Overlooked by the forested peaks of the Dinaric mountains on the border of the European Union, and surrounded by minefields from the Yugoslav wars, the Vučjak refugee camp in northwest Bosnia is a shocking reminder of the crisis bumping up against the back door of Europe.
Here, conditions pose serious health risks to hundreds of would-be asylum seekers. The United Nations recently described this camp, a few kilometers from Croatia, as “entirely inadequate for the purpose of accommodating people”.
Plastic bags, old clothes, and a wheel from a toddler’s pram can be seen jutting out from the contaminated soil. This is not detritus from the camp itself, where 700 people are currently living, but the toxic remains of what came before: the camp is located directly on the site of an old landfill. Not only is it an injustice to kettle people on the footprint of a former rubbish tip, there is also a serious risk of fire and explosion from methane gas that may be trapped underground.
“This is not a place for living…” said one man from Afghanistan, who has been forced to stay in the camp ever since he was evicted from the local city of Bihać over a month ago, along with 850 other migrants: “…If a person from the USA, Germany, or the UK could see this, they would not think it was for humans!’’
Pollution is not the only health risk that people here face. Residents of this camp, who come from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others, report having access to water for only ten hours each day.
The lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation in Vučjak contravenes minimum standards for refugee camps set out by the Sphere project and the UNHCR. Echoing the suffering witnessed in the Calais refugee camp in France, and the violent inaction of the French and British governments, the environmental conditions in Vučjak are creating serious public health issues.
A member of the Bihać Red Cross, which provides emergency first-aid and food in the camp, described finding individual cases of tuberculosis, hepatitis B and at least twenty instances of scabies.
With no permanent water supply or toilets available for over a month, people have been forced to defecate out in the open: “We use the minefield”, said one man, pointing along an overgrown path that leads towards the mountains. But this is no joke. An EU official described how the local authorities had “found the worst possible location for a camp” due to its proximity to uncleared landmines and toxic waste.
In the middle of the camp, a giant “Warning” map created by The Red Cross and UN Mine Action Centre (UNMAC) shows the location of the local minefields.
“This camp is like a jail” said Ahmed, a 21 year old from Pakistan. Like other residents of the camp, he risks being detained by the police if he makes the four hour round-trip to Bihać to buy food, clothes, or medicine. Every afternoon, Bosnian police detain migrants in the city centre, and transport them back to the camp. Some are frogmarched by the police in large groups, while others are transported in police vans up to the hillside camp.
Despite the humanitarian injustice described above, it is not the landmines, health conditions, or lack of sanitation that people here wanted us to write about. Instead, people approached us, bandaged and bruised, saying: “You must tell people about the Croatian police”
Since January 2018, nearly 36,000 refugees and migrants have entered Bosnia, many of whom have been hoping to take the so-called “Balkan Route” to claim asylum in countries such as Italy, Spain and Germany. The perilous journey by foot from Bosnia across Croatia and Slovenia is nicknamed “The Game”.
“There were six or seven policemen, and everyone had a stick…” described one Afghan man, who was detained in Slovenia on his way to Italy, before being handed over to Croatian authorities, who, he says, refused to process his asylum claim. He claims that they put him in a windowless van with twenty five other detainees – some of whom were vomiting – and drove them to the Bosnian border.
One by one, we were told, the police smashed their phones, stole their money, burnt their clothes, and assaulted them: “They beat us with electric shock sticks,” he continued. Another man reported how “All of my things were put into the fire and everything was put to ash.”
But don’t take our word for it. Volunteers working for the grassroots charity No Name Kitchen and the Border Violence Monitoring Network have recorded over 519 cases of police brutality against refugees and migrants by EU member states, including Croatia, which often involve the systematic use of violence, intimidation, and theft.
No Name Kitchen, who – along with other local organisations – provide first aid, food, and clothes for displaced people, also publish monthly violence reports that document the illegal activities of the Croatian state. Corroborating this, whistleblowers within the Croatian border police have reported how they were ordered to push people back without following proper asylum procedures. Earlier this week, another Croatian police officer told the BBC that the order to push people back illegally “goes all the way up to the top.”
But how can this be happening? Standing in the camp in Vučjak, among a crowd of battered bodies and broken bones, you are confronted by the bloody consequences of European geopolitics. In a cynical effort by the Croatian government to prove it has what it takes to join the Schengen Area of free movement, the country is doing the “dirty work” of enforcing the EU’s border. It is clear that in order to join the Schengen gang of free movement – which Croatia hopes to enter in 2020 – you must first bare your teeth.
After years of denial, Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has even admitted that police use violence to pushback refugees, which contravenes international asylum law. Despite this, senior EU diplomats, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have praised how Croatia is handling its border, with the EU funding Croatian “border management” to the tune of €23.2m.
The European Union has been critical of the conditions of the Vučjak camp, and rightly so. Yet the EU simultaneously remains silent about the border violence it is lavishly funding in the state of Croatia. This janus-faced approach to the border politics of the European Union cannot hide the fact that the EU has the blood of refugees on its hands.
This article was first published in the Independent on 1 August 2019 (re-published here with permission).
Arshad Isakjee (University of Liverpool), Bruno Alvarez Contreras (No Name Kitchen), Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik (Aston University) and Thom Davies (University of Nottingham) received an Antipode Foundation Scholar-Activist Project Award in 2018.