Border Violence and the Refugee Situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina
by Dr. Sascha Schießl
The EU border regime
For years now, the EU, driven by its fear of right-wing parties' success and racist ideologies in parts of European societies, has been trying to seal its borders so that less and less refugees are able to exercise their fundamental right to claim asylum. In doing so, the EU paves the way for violence and human rights violations at its borders. In the Mediterranean, the denial of sea rescue and the obstruction of civil sea rescue NGOs lead to the death of thousands of refugees trying to cross. Men and women who have fled their countries looking for safety, among them families with small children and unaccompanied minor refugees, are stranded in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina because the European Union has closed its borders. As a consequence, refugees have to live in crude shelters in Bosnian border towns like Bihać and Velika Kladuša desperately looking for ways to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border into the European Union. Concurrently, border zones evolve into areas of violence.
Bosnia-Herzegovina only recently came into focus of international refugee politics. As the Serbian-Hungarian and the Serbian-Croatian borders were (almost) hermetically sealed, the Balkan route slowly shifted to the west. Since the beginning of 2018 more and more refugees turned to Bosnia-Herzegovina which has a long border with Croatia. The fact that Bosnia has not been a part of the Balkan route before is not surprising, as Bosnia is full of mountains, valleys and small, rather slow roads. Bosnia is thus not a country refugees can easily cross. The same goes for the border with Croatia. Hidden paths lead over hills and mountains and through dense forests. Thereby, this border cannot be easily controlled by the Croatian border police. But as in Hungary and other states along the Balkan route before, here the closure of the border is enforced with excessive violence.
Pushbacks and Croatian border violence
From Bosnian border towns Velika Kladuša and Bihać and other spots in the region refugees attempt “the Game”, as the venture to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border through “the Jungle” without being seen is called. Instead of going alone, refugees form small groups to undertake the crossing together. As the Croatian border police cannot prevent every undocumented crossing, many refugees make it into Croatia. In many cases refugee groups, combining their knowledge of parts of the way, walk for seven or eight days avoiding villages and open roads, while their resources (food, water, powerbanks) dwindle down. Some even make it to Slovenia, which is just about 70 kilometers away from Velika Kladuša. But neither Croatia nor Slovenia are secure countries where refugees can apply for asylum.
When refugees are caught somewhere in Croatia their right to claim asylum is neglected. Without any formal procedure refugees are pushed back to Bosnia. Likewise, refugees who make it to Slovenia are illegally deported from there and turned over to the Croatian border police. From there refugees are sent back to Bosnia.
Such a practice is illegal and a direct violation of European law and international conventions. The Dublin Regulation, the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention guarantee the right to claim asylum and to subsequently undergo a fair and lawful process. In this legal framework the instant rejection of refugees at the border and the pushback to another country is prohibited. But even though Croatia and Slovenia are bound to these regulations, they refuse these rights to refugees. Many refugees have stated that they tried to apply for asylum in Slovenia or Croatia after the police had caught them in one of these countries. In many cases the police simply answered: “There is no asylum for you here.” Other refugees said they were reassured that they could apply the next day. After a night in a police cell, they were then brought back to the border and handed over to the Croatian and the Bosnian police, respectively.
The Croatian border police, however, do not settle for illegal pushbacks like their Slovenian counterpart. As the overwhelming majority of refugees report, the Croatian border police steal money, equipment as well as clothing and destroy refugees’ mobile phones and documents. And in an appalling number of cases the police beat up refugees in the borderland before pushing them back to Bosnia. Asked in different locations, refugees from various countries consistently explain the border police mostly use batons, but also taser guns and mace to hurt asylum seekers. At times the police additionally threaten refugees with drawn guns. In most cases male refugees are beaten up but there are also reports where women and minor refugees were battered by the Croatian police.
If the Croatian police were just sending refugees back, their actions would still be illegal. But handling the perceived problem this way could lead to increasing arrivals in other member states of the European Union, because refugees would possibly try again to. This seems not to be in the interest of border state Croatia. Thus, by beating (many) refugees, stealing their money and their clothes and breaking their phones Croatia sends a different message altogether.
For Croatia, the violence of its border police does not only serve the purpose to seal its borders. It is also an instrument to achieve specific political goals. As Croatia seeks to join the Schengen Area, the country aims to show its European partners it can effectively control its borders to Bosnia and thus "protect" the European Union from arriving refugees. In this regard, the arrival of refugees at their borders is a convenient opportunity for Croatia to prove its capability.
