Illegal Pushbacks Children Caught in “The Game” on the Croatian Border

Among the thousands of people trying to cross the border from Bosnia-Herzegovina into Croatia are numerous families. The children are forced to watch as their parents are beaten and humiliated.
Von Sonja Peteranderl and Alessio Mamo (Photos)
An Afghan girl runs through slush near