Interview with the ngo “Are You Syrious”, that since 2015 is on first line to provide material and legal assistance to thousands of migrants blocked on the Croatian-Bosnian border
by Marco Siragusa
Sebenico (Croazia), 2nd of December 2019 – In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey signed an agreement to manage migration flows. In a short time, the so-called “Balkan route” was closed and thousands of refugees were trapped in a limbo with no way out. In the last months, the situation on the EU south-eastern border, between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, has dangerously deteriorated beacuse of material deprivation, physical violence by the police and failure to respect basic rights.
To understand what is happening in that area, we interviewed the Croatian NGO “Are You Syrious” which, since 2015, has been fighting for technical and legal assistance to thousands of migrants blocked on the Croatian-Bosnian border. Among the most important actions carried out by AYS members there are reports and daily digest produced and disseminated through their own channels.
Trying to provide a general framework, what are the countries of origin, the average age and the level of education of migrants arriving in the Balkans?
The countries of origin are heterogenous and vary from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Bangladesh, etc. The ages of the migrants and refugees arriving don’t show a pattern – we see numerous families, bringing with them their older children as well as newborns, single men, women and unfortunately unaccompanied minors.
The level of education for the newest arrivals is hard to gauge, as we initially tend to focus on meeting their basic needs and trying to get them settled after their arduous journey. As for the people who have spent some time in Croatia and we attempted to help them with entering the job market, the level of education again varies – we’ve seen university-level educated people, such as dentists, architects, engineers, music teachers, as well as blue-collar workers who’ve managed to start building a decent life laying tiles or installing air-conditioners. There are teenagers wishing to continue their education, as well as people who’ve worked in agriculture and hospitality.
After the last Turkish offensive in northern Syria, do you expect a new increase in arrivals?
A new increase in arrivals may of course be triggered by the Turkish offensive in northern Syria, but it’s important to remember that Russia and Assad are continuing their rampage in Idlib, that the peace talks with the Taliban essentially collapsed and as a consequence, the US has carried out 1113 air and artillery strikes in Afghanistan during September only.
We’ve yet to see whether there’ll be an escalation of the violence in Iraq and Lebanon towards the nascent people’s movements we are witnessing there. In Iraq, more than 250 people have been killed by governmental, as well as Iranian paramilitary forces, while wounded are counted in the thousands. Speaking of thousands, that’s the number of children suffering from starvation in Yemen.
What I’m trying to outline here is that people are greatly suffering all over the world, and the arrivals will, naturally, only be increasing. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, we’ve built the equivalent of six Berlin walls on land, and we rely on the sea to swallow those to attempt to cross it. So the real question is, are we finally going to get our act together and respond in a humane way.
In your reports you denounced the violence by border police and the lack of respect for basic human right. What is happening in Vucjak camp, on the Croatian-Bosnian border?
There are at least 800 people living in the Vučjak camp, which is still failing to meet a minimum of (or any!) humanitarian standards. Vučjak has actually come to exemplify the lack of dignity and humanity for people-in-transit attempting to claim asylum in Europe, as we outlined in our recent report on human rights violations in the camp, where one can witness a consistently overburdened, inadequate and uncoordinated humanitarian effort, bolstered by state deficiencies, lack of political will and pervasive police violence and hostility, including violence from private security forces at IOM-managed camps.
This is probably best illustrated by our latest AYS Digest Special from Vučjak camp: “Since the writing of this report, the situation has become even more precarious: authorities have simultaneously halted funding and humanitarian aid to Vučjak and have re-strengthened efforts to take people-in-transit from public spaces to the now critically over-populated and under-serviced Vučjak, which is now deprived of medical aid and water. As this report shows, the crisis in Bihać extends past merely what is happening within Vučjak and is intimately tied to the EU’s border practices, particularly the illegal pushbacks that Croatia and Slovenia participate in. There is no political solution in sight other than pushing for two things: providing basic necessities and respect for human rights for people-in-transit, and reforming the European Union’s dysfunctional asylum system and the persistent lack of access to this system at the EU’s borderlands.”
Even in Croazia, as in the rest of Europe, do politicians use the fight against migrants to reach consensus by fomenting fear? Has racism been more widespread in recent years or, on the contrary, has the population shown itself to be supportive and welcoming?
Politicians who lack a real political program which would actually serve for the betterment of people’s lives often rely on fear-mongering to score political points. Refugees and migrants seem to have become empty signifiers into which we inscribe all our anxieties and neuroses about the Other, the foreigner, the Muslim, basically anyone who differs in any way from us. We often cast them as criminals, liars, thieves who’ve come to take away our way of life, our resources etc. But if we stop to think for a second, Ahmad from Syria or Reza from Afghanistan came way later after our lives were wrecked by privatization, endemic corruption and unemployment that has forced our youth to leave the country in the tenths of thousands.
So, not everyone takes warmly to our work with refugees and migrants. Sad people are paralyzed by this fear of the different, so they turn to chauvinism and toxic nationalism. We did have some very unpleasant experiences such as vandalism of our office, death threats, we’ve sometimes even had to ask for protection from the police.
However, it must be said that the reactions which we most often hear from our fellow citizens are overwhelmingly positive. People express support by sending warm messages of support, as well as coming by frequently to our integration centre, in order to bring donations, and ask how they can participate in creating a warm welcome to our new friends.
In your opinion, what are the main limits of European policies on migration flows?
This one is rather simple – the lack of a safe passage, coordinated, organized humanitarian corridors which would bring those in need to safety. While the so-called “Balkan Route” existed formally, people didn’t need to turn to smugglers and put their own lives in danger to reach refuge. Now, we see people trying to come in under trains, over snowy mountains and rivers whose waters have claimed many lives.
Additionally, a big issue which has intensified in the past few years has been the criminalization of human rights defenders, as exemplified by the cases of the IUVENTA crew, Sarah Mardini, Sean Binder, as well as our very own volunteer, against whom the Croatian Ministry of Interior pressed misdemeanor charges for “facilitating illegal migration” because he was present at a time when the late Madina Hussiny’s family, with several small children and minors, were about to approach the Croatian police and request international protection. He was accused of signaling the family in order to assist their crossing from Serbia to Croatia. He have however, shared detailed accounts, written evidence, as well as three recorded geo-locations related to the specific event with police, and the charges were proven false during the court hearing. In the official charges, MOI asked for the highest prescribed penalty, including imprisonment, a 43,000 EUR fine and a ban of work for the legal entity, meaning AYS. In September 2018., the court found the volunteer guilty on the grounds of “unconscious/inadvertent negligence”, but rejected the recommended penalties, and issued a smaller (but still substantial) 8,000 EUR fine. We have challenged this decision and is awaiting the outcome of the appeal.
What do you expect from the next European Commission about the EU reception policies issue?
We’ve learned to keep our expectations in check due to past experiences. It was quite shocking to see the EC give Croatia the green light for entering the Schengen zone. All of this came after numerous reports which have highlighted direct violations of the provisions of the Schengen Border Code, as well as violations of international and EU law, including the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. We agree that entering Schengen will improve the quality of life of Croatian citizens, but we find it morally objectionable to achieve this goal on the backs of those most vulnerable. Nena News
(Italian version here)