Documenting Violence at the Border

24 February 2024|Roberta Nikšić

“They kicked us like we were a soccer ball. We are human beings.”
This is just one of the testimonies our team has collected during our visits to outreach locations. Our goal is to document the increasing violence at the external borders of the European Union in order to advocate for the rights of refugees to safety and protection.

Our work begins where refugees are located in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Besides temporary reception centers, their homes have often been abandoned and devastated buildings. Sometimes these are just temporary transit stations along the way, in a field, or in the aftermath of violent pushbacks from the border.

Through regular field visits in the areas of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, near the border with Croatia, our team has been distributing non-food packages to the beneficiaries in improvised camps and abandoned houses. The distribution is carried out directly from our warehouse.
In doing so, we have not only provided them with essential humanitarian aid but also understanding and support. These encounters have been an opportunity for sharing experiences, and stories and building friendships. We cooked together, cleaned together, and improved the locations where they stayed.
Some of their stories and experiences have been documented through advocacy texts and published on various web portals in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In this way, they have advocated for themselves and for refugees on the so-called Balkan route who face the same suffering.

Their experiences of frequent violence at the border during forced and illegal pushbacks are also being recorded and documented to inform the wider public and media about the dangers they encounter.

In the past two months alone, 950 violent pushbacks have been recorded during our field visits, encountering refugees who sought transportation and shelter in camps after being pushed back from the border.

In these testimonies, it is reported that the victims have suffered psychological and/or physical violence at the hands of the Croatian police. They had their phones, money, and shoes taken from them. Sometimes, they were barefoot, with wet clothes because the police forced them to cross a river. Sometimes, they encountered men who hid their tears in front of us, sometimes with visible leg fractures, sometimes with visible physical injuries, back pain, and in need of medical care. These are people who struggle to walk due to exhaustion and leg pain. People who have been bitten by police dogs. Even minors found in the field have testified to being victims of physical and psychological violence and the violent confiscation of their belongings, phones, and money.

These are just some of the testimonies:

“After they caught us crossing the border, they placed us in a cramped space and occasionally visited us with questions: Are you hungry? When we said yes, they would laugh and say: There’s no food for you.”

(Young men from Afghanistan)

“They threatened us with guns. They took our shoes and phones, threw them in a pile, and set them on fire. They kept the money for themselves. Then they forced us to walk barefoot on an unpaved road, pointed their guns at us, and made us wade across the river.”

(Young men from Morocco, including two minors)

“We had already bought a bus ticket to Karlovac. We were in Vojnić. A policeman approached us and took us to the police station. We asked for asylum. We waited in one room, six of us. Maybe an hour. I don’t know. We fell asleep. We were very tired. We had walked for six hours. Six hours. We already had our tickets. Then they put us in a van and drove us. As we traveled further, it didn’t look good. Maybe half an hour had passed, maybe longer, I don’t know. They unloaded us in the woods. There, four policemen in black with black balaclavas were waiting. They took our money, our phones, and our shoes, and threw them into the fire. Then they started kicking us with their feet as if we were soccer balls. They forced us to cross the river, brandishing sticks. And again, we walked for a long time, barefoot.”

(A group of six young men from Nepal)

Last year and the beginning of this year, we assisted Human Rights Watch in collecting and documenting cases of violence, resulting in a 94-page report. Our intention is to continue to connect with organizations that monitor human rights violations at the borders to advocate for the right of every person to safety and protection.

A series of advocacy texts by our advocacy officer also follows and documents the experiences of refugees on the so-called Balkan route. The following is an excerpt from the text “What is a Human.”

“We are not aware of our prejudices, nor do we fully understand the language used by the media. When they say, for example, illegal migrants, or pressure at the border, or when they say: this has never happened before, as soon as they cross the border illegally, they have all the benefits. What does that actually mean? How do you respond to pressure? Of course, by pushing. What is the opposite of benefits? Only in September and early October of this year, at least seven hundred people returned from the Croatian border sought accommodation and transportation to the Lipa camp, thirty kilometers from Bihać or to the family camp in Borići in Bihać. All of them were victims of some form of abuse, psychological and/or physical, intimidated, insulted, forced to walk across the river barefoot, hungry, and thirsty. Humanitarian organizations that went to the field found people in September and early October with injured feet, visible physical injuries, back pain, fractures, humiliated, exhausted. They took their phones and shoes, piled them up, and set them on fire. A phone is a connection to the world, a map of the world, and the voice of parents, brothers, and sisters. A luxury we have long since become deaf to, blind to. They found people robbed, wet, barefoot, people who complained that they were kept in a cramped space, asked if they were hungry, and when they answered yes, they would mockingly laugh: hahaha there’s no food for you.”

When we say “illegal migrants,” it is these benefits that are implied. Because that covers all forms of violence. As Stefan Zweig once said: if you don’t have a passport, you are no longer a human being. They no longer treat you as a human being.

What is a human being today? A leaf in the wind, a crane in flight. Uzbek, Pashtun, Tajik. I throw my passports into the wind.

Our intention, through documenting violence, connecting with organizations monitoring human rights violations at the borders, and a series of advocacy texts, is to influence the promotion of fundamental human rights to safety and protection. What is currently happening at the European Union’s border is a serious violation of human rights.

A sin that cries out to heaven. A sin that we do not intend to remain silent about.