In a moderate political environment, the human rights violations by the Croatian police would widely be labelled and condemned as such, while the European Commission and other member states would act to restore European law. But, in a hysterical European Union, political leaders and bureaucrats aim to bar the EU borders to refugees, especially those who are Muslim and/or from African countries. Following the political beliefs of extreme right-wing parties, groups and ideologists even (former) moderate politicians disparage refugees as illegals who allegedly have no right to claim asylum, or to be on the move at all. At the same time, it is often demanded within European societies to leave one's place of origin and to even migrate to another country to find job opportunities.
So just as Hungary before Croatia can be assured that the European Union, its member states and its institutions will remain silent on the brute force their border police uses, as long as the appearances are kept up and every mistreating is denied. After all, the closure of the borders is an essential part of the European refugee policy. As a consequence of this policy, border areas become places of violence while humanity and rule of law fall by the wayside.
Refugees in Bosnia
As Bosnia did not see many refugees before 2018, authorities had made no preparations to accommodate and take care of asylum seekers. In the previous months the Bosnian government did not act appropriately to support refugees. Even if the authorities were willing to provide proper measures, the highly dysfunctional political state is an obstacle to act accordingly – or at all
Neither the state nor the local authorities distribute food or clothing or organise medical treatment. These tasks are left to local and international volunteers. Instead of at least supporting these activities, the authorities began to pressure the international volunteers. Coincidentally, this manoeuvre began as the Sarajevo Film Festival was coming up and brought a lot of international visitors and media attention to the city. The Bosnian Office of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs (SFA) used missing paperwork as a lever to obstruct the work of the international volunteers. As a result, the location of the food distribution had to be changed and local volunteers had to step in for the international crew.
In Velika Kladuša, the northern border town in the Una-Sana Canton, the camp is situated outside the city, a five-minute walk from the bus station. The conditions refugees face here can only be described as a humanitarian disaster. The camp consists of small tents and self-made shelters on an open field which is regularly flooded by the nearby creek. During heavy rains, half the camp is under water. Even though the city administration has designated the field for the refugees and set up a generator and a water pipeline, Bosnian authorities are widely absent from the camp. Local and international volunteers try to step in, but they neither have the means nor the experience to establish and run a camp and take care of hundreds of refugees.
In Bihać, conditions are in no way better than the ones in Velika Kladuša. The city authorities have assigned refugees a planned but never finished student house which now is a shelled ruin without windows, doors, or a proper roof. Refugees also set up tents in the small forest next to the ruin. In contrast to Velika Kladuša, the local Red Cross is the main actor in Bihać and is in charge of accommodation, distribution of food and clothing, as well as medical care. The Red Cross also controls any volunteer activities regarding refugees in the town. However, the Red Cross also lacks experience. There is no camp organisation to speak of. IOM, which in fact possesses knowledge and expertise, is present in Bihać but serves more as a financier of local expenditures, than as an actor ensuring that refugees’ needs are met. The UNHCR, the refugee agency, is also not active on the ground. Their barely perceptible involvement seems to be the result of the fact that Bosnian authorities cannot agree on where to set up proper camps, or if such camps should be provided at all. Subsequently, the situation in the current locations remains unchanged.
Although existing for months, neither the camps in Velika Kladuša nor in Bihać provide safe spaces for women, children and other vulnerable groups. In Bihać the local NGO Žene sa Une (Women of Una) organises some activities for children in cooperation with Save the Children for a few hours a day. This involvement is laudable, but cannot substitute a safe space in accordance with international standards. At the end of July, IOM and UNHCR transferred families with children from the camps in Velika Kladuša and Bihać to Hotel Sedra, a hotel now closed for upcoming renovations. The conditions here are substantially better, especially for children. There are, however, still many families staying in the Velika Kladuša and Bihać camps. Some of those families did not want to be transferred to the hotel which is located 10 kilometres outside of Bihać, because it is harder for them to try to cross the border from there. Others simply arrived later in Velika Kladuša and Bihać. As there is no formal registration process, it can take days before families are offered a transfer.
In Velika Kladuša and Bihać no one enables measures for the prevention of violence. There are no strategies and no experts dealing with this topic. In Bihać, representatives of the Red Cross and IOM could not answer any questions in this regard. Apart from a small police unit, refugees are left to take care of themselves from late afternoon onwards. The lack of measures to prevent violence has dire consequences.
Many refugees are traumatised after all the things they have undergone and witnessed. They are tense and unsettled regarding their near future and perspective. Thus conflicts easily arise. There have already been fights between refugees in both camps. In Velika Kladuša at least one refugee has died in a conflict with another man. Without any formalised and institutionalised policy for preventing violence, both places remain highly insecure for all refugees living there.
