- Pakistanian Immigrant Saeed's sad story from Turkey to Italy during the outbreak Covid-19
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Pakistanian Immigrant Saeed's sad story from Turkey to Italy during the outbreak Covid-19

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On April 13, the number of deaths due to the Corona virus in Italy exceeded 20,000, and this is the news that made headlines around the world. That afternoon, Saeed carefully packed his bag and put his phone, 3 portable charging batteries, a box of cigarettes, a sleeping bag, and a picture of his two children in Pakistan.

In this special investigative report, the authors Roshan distone, David Saper and Hannah Kirmes Daly said that Saeed had been forcibly held for more than a month in the Leba camp for migrants and asylum seekers, in the Bosnian canton of Una Sana, located directly next to the Croatian border. Having reached this point, Saeed was ready for the last leg of his trip to Europe.

That night, Saeed left the camp. On his way to the Croatian border, he was joined by 9 other immigrants. For 21 days, the group walked through forests and mountains across Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, avoiding roads and cities. They were always careful that no one would see them, and even they abstained from taking off their shoes and did not sleep.

During the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus infection in the spring, European Union member states justified strengthening border security, sending the army to patrol the borders, and suspending freedom of movement, as a legal measure to combat the spread of the virus.

This has drastically affected migration, giving migrants and asylum seekers another reason to cross the border surreptitiously. Saeed and his companions were well aware of this, and when they crossed the last border into Italy, they thought their worst nightmares were over.

On their way down the mountains, the group stopped at the border town of Banuli for a cup of black coffee, as a small reward for the arduous journey they had taken. But across the street, a woman was peering out of her window and then reaching for the phone, and within minutes, the police surrounded the place.
Saeed and his companions were arrested and taken in an Italian police car to be handed over to Slovenian officials, and taken to the common Croatian border with Bosnia in less than 24 hours. They were finally released in a field on the bank of a river and ordered to take off their clothes and shoes.

Once Saeed took off his shoes, his feet were severely sore, two of his companions were severely beaten with batons, and another was flogged. "Go back to Bosnia" was the last thing they heard from the Croatian officers in civilian clothes as they walked back to the other riverbank of the Bosnian border. On the morning of May 7, Saeed returned barefoot to the same camp he had left three weeks earlier. 
Happy meeting

Since the start of the outbreak, the European Agency for Border and Coast Guard "Frontex" has announced a decrease in the total number of irregular crossings of European borders. This was the case on all major roads to Europe except for the Balkan route, where the number of migrants who crossed was higher compared to the same The period of last year, despite the outbreak of the virus.

On 10 July, two months after his deportation from Italy, Said was seated in Piazza Liberta, which is located in front of the Trieste train station and the main meeting point for migrants and asylum seekers who are more precisely defined as "people on the move" who have just arrived or depart to Other destinations.
Said managed to reach Trieste on his fifth attempt, then applied for asylum in Italy. Early in his thirties, Saeed was clean-shaven and dressed in fashionable ripped jeans with flawless white sneakers, even looking like a regular tourist, were it not for the scars on his arms.

At a time when he was clarifying what he meant by drawing lines on the dirt using a stick, Said said, "The most dangerous border that is difficult to cross to enter Europe from the east is here and here. The first border is on the Evros River that separates Greece and Turkey." This is the only solution for those who want to avoid the risk of crossing by boat to the Greek islands, where recent reports spread about the return of migrants to Turkey.

He continued, "The second border is between Bosnia and Croatia," then stopped for a while and continued, "The road through these two border lines and all the way to Italy or Austria is what we call the game." "I've got these scars here," he says, pointing to the scars on his arms.

The outbreak of the epidemic coincided with incidents of violence at the border that became more cruel and humiliating. In some accounts, it was reported that some were subjected to sexual assaults with tree branches, and the police forced them to cross over each other naked while beating them and spraying paint on their heads.

People on the move reported that all their belongings were often stolen during the pushbacks, with officers even breaking their phones and throwing them in the water.

In fact, Saeed - the youngest of his thirteen siblings - seeks to reach his cousin who lives in Marseille (France), get a chance to escape unemployment in Pakistan, and send money home to his family and children in Karachi.

