Velika Kladusa, in the north-eastern corner of Bosnia-Herzegovina, is one of several migration hot spots on the border of the EU. Large numbers of refugees are stranded here, hoping to eventually make it over the border and claim asylum in the EU. The official refugee camps are long since overcrowded and no longer accept people. Thus, hundreds live in squalid conditions, in abandoned and unfinished buildings, old factories littered with industrial and residential trash, or in sleeping bags and old tents in the woods. Food, warm clothing, firewood, and shelter are all in short supply. There is only very limited medical care provided by volunteers and NGOs, while the local hospital routinely refuses to treat refugees. Locals and aid organizations that try to help are constantly harassed by authorities, who seem to hope that the 'problem' will go somewhere else if they just behave nasty enough. Unfortunately, the 'somewhere else' is not only crueler, but is so with the backing and funding of the EU. Among the refugee population this process is no longer called applying for asylum, but going on game. The game? It is to try and cross Croatia and Slovenia without being caught and reach central Europe. If caught, they are beaten, stripped of their valuables, clothes and shoes, and pushed back to Bosnia over the green border. This is a flagrant violation of national law, EU law and the human rights convention. In Velika Kladusa, it is now normal to see people returning from the border with broken bones, open wounds, no shoes and no clothes. All this happens under the eyes of the EU. Not only have they failed to reign in this kind of behavior, but they are actively complicit. The Croatian border police is funded through the EU Frontex program, and Croatia has been praised for its work in securing the EU border. The use of similar tactics in central Europe is on the rise, with reports from chain push backs to Bosnia starting as far as Italy and Austria.
I've spent time there, helping out a small NGO, and tried to understand and document. Most images covering this topic in the news feature graphic depictions of the human suffering and the shocking nature of the situation. While this is undoubtedly part of the reality, and therefore also part of this series, I've come to realize that these images do not do the situation justice. One main goal of the NGO I worked with is to enable some normality and escape from the daily grind to survive. Be it a shared meal, a game of football, or simply listening, talking and dreaming together. It is in those moments where, perhaps, the heaviest toll this situation takes on the refugees can be found. They left their homes with a dream, a hope, and out of desperation. Often the expectation from their families for them to make it and be able to provide an income is high. So is their pride and the wish to succeed. But here, on the border to the EU, these dreams are on hold, time seemingly standing still.
The reactions to the health and economic crisis brought by Covid-19 have shown that if we want, we very much have the will and the means to implement sweeping changes. It seems, however, that we are only ready to do so for our own good. We will only solve this crisis by having a hard look at ourselves, our values and the policies for which we vote. If we are not willing to change, it is time to accept responsibility for the suffering and death on our doorstep. And it is time to stop promoting ourselves as the developed and humanitarian society that we strive to be.