Refugees who are trapped in Bosnia-Herzegovina face a desperate plight. For most of them there is no way back to their countries of origin. Some might approach IOM to help them return to their home countries. But for many it is abundantly clear that they cannot return. There are also almost no opportunities to stay in dysfunctional Bosnia which does not have a working asylum system. And then, there is also (almost) no way into the European Union. Especially for families with small children the undetected crossing of Croatia and Slovenia is nearly impossible. They can, of course, turn to smugglers who will transport them across the borders. But for that refugees need larger amounts of money they often do not possess. So the most vulnerable refugee groups will be more likely to get stuck in the worst conditions in Bosnian refugee camps.
Living in those camps for months and years is not only exhausting and degrading, but also deprives refugees of their basic rights. To not even have camps to accommodate refugees can only be called inhumane and unworthy of any civil society. Conditions are likely to get worse with the approaching winter.
As the crossing of the border gets increasingly difficult and dangerous, refugees will likely become more and more desperate. This may sometimes result in unrest among refugees, which in turn can be used as an argument to restrict and neglect their rights even further. This development is already noticeable. In Bihać the basic conditions have deteriorated since the beginning of August. A growing number of residents claim to be worried that tourism in the region will suffer if refugees are visible in the city. In that perspective, refugees disturb the illusion of a pastoral township. Consequently, local police tries to prevent refugees from entering the city centre.
The fact that accommodation and provisioning are insufficient throughout Bosnia can be ascribed to a dysfunctional state, persistent ethnic conflicts and limited resources. Arbitrary restrictions of people looking for shelter, as well as the fact that the conditions have not improved over almost half a year undermine the hitherto positive impression of a Bosnian society to be significantly more receptive to refugees than in the rest of Europe. But, as in other European states, a policy of closure seems to carry through gradually.
Even if a certain percentage of the young men who are stuck in Bosnia might not be eligible for the sort of protection the Refugee Convention allows for, the EU border regime leads to conditions nobody should have to endure. Refugees have the right to be protected by the international standards Bosnia-Herzegovina agreed to. Even if the state lacks resources and is hamstrung by a multitudinous web of political layers and conflicts, Bosnia is obligated to do better. Similarly, IOM and especially the UNHCR, should apply more pressure to governments and the European Union and take a stand for refugees in need.
And, of course, the violence used by the Croatian police is unacceptable for any given society. There is simply no justification for the violations of human rights the Croatian border police commit. After all, there are no conquering armies on the other side of the border, no gangs of thugs nor religious mobs, but men, women and children seeking protection. And each and every one of them has the right to apply for asylum, to have their voice heard and their case assessed according to national and international law. But as long as the European Union focuses on sealing-off and refusal of refugees, border areas will remain places of violence and lawlessness.
4. September 2018
 UNHCR estimates more than 1,500 persons dead or missing on the Mediterranean routes (last update 21 Aug 2018), see: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean.
 See Dana Schmalz, Weshalb man Asylsuchende nicht an der Grenze abweisen kann, in: Verfassungsblog. On Matters Constitutional, 13 June 2018, ; https://verfassungsblog.de/weshalb-man-asylsuchende-nicht-an-der-grenze-abweisen-kannTilman Rodenhäuser, The principle of non-refoulement in the migration context: 5 key points, in: Humanitarian Law & Policy (blog), 30 March 2018, http://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2018/03/30/principle-of-non-refoulement-migration-context-5-key-points.
See my blog: Push-Backs und Polizeigewalt, in: Yalla Yalla Europe, 23 July 2018, https://yallayallaeurope.wordpress.com/2018/07/23/push-backs-und-polizeigewalt.
 For accounts see: Refugees crossing from Bosnia ‚robbed and beaten by Croatian police‘, in: The Guardian, 15 Aug 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/15/refugees-crossing-from-bosnia-beaten-and-robbed-by-croatian-police, Kroatien ist so rabiat wie Ungarn, in: taz. Die Tageszeitung, 8 Aug 2018, www.taz.de/!5521293. See also my blog: Border Violence, in: Yalla Yalla Europe, 17 Aug 2018, https://yallayallaeurope.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/border-violence-deutsch-english.
Of course Croatia denies any mistreatments by its border police, see: Migrants in Bosnia complain of beatings by Croatian police, in: Reuters, 22 Aug 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-bosnia/migrants-in-bosnia-complain-of-beatings-by-croatian-police-idUKKCN1L71G6.
IOM also states a humanitarian catastrophe in the town, see: Migrants in Velika Kladusa: 'A humanitarian catastrophe', in: InfoMigrants, 3 Aug 2018, www.infomigrants.net/en/post/11068/migrants-in-velika-kladusa-a-humanitarian-catastrophe.
 See UNHCR, A Framework for the Protection of Children, Geneva 2012.
 For more details on the camp see, albeit in German: Kladuša Camp, in: Yalla Yalla Europe, 20 July 2018, https://yallayallaeurope.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/kladusa-camp.