Under current regulations governing refugee law, Saeed's asylum application is unlikely to be accepted in Italy. In other words, poverty and the dream of a better future are not among the recognized reasons for granting asylum in Europe.

International refugee law, which was framed at the end of World War II, laid the foundations for a long-term bilateral narrative between refugees fleeing war and persecution and migrants fleeing poverty, and the distinction between deserving and unworthy of the European Union's openness.

For people fleeing poverty or natural disasters from countries like Pakistan, obtaining European work visas and residence permits is nearly impossible. The only way to avoid refoulement is to seek asylum and hope for a human rights manifestation on the borders of the old continent.

"I hope the European Union will realize that instead of paying thousands of euros to cross the border illegally, I would try to use this money to buy a plane ticket and rent a room while looking for work," Saeed said.

He joked, "I was worried about the outbreak of the Corona pandemic and the possibility of catching the infection, but fortunately I have worse problems that I have to deal with first." Since most hotels that usually host homeless people in Trieste were forced to close during the first closure, people today have little choice. The same applies to earning a living.

Although Said has the distinction of being a skilled electrician and carpenter willing to work, he is banned from working in Italy as an asylum seeker. To stay alive, Saeed set out as a guide and simple smuggler who makes the most of what he learned during the "game". 
Saeed took a second phone out of his pocket and got a call. "There are 70 men crossing the mountains to Italy and they will be here by 4:00 tomorrow morning," he said. "When they arrive, I will be the liaison between them. I will explain to them where they can get help, how to get an Italian SIM card and give them the money that their families sent me through the Western Union service," he added.

He paused, then continued his speech, "I know some of them because we used to live in the same camp in Bosnia. I try to help them because I realize what they are really going through. In return, they pay me a nominal fee."

There are people like Saeed who have improved their living conditions through irregular migration. And there are the smugglers who get large sums of money in this trade, which has been estimated to be worth around one million dollars.

In this context, Saeed, pointing to two Afghan boys, recalls that they asked him where they could go to prostitution and pay for the next stage of the journey. "There are a lot of people willing to make money from our suffering," he commented.

The question remains: Did the strengthening of border security in Europe, and random returns, allow more room for traders and smugglers to exploit the most vulnerable groups among migrants? 
Mission Impossible for Law Enforcement

But the uncertainty that characterizes Covid-19 policies, with regard to health and security, does not only affect migration. Since residents without legal documents try to escape from the authorities in order not to be deported, as they are not likely to abide by the COVID-19 prevention measures. Therefore, they will be at risk of contracting the virus, and at the same time they pose a danger to others.

Migrants have been denied the right to health care, and overcrowding and inadequate conditions in reception centers are making the situation even worse.

This was confirmed by Lorenzo Tamaro, representative of the Trieste Police Union, who explained that "the matter is very dangerous for them, as it is for us," noting that tackling irregular entry operations has become an impossible task, with the Italian police performing exceptional tasks after nearly two months of Strict closure.

He also says in this context, "The epidemic reveals a systematic crisis in monitoring migration processes, which we have been suffering from for years." He adds, "The Italian police are suffering from a lack of personnel and resources to confront irregular migration, especially during the closure measures imposed due to the outbreak of the new Corona virus."

According to the police representative, "Foreigners who enter our lands without a permit violate the law. We are not responsible for enacting the law, but our task is to ensure that it is respected and not violated." Tamaro and his colleagues have been facing waves of immigration from Balkan countries for years.

The state of emergency caused by the increase in the number of arrivals during the period of strict lockdown in Italy prompted the Ministry of the Interior to request the deployment of an army unit of 100 personnel on the border in March to help discover and arrest migrants, and transfer them to quarantine camps on the outskirts of the city.

"We were left to deal with immigration and public health emergencies without providing any real support," Tamaru says. "The army is helping to stop the influx of illegal immigrants, but the police have to conduct medical checks without adequate protective equipment. The ministry should have assigned a medical team from Order this mission. "

To deal with the increase in arrivals from the Balkans, Italy revived a bilateral agreement with Slovenia dating back to 1996, which stipulates that anyone who immigrated irregularly and was found within 10 kilometers of the Slovenian border within the first 24 hours of arrival can be returned.

