Enough is enough. Europe, act now!

This Opinion piece was penned by Vivianne Rau – co-created by Sophie Meixensberger, Denise Haack, Miki Weberbauer and Rebecca Kirsche and supported by SOS Balkanroute.

With every day that passes, and no action taken, the collective responsibility of the EU for the human rights violations happening in its member states is growing. As European volunteers, we call upon everyone to inform themselves, to demand ethical political action and to become actively involved.

Let’s face the facts: at the EU external borders, violence is escalating; people are suffering. Every winter day brings colder weather, with at least 3000 people without shelter sleeping outside in subzero temperatures. Instead of immediate action, the EU practices collective inaction, risking the lives of people in urgent need of refuge.

The recent incidents in the burnt down camp in Lipa marks a sad climax of the three-year humanitarian crisis. To this day, the people in Lipa are still not provided with running water, heating or warm food, let alone permanent accommodation. The attempt to bring the people to existing camps in other parts of the country by bus failed catastrophically. After waiting in uncertainty for over 24 hours in buses, they were sent back to the inhumane camp ruins. As a result, some of the camp residents started to protest. They refused to eat or receive medical help. They shouted “We are humans. Not animals.”

“We are humans. Not animals.”

During my most recent stay in Bosnia, I saw the horrifying conditions in the camp with my own eyes and talked to the people in Lipa about their fears, frustration and dreams. I am stunned by the half-hearted and irresponsible reaction of the EU. The EU delegation, which only made it to Lipa after more than 10 days, did not even get out of their cars, showing no respect to the people. The recently announced aid packages of 3.5 million euros is a cynical symbolic act. The people need to be evacuated now.

What is happening in Lipa is heart-breaking but unfortunately it is not exceptional. In October and November 2020, my colleagues and I have been witnesses of the catastrophic and constantly worsening situation on the Balkans Refugee Route right at the border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). At the moment, there are approximately 7400 refugees living in International Organization for Migration (IOM) camps in the vicinity of the border. At least 3500 more, including families, children and vulnerable persons, are living outside the camps, either on the street or in the woods, and without access to the basic necessities of life.

With the route through Serbia and Hungary now impassable, refugees from the Middle East and the Western Balkans have been following a different route. Since 2018 the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša in Una-Sana Canton, BiH, have found themselves at the center of a growing humanitarian crisis. These two localities have become a perilous road-block for refugees arriving from Serbia. These refugees are unable to move back or move forwards. BiH does not have the capacity to handle applications for asylum or requests for accommodation while Croatia is violating the international law of non-refoulement – a crucial international law principle that forbids the forced return of people in need of refuge to an unsafe location – of people in need of international protection, pushing them back across the border to BiH using severe forms of violence.

This leaves refugees and migrants with no alternative but to engage in what they themselves call the “game“, which is to try and slip across the hilly, forested border between BiH and Croatia, in full knowledge of the dangers that this entails. Refugees who are “pushed back” have all their belongings taken from them: mobile telephones, money, clothing and backpacks are taken from them, destroyed or burned before their eyes. We, a group of German volunteers with medical expertise in the team, have helped to treat the injuries of victims of such unlawful and violent practice. We have seen with our own eyes the marks of Croatian police violence: lacerations, extensive bruising caused by baton blows and deep penetrating wounds. Ten young men told us how they were forced to lie naked on top of one another to form a pyramid. For half an hour they were beaten and humiliated in this manner before they were expelled back to the Bosnian side of the border wearing nothing but their underwear.

It did not take us long to notice that the horror is repetitive: the kind of wounds we have treated; the horrible stories we have been told; the unmistakable psychological strain on fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters on the run in a quest to save their lives. There is no such thing as an isolated incident! Instead, we met people who have been subjected to systematic and arbitrary violence without any hope for an improvement of this situation.

There are many more well documented and credible reports of incidents of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the security authorities of European Union Member States, including torture and sexual abuse of refugees. Croatia denies all the accusations and is currently receiving double-digit millions of euros of EU support for “border protection”.The EU is frozen in inactivity. Refugees freeze to hold on to life.

The recently adopted “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” by the EU Commission, is no more than a demonstration of agreement in disagreement. So far, the Pact does not foresee any clear measures that would mean relief or improvement for the people who are stuck at the Bosnian-Croatian border. Instead, it foresees closed (detention) centers for asylum-procedures at the EU’s external borders, even though detention should be the last resort of law enforcement at any time. Reinstalling the protection, promotion and guarantee of human rights for migrants and refugees at the external borders is, clearly, not a priority. Right now, we don’t know how the EU and its member states are planning to take on their responsibility and operationalize dignified and fair treatment of those who irregularly try to enter the EU to seek international protection.

Instead of encouraging all member states to show solidarity towards people who seek international protection as well as support for EU member states that receive high numbers of asylum seekers, the complete opposite is provisioned. Member states that refuse to participate in receiving asylum seekers now have the option to become sponsors of deportations instead, or to support EU border states on border management issues – either financially or with equipment. What financing of border management means for people who try to enter the EU, we can see at the Croatian, Greek, Spanish, Slovenian, Austrian border and in the Mediterranean Sea every day – violent and illegal pushbacks.

We, as voluntary workers and European citizens, demand immediate action from those in power and specifically address the EU leaders and Members of National and European Parliaments to do what is necessary to stop violence, degrading treatment and illegal pushbacks at EU borders.

In particular we are calling for the following:

– Evacuation of the remaining 600 to 800 people in Lipa. Every additional day risks the lives of people who are exposed to cold, wind, rain and snow without any protection. Ensuring immediate protection for these people is the bottom line of what we as humans must agree on.

Emergency relief measures: Legalized status for the volunteer support network already on site; no further shutdown of camps or hindered access to medical care for migrants and refugees; access to the existing camps for independent observers to ensure adequate treatment.

End the violence: Independent monitoring and documentation of violence and criminal proceedings against those responsible while acknowledging shared European responsibility.

Political pressure and legal action: Croatia and the EU must respect the provisions of international and European Law; Croatia must implement European Union regulations; systematic violations must be investigated and prosecuted; refugees and migrants should receive EU support; their human rights, enshrined in international law, must be protected, promoted and guaranteed.

Political solutions: The EU must comply with its obligation under the EU Charter of Basic Rights and the Refugee Convention to ensure proper treatment of requests for asylum at its external borders. At the same time BiH must be supported in receiving and accommodating refugees in order to prevent any further exacerbation of social tensions.

Violence is not in the nature of the Croatian population, the border police or any human being – but are a consequence of the criminalization of asylum in the EU. We call on all relevant authorities in the EU to acknowledge the crisis situation that exists at the border between BiH and Croatia, an EU Member State, and to take immediate steps to prevent the situation from further escalation.

Photo credit © Alba Domínguez,  Bosnia

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of United Against Inhumanity.

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