»Go back to where you came from«
Testimonies: Boštjan Videmšek, Nerminka Emrić
Photo: Matej Povše
Despite the Ombudsmen’s warnings, refugees and migrants in Slovenia and Croatia still face difficulties when applying for asylum after they enter these two countries. They are being driven out of the European Union in droves, systematically and violently. We gathered testimonies that prove this.
Said Mahboob, 21, Afghanistan
Said Mahboob comes from Kunduz, one of the most dangerous cities in Afghanistan. He left home three years ago. Because he worked for an American company for a while, he was threatened by the Taliban as well as the local offshoot of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He spent one year and a half in Turkey and a little longer in Greece.
He came to Serbia via Macedonia and spent only four days at the local accommodation centre. Then, he was at the local railway station. He hid under one of the wagons of a train destined for Slovenia. He endured holding on to the wagon’s metal framework under the moving train for eight hours.
On 3 May, he was discovered by the policemen at the railway station in Dobova. He was tired to death, frozen and stiff all over. He told the policemen that he wished to apply for asylum in Slovenia, that the Taliban threatened him with death and that he is coming from a war zone. He was aware of his rights and tried to tell the policemen that he is entitled to international protection.
He thought they listened. They told him that he should not worry and that he will be able to officially apply for asylum at the police station.
“At the station, they registered me and loaded me into a van. They drove me to the Croatian border and straight away handed me over to the Croatian policemen.” There, they took away his mobile, money and sleeping bag. Together with a few other refugees, they threw him into the police vehicle and drove him toward Bosnia and Herzegovina where he arrived on Sunday evening, 5 May.
Now, he sleeps outside despite the bad weather. There is no space in the Miral camp. At the first opportunity, he will try to get into Slovenia again and then onward towards Italy. “I just want to survive,” he said.
Nadine Maliki, 32, Syria
Nadine Maliki comes from a Syrian-Moroccan family in Aleppo. She left Syria two years ago. She spent most of this time in Turkey, in the border towns of Reyhanlı and Antakya. She has no family. Both of her parents died; she never married.
She entered Slovenia on 3 May of this year. This was seven days after leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina and embarking on the “game” – or what the migrants dubbed the journey to a better tomorrow. She barely endured the hike through the mountains and forests. When she arrived in Slovenia, she thought that her trials and tribulations were over.
She was wrong – just as the many refugees and migrants that came before her usually were. She was a part of a migrant group that drove in a car from the Slovenian-Croatian border towards Ljubljana and was stopped by the Slovenian police.
“‘Where are you going?’ a policeman shouted at us with a rifle in his hand. I was scared. They roughly pulled me out of the car. I didn’t know what to do. What to say. I was shaking. I have asthma. I started fighting for air,” said a thoroughly exhausted and shaken Nadine in a warehouse with second-hand clothing and shoes. The warehouse in the Bosnian town of Velika Kladuša is managed by Spanish volunteers who work for the humanitarian organisation No Name Kitchen.
Not more than a few hours later, she was handed over to the Croatian police who sent her back to Bosnia and Herzegovina. She had not slept properly for nine days. “I wanted to apply for asylum in Slovenia! I know my rights. I’m a refugee.”
“The Palestinian translator was abusive towards me. He kept saying that I was lying. He told me that I will go back to Bosnia. That there’s nothing for me there... He screamed at me to forget about the asylum! I was left without my bag and I had everything in there. Money, some jewelry, clothes,” recounted Nadine through tears.
She was surrounded by swarms of refugees and migrants whose shoes were apparently taken by the Croatian police. The migrants had to look for used shoes.
She showed us the severe abrasions that she suffered during her journey to Slovenia. This was her third attempt. It was the only one where she made it all the way to Slovenia. “There, I had to sign a document (a certificate about the illegally crossing the border, Ed.). I had no idea what it was. In Croatia, they took our photos,” she said.
On her second attempt she spent two days in Slovenia. The Slovenian police did not provide her with the opportunity to apply for asylum. Instead they handed her over to their Croatian colleagues. They drove her towards Bosnia. But first, they broke her mobile phone.
