A pushback at a time of pandemic

The 700th testimony published by BVMN is a reminder that border violence continues unchecked during Coronavirus.

 

For many of us right now, it feels like the world, and all of its problems, have been put on hold while COVID-19 takes the main stage. We are in isolation, waiting for the curve to flatten so that physical distancing restrictions can be relaxed. We are counting down the days until we can resume normal routines, and be with our family and friends.

As you can imagine though, these are quite luxurious desires; and many desperate situations persist amid the frenzy of news around the current public health crisis. This is the case for thousands of people-on-the-move who now spend the lockdown period stranded on the Balkan Route. The Una Sana Kanton in Western Bosnia-Herzegovina is a prime example. Here, many groups providing humanitarian support to transit communities have been forced to reduce or suspend operations due to the pandemic. In their absence people get by with what they can,  supported by locals who bring food to their informal settlements and squats. Many others face enclosure in the mass accommodation sites, which make little pretense at meeting hygienic and humane standards at the best of times, least of all during a pandemic.

These conditions provide a backdrop to the ongoing use of violent pushbacks, acts which illegally target people attempting this precarious land route to Europe. The latest testimony highlighted here is one of several reported to BVMN in April, demonstrating that unlawful cross-border removals are continuing unabated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

In this case a group of men from Afghanistan set off on foot from Bosnia-Herzegovina in early April, but when walking through Croatia one of them collapsed, no longer able to stand or communicate with his friends. The group sought help from local authorities, carrying the man to the nearest village and alerting the Croatian police.

Picture of the person being carried on a makeshift stretcher as the group tried to reach help in Croatia.

The attending officer assured them that the man would be taken to hospital to be treated. Instead, more officers brought a van and loaded all sixteen people into the back, defying all guidelines on physical distancing. The group were taken directly to the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina where they were assaulted by eight Croatian police officers dressed in black. Their possessions (including phones, money and other valuables) were taken, while their jackets were burnt. The police beat them with batons to the point that two individuals were bleeding from their heads.

“they took all, they start burning it, and after that they start beating… they beat us with a black stick… [and] broke two persons head

BVMN spoke to one person who suffered this incident who described how the group were forced back into Bosnian territory close to Trzac. Scared for the welfare of their friend they called a local person for help, and after an hour the injured people were taken by police to a hospital. The respondent reports that even in the hospital the group were refused treatment. Those that could still walk had to make the long journey on foot back to Bihac, walking approximately thirteen hours. There,  local people helped them with food and clothing, having nowhere else to turn, and unable to access adequate help in the official camps.

“the person who was injured, the police took him, the hospital said ‘we won’t take him’, because Corona”

This case marks the 700th pushback testimony by BVMN and its features match the longstanding use of violent and dehumanising methods at Croatia’s border. Yet this account is also notable when seen in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Croatian police provided absolutely no health screening, and the officers broke standard precautions such as physical distancing. Perhaps most worrying was the lack of attention given to the ailing group member, who only escaped the police batons because he was left lying semi-conscious on the ground. Within the application of a pushback – already in breach of domestic and international law – this added malpractice raises concern about the ability of Croatian authorities to maintain their own health measures.

At this time of pandemic, transit groups need more than ever the protection and support of authorities to access asylum procedure and safe accommodation. But as Croatia and the EU continue to uphold illegal practice at the border, it’s clear that the objective of externalisation is valued above the health of people on the Balkan Route.

Look out for further testimony being published in the coming weeks as BVMN continues to track pushback regimes during the Coronavirus outbreak.