid, and volunteers at the week-ends. More volunteers are needed. Collections are most needed, as people are lacking the very basics such as food and clothing (the wish list is below).
There is a project to make a park for the children in Bihac where they can play, as they are behaving wildly. In particular they like running after vehicles, open them and get inside. Every vehicle that enters the courtyard gets immediately attacked by bands of kids. I saw a little boy of about four showing a younger boy how to open a Red Cross van. On another occasion the police was called, apparently because some adult was selling room to stay to newly arrived people, when they can stay for free. In no time a gang of kids got in the police car, and took the steering wheel. Kids always make their fun from what they can.
Chiara’s blog can be found here.
For donations to Bihac and Velika Kladusa via One Bridge To Idomeni :
Second hand clothes in good condition, sporty/casual, size M/S for men, M/S for women, children clothes: trousers, jumpers, jackets, T shirts, underwear, socks. SHOES sporty/ trainers /boots size 40 – 44 for men, 35 – 40 women, children shoes. Blankets and sleeping bags, tents, mattresses. Hygiene products like soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors, nappies for the kids, sanitary towels (no tampons). Food: Rice, dry beans, lentils, canned beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables/ tomatoes, cooking oil, canned fish, dry food like biscuits and crackers. People who have no money are not eating enough. MONEY to buy the above.
Photos by Lorena Fornasir, independent vounteer involved in supporting Bihac camp.