As refugee numbers swell in Europe and the “Balkan route” explodes, unsanitary and overcrowded camps are forcing migrants into clashes with police.

Refugees at the Croatian border clashed with police in the last week of October as they protested reported brutality from authorities and the closed border that holds them in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) under unsanitary and crowded conditions.

Both asylum seekers and Croatian policemen sustained minor injuries.

Overcrowded Refugee Camps

For one week following the clash, the migrants and asylum seekers remained at the Maljevac border crossing, blocking passage and refusing to return to their former camp in the nearby town of Velika Kladusa. Their camp, which has had no running water or electricity over the past month and a half, is described as unlivable.

Maljevac was reopened on October 30, and Bosnian authorities are working to relocate those who have spent a week or more at the border to a new facility in northwest BiH, the Independent Balkan News Agency reports.

For the past several weeks, Bosnian authorities have begun deterring migrants from the northwestern region of BiH to the capital city Sarajevo, where there are more resources for the migrants as winter approaches. On October 21, they announced that the municipalities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa near the Croatian border were closed off to additional migrants after numbers had grown to almost 200 arrivals per day. On October 24, the same day that Croatian police used tear gas to diffuse hundreds at the Maljevac crossing, Bosnian authorities intercepted a caravan of 100 individuals traveling north from Sarajevo, and organized their return.

According to Snezana Galic, a spokesperson for the regional police, this new approach was taken due to the “deteriorating security situation.”

Two new housing facilities were opened earlier this month to improve upon the current lack of accommodations, which has left many families and individuals in makeshift tents and abandoned buildings for months at a time.

These two facilities have doubled the number of available beds in the country, which now reaches around 1,700. By winter, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), they hope to provide 2,000 more.

Accusations of Police Abuse

This September, top EU officials called for an investigation into the Croatian police for reports of harsh physical abuse of migrants and asylum seekers in the border regions with BiH.

The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic wrote a letter to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic on September 20, highlighting those concerns.

“According to UNHCR,” Mijatovic wrote, “Croatia has allegedly collectively expelled 2,500 migrants since the beginning of 2018. Among them, 1,500 reported having been denied access to asylum procedures and 700 of those persons reported violence and theft by law enforcement officers during summary expulsions.”

The letter, published on September 20, was met with a repose from Croatian Ministry of Interior Davor Bozinovic, who rejected the accusations due to lack of evidence.

“Up to this point, no cases of coercive means being applied to migrants by police officers have been confirmed. Likewise, the allegations that police officers have committed acts of theft against third-country nationals have not been confirmed either,” Bozinovic wrote.

Accumulating media reports and persistent documentation by humanitarian aid groups have insisted of these violations of refugee rights for many months, but have only recently attracted the attention and persuasion of politicians such as Mijatovic.

In 2017, a refugee aid organization called Dobrodosli – Croatian for “welcome” – filed two complaints that authorities had been systematically deporting refugees to other Balkan nations such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

Dosodelli argued that in adherence with the EU Directive on Asylum Procedures, migrants were entitled to translation services and information about asylum, as well as the right to present their case to the appropriate authorities.

But the detain and deport approach of nations along the migrant route to Northern Europe allowed Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia to establish an agreement, with monetary compensation from the EU as means to assist the former in their migrant and refugee aide provisions.

“The Republic of Croatia has an active and successful return agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina that regulates the return of those who have entered illegally,” authorities said in response to Buzinkic and Dobrodosli’s complaints last year.

The ‘Balkan Route’ Explodes

However, Bosnia – a nation with economic issues of its own – is struggling to keep up as a major step of the new Balkan Route which leads migrants from a mixture of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations to the EU.

The numbers of migrants choosing this route to Northern Europe has grown over the last year and more than 13,000 individuals arrived in Bosnia in the first nine months of 2018, compared with only 755 in 2017. But with pushback from Croatia as a through-country on this route, the Northern Bosnian border town of Velika Kladusa exploded into an unmanaged camp with too few resources.

“Thousands of migrants are in the cities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa,” Italian MEP Elly Schlein said. “According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other NGOs, they are living in inadequate facilities and lack sufficient basic medical assistance.”

In Velika Kladusa, tents and makeshift shelters sprung up in an empty but often flooded field, whereas in Bihac, around 1,000 individuals sleep in a derelict student dorm which lacks windows or a substantial roof.

Twenty-two Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), including Schlein, have submitted requests for a parliamentary interrogation into the living conditions of this space. Their attention had been called to the area after NGOs and major news sources began to document and report allegations of brutal abuse by the Croatian border police during the detain and deport process.

The Guardian reported from Velika Kladusa in August, photographing lashed shoulders, head wounds, and smashed telephones which victims attributed to their encounters with the Croatian police.

In another account, published by No Name Kitchen in July, a woman describes the scene after the group she had attempted to cross the border with was found.

“The refugees were in the middle of the circle. The police like a circle, and they were beating them with batons. 5 police men on 5 single. Every police man was beating one single man and kept beating them. One man was crying and other was vomiting, they wanted to go back to Bosnia, but the police kept beating them. After they finished, we walked a bit to the Bosnian land and the police again kept beating them, again 5 policemen were beating 5 men.”

In a statement on borderviolence.eu, a 47-year-old Iraqi woman describes how she and her 14-year-old son were beaten, with injuries to the face, arms and legs. They also took her money, a phone and a laptop.

“Given the fact that there are so many of these stories, I think it’s in everyone’s interest to have an independent inquiry to see what is going on, on the other side of the border,” Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans coordinator for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Al Jazeera.

migrants crash with Bosnian police while crossing into Croatia

Migrants clash with Bosnian police while trying to cross into Croatia. (Image via YouTube)

Response to Refugee Crisis and Abuse Allegations

Croatia’s Interior Ministry responded to Al Jazeera by email, saying that it “strongly dismisses” allegations of police brutality, and that their investigations into the reports and complaints had uncovered no evidence of abuse or theft during interactions with asylum seekers at the border.

But some EU politicians, such as Mijatovic and Schlein, believe that a more thorough investigation is due, with attention to both Croatian brutality and the state of Bosnian refugee relief.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina receives EU funds for migration, including 1.5 million allocated in June and another 6 million in August, with which it should be providing appropriate reception,” Schlein said. “This is why we are asking the Commission to monitor how those funds are used.”

With winter swiftly approaching, the urgency of improvements leaves both the authorities and the migrants tense.

“We are very lucky that the weather has been mild so far,” said Peter Van Der Auweraert from IOM.

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