“We need help. Humanness, not money, do you understand me?” she quietly said to a brick wall and added: “I will not give up. As soon as it’s possible, I’ll go on. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of everything.”
On Tuesday, 7 May, Nadine arrived in Slovenia with the help of smugglers – she paid them €2,500 – via a coordinated network of “taxi” drivers. Again, the Slovenian policemen ignored her request to make an asylum application. They sent her back to Bosnia and Herzegovina via Croatia. However, she refuses to give up.
Farzad Kazim, Iran
He says that he is not a typical political refugee. If he gets an opportunity, he will apply for political asylum in Slovenia – or anywhere else in the EU, “except in Croatia.”
“I come from Iran. I had to leave my homeland because of political persecution and a backward society. I’m a very progressive, modern man and this is the reason why I was always being attacked. I’m by no means an economic migrant. I come from a wealthy family, but I had to leave. Religious persecution was escalating,” Farzad told us, a muscular man of short stature, in perfect English in front of the Miral accommodation centre at the outskirts of Velika Kladuša. He has been living there for a month.
“Welcome to Zombie Land. There’s no humanness here,” said Farzad in welcome. He left Iran two years before finishing his international law studies. He wanted to become a university professor. He is convinced that will finish his studies one day.
He was a member of the Iranian Taekwondo Youth Team. He passed the exam for being a gymnastics coach, a discipline that he trained in for many years. He says he was a sports show presenter on the Iranian television.
He left home ten months ago. Even though he lost 11kg during his refugee game, he was able, due to his extraordinary physical fitness, to undertake the journey from Šid in Serbia towards Slovenia three times, hidden under a train and constantly holding onto the wagon’s chassis.
Each time, he was discovered by the Slovenian police; the last time was four months ago in Dobova near to the Croatian border. “I’ve never got an opportunity to apply for political asylum. Slovenian policemen ignored my requests. I know my rights and international conventions. They didn’t listen to me. They didn’t take me seriously.”
The Slovenian policemen repeatedly handed him over to the Croatians. Once, he had to pay a fine for crossing the border illegally – the fine amounts to a little more than €200. When he tried to get to Slovenia on foot, he was caught by a Croatian police patrol. They beat him up and broke his mobile phone. Many refugees and migrants report this kind of treatment.
He had the worst experience in Hungary. He made his way there through a part of the border that didn’t have a wall. The Hungarian police caught him and threw him on the ground. “A policeman pressed a gun against my forehead. I was scared that he’ll kill me. He moved the gun slightly and pulled the trigger just next to my head,” Farzad told us, who was a member of a special unit in the Iranian army for several years.
When he was still in Iran, “certain people representing the regime” wanted to send him to Syria, in support of the Bashar al-Asaad’s regime. He knew many boys and men who had died on the Syrian battlefield in vain, fighting a war for someone else. There was no way he wanted to join that war. This only made his issues with the authorities worse.
He told us that he will keep trying to get into Europe. He says that he has no other choice.
“Even if what remains of me is only one finger, this finger will still be walking towards Europe,” he added. “You people in Europe don’t understand us refugees. We’re fleeing for our lives because we’re threatened. It is true, however, that there are a good few bad people on migrant routes. This is logical. And you can see this best in the Miral camp. I can’t sleep here during the night. There are a lot of drugs, alcohol, violence, crime. Last night, for example, they stole my clothes. I’m different from these people. I want Europe to know this. And understand it,” Farzad concluded our conversation.
After several days, he informed us that he again would venture towards Slovenia with a group of refugees. “Pray for us!”
After two days of silence, a short call followed with a report on Croatian police violence. “The Croats got us and returned to Bosnia. A terrible experience. This time, they brutally beat us. They lined us up in a corridor and beat us with batons and fists. It seemed it will never end... Some of the people were severely injured. They took mobiles from all of us. They stole our money and jewelry. They took our bags. They are the criminals! Thieves! Seven kilometres before reaching the Bosnian border we had to take our shoes off in mud and rain. We returned to Velika Kladuša barefoot.”
