VELIKA KLADUSA, Bosnia (Reuters) – Several hundred Afghan migrants including women, children and a seven-day-old baby have settled in a makeshift tent camp near the border with Croatia, determined to continue their journey to the European Union despite pushbacks and deportations.
“I don’t want to go back to my country ever again,” said a man who identified himself as John, a former driver for NATO in Afghanistan before its Western-backed government fell to the Islamist militant Taliban in August after a 20-year conflict. He said he wanted a better life for his seven-month-old child.
Thousands of migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa have been stranded in Bosnia since 2018, when EU countries including Croatia tightened their borders.
Migrants repeatedly try to cross the frontier in what they call “the game” but most are hustled back into Bosnia by Croatian police.
“Croatia police – a problem,” said a man, showing his arm in a cast. His friend Rustam, 18, said they were both beaten by Croatian police officers when they tried to slip across the rural frontier last week.
“They took my shoes and all things, beat me a lot, deported me back to Bosnia,” Rustam said. “I walked 25 kilometres (15 miles) without shoes.”
Last week, Croatia acknowledged that its police had taken part in a violent pushback of migrants on the border with Bosnia, following reports by several European media outlets and a call by the EU executive for an investigation.
Under international law, migrants have a right to claim asylum and it is forbidden to send potential asylum-seekers back to where their lives or well-being might be in danger.
The EU’s home affairs commissioner has said EU countries needed to protect the bloc’s external borders, but that they also had to uphold the rule of law and fundamental rights.
The Danish Refugee Council, which monitors borders as part of its humanitarian health and protection programmes in Bosnia, recorded 30,309 pushbacks of migrants from Croatia from June 2019 to September 2021.
“From the beginning of this year until now we saw (about) 7,200 cases of pushbacks, 25% of them we know…to be excessive use of violence,” said Hector Carpintero, the DRC country director in Bosnia.
Scattered through a muddy field on the outskirts of the northwestern Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa, improvised tents provide little protection from worsening autumn cold and rain.
But Afghan couple Farid and Adela said they were hopeful they would eventually make it to EU soil with their seven-day-old baby.
“It’s absolutely impossible to live next to the people who live in such a situation and not to sympathise with them,” said Zehida Bihorac Odobasic, a local teacher who visits the migrants daily bringing supplies they need.
(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)