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A judge in Rome has ruled that the practice of deporting migrants to Slovenia, under an old bilateral agreement, is illegal. “They are violating the Constitution and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights”.
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Lipa Camp, on the mountain high above the city of Bihać in northern Bosnia, was barely fit for human habitation. Tent structures and flimsy floors provided little protection for the negative temperatures of the icy nights. Rain would blow through the numerous holes whilst hot water and appropriate sanitation were non-existent.
But it was better than nothing.
Nothing means camping in the woods, surrounded by snow. It means trying to make a fire to keep warm from the broken remains of the near-useless camp.
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The Black Book of Pushbacks, this formidable publication, in two enormous volumes, is the most depressing thing you can read.
It documents the illegal removal of refugees and migrants from European Union countries, almost always using violence and other breaches of human rights.
It launched today, International Day for Migrants, with a Zoom conference with German MEP Cornelia Ernst, The Left coordinator in the Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee.
Presentations were by:
• Hope Barker, Policy Analyst, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN)
• Milena Zajović, President, Are You Syrious and Head of advocacy, BVMN
• Andras Lederer, Senior Advocacy Officer, Hungarian Helsinki Committee
• Neeske Beckmann, head of mission, Seawatch airborne operations
You can watch it back here.
I have to say, it was really depressing listening. More than 12,000 people were effected by illegal activities in 2020. In fact, many many more. I know from first hand experience of collecting reports for BVMN, that incidents go unrecorded, perhaps because the victim doesn't want to talk about their traumatic experience, and also because the scale of the issue is too large for the volunteers on the ground.
The authorities are aware of these illegal acts.
The European Parliament knowingly and willingly funds the border authorities of Croatia and Greece.
Yet human rights violations continue. The passionate and professional contributors to the conference detailed the atrocities in their own fields - how Hungary have legalised pushbacks to Serbia, how Seawatch monitor the Libyan Coastguard.
But there was a message of hope. Hope that the voices of the wronged will be heard and that in the future we will look back with shame on what happened in the past.
To learn more visit borderviolence.eu and to show support to the situation you can donate or buy an e-voucher here
It was back in January that I last played the organ at Farm Street Church in Mayfair before taking a sabbatical. The world I returned to was very different. Have a read of the article I wrote for the church.
“Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.”
CS Lewis’ words about belonging can be applied to No Name Kitchen volunteers, I’m NNK for life now, and I try to keep up with the rapidly changing situation in all our bases. (see? I said ‘our’). Šid is sounding pretty difficult right now. Volunteers are being hassled by locals and authorities, plus the situation for people-on-the-move (PotM) both in and out of camps, is increasingly problematic. Here’s a bit more about what’s going on there right now.
A fascist youth group called “Omladina Shida” (Youth of Sid), has recently called for the removal of NNK volunteers from Šid as well the removal of migrants from the municipality.
As reported in Serbia publication Danas – the youth group organised a protest which took place on Sunday 1st November 2020 where they called for the military to be returned to the area. When I was there in June and July, the military were stationed outside of each of the camps supposedly to help with Coronavirus measures, although in reality it had more do with the imminent election. The youth group referred to this, saying:
"The President of the Republic sent the army only as a pre-election marketing trick to collect our votes and to guard those reception centers because the police do not have the capacity to do that,".
They also demand that people not be allowed to return after being deported from Croatia or Hungary – citing fears over the increased Coronavirus numbers in both of those countries as the reason for this.
PotM who once went into town regularly to purchase food and other essential items, now report being scared to do so. In the summer, it was possible to meet friends from the Family Camp in cafes in town. Even while I was there, this became more difficult and recently it was reported that it was impossible to get a haircut from anyone in the town. The situation with both local people and the police has worsened further, one young man living in the jungle said, “if we go into town, they will beat us.”
NNK have reported a dramatic increase in pressure from both locals and police. Photos and videos of volunteers, taken without consent, have appeared on Facebook and Instagram. Not only have police attended and disrupted distributions of food, they have also served six or seven volunteers with removal papers, giving them seven days in which to leave the country. My favourite quote from the article describes NNK as:
"That foreign non-governmental organization of former, current and future drug addicts and losers."