Farzad is desperate. He confided in us that he has contemplated suicide three times since returning to Velika Kladuša. He never mustered enough courage. Now, he is seriously considering a fourth attempt.
“The only option I have, besides suicide, is to return to Iran. There, because I’m a nonconformist, they will kill me. I’ll also inflict harm upon my family. I truly don’t know what to do. I don’t want to stay in Europe. There’s no humanness here. Evil is the only thing I’ve experienced,” said the young Iranian with a trembling voice.
Amir Abdul Aldollahivizi, 40, Iran
A group of ten men, dirty and utterly exhausted, were wandering around Velika Kladuša on a cold, rainy day in May. They looked for any sort of shelter where they could overnight.
They came straight out of the forest. It was pouring rain. If it were only a degree or so colder, and the rain might turn into snow. They were tailed by stray dogs which are plentiful in this part of Bosnia.
The Croatian police, after beating them up and taking or breaking their phones, dropped this group of ten refugees and migrants off 20 kilometres north of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of them also had their shoes stolen. Tired, hungry and injured, they slogged their way to Velika Kladuša.
Among them was 40-year-old Amir Abdul Aldollahivizi, an epidemiologist from Isfahan, Iran. He was the only Iranian in the group, which had just come back from Slovenia via Croatia. Besides him, there were two Afghanis and seven Pakistanis in the group.
“I’ll immediately join the game again. I can’t wait, I mustn’t wait. My wife and son have been in Germany for a year already. I promised I’d join them. It’s why I set off on this journey,” told us the gentleman with grizzled hair. He looked at least 15 years older than he actually was.
He worked as a doctor at a clinic in Iran for many years. He claims that, due to his open-mindedness, he was constantly exposed to the persecution of the regime, but did not want to discuss it any further. “I had to go. It was a matter of life and death. That’s all,” he said.
He left Iran with his wife and son three years ago. They went to Turkey where Amir Abdul worked as a roofer and salesman in a furniture shop. His wife, a computer programmer, worked in a beauty salon. A year ago, they decided to go to Europe. His wife and son left first, while Amir Abdul promised to join them as soon as possible.
He arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina from Turkey via Greece, Albania and Montenegro. “My destination is Germany. I set off on the journey in a large group, from Bihać. We took the longer road, due to safety. Soon after crossing the Bosnian-Croatian border, I sprained my ankle in the hills. I could not continue. I was left behind, alone.”
For ten days, he couldn’t walk normally; he ached all over and had no food.
“I suffered. I didn’t know what to do. I moved very slowly. I met a bear. I was afraid that I would die in the forest, alone. I ate grass and corn. I was scared the entire time. I was giving in to despair. But somehow I found my way to Slovenia,” Amir Abdul told us in Velika Kladuša. Right before he spoke to us, he ate his first proper meal in 12 days.
He entered Slovenia through the forests above Kočevje. He asked the first local he met where the closest police station was. He directed him towards town. He went there on foot.
“Soon, a police car drove by. I told the policemen that I had been walking alone for ten days through Croatia and that I wanted to apply for asylum. They said that this was not a problem. They were kind. They took me to the river nearby and took my photo. They wanted me to say for the record that I illegally entered Slovenia by crossing the river. But that wasn’t true. I didn’t want to do it. Their attitude changed immediately.
“I said I wished to apply for asylum. The policemen said that I didn’t have the ‘slightest chance.’ That they ‘didn’t need me’ in Slovenia. ‘Go back to where you came from,’ said the Slovenian policeman.”
The policemen took Amir Abdul to the police station in Kočevje and then to the Croatian border, where he was returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina with a group of migrants. “We were seriously mistreated in Croatia. They also took my shoes. They hit me a few times. They stole my mobile. I don’t know why they’re treating us this way. It’s clear that they hate us. They don’t think of us as people. This is not just racism....”
The Iranian doctor is despondent. He speaks of death all the time, his only glimmer of hope is his family. “I’ll go to my wife and son in Germany, at any cost. I will try again and again. I’ve already been through a lot. I only have to wait for my leg to heal.”
