Its 5th January 2017, at around midnight. A group of 39 people have entered into Hungary from Serbia through the infamous border fence. They walk through the snow. It’s dark. It doesn’t take long for the Hungarian police to arrive, surrounding them in four patrol cars. The officers move fast; setting dogs on the transit group, then destroying their mobile phones, and following this up with a brutal beating with batons. One man cries out in fear as an officer raises a gun and holds it to the man’s head. Another cannot cry out. He is lying on the floor with the cold boot of an officer rammed against his throat, as other policemen kick at his body. The police strip the people of their clothing, some down to their underwear. The next morning they are driven to the border fence and pushed back into Serbia.
On 1st October 2019, in the early evening the sun is setting as five people in transit walk through a southern area of Slovenia. It’s not long before they hear gunshots and shouts of “Stop!”. The Slovenian police take them to Croatia in a van and hand them over to the authorities. Then the Croatian police take them in a van to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). There is no procedure carried out, the Croatian officers only take time to fire two tear gas cannisters into the rear of the van, before locking the door. The five people, choked and vomiting, are driven for around six hours and dumped at a remote border spot. Here there are more Croatian police officers. The authorities strip them of their clothes and push them half naked into the river which marks the border, forcing them back into BiH.
One story, to another…
These two accounts form part of a narrative that has been unfolding for many years on the Balkan Route. The first report from 2017 marks the initialisation of the Border Violence Monitoring Network’s common database, from which it’s comprehensive indexing of the EU’s illegal and violent border regime began. The second, coming two and half years later, is the 600th individual testimony to have been published on this database. This tally marks a dark chapter in the weaponisation of Europe’s external borders and is a strong reminder that people-on-the-move are still facing the same illegal phenomena:
As the catalogue of border violations reaches 600, it can no longer be disputed that this practice – in violation of multiple international laws – has now become fully institutionalized. The blueprint laid down by Hungary, and since adopted into domestic legislation, is being applied by other member states, notably Croatia, to perform the same violent collective expulsions. These practices, often referred to as a “regime” due to their level of coordination and centralisation, have only become more fine tuned in the intervening years between BVMN’s first report, and the 600th now published today.
Monitoring work has followed these persistent efforts to stem movement, uncovering the web of violence and illegality that underpins a pushback. The two accounts listed above are an unfortunate adjoiner to this analysis. Though transit and police conduct has changed since January 2017, at base, these incidents reveal an unerring set of similarities, just some of which are listed below:
-Denial of the right to make an asylum claim
-Beating and assault, tantamount to torture
-Complete lack of adherence to official procedure
-Theft and damage of personal belongings
-Stripping of clothing
-Collective expulsion from territory
From Hungary to Croatia, and many other participant states, the body of evidence gathered by the Network has shown pushbacks to be carried out by law enforcement on a daily basis. Their frequency suggests that these informal practices now carry more weight than the governing laws which should protect an individual’s right to fair and proper treatment. Such a conclusion firmly implicates the EU in the execution of this reborderisation. Today, as before, a tacit facilitation of pushbacks is provided by the Brussels administration. The transit route of people hoping to reach sanctuary in Europe may have tracked West towards the Bosnian border with Croatia, but the overarching border complex has countered with the application of rigorous defence and ingrained systems of repression to target people-on-the-move.
Since the spring of 2018, the highest volume of cases have been recorded on the Croatian border, some of which were caught live on camera and disseminated widely by the Network. Broken bones, broken phones, burns from tear gas administered at point blank range, bruising from rubber bullets, and the psychological trauma of being returned multiple times to improvised shelter, or worse in the case of Bosnia’s camp system. As with their predecessors in Hungary, the Croatian police push people back at the dead of night, on remote sections of the green border, regularly with the use of fists and batons. These border areas are dangerous twofold. Not only do the police charge groups across the border with extreme violence, in September BVMN recorded that 50% of direct pushbacks from Croatia involved being pushed into a river or watercourse, putting the person at severe risk of drowning and hypothermia.
It is not the first time Croatian borders have posed as deadly. In 2017, Are You Serious uncovered the abuse by police during the death of a 6 year old girl on the border with Serbia. Madina Hussaini was hit by a train after being pushed back at night with her family from Croatian territory. Yet, it is this same border, as well as the shared boundary with BiH, which has been given the green light to join the Schengen area by the EU Commision, bringing them a step closer to the much lauded zone of free internal movement. It is not lost on BVMN, and activists on the ground, that as Croatia takes a step towards this internal liberalisation of borders, the 600th case published today marks just one of the many thousands of illegal border operations still carried out by this EU member state.
Along with Slovenia who, as seen in the case from October, is a willing partner in the process of illegal chain refoulement, Croatia continue to be the key perpetrator under the patronage of Brussels. The pushbacks carried out may have changed in location, and in some methods of application, but the sum of their execution remains weighted towards the same goal:
…the violent gatekeeping of Europes borders.
As the BVMN database grosses 600 reports, the Network would like to acknowledge the brave voices of those people willing to speak out against this illegal apparatus. They form just a small proportion of the distinct and varied subjectivities of the transit population using the Balkan Route, but articulate with such nuance, the basic injustices of European borders today. The Networks monitoring presence will continue to lend these voices a platform, and advocate for their right to move until the complete cessation of the pushback regime.
Pushbacks are illegal.