NNK organised an event on Sunday 8th November 2020 as a response to the youth group’s protest and in order to build links with local people. They wanted to explain their work and open up dialogue to discuss the issues felt on both sides. They were subject to insults from onlookers and were told to leave by police. The delightful Mayor of Šid has been driving by the volunteer house in his car, causing stress to those living there. Just like he did to me and Stef on our last day in the town. We were standing outside Family Camp, at an appropriate distance, saying goodbye to our friends. The Mayor drove right up to us, flashed his lights, honked his horn and filmed us from inside the car. He also refused to talk to us about why he was doing this and eventually we left so as not to cause stress to those in the camp.
My own experiences with Serbian people overall was very positive. Almost everyone said 'hello' (well, acutually Zdravo or Dobra dan) on the street and helped with directions when I looked lost. Several incidents of particular kindness come to mind, when my poor little car had a few problems: once being fixed for nothing, another time some passing workmen changing the wheel when I had a flat tyre. Free fruit was a common theme, not to mention the tireless efforts of the team at social justice NGO KlikAktiv who seem to work night and day to help PotM and volunteers, whatever their questions or problems. I sincerely hope that things improve in Šid for the sake of everyone. My good wishes and strong thoughts go to the volunteers and the PotM there now. Keep strong!
Have you got any questions about the situation in Serbia? Or about my time there? Let me know, comment below.
This article was intended for a serious, grownup publication and is now my first publication on Medium.com. Please let me know what you think by commenting below. I really appreciate questions about the situation, feedback on the writing or just nice words!
As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, the residents of Bosnia’s most beautiful region prepare for winter in the mountains. But for the thousands of refugees in the area, the freezing nights are an added peril to those they already face.
The region of Una Sana Canton, next to the border with Croatia, has become the unhappy home for thousands of refugees and migrants who remain trapped between war-torn homelands and the walls of the European Union. The more fortunate few reside in official camps, funded by the EU and administered by the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) — a related organisation of the United Nations. The camps range from isolated Sedra Camp where rooms are crowded and insects are found in the food, to Lipa Camp — 30 kilometres from the city of Bihać and with an intended capacity of 1000 people, tents with row upon row of bunkbeds fill all available space. It was already more than full to capacity when the buses arrived with the evicted residents of Bira Camp. Close to the city, there had been local opposition to this camp for some time, but it was with little warning to staff or police that the remaining residents, including unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people, were bused to Lipa.
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Corona Virus has undoubtedly touched all our lives. Every interaction is tinged with a new caution, all plans are made with a new uncertainty. Some people have managed to survive in a relatively unaltered way, others have lost businesses, relationships, homes. I was supposed to be a scuba professional in Mexico, then a church organist in London. When neither of those options were available I went looking for usefulness and adventure - and I found so much more than I could ever have imagined. With all the lows that I have written about, there have been many, many highs too. Here's how it happened.
I nearly didn't go. In April, the restrictions were incredibly tight and despite the piles of paperwork, I heard that it was no longer possible to travel directly to France to volunteer in Calais. I spoke to the organisation, they whispered about another possibility via Belgium, their enthusiasm for my arrival spurred me on. A beautiful sunset, an overnight ferry and a bit of a drive. I could've made another decision. That film Sliding Doors, where you watch both realities play out - the one where she catches the train, and the one where she misses it, the doors slide closed in front of her - it could so easily have been a different reality. I was only going to stay three weeks.
The people I met in France are entirely responsible for what happened next! "There's a guy in Serbia, on his own, why don't you do there?". I can remember the conversation that Stef and I had which resulted in our commitment to join No Name Kitchen. 3 days driving later and my piano and my little British car crosses the 8th country border of the trip, out of the European Union and into the tiny town of Šid in Serbia. I learnt so much in Serbia. I learnt to make huge pots of food, to communicate in different ways in order optimise the reach of our organisation. I learnt some Pashto, some Serbo-croatian, a wariness of the police and where to find the best accidentally vegan pastries. I learnt about the brutality of the Croatian border guard, the hoops that need jumping through to get medical treatment if you're a person on the move, and the hopes and dreams of my new friends. Always hopes, despite everything.
"Serbia is bad, but Bosnia is worse. The police, the camps, the whole situation." Stef and I had decided to have the same time frame. This meant we wanted to go somewhere else after Serbia. Bosnia presented itself when No Name Kitchen wanted to set up something new in Bihać. Sounds mad doesn't it? I'm a church organist but seem to be being trusted to start operations in a new place for an organisation we've been with for 2 months. Me, Stef, the piano and the little British car toured Serbia and Kosovo before arriving in the mountain city. Sliding doors had placed us there with a familiar colleague and rather a lot of freedom to find out the need and work towards filling it. I am still amazed at the trust NNK put in us to do this, and amazed that we were able to use the skills we'd learnt to connect with other organisations and people on the move in a way that seemed very much lacking in the city.
I didn't know it was possible to be so stressed and still be able to function. There were a couple of days in Bihać when circumstances were mindblowingly stressful. There is always more to do, always someone we had to say "I'm sorry, we can't help you today." There are always reports to write, articles to pitch, friends to chat with, plans to make, lists and lists of things to do. There was one day in particular where I had a few minutes. I lay on my bed and wept, then dried my face and went back out there. We had already extended our stay for a few more days to try to fit more in.
On our last day, we went to visit the other No Name Kitchen in Velika Kladuša. It was only going to be to drop off some keys. A lovely lunch later and we couldn't resist going on one more distribution. We were greeted with surprise by guys we'd met in Bihac but were now in VK. "Hello! How are you? Bihać!" We had some nice chats while the distribution happened around us, then said our goodbyes to people on the move and volunteer friends. Being able to drive across the Croatian border with our shiny passports is sickening. Our friends stay months and years at the gate of the European Union, living rough, being beaten, not having enough to eat or a safe place to sleep. But it is still better than the alternative of a war-torn country or persecution for what you think or believe.
I am forever changed by the people I've met. As I write this, with a week's distance in the safety of Germany, I wouldn't change a thing about my pandemic experience and I am excited for my new future, which I can see beginning to spread out in front of me. Always do more.
Donate to the work of No Name Kitchen in Bosnia and all the other bases via this link.
"Place your hand in mine,
Run into the sunset,
Chase the future,
Always be kind."
I am often asked, by reporters and friends, why people leave their home countries. There are some generalisations to be made - war, Taliban, religious persecution. But there are an incredible number of individual reasons. I met one guy who is a musician and wants to be a rock guitarist. This isn't possible in Iran, it was dangerous for him to express himself with music. It is the same for this man, the man with the tattoos. I met him only once, he asked me to take the following report for the Internal Violence reporting system we have, and to tell everyone, to share the news of how illegal and inhumane the treatment of people is here in Bosnia. We had a kind translator who helped with the report, a person on the move with incredible language skills. After the translator had gone we managed to chat with his English, a bit of Google but mostly non-verbally. We had tattoos in common, enjoyed hanging out for a bit. He doesn't have Facebook, he wrote down my number, but I never heard from him again. The reports we make are anonymous but I am very sorry that I didn't ask his name. I hope I never meet him again because he was successful in crossing to Italy and he is already beginning the asylum process.
The following report is a common occurrence. Everyone I meet has been beaten, robbed and humiliated. This is not ok.
On 25th August 2020, 20 or 30 people were sleeping outside of Borici camp in Bihac, Bosnia. The man making this report is a 37 year old from Iran. He described how, at 6am, 6 police came and woke them up, three officers were in blue clothes and three were in black clothes. Some people ran away but others were caught. Four police cars came to take them to the police station where they were taken one by one into another room. Each person was beaten - the reporter particularly mentions his friends, a 17 year old, 19 year old and 32 year old from Kurdish Iran. The reporter had bruising on his back and arms from being hit with a police baton. The police asked about the reporter’s tattoos and why he has white hair (he looks different to most people on the move so stands out) - he said that each of his many tattoos symbolise freedom and peace. Later the entire group from outside Borici, plus other people gathered from around the city were deported to Otoka. 200 people were taken on buses, including minors. Otoka is a deserted field between the Federation and Republika Srpska. People on the move are trapped by the river to the north, train tracks to the south, the Srpska police to the east and Federation police to the west. There is no shop, no water, no shelter.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.