Is Bosnia and Herzegovina a safe country to readmit to?

No right to food. No right to water. No right to shelter. No right to walk in the street. No access to asylum. No access to healthcare. Is this a safe country to be returning people-on-the-move?

In the 2007 bilateral agreement signed between Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and the European Union (EU), Article 13 explicitly states an obligation to “non-refoulement”. This principle ensures that an individual’s removal to BiH can be halted:

“(a) if the third-country national or the stateless person runs the real risk of being subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment

BVMN, alongside media and human rights groups, have substantiated the claims that Croatia is illegally pushing people back into BiH, aspects of which are often tantamount to torture. But recent news from BiH shows that the conditions awaiting people in the primary receiving state also go further: fundamentally violating the principle of “non-refoulement”.

The last two weeks saw the almost total suspension of civil liberties for people-in-transit living in the Una-Sana Canton (USK), in western BiH. Suhret Fazlic, the mayor of Bihać, announced on Monday 14th October that the city and the Red Cross would cease all funding and humanitarian aid to the Vučjak settlement in an effort to bring attention to the political crisis in USK. This comes after a group of volunteers providing daily medical aid in Vučjak had been banned from volunteering within the camp by the authorities, depriving camp residents of critical healthcare. Since then, the local police have seized hundreds of people-in-transit and marched them by foot to Vučjak, recently described by BBC reports as a “nightmare”. Over the course of two weeks, well over a thousand people have been forcibly placed in the camp, a practice local media Klix reports is continuing today.

Still of video published by local media of armed police escorting people on foot out of the city (Source:USKinfo.ba).

These acts, which include reports of police violence, have led to a deepening of the crisis in Bihać, with over 1000 people left without food, and sleeping in an unserviced location with shelters completely unequipped for the harsh winter season. A weight of responsibility for these violent actions lies on the local authorities, who are also forcibly removing people from the other large transit point of Velika Kladuša. Across USK, local violence by police is on the rise, targeting people both inside and outside the temporary accommodation sites.

But it would be simplistic to read these developments as a tightening of transit conditons by BiH institutions. Infact, amid the ongoing deadlock between local politicians and the EU’s implementing partners, observers must not lose sense of the underlying issue.

It is the European Union border program which has laid the foundations of this internal violence. Though local authorities should be accountable for such abuses, the real perpetrating actors are Croatia and Brussels, who have this month exceeded their already illegal pushback apparatus, by returning people to a country where their fundamental rights are also being violated.

The last two weeks proved that being returned from Croatia into BiH will likely lead to systemic violations, even after an already illegal removal process. From being dragged out of shops and cafes, to being beaten, people are suffering inhuman or degrading treatment” at the hands of domestic police forces, and the EU has played a direct hand in facilitating this violence. Not only have camp politics and humanitarian conditions contributed to the exposure of informal groups, but this month an EU funded body, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), even donated vans to the BiH police in USK.

The events, such as the mass seizures witnessed in Bihać, represent an escalating pattern. An initially-welcoming stance from locals and domestic institutions has gradually collapsed under external pressure. Since the winter of 2018, the authorities have increased internal constraints on the movement of people-in-transit, and violence from BiH police forces has increased. Alongside this, a narrowing set of resources and actors – IOM, UNHCR and Red Cross – operate to provide humanitarian aid, which has been insufficient and worsening. This scarcity reached a peak last week with the threats of total cessation of aid to Vučjak. This act is a marker of the dire material situation faced by people who are stuck, unable to cross the EU’s external border, and no longer able to exist outside of it.

People at the settlement of Vučjak, which has been refused water supply (Source: N1).

Vučjak is symbolic of this impasse. Outside the city limits, in an ex-refuse site, with no adherence to humanitarian standards, it has been a regular target for the transport of groups beaten by local police. Recently, with the intermittent withdrawl of drinking water and scarcity of food distributions, the site has posed a whole new danger to those pushed back from Croatia with physical injuries, induced sickness and mental fatigue.

The camp also represents a symptom of a far more structural issue. In short, the winterised accomodation in USK have been set up by IOM with no intention of meeting international standards. These actors have intentionally underprovided. For this reason, improvised sites such as Vučjak have emerged, in part through necessity, in part by the reactionary response of local authorities, but arguably primarily because of the approach of the EU towards the reception of migrants outside it’s borders.

Entrusted with the task of providing accommodation, EU funded organisations have constructed sites which purposefully do not fulfill physical requirements, thus directly contributing to the formation of outliers such as Vučjak. Outwardly, IOM speak of handling “mixed migration”, a task which the EU funded to the tune of 13 million this June. But with this huge sum of money, it seems clear their aims do not align with assisting vulnerable groups stuck in BiH.