On the street, where we journalists met with the refugees, stray dogs and children were running around the entire time. None of them even glanced at the exhausted people who were draped in old blankets and on the run.
Jamal Nouri, 28, Iran
Jamal Nouri comes from the Kurdish part of Iran. At the time of our conversation, he had been in Velika Kladuša for nine months. He managed to make his way to Slovenia three times, but was banished every time – without the opportunity to apply for asylum or international protection.
Jamal fled Iran because he changed his religion. He became a Catholic and this was the reason why they threatened him and his family with death. He was considered a traitor in his closest circle, as well; he had to run.
He arrived in Turkey back in 2014. He immediately applied for refugee status with the UNHCR and resettlement to the United States, Australia or Canada. He attended an interview and then waited for the approval of his application for almost three years. The UNHCR finally approved his resettlement and refugee status in the United States.
He can prove this with a document that he keeps on him at all times, but that he has never been given the chance to hand in to the Slovenian police. He hides the document from the Croatian police because he is afraid that they will destroy it. According to refugees’ accounts, this is a standard practice. We journalists saw his document and verified its authenticity.
When Jamal Nouri was supposed to leave Turkey and head towards the United States, the American president Donald Trump forbade Iranian refugees from entry. In an instant, his dreams went up in smoke.
He remained in Turkey for another year, performing the worst paid jobs in the city of Yalova.
“They treated us refugees as slaves. In the best possible scenario, they paid us a third of what the Turkish workers got. They treated us like pigs. It’s extremely hard in Turkey. I decided I don’t want to wait any longer. I headed towards Europe. Now, I’m here,” said Jamal in front of a mosque in the vicinity of Miral camp at the outskirts of Velika Kladuša. A cultured, calm young man, he finished his degree at an accounting college in Iran.
His suffering in the Miral camp is intolerable. It is extremely noisy and he has trouble sleeping, due to fights, drugs, alcohol, theft and extortion. There is absolutely no supervision; hatred amongst different ethnic groups is rampant. The rules are dangerous and chaotic.
“We have everything in Iran. A nice country, nature, oil, rich history... But we have no freedom. We live in a dictatorship. The religious authorities and police control our every step, our every word. It’s particularly difficult for the Kurds. They consider us traitors. I can’t go back home, even though I want to some day. But only if Iran becomes a free society,” told us Jamal in a quiet voice.
The last time he was in Slovenia was two months ago. The police captured him along with a group of migrants at Vinica, near the Kolpa River. He showed us the exact location on his mobile phone.
“They took us to the nearest police station, registered us and immediately returned us to Croatia.” There, he experienced the usual fate of a refugee: beating, theft of his money and travelling bag etc. The Croatian police quickly returned him to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He told us that he came closest to realising his goal last fall, when he first embarked upon a journey to Slovenia. He walked for ten days. He was ill-prepared. He did not take enough food for the road; the weather was bad. He managed to get to the centre of Črnomelj. Starving and thirsty, he wanted to buy some food and drink. A police vehicle arrived with flashing lights and a siren. He was arrested and brought to a police station.
“They weren’t violent. The procedure was correct. But when I said I want to go to Ljubljana and apply for a political asylum, my requests fell on deaf ears. It was as though they couldn't hear me. There were also issues with the translator. I spent some time in the police station and then they returned me to Croatia,” Jamal Nouri described his experience with the Slovenian authorities.
According to him, the onward journey to Ljubljana and the lodging of an asylum application by the Slovenian police was an option available only to families and minors.
Jamal wants to get to the Netherlands where he has acquaintances. He is willing to do any work in the European Union, but reiterated time and again that he is by no means an economic migrant. He is a political refugee; the UNHCR awarded the status and approved the resettlement to the US.
There are a number of similar cases in Turkey. People who were approved for a resettlement that never happened are now facing deportation, among them are many Iranians. This is what Jamal is most afraid of – and that was the main reason for his departure to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The project is supported by Journalismfund.eu. We ran it in cooperation with reporters and a photographer from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina.