The following report is a common occurrence. Everyone I meet has been beaten, robbed and humiliated. This is not ok.
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.
One aspect of the work of No Name Kitchen is to report border violence via Border Violence Monitoring Network, but we are hearing increasing reports of internal violence from authorities. Border violence includes the illegal act of pushing people back without offering the chance to claim asylum, internal violence doesn't include this. At the moment we collect the internal violence reports but they don't get published with the rest - instead they will be used to make a report all together. Everyone I speak to hear in Bosnia wants us to tell their stories and make sure that the European Union is aware of what is happening here. So I'm publishing this report here.
I met this guy in Serbia. He was hanging out with some guys from Afghanistan who he'd just met and was quite shy and unsure of the situation. He spoke some English but we mostly had a conversation using Google translate. After we finished the interview he told me that he can't video call his Mum at the moment because of the injury to his face. And he showed me amazing pictures of his home town and the beautiful scenery. As with many people I meet, he didn't leave because he wanted to, he had no choice.
On 20th July 2020 a group of 15 men were sleeping in the jungle in Greece near the border with North Macedonia. The people in the group were aged between 16 and 40 and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey plus the respondent who is from Iran. They had been staying in the forest area between Polykastro and the border with North Macedonia, west of Idomeni and had been there for 7 days. They were woken in the night, at approximately 11pm, by the barking of a police dog. 5 police vehicles and 10 to 15 officers were present. Some of the officers were wearing the blue and navy blue uniform of the Greek police and others were not in uniform. There was one police dog. Everyone ran away but the respondent reports having a “problem with my heart”, so couldn’t run far. “I was one metre away from the police and I approached them to surrender. One metre away they released the dog to attack me.”
The police dog was wearing a metal muzzle and was released twice, the first time the muzzle injured the respondent on his eyebrow, cutting it, and the second time it hit him on the lip. “My face was bloody.” The officers then handcuffed him and put him and some others from the group in the back of a van. The respondent describes the van as being like those used in Iran for transporting dangerous criminals. “Before I came to Europe I thought only the agents in my country were bad, but now I see that the agents in Europe are bad also.” The group members who had been caught were held in the van for an hour in the location where they had been sleeping.
They were then taken to the police station, around 30 or 40 minutes drive away. The respondent was held in the police station for around 4 hours. The officers gave him something to clean the blood from his face but no other medical assistance. At 5am they released him and told him to go to the hospital. “When they saw my condition they were scared… I was afraid to go to the city, they deport to Turkey and then Turkey to Iran.” He then walked from the police station for 3 hours along the train tracks to reach his friends while he was still covered in blood.
Each person told us how the police had beaten them, they showed us their bruises and scars
Part of my work here in Bosnia is to collect reports of pushbacks (a pushback is when someone is returned over the border without the chance to claim asylum) for the Border Violence Monitoring Network. This sounds very formal and official, and it is, but collecting all the information for the report usually starts with a conversation whilst sat on the ground chatting to people. Here in Bihac there are a couple of parks where people on the move hang out - the camps are full and they have nowhere else to go. A couple of days ago Stef and I were meeting a friend who we’d chatted to a few days previously and had recently been pushed back. It sounded awful and the report will soon be available. This friend then took us to talk to another guy, while we were talking more people came to tell us their stories. A tired guy - he was 20 but looked much younger - had been badly beaten whilst crossing into Croatia. He was in a group of 50 or 60 people who trekked over the mountains trying to avoid detection by the Croatian police. He told us how the police fired into the air and made everyone lie down. The police searched each person for money and even found where some people had sewn notes into the waistband of their trousers. One by one, each person was brought forward and beaten with a black baton. They were sent back to Bosnia without anything. The police made a fire with all the belongings not worth stealing. All the belongings - they were deported back to Bosnia in just their underwear.
While we stood there talking, a group formed around us. Each person told us how the police had beaten them, they showed us their bruises and scars. Another guy approached us with a large white plaster cast. His wrist had been slashed open by a rock during the violence of the Croatian authorities. He said he had no sensation in his fingers. He timidly showed me the paper from the hospital - written in a language neither of us could understand. I believe he was first treated in Croatia but deported nonetheless.
Another man I spoke to had amazing tattoos, which all represent freedom and peace. He took care to explain them to me, and then he asked me to photograph the bruises on his back. The police had woken him up whilst he slept outside and then beaten him at the police station before taking him and two hundred others to a city 50 kilometres away. He had just finished walking back.
Everyone I have spoken to here has been confused and upset about why they are kept here like this. The way to cross into the European Union is so difficult and dangerous - but the alternative of returning to a war torn country is worse. Not worse, impossible. Voluntary repatriation means that someone can request to be returned to their home country - this can only be authorised if the country they are returning to is safe enough. These people are trapped in Bosnia without a way to go forwards or backwards. “We want to work, we want to contribute.” “My brother is there, how can I get to him?”
I am so fortunate to meet so many kind and funny people. We discuss politics, Bosnian food and the lack of spice, and different flavours of energy drink. We show each other pictures of our homes and our families.
There are so, so many people here and the situation can’t remain like this. Please read this, share it and talk about it. This is not ok. We must do something.
Despite living in a neighbouring country for the last two month, I knew very little about Bosnia before moving here. It’s been a steep learning curve so far and it will continue to be so, but here are the basics of my new home.
Bosnia is the informal name of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is located in the Balkans and is a developing country. It was a part of the former Yogoslavia.
The total population is around 3.3 million people with three distinct groups, Bosniaks who are Muslim, Bosnian Serbs and Croats. Each group has a president and the three presidents are supposed to work together to run the country. You only need to ask a local about how this is working...
Bosnia is actually called Bosnia and Herzegovina but there are actually three distinct regions. Republika Srpska is predominantly Serb, the Federation is mostly Bosniak, and Herzegovina is kind of its own thing in the south of the country. The official Bosnian capital is Sarajevo but Banja Luka is the capital of Republika Srpska - so it might depend on who you’re talking to.
Where I am
I’m in Una Sana Canton. A canton is a fairly autonomous area (like a county but bigger) near the border with Croatia. It’s a stunning, mountainous area and is a popular tourist destination for outdoor activities like hiking and water sports. The River Una is clear and beautiful and the pride of the locals. Una Sana bears the burden of the migration crisis due to its location at the Croatian border.
Here are some official statistics about the number of people on the move here. Most of them are guessed or lied about.
Total people: 7200
People camps: 5000
Asylum requests: 1600
Asylum granted: 0 (2018) Data from here
It’s estimated by local organisations that, in the area in and around the city of Bihać, there are at least 2000 people outside of the camps.
Bihać is the biggest city in the canton and the hub for the multiple organisations that are trying to help. The big NGOs here include International Organisation for Migrants (IOM), Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who have different roles and responsibilities in and out of the official camps. There are plenty of smaller organisations too of which my organisation No Name Kitchen is one of. There’s a lot of history here connected with Turkish occupation and Austro-Hungarian conflicts to World War II and the recent Bosnian War. The beautiful mosque in the main, pedestrianised square used to be a church. Cafes and bars range from the hipster to the grotty and there’s a bakery and a vegetable shop on every corner.
The end of the war, just 25 years ago, is written indelibly on the country: in the faces, buildings and mountains. Bullet holes are still visible on the walls of houses, and grassy craters from grenades line the road. The migrant crisis is unavoidably public too. Groups of bored and tired guys sit in the park and wander the streets - the camps are full and there are few safe places to go.
There’s a lot for me to learn about the politics here. Politics is everything. People on the move are suffering at the hands of the politics of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Western Europe, and we must find a way to make a contribution towards helping them and raising awareness.
Wish me luck, questions and comments below.
Volunteering always means meeting incredible and interesting people. Working in Serbia has been no exception. Living in a small town and not speaking any Serbian (beyond ordering vast amounts of bread - ‘dvadeset hlabova’) made it quite difficult to meet Serbian people. Thankfully Laura and Iva from Novi Sad speak perfect English and it was brilliant working with them when they came to Šid. Here’s what Laura wrote about for me to post.
My name is Laura; I'm 22 years old and was born and have lived my whole life in Novi Sad. For as long as I can remember, I've always believed in the ideals of liberty and equality, which have guided my development both in thought and action. Because of that and extensive research, when I was around 16, I started identifying myself as a leftist, and since turning 18 I've been involved in various activist initiatives - community vegan cooking, student activism, anti-government protests, anti-eviction actions, etc. Currently I am working in an organization working with LGBT+ youth in my home town (I am, in my spare time, transgender and bisexual, which has also shaped my involvement in social justice).
One particular area of interest for me has always been anti-nationalism and anti-war activism. Living in a country which took active part in bloody conflicts throughout its recent history, and which is still very much shaped by ethnic-based politics and the (largely unacknowledged) legacy of war crimes, has certainly helped put these issues at the forefront for me. Because of all that, the so-called "Migrant Crisis" has from the beginning been something I've followed closely and talked about often. The horrible mistreatment of the people on the move, as well as the firing up of the mainstream nationalist, racist and islamophobic rhetoric which all seem to be at the foundation of Serbian society, in my opinion should make this a central issue for all the progressive forces living in this country. At the same time, however, I was living in a city where there's almost no migrant population, and as such no organizations/groups working on this issue, and so I didn't really know how to get involved. Given that, when the opportunity arose for me to come and volunteer at No Name Kitchen (my friend was going there to volunteer and they needed as much help as they could get because everybody else had left due to the Covid-19 restrictions), I felt compelled to immediately seize it. So far I've been to Šid to help out on a couple of occasions, and have been supporting the organization from Novi Sad as much as I can, by organising clothes donations, helping to translate, stuff like that. I'm really glad to have the opportuinty to help out in any way I can, and would love to continue being involved and, if possible, come back there to keep volunteering!
It’s hard to describe how different Serbia feels from Western Europe, and it’s hard to have an idea of a place without some insight from people that grew up here. If you have any questions for Laura or for me, comment below!
Do you know the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? Do you know who family reunification applies to? Do you know if that applies to all EU countries? And did you realise that what the law says and what happens are different things?? During my time in Calais and Serbia I’ve learnt a lot about the laws surrounding migration and have had the opportunity to direct people towards further legal advice. Here’s a few key things I’ve learnt alongside the stories of some of my friends who I’ve helped to access more information.
A big problem that I have found is that people on the move don’t actually know how to get legal advice. A lot of people I’ve met think that they may have a legal route to join family but they don’t know how to find out about it, let alone how to apply. Right now I have friends in Serbia with family in the U.K. They have a pretty good case for reunification but didn’t know where or how to access information or help. Imagine trying to fill in complicated government forms in your second or third language that ask very sensitive questions about your recent traumas.
Here in Serbia I am fortunate to be working with Klikaktiv. They are a group of lawyers, social workers and translators who are able to offer advice about Serbian laws, wider European regulations and also provide support for us international volunteers. They rely on us here in the field to find people that need advice and to direct them to the right places. Each case is complicated, involving several countries and very sad and difficult stories. During the pandemic, there has been a strong military and police presence everywhere. Klikaktiv have also been able to help with how we should behave in these situations.
Similarly, my friend in France was being detained after the clearances in Calais. He had access to legal advice but doesn’t understand the French paper he has been given. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to not know what is happening to you. It’s also the case that papers and decisions are not carried out. A friend I have was in Germany going through the system and received a deportation notice, without knowing that Germany doesn't currently deport anyone to Sudan. It’s the case in the UK that asylum claims are often refused the first time and then granted on appeal, likely with the hope that some people will be scared off or not have access to advice or resources to challenge the decision.
The hardest thing about trying to find legal advice for people here, is that most often the answer is “there’s nothing we can do.” Even for the funny, clever teenage boys living in the forest who have family in Western European countries. The law makes it incredibly difficult to help people. This leaves my friends risking their lives on the top of freight trains or in refrigerated trucks. They get so regularly beaten by Croatian border guards that they think nothing of it. We also get told about chain pushbacks - Austria deport to Slovenia, who deport to Croatia, who deport to Serbia. Imagine getting as far as Austria, a safe European country, and then getting illegally deported back over several countries!
It’s been difficult for me to talk about some of the things that happen here.
Because they are so terrible.
Because I don’t want to throw around the stories of my friends.
Because I know it is difficult for people at home to relate to.
But if by reading this you feel you want to do something, then reading and sharing information is very important. My organisation, No Name Kitchen, is part of the Border Violence Monitoring Network. We collect reports of illegal activities in order that it can be known what happens here and so we can stand in solidarity with those who have been wronged. Please will you read this report, which was collected and written by my friend Stef. Making Border Violence Reports involves an indepth interview that needs to be conducted sensitively and Stef does an amazing job at listening to story after story of terrible situations. Share this post, say something about how it makes you feel to hear these stories. Tell just one friend and we can spread the message.
And if you still want to do more, you can donate to No Name Kitchen and you can write to your MP about how you feel about the situation.
Comments and suggestions are always welcome, especially as it can feel quite isolating here.
On the way from France to Serbia, I had a tune in my head. I’d whistle it while we were driving across countries and hummed it while we wandered in the mountains and the towns on our breaks. Once settled in Šid with my piano at the ready, I felt the need for something creative and separated from work here. And here we have it. Let me know what you think.
We had a lovely dinner at Otvorena Kuhinja Ck13 yesterday evening. We collected donations of clothes and toiletries and raised some money too! It was great to chat to sympathetic people about our work in Šid and the situation for migrants in Serbia.
If you could make it and want to donate, you can do so here.
This tiny town, surrounded by fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers, feels like a different age. A trip to Serbian capital Belgrade was quite overwhelming after a week in the country. The shopping centre where I parked my little British car was a dissonance with the vegetable market and bakeries we frequent here. Upon my arrival in Šid, our branch of No Name Kitchen had to be restarted almost from nothing as operations had ceased during the coronavirus lockdown. We had to establish connections with people on the move and figure out how best to help them. Now we have a vague schedule which allows us to plan our time and resources, which looks something like this.
Each day we go to the market to buy vegetables to cook with. We try and see what is cheapest in order to stretch our minimal budget as far as possible. We also buy bread from one of the many bakeries in town. 20-30 loaves of bread fit in this massive bag we have, a bit of a challenge to carry home!
Our big kitchen is in the garden. We have a big table for chopping vegetables and some big gas burners for huge cooking pots. We’ll put some water on to heat for lentils, beans, rice or pasta, then peel tonnes of onions and chop thousands of potatoes. We’ve got pretty creative with the spices and flavours. Balsamic cabbage was a hit, and hummus was awesome. It’s a challenge to estimate how much food to make for 60-100 people each day on a tight budget.
Each of us has a specific role within the organisation which requires time. Logistics involves obtaining clothes and supplies for us to use, as well as the management of volunteers arriving and plenty of other details. Finance is a complicated task of maintaining our financial records, applying for an appropriate budget and monitoring our spending. Violence reporting requires conducting interviews with people who have been victims of illegal pushback from another country to Serbia. The often violent crime that is committed by Croatian, Romanian or Hungarian border guards are reported by the Border Violence Monitoring Network. Communication involves creating content for social media as well as a weekly podcast that goes out in Spanish. Health involves first aid as well as directing people towards services that they can access, or facilitating payment for things they can’t afford. This is my role, and so far I have got someone a new frame for his glasses, and facilitated medications for people where the camp doctor doesn’t cover it. All these tasks have to fit into the day. This means meeting with people, writing reports, filling in forms and liaising with other organisations.
In the afternoon we pack up the food, as well as powerbanks that we have charged overnight, and laundry that we have collected and washed the previous day. We also include hygiene items like toothbrushes, tissues and any medical supplies that have been requested. We load it all into our adventure van or my little British car and drive to the meeting point. We have to find meeting places away from where the police might see us, as the guys could get taken back to the camps if they are discovered. Being taken to the camp means they can’t try to cross the border and the camp conditions range from ‘not too bad’ to ‘utterly awful’. One place that we meet is teeming with mosquitoes, so we’re trying to provide bug spray and bite treatment to as many people as we can.
By the end of the day there are usually some left-over tasks. Washing up, meetings or discussions can take up some time, we have to plan regular trips to Belgrade in order to restock on cheap food and meet with other organisations. Otherwise we can go for a walk in the sunflower fields with Una the Bosnian street dog and then wander to the centre of town. There’s a place for vegan ice cream as well as some friendly bars to relax in. Every day is busy and full and there are tough times. The stories of the violent pushbacks are the hardest to hear, and managing a tiny budget when trying to help so many people is difficult. It’s hard having to say no to so many requests for essential items, but we know we’re helping even if the lists seem endless at times.
To help us with our work here you can donate to No Name Kitchen here.
I'm always happy to answer questions about the work here and the migrant crisis in general. Let me know in the comments or contact form if you want to know more about it here.
Two weeks ago I drove with my adventure buddy Stef from Calais to Serbia on a three day expedition, through 7 countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia) to arrive in the small border town of Šid (pronounced Shid) in Serbia. I started learning about the situation in the Balkans from fellow volunteers in Calais, as well as from refugees that had come that route. Stef and I were put in touch with No Name Kitchen, an organisation with several operations in the Balkans and Greece, and who were very short on volunteers in Serbia. It has been a steep learning curve, both about Serbia as a country to live in, and about how the migrant crisis is being handled here. Here’s something of what I’ve learnt so far.
Two sorts of camps
The Serbian government runs two sorts of camps for refugees and migrants, reception centres and residential camps for those wishing to make an asylum claim. There are also separate camps for families and for unaccompanied minors. In the town of Sid there’s a family camp reception centre which I have visited.
Outside of the camps
Right now the camps are locked down. The excuse being used is coronavirus, but there was an election at the weekend and it’s likely the camps were used as a political move too. There are some people outside of the camps who don’t want to be in them, or chose to leave in order to try and cross the border into Croatia or Romania. These are the people we have trying to help the most.
One of the tasks of No Name Kitchen is to collect violence and push back reports. A push back is when someone is forced back from Croatia or Romania into Serbia. It’s illegal. Once someone has got to the new country, they have the right to make an asylum application. Many of the push backs are violent, with border guards and police beating and robbing people before sending them back to Serbia.
The political situation and the coronavirus situation have both become more intense since being here. Democracy is not in evidence and the borders have just been closed again as the number of covid cases rise. For us, that means we can’t access the donations of clothes and equipment from abroad. However, from a day to day life point of view, Šid is a pretty nice place to live. The small town has lots of bakeries and green spaces, and is surrounded by fields, with lots of walking and running routes. People are friendly, if a bit confused by us foreigners. We cook massive pots of food every day to take to various groups, the coordination of that is quite delicate, and we all have administrative work to do for the organisation and for our ‘real’ jobs. Our days are long and busy, it’s extremely difficult to plan for the changing situation, but it’s a privilege to be able to help people in need.
The more I learn about politics and conflict, the more I realise how much Western Europe has to answer for. Not only are many people fleeing war and oppressive regimes caused or supported by the west, but people on the move (asylum seekers, refugees, migrants) are used as a political bargaining chip for Serbia to gain membership of the EU. Croatia, Hungary and Romania receive millions of Euros to keep people out using whatever methods are necessary. And this all happens with the knowledge and support of the west.
I will be staying in Šid until the end of July and will happily answer any questions anyone has. Comment below or send me a message, and stand by for more content. Follow Hannah the Traveller on facebook for more updates.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.