In USK, conditions remain exceptionally bad, and they are being intentionally suppressed for a reason. For critics, this is arguably a “Humanitarian Border” (W. Walters/2011) being applied by the EU, where “the actualization of new spaces” can be achieved by the management of external aid projects. The gatekeeping of resources by IOM for instance, is having stark consequences. The structural violence inherent to an inadequate camp system causes proxy sites to emerge, such as the case of Vučjak. Sooner or later, the fall out of critically underesourced sites begins to be mediated through the actions of violent local police forces, who respond to the daily fallout of such systems. In this way, the EU’s implementing partners find innovative methods to outsource the darker work of deterring people-on-the-move.

Meanwhile the EU’s primary state actor, Croatia, returned 11813 people to BiH between January and August of this year. The continuing catalogue of illegal practice and violence recorded by BVMN has persistently shown these removals to be unlawfully carried out. The new developments from BiH this month point to a further layer of willful violation on the part of the EU. In the supposed safe country of return, the use of violent force and removal of subsistence to over a thousand people illustrates the real risks at play. Croatia continue to return people to a country where they are subject to “inhuman and degrading treatment”, even though it violates the readmissions agreement signed with BiH.

As a prime example of this violation, the forcible movement of people to the improvised site of Vučjak epitomises the lack of asylum access in BiH. This is just one aspect that makes the removal of people into it’s territory contestable. Applicants rely on the ability to lodge their claim from a registered address (private/or reception centre); there are daily barriers to accessing this right, not just in the police removals, but also shown by the protest of people in the official emergency centers. Violence and displacement to the fringes of town does not equate to adequate asylum access. Croatia and the EU are responsible for readmitting people into that situation. On this point alone, the return of people to BiH should be halted.

Connected to Vučjak are the other systemic shortcomings of the emergency accommodation sites in USK. Bira, Borici, Sedra and Miral have all come under scrutiny for extensive failings in terms of protection, asylum and access to healthcare. This year extensive violations including internal dispersement were recorded by AYS, and Amnesty lodged severe allegations about the reception conditions.

The EU’s directive on removals governs the process of returning Third Country Nationals, something Croatia pretends to be following. It is now apparent that EU pushback practices not only violates rights during removal, but goes on target to people as they seek refuge in the above camps, which are entirely inadequate, and are combined with the threat of violence.

This can be seen especially in the case of minors, who make up a large proportion of people-in-transit. In 2019, so far more than a third of pushbacks recorded by BVMN on the Balkan Route have included minors, a large majority of these actions detailing expulsion from Croatia to BiH. While monitoring work on the ground does not differentiate between the fundamental rights of people based on age, it is still noteworthy that the EU stipulates this clearly in their directive. Under Article 10, for a minor to be removed from member state territory, the returning authority must ensure they:

“will be returned to a member of his or her family, a nominated guardian or adequate reception facilities in the State of return”

Given that Croatian authorities predominantly push minors back into Bosnia’s USK area, in which there are no reception facilities, only emergency accommodation, it is explicitly clear that BiH does not meet the terms of this directive. In the extreme, Vucjak is again a reminder of the real conditions faced by minors, who’s removal should be legally stayed in accordance with “the best interests of the child”. When UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights González Morales visited last month, off the approximate 800 residents in Vučjak, at least 20 were minors. Forced to sleep in the open air, with no safeguarding and child-protection, this example highlights the lack of “adequate” reception facilities, and a further legal infringement within the practice of pushbacks by Croatia and the EU.

Figures published by BVMN about the pushback of minors along the Balkan Route.

It’s poignant to remember that these conditions exist in BiH for a reason, and they are the work of the EU’s external border objectives. While domestic police and Frontex are deployed inside EU territory, outside of it, humanitarian organisation such as IOM are commissioned by the EU to deal with the physical reality of holding people back from entering Europe. These actors perform the gatekeeping tasks, chronically under resourcing their accommodation centers where people in transit most need them. To see improvised sites like Vučjak appear and the accompanying violence of the BiH police grow, only validates the approach of the EU’s humanitarian wing. Just as pushbacks are a technique sponsored by Brussels to halt movement into Europe, the degradation of living conditions in BiH are also a ploy to create an intolerable environment for people-on-the-move.

Returning people into these conditions is however not only intolerable, it is also fundamentally illegal, violating the standards meant to govern such readmissions. This month found BiH to be firmly unsafe for people to be removed to, a situation produced by the EU and it’s regional strategy which instrumentalizes non-member states, turning them into inhumane holding cells. The findings add further weight to BVMN’s advocacy of safe transit and access to asylum for all those pinned at the EU’s external border, and come as yet another damning critique of the EU’s response to human life on-the-move.