An Afghan girl pulls her baby sister along in a pram through the mud and snow. Saman is six and baby Darya is 10 months old. They and their family have been pushed back into Bosnia 11 times by the Croatian police, who stripped Darya bare to check if the parents had hidden mobile phones or money in her nappy.
“They searched her as though she were an adult. I could not believe my eyes,” says Darya’s mother, Maryam, 40, limping through the mud and clinging to a stick.
The Guardian followed the journey of Darya and that of dozens of other migrant children who, every day, walk, or are carried on their parents’ backs through the snowy paths that cross the woods around Bosanska Bojna, the last Bosnian village before the Croatian border, in an attempt to reach an increasingly inhospitable central Europe. Few families are successful. Most of them are stopped by Croatian police, searched, allegedly often robbed and, sometimes violently, pushed back into Bosnia, where, for months, thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in freezing temperatures, without running water or electricity.
In December, fire destroyed a migrant camp in Bosnia, making the situation worse.
“Out of a total of about 8,000 migrants in Bosnia, about 2,000 people are basically left to fend for themselves in abandoned buildings, squats, makeshift settlements and in forests,” Nicola Bay, the Danish Refugee Council’s Bosnia director, says. “These people include families, children and unaccompanied minors that have practically no shelter, no access to basic services and no access to proper healthcare.”
According to the council, in 2020 more than 800 children were pushed back by the Croatian authorities, including many under the age of six. The number of families living on the border between Croatia and Bosnia has increased considerably in recent months, and thus the number of children.
Most of those in transit have come from Greece, where a new law approved by Athens last year has stymied the administrative procedures for the recognition of refugee status. Tired of waiting, just when they thought their odyssey had ended, it has pushed many to get back on the road and try to reach the heart of the European Union through the Balkans.
“It’s very difficult to have a complete overview on the motivations pushing people to leave Greece and move north to the Balkan road to reach other destinations in Europe,” says Stephan Oberreit, head of mission at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece, “but it’s clear that increasing delays in the asylum processes and in family reunification claims, the appalling living conditions, and lack of protection and integration lead people to continue their perilous journeys until they find safety and dignity.”
It is a strenuous journey, crossing mountains and snow-covered forests, with virtually no welcoming facilities for migrants. Many of the children of the migrant crisis living in abandoned or destroyed houses in Bosanska Bojna today were born along the route, like Darya, whose name means “sea”, and who was born in Lesbos before a blaze in September destroyed the Moria camp.
“We were tired of waiting for the Greek authorities to consider our asylum application,” says Hasan, 52, the father of Darya and her six siblings, who left Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, a year and a half before. Hasan says that if there had been no war in his country, he would never have found himself in these forests, watching Croatian policemen search Darya’s nappy – the searching of babies being a common practice, according to the watchdog organisation Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN).
“Although, in most cases, women and children are not directly subjected to physical violence by the Croatian authorities, they are still subjected to what can be described as psychological violence, abuse and humiliation,” Roberta Gentili, a field coordinator for BVMN, says. “Women and young girls have reported being searched everywhere by male Croatian police officers. Moreover, there are incidents in which the police have searched children’s clothes or babies’ nappies, thinking their parents have hidden phones or money.”
On 16 October 2019, two Palestinian and Syrian families were stopped near the village of Glina, Croatia, and forced to undress. “The children were also searched and the babies’ diapers had to be removed. They were naked, in the forest, in the middle of the night,” one told BVMN. In October, BVMN reported the case of an Afghan mother who “described feeling uncomfortable when the male officers touched her body to look for phones and money”, and then when an officer stuck his hand into the nappy of her 11-month-old baby boy.
“We also have had a significant number of cases of women, some of them underage girls, being forced to strip by the Croatian police,” Bay says. “Their father is asked to cover them with a blanket. When you listen to their testimonies, they say, ‘I’m covering my teenage daughter with a blanket,’ but there’s obviously one part of the blanket where you can see through, because you can’t pull it all the way around and there’s a policeman standing right there.”
Numerous women say they were beaten in front of their children, who were also pushed around.
“During the last pushback, my four-year-old son, Milad, asked the police for water,” Maryam tells the Guardian. “But the Croatians denied him, took him by the shoulder and pushed him away. I tried to react and explain to them that they couldn’t do it. Then they kicked me on the back and I rolled to the ground. Today, we will try to cross the border again and inshallah, we hope to make it.”
On the road that leads from the Bosanska Bojna valley to the Croatian forest trails, other families leave their shelters and set off again with their entourage of children and strollers. “Today, we go for game!” yells a smiling six-year-old.
Although there is little fun, “the game” is what migrants call the crossing from Bosnia into Croatia so that their children see it as a sort of adventure, with the aim of not being caught by the men in black uniforms who hide in the woods. The goal is to reach an elusive place called France, Italy or the UK. In the frost and the mountains, they are encouraged by their parents to play, chasing each other and climbing trees.