"In my opinion, the repatriation of migrants is successful, as smugglers began to transport migrants to Udine and Gorizia, which are outside the area 10 kilometers away, because they know that if they are stopped in Trieste, they will be sent back to Slovenia," Tamaro comments.

On September 6, the Italian interior minister confirmed that 3059 migrants from Trieste would be returned to the Slovenian authorities in 2020 alone. The number increased by about a thousand irregular migrants compared to the same period last year.

Human rights monitors have criticized this agreement because it deprives refugees of their rights, which is contrary to European Union laws.

Migrant deportations
"We know that Italy is sending back immigrants to Slovenia, but the deportations don't end here," says Miha, a member of the Slovenian organization InfoColpa.

In his apartment in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, Miha explains how Slovenia decided to return to the Migrant Return Agreement with Croatia in June 2018, which allowed for an increase in deportations from Slovenia to Croatia.

"Migrants are then deported from Croatia to Bosnia. What Europe ignores is that the deportations are carried out in a coordinated and sequential manner, and migrants return in the end to Bosnia, a country that does not belong to the European Union," Miha says.

Although it is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, many human rights reports question the enjoyment by refugees of their basic rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Next to Maiha sits Khaled, an Eritrean activist and member of InfoColpa, whose asylum application has been rejected in Slovenia, and he is currently appealing the ruling.

Like many Eritreans, Khaled left his country to escape military service imposed for life under the "tyrannical" Isaias Afewerki regime. "They make you a slave of the system, so those who managed to escape are considered lucky," he says in this context.

During his journey through Sudan and Egypt, he was forced to pay smugglers to obtain false documents to reach Turkey. By 2015, he arrived in Sweden and was able to submit an asylum application, which he thought would achieve his goal.

As he was previously fingerprinted by the Bulgarian authorities, he was deported to Sofia. "I was kicked out of Sofia 10 times until I finally got to Ljubljana," Khaled says. In fact, his story is testament to how blurry the difference between legal deportations and illegal expulsions has been over the past few years.
In light of the European silence on the deportations of migrants, the use of violence increased. Since the Croatian-Bosnian border is outside the borders of the European Union, Croatia and Bosnia do not implement deportation agreements similar to those between Italy and Slovenia. These agreements ensure that migrants are not expelled simply by coordination between the security services.

Nicole, a Croatian activist who works with No Name Kitchen, says that according to the law, "once an immigrant arrives on Croatian territory, he is entitled to request asylum, but the police deny this right and force people to return to Bosnia." Due to the lockdown and anti-COVID-19 measures, Nicole was unable to pass from Croatia to Bosnia as usual.

From a cafe in Zagreb, Nicole plans to return soon to the Bosnian town of Bihac on the border, where most of the migrants are staying, awaiting expulsion.

"The Croatian police hand over the migrants to men in uniforms and masks, who tortured them and then forced them to return across the border to Bosnia," she says. "There is so much evidence of torture crimes being committed in Croatia that I was surprised that there are still journalists waiting to be verified," she explains, browsing on her phone, of photos of beaten migrants.

The pictures show wounds, burns, signs of violence, and their faces stained with blood. "These men were forced to lie on the ground with their faces down, and then they stepped on their heads to break their noses, one by one," Nicole says.

"These are the same methods that the Croatian police used to terrorize Serb minorities in Croatia after the war," she added.

Some far-right groups have praised violence against migrants, on social media. Facebook has not removed many of these posts yet, despite their violent content.

Antonia, a social worker at the Center for Peace Studies in Zagreb, who closely follows the issue of Croatian police violations against migrants, confirms Nicole's testimonies of violence.

"We still receive testimonies stating that individuals were tied to tree trunks and terrified by shooting bullets near their faces, spraying with paint, sexual assault, and being beaten with sticks and rubber tubes on the head, hands and feet," she said.

On the other hand, a group of Croatian police officers filed a complaint in which they confirmed their inability to disobey the orders they received from their superiors to use violence to repel the refugees and return them to Bosnia.

And a number of doctors, who volunteer to treat immigrants in Trieste, confirm that the effects of violence they often see on the bodies of arrivals not only indicate violence aimed at deterring further attempts to cross, but also causing long-term injuries that require a long recovery period.

It has become impossible for the European Union to ignore all this evidence. On 16 November, European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Elva Johansson dispatched a team to meet with the Croatian Interior Minister, and to visit two Croatian transit points the following day.
In response to an inquiry, the European Home Affairs Spokesperson’s Office stated that “the Croatian authorities have promised to investigate reports of ill-treatment at their borders, closely monitor the situation and inform the Commission of any progress made”.

On 23 October, in a letter addressed to the Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovi, Johansson demanded “to reveal the allegations (relating to ill-treatment of migrants) that the Croatian authorities have received and investigated over the past three months, and to provide evidence of the integrity of those investigations.

In the letter, Johansson denounced the contradiction between the low number of people registered in the "Eurodac" system (fingerprints adopted in the European Union countries) and the large numbers documented by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency "Frontex", which indicates that the deportations cannot be tracked.

So far, the Croatian police have denied all allegations of violence. The European Union is still funding the Croatian Internal Security Fund, which has received more than 100 million euros since 2015 to manage immigration and maintain order at the border.


After the deportations to Bosnia, the migrants return to shelters, camps and informal settlements, and most of them are waiting to recover from the wounds they sustained, and then try to cross again.

"These people have traveled thousands of kilometers over a period of months, knocking on the doors of the European Union. They don't want to go home," the director of the Bosnian Foreign Affairs Service, Slobodan Jujic, said in an interview with Balkan Insight earlier this year.

"We are not that bad, but we now have 30, 40 or even 50 thousand unemployed people, while 10 thousand illegal immigrants remain on our land with all their strength ... We have become a transit point to Europe," he added.

In Bosnia, around 7,500 refugees have been registered in 8 camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration. The European Union has provided Bosnia with 40.5 million euros since 2015 to run these camps.

Due to the increasing numbers of migrants in 2017 and 2018, these facilities were built to host migrants temporarily, and thus they often lack sanitation and drinking water channels.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, the shelters became more like detention camps, as more migrants joined, which led to great overcrowding and worsening the situation in these camps.

In this regard, Saeed, a Pakistani, returns, saying, “The Bosnian police took me from the camp I was in and locked them in the Leba camp, a few kilometers south of Bihac, for more than a month, where 10 people shared one toilet, with scarce electricity supplies, and we got a meal. One a day. "

"The trauma of living under forced lockdown, and in those circumstances, will permanently affect those who have lived it. I still have nightmares because of that place and that journey," he added.

When Saeed managed to flee the Leba camp in June 2020, it took three weeks to walk back to Trieste. "Now I spend my days here," he says, pointing to Liberta Square.

As he spoke, Saeed was joined by two immigrants. One of them had a long scar on his head from the baton of a Croatian police officer. The other burned his fingertips to avoid registering his fingerprints and returning to Greece. These signs sum up the absurdity of Europe's immigration policies.

With optimism, Saeed says, "I see in my best dreams that I am driving a car heading to France via a road where only green traffic lights stop me."

Under European law (the Refugee Convention), anyone must be granted the right to seek asylum. However, the Dublin Regulation requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first European country they enter. Therefore, if a Member State takes the fingerprints of an asylum seeker, the application must be considered within that country.

It can thus be said that the refugee returns, which take place under bilateral agreements within Europe, operate informally within the Dublin Regulation. However, these processes lack transparency and are not held accountable.

In February 2020, the European Court of Human Rights unanimously ruled that the collective expulsion that the Spanish authorities had practiced in the enclave of Melilla in 2014 did not constitute "any violation of rights" and this ruling could have the effect of further legitimizing refugee returns across Europe. 
 In March 2020, Greece suspended the right to seek asylum for a month, an unprecedented move that the European Union Commission considered illegal because it contravenes the Refugee Convention. With the implementation of anti-pandemic measures, the authorities further evaded monitoring of human rights violations.

Many migrants reported that the most severe violations and assaults were carried out by individuals wearing black clothes and masks. Although their identities remain unknown, the Border Violence Monitoring Network report states that this description corresponds to the uniform of Intervention Police units of the Croatian Ministry of the Interior.
Source : Al Jazeera
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