Bosnia’s migrant crisis reveals EU’s moral blind spot

A migrant sits near a wall bearing the EU flag at a refugee camp in northern Bosnia. According to the Bosnian security minister, more than 34,000 migrants from Asia and Africa have illegally entered the country since 2018. (AFP)
Updated 20 October 2019

Bosnia’s migrant crisis reveals EU’s moral blind spot

  • Bosnia struggles with influx of refugees coming other Eastern European countries
  • Country emerging as a transit station for those trying to reach EU’s Schengen area

ABU DHABI: After months of official denials, Croatia’s leader finally admitted in an interview with Swiss television this year that her government had been pushing undocumented immigrants across the border into Bosnia.

President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said that a small amount of violence and a “little bit of force” was to be expected when police handle irregular migrants.

The truth is that the use of force by Croatian security officers has become routine since the 2016 border closures along the Western Balkan route, which left thousands of asylum-seekers stranded and looking for new routes to Western Europe.

The daunting problems migrants and refugees face on that route might make the issue of police violence along the Croatia-Bosnia border seem relatively minor. But such comparisons can obscure neither the grim reality of the situation nor the EU’s failure to match its moral rhetoric with action.

Bosnia is emerging as a new transit station for those trying to reach Croatia and continue the perilous journey to the EU’s Schengen area of free movement.

Croatia has a bilateral agreement with Bosnia that allows it to send back irregular migrants coming from across the border. Given that the agreement is not applicable to asylum-seekers, there are numerous accounts of the Croatian border police preventing people from applying for asylum, thus necessitating their illegal movement into Bosnia.

People who try to cut through Croatia to reach the Schengen zone are regarded by the country as “illegal migrants” and frequently subjected to collective expulsion, torture, violence and intimidation at the Croatia-Bosnia border.

Migrants near a border crossing between Bosnia and Croatia. Asylum-seekers using the route have been subjected to violent attacks and intimidation. (AFP)

Since July 2018, the European Border Agency, Frontex, has had a presence on the Croatia-Bosnia border through a Multipurpose Aerial Surveillance system, which includes daily aerial patrols.

Detecting human-rights violations and expulsion of migrants and asylum-seekers is one of the priorities of the Frontex operation. However, its mission along the Croatia-Bosnia border has proved ineffectual in putting an end to the violence directed against migrants and asylum-seekers, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

On the Bosnian side, the European Commission says that 2018 was marked by a sharp increase in migrants and asylum-seekers in the country, with the number approaching 6,000.

Officially, Bosnia has only one reception center for asylum-seekers with a capacity for 156 people. Many other ad hoc centers across northern Bosnia, managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency, are in a state of dilapidation.

An estimated 5,500 women, men and children are stranded in two Bosnian towns near the Croatian border, Bihac and Velika Kladusa, living in defunct factories that lack even basic amenities.

The influx of migrants and refugees has proved problematic for Bosnia, a country which has yet to recover from the war that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Conditions in the camps are unhygienic at best.

“We don’t have enough food to feed the whole family, especially the children,” one Afghan mother told Amnesty International. “They are always hungry.”


2.4 MILLION - Immigrants who entered EU from non-EU countries in 2017.

2.5,000 - Migrants pushed by Croatia into Bosnia in 2018 without their cases being processed.

€9 MILLION - Earmarked by Europe for migrant crisis in Bosnia since 2018.

25,000 - Migrants and refugees registered by Bosnia on its soil in 2018.

3.5,000 - Migrants and refugees who stayed behind in Bosnia.

In the course of 2018, Bosnia witnessed a sharp increase in the number of migrants and refugees entering the country — from 237 recorded in January to 2,557 in May and 2,493 in July 2018.

According to the Bosnian border police, the country of origin of most migrants and refugees is generally self-declared since most lack identification documents. IOM data shows the main countries of origin to be Pakistan (31 percent), Syria (17 percent), Afghanistan (13 percent), Iran (12 percent) and Iraq (9 percent).

The influx has challenged the human and financial resources of the government agencies concerned, according to an early 2019 OSCE report on the situation in Bosnia.

Faced with a growing crisis in its northwestern region, Bosnian authorities have moved hundreds of migrants and asylum-seekers to an isolated forest camp despite the threat from land mines and fires, as well as other health risks.

The UN has refused to operate at the camp, citing concerns about its close proximity to minefields and describing its location on top of a former landfill site as “unsuitable for human habitation.”

The precarious situation of migrants in Bosnia adds to the troubles of those who have been forcibly and illegally returned by the Croatian police, further complicating the crisis.

“We don’t go into the city center because we’re scared that the police will catch us,” 23-year-old Sufyan Al-Sheikh Ahmad, from Syria, told the New Humanitarian, a news agency focused on human stories. “You should see how we were when we lived in Turkey — I looked nothing like this.

“The circumstances here are very hard. Last time, we walked for six days in Croatia and reached Slovenia, but the Slovenian police caught us after two days. They handed us over to Croatian police, who took our money and bag, and broke our telephones. They took us to the border and we had to walk about 30 km to Bihac. That was the fifth attempt.”

A migrant woman takes shelter from the rain at the entrance of Sarajevo’s railway station in June, 2018. (AFP)

After extensive on-the-ground research, HRW communicated its findings to the Croatian Interior Ministry in December 2018. The minister, however, denied all allegations of expulsion and violence. In a meeting this year with Terezija Gras, a top ministry official, HRW was told that no expulsions were taking place, that all returns to Bosnia were being conducted in accordance with Croatian and EU laws, and that the HRW evidence was based on fabricated stories.

In August 2018, the UN refugee agency reported violence, theft and multiple cases of forced return by Croatian police. Subsequently, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Croatian government to investigate all case of forced return, torture and violence.

“The European Commission needs to protect EU law and fundamental rights at external borders by opening infringement proceedings against Croatia and calling on authorities to investigate alleged abuse and provide fair and efficient access to asylum,” Lydia Gall, the HRW investigator for the Balkans and Eastern Europe, said.

Gall added: “While the EU has dedicated more than €9 million for humanitarian aid to migrants in Bosnia, such an action does not justify ignoring the violence being done to migrants on the Croatian/Bosnian border.”

Amnesty International in March 2019 echoed similar concerns, accusing European governments of being complicit in the “systematic, unlawful and frequently violent returns and collective expulsions” of thousands of asylum-seekers to squalid and unsafe refugee camps in Bosnia.

Yaran Y., a 19-year-old from Iraq, was carrying his disabled 14-year- old sister, Dilva, when they were detained along with at least five others at night in the forest.

The Iraqi said he told police officers that he wanted asylum for his sister, but they just laughed. “They told us to go to Brazil and ask for asylum there,” he told HRW.

An HRW report was blunt: “By prioritizing border control over compliance with international law, European governments are not just turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police, but also funding their activities.”

Back then, the forced return of migrants and asylum-seekers was contrary to the EU asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Three years on, it still is, yet sadly the political will among European governments to remedy the situation is even more lacking.


Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

Updated 14 November 2019

Anti-government protesters block roads in Pakistan as unrest mounts

  • Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined a sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks
  • Firebrand cleric leading the protests called for nationwide demonstrations

ISLAMABAD: Anti-government protesters in Pakistan blocked major roads and highways across the country on Thursday in a bid to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign.
The demonstrators — led by the leader of opposition party Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), the firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman — have taken to the streets as the start of their “Plan B” to topple the government and ensure a general election after failing to push Khan out through a fortnight-long sit-in in Islamabad, which ended on Wednesday.
That same day, Rehman told his party workers to spread their protests to other parts of the country.
“This protest will continue not for a day but for a month, if our leadership instructs,” said JUI-F Secretary-General, Maulana Nasir Mehmood, to a group of protesters who blocked the country’s main Karakoram Highway — an important trade route between Pakistan and China that also connects the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province with its northern areas.
The JUI-F protesters also blocked other key routes in KP and a major highway connecting the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. The party’s Balochistan chapter also announced its intention to block the highway connecting Pakistan to neighboring Iran.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators joined the sit-in in Islamabad on Oct. 31 and camped there for about two weeks, demanding the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls in the country following allegations of electoral fraud last year and the mismanagement of Pakistan’s economy. The government denies both charges.
Rehman is a veteran politician who was a member of the National Assembly for 20 years. He enjoys support in religious circles across the country. His party has yet to share a detailed plan regarding which roads will be closed when, or how long this new phase of protests will continue.
The JUI-F and other opposition parties have been trying to capitalize on the anger and frustration of the public against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ruling party, which came to power last year promising 10 million new jobs for the youth, 5 million low-cost houses, and economic reforms to benefit the middle class.
Since then, Pakistan’s economy has nosedived, witnessing double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment. The government signed a $6-billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund to stave off a balance-of-payments crisis.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan has stabilized the deteriorating economy, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman ‘Plan B’ will fail like his ‘Plan A,’” Firdous Ashiq Awan, special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting, said in a statement to the press.