Along the Balkan route, refugees and volunteers face growing hostility

One evening in September 2020, while Zehida Bihorać Odobašić was driving home, a car blocked her passage. Two men and a woman got out, approached her vehicle and started to threaten her. “They said I was a traitor to my people, that I should go to Afghanistan or Syria, since I love ‘those people’ so much,” she remembers.

Bihorać Odobašić lives in Velika Kladuša, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina close to the Croatian border. Over the past three years, the area has become a stopping point for migrants trying to make their way to the countries of the European Union via the Balkans.

The Balkan route started making headlines in 2015, during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, when thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – but also from North, West and East Africa – tried to reach Northern and Western Europe via Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.

Following the EU-Turkey agreement reached in 2016, the route was officially ‘closed’. At the same time, Hungary started strengthening its security presence at its southern border. As a result, refugees found a new route to the EU through Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Around 70,000 people have arrived in Bosnia since January 2018, according to figures published by UNHCR. Only a small fraction have claimed asylum (244 claims were registered and one person was granted asylum in 2020), while most have tried to make it to Western Europe via Croatia, Bosnia’s EU neighbour.

But the EU has tightened its borders and crossing into Croatia has become extremely difficult. Activists, volunteers and international organisations have documented thousands of cases of illegal pushbacks performed by the Croatian police, frequently accompanied by violence. Even chain pushbacks – where migrants are removed by police from country to country – have been recorded from Slovenia and Austria all the way back to Bosnia.

As the number of migrants stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina has grown, so has the animosity towards them – and towards those helping them. “There has been a real shift in the political discourse and public opinion towards migrants,” says Nicola Bay of the Danish Refugee Council. “The shift has been quite noticeable in terms of the media,” he said in a Skype interview with Equal Times. On the ground, this translates into tough restrictions enforced by local authorities when any attempts are made to assist migrants outside of the camps.

In Bosnia, mounting resentment

When the first people-on-the-move started crossing through Bosnia and Herzegovina, citizens across the country stepped into help. Many were reminded of the war and humanitarian crisis that ravaged their country in the 1990s, and could identify with these desperate people who were fleeing war and persecution.

Today, however, while many Bosnians still assist refugees stranded in their country, discontent with the fact that what was once an EU crisis has been outsourced in part to Bosnia has become more visible. The tension is most obvious in Una-Sana canton, the north-western region where Velika Kladuša is located, and where most refugees get stuck (often for months) while trying to cross over to Croatia.

For years, authorities in Una-Sana have argued that official camps in their region, financed by the EU and managed by the IOM, act as a pull factor for migrants coming to Bosnia.

At the end of September 2020, hundreds of refugees were left homeless when Una-Sana authorities closed Bira Camp with the capacity to house 1,500 people in Bihać, the area’s main city. Authorities have also threatened to close another camp, Miral in Velika Kladuša, with the capacity to house 1,000 people.

In December 2020, when the Lipa Camp – temporary accommodation opened in April 2020 to house refugees during the coronavirus crisis – was closed and then destroyed by a fire, over 1,000 people were left to sleep rough because of a disagreement between the national government and local authorities over who should accommodate refugees.

In Bosnia, migration policy overall falls under the jurisdiction of the national Ministry of Security, but local authorities oversee finding and approving suitable locations to accommodate refugees.

This January, the European Commission promised an additional €3.5 million in humanitarian funding to help refugees with urgent supplies and support in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The EU also urged Bosnian authorities to rebuild the Lipa Camp, denouncing the conditions for refugees in the country as “completely unacceptable”.

But in Una-Sana, the local authorities and population feel they’ve been left to shoulder the day-to-day burden alone.

This has led to growing anti-migration discourse, something which intensified during the run up to local elections on 15 November 2020.

One of the mayoral candidates in Una-Sana, Sej Ramić, centered his whole campaign around anti-migrant rhetoric.

Ramić is one of the administrators of the Facebook group ‘Stop the invasion of migrants!! Association of the citizens of Bihać’. With over 10,000 members it publishes frequent misinformation and hate speech directed towards migrants and refugees. It also targets volunteers and activists, by publishing their photos and private information. In the comments, one can often find insults or read invitations to “teach them a lesson”.

Photos of Bihorać Odobašić were posted in this and other similar groups. She says that she has been insulted while walking in the city centre and she was physically assaulted in September. Although she escaped unharmed, she went straight to the police to report the incident: “The police told me there was no evidence to my claims,” she recalls. They advised her to drop the case.

In Croatia, help interrupted

Just across the border, in Croatia, volunteers helping refugees have been targeted by the authorities. “It all started when we put the topic of police pushbacks and violence on the public agenda. And it escalated after the death of little Madina, a six-year-old girl who was illegally pushed back to Serbia with her family,” explains Ana Ćuća from the Zagreb-based Centre for Peace Studies (CMS), one of the organisations that have been supporting refugees and asylum seekers for over a decade.

Madina Hosseini was killed by a train in the early hours of 22 November 2017, after she and her family (who were Afghan refugees) were forced by Croatian police officers to follow train tracks towards the Serbian town of Šid. After her death, the CMS and Are You Syrious, another NGO dedicated to helping refugees along the Balkan route, supported the Hosseini family and drew public attention to their case.