But in the late evening, when the children return to their wet and crumbling shelters in Bosanska Bojna, after being pushed back once again by Croatian police, it is easy to see that they did not have fun.
“Families including children, the elderly, women and young men who experience this brutality will carry the psychological trauma with them for years,” says Maham Hashmi, an MSF humanitarian officer. “They will always have in mind that Europe brutalised them instead of protecting them and their right to seek asylum.”
“The most common mental health issues that we observe among children on the move are related to symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress as a result of the violence they have witnessed and that can potentially leave long-term consequences on their mental health”, says Tatiana Olivero, a coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina for Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). “These children have been through highly stressful experiences, such as war and persecution in their country of origin, and have witnessed violence during their path towards Europe, including the abusive treatments imposed on their parents during multiple pushbacks. Some are losing hope for the future and see their childhood denied.”
Zohra, 33, a Kabul lawyer and mother of four, says her children are struggling: “When we get our things ready for the crossing, my children don’t want to go. They cry because they are afraid of being pushed back, or being kicked, like last time.”
In 2016, a bomb attack during Ramadan killed her seven-year-old son. His twin, Nourin, now 11, was paralysed on one side of her body. Last November alone in Kabul, a series of bomb attacks launched by insurgents left at least 88 people dead and more than 193 injured. But many European countries continue to repatriate asylum seekers to Afghanistan.
During the lastest attempt at crossing, captured on Guardian cameras, Nourin and her siblings remained hidden for almost an hour in a dried-out ditch at the side of a trail, as two Croatian policemen guarded the area from a hill less than 200 metres away. Zohra and her husband, Ibrahim, later decided this was too much of a risk and not a good time to move on. They will try again tomorrow. During their five-month stay in Bosnia, they have been pushed back 37 times, despite informing the border authorities of their request for asylum.
The pushback record in Bosanska Bojna is held by Fariba Azizi and his three children who, at around 7pm on 22 January returned from the Bosanska Bojna woods after their 54th pushback. When they got back, they found their shelter reduced to rubble: Bosnian special forces that week burned all the informal migrant camps in Bosanska Bojna. According to charities, citizens in the area had protested over the presence of migrants in those places. But mostly the inhabitants of the villages around Bosanska Bojna offer food, blankets and clothing to the migrants. Memories of the war are still fresh in many Bosnians’ minds. They know all too well what it means to be forced out of their homes.
Of at least eight families the Guardian followed over five days last week, only two managed to cross the border into Croatia. On 28 January, Darya’s family informed the Guardian they had made it to Zagreb. It is an important step, but not the last. There are many cases of migrants who reach Croatia and are sent back to Bosnia by the authorities there. The same happens in Slovenia and Italy, where, last week, the court of Rome declared more than 700 pushbacks perpetrated by Italian police in Slovenia illegal.
“Pushbacks are illegal, whether they are violent or not, it doesn’t matter,” says Bay. “They fundamentally undermine the right to international protection. Croatian pushbacks are a consequence of EU policy – aimed at transferring the responsibility for protecting people outside of the EU. It has become a situation in which member states regularly ignore, circumvent or directly violate EU law, and this has [become] a standard way of managing borders.
“The perpetrators need to be held accountable. For member states that don’t comply with these measures, there have to be real consequences. There have to be sanctions of some form. Up until now, for years, essentially, there has been impunity for violations of European [Union] laws.”
The Croatian ministry of the interior told the Guardian said they will thoroughly investigate the incidents, including alleged violence against children. However, a spokesperson said “in order to achieve their goal, migrants are willing to use all means necessary, including bringing their own lives and the lives of their family into danger, knowing that if they find themselves in such a dangerous situation that the Croatian police will save their lives. Likewise, if the Croatian police prevents them in their attempt of illegal entry, they are ready to falsely accuse the same Croatian police of violence and obstruction of access to the system of international protection.
“We would like to point out that the Croatian police are authorised to check persons and their luggage in order to find items which may be used to escape, attack or inflict self-harm. This is a legal power, which police officers regularly exercise during their work in order to protect themselves and to establish general security,’’ they added.
In the email, the minister announced that a group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) intended to visit Croatia to observe the Croatian police’s anti-immigration practices.
The delegation of Italian MEPs, belonging to the parliamentary group of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), arrived in Zagabria last Saturday. They decided to visit the Bosnian border area that same day to witness migrants as they make their way into Europe. But their plans were immediately thwarted as Croatian police chased and stopped them just as they reached the check-point at the Bosnian border, sparking a row in Italy.
“This is a grave act, without precedent”, the MEPs told the guards as the Italian newspaper Avvenire filmed the exchange. “What’s beyond that border? What do you want to hide from us?.”
Bosanska Bojna, with hundreds of children stranded in the snow, lies just on the other side.
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
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