“This is when we started to feel pressured by the Interior Ministry. For instance, when we scheduled a press conference to publicly share more details about Madina’s death, the police knocked at the doors of everyone supposed to speak at the presser. People were summoned for ‘informative talks’ at the police station, scheduled at the exact time as the press conference,” remembers Ćuća in a phone interview with Equal Times.

Ćuća also argues that the Interior Ministry has influenced the way in which NGOs are portrayed in the media. The names of organisations like CMS and Are You Syrious started being mentioned in the same context as traffickers.

“The Interior Minister Davor Božinović claimed we were handing out our phone numbers, money, and maps with the best routes to enter Croatia drawn on them, to the refugees on the Serbian border,” remembers Ćuća, who says this was untrue and unsupported by any evidence.

“This sort of discourse has changed the public image of the NGOs helping refugees in the country,” she believes.

In April 2018, a volunteer from Are You Syrious, Dragan Umičević, was charged with committing a misdemeanour by helping third-country nationals to illegally cross the Croatian-Serbian border. Ćuća says Umičević was just accompanying a family of refugees to the nearest police station so that they could claim asylum, but he faced imprisonment and a €43,000 fine. In a non-final ruling, he was convicted and to pay 60,000 kuna (approximately €8,000).

“We stopped [accompanying refugees to police stations so that they could claim asylum] in 2018. More and more often, instead of being able to support people, our volunteers were subjected to verbal threats and intimidation,” explains Ćuća.

Also in 2018, the Interior Ministry banned CMS volunteers from the centres for asylum seekers where they had been teaching refugees the Croatian language and providing them with integration support and advice. Nowadays, the NGO has a free phoneline providing legal support, while volunteers still teach asylum seekers Croatian and help them find work outside of the official centres. “The problem is that, since we don’t have access to the asylum centres, we are less visible, so very often people very don’t even know we exist,” Ćuća says.

In Slovenia, internalised fear; in Serbia, growing tension

The criminalisation of solidarity and different forms of intimidation are also present in other countries in the region. In Slovenia, Miha Blažič, from the NGO Delovna skupina za azil (The Asylum Work Group), believes that civil society has internalised the fear of persecution so that police intimidation “isn’t even needed”.

He continues: “It can’t be emphasised enough how strong the stigma of ‘illegal border crossings’ and ‘people smuggling’ has become in public discourse in Slovenia. [...] The stigma naturally rubs off on advocacy groups as well.”

Blažič mentions the example of a group of Afghan refugees who wanted to seek asylum in Slovenia and were hoping somebody would be able to accompany them to the police station and provide legal help. “We contacted the official Legal Information Center that should represent migrants, to ask if they could help. Their response was that it was the police’s job, and that they could not get involved [and decide] who is sent back and who is accepted. So nobody is willing to take up the representation of asylum seekers before they are actually accepted into the asylum process. It is clear that [some NGOs] have internalised the police rhetoric,” Blažič says.

A recent increase in the penalty (up to 15 years in prison) for assisting undocumented migrants and fear of prosecution have made Slovenian advocacy groups abandon police monitoring in the way that is still being done by organisations in Bosnia and Croatia.

In Serbia, Stevan Tatalović from Info Park, a network of centres providing aid and information to refugees in Serbia, believes a similar trend has taken place there.

“Since 2017, when the migrants were moved out of the barracks – derelict warehouses they squatted in, near the main train station in Belgrade – the nature of humanitarian work has changed. The work of organisations will not necessarily be challenged by the authorities, because the organisations already work only in the way the authorities allow them to,” Tatalović says.

However, Tatalović admits that the situation is more challenging in the border areas where both migrants and humanitarian volunteers have been targeted. In January 2020, Are You Syrious reported in one of their daily digests that independent volunteer teams “were pushed out of border areas” by Serbian police. “By the end of 2019, only the Spanish NGO No Name Kitchen and individual members of the international Border Violence Monitoring Network, dedicated to human rights monitoring, succeeded in keeping their presence in northern parts of Serbia,” they wrote.

In October 2020, the Border Violence Network noted that volunteers in the Serbian town of Šid (near the Croatian border) faced increasing harassment from local groups, such as the fascist Omladina Šida (Youths from Šid). They called for the removal of No Name Kitchen volunteers from Šid, as well as the removal of people-on-the-move from the municipality.

The volunteers in Šid also reported that their photos appeared on social networks without their consent, and that the police had disrupted food distribution. In December 2020, police arrested a local No Name Kitchen activist who was helping refugees, accusing him of disrupting the police’s work. From October to December 2020, police ordered eight activists from No Name Kitchen to leave Serbia and banning them from returning for a year for “not having the right permits to do their work”.

In the face of constant pushbacks from Croatia and the ongoing crisis in Bosnia – where temperatures recently plummeted, Covid-19 infections continue to rise and an estimated 2,500 people are sleeping rough – many refugees have started to backtrack to Serbia. But there they are met with the same hostility. In recent weeks, Info Park has noted an intensified police clampdown on refugees and migrants, some of whom are being removed to remote reception centres in southern Serbia. Occasionally, anti-migrant vigilantes called The People’s Patrols are active during these police actions, approaching refugees and handing them over to the police. The people most in need of protection continued to be denied it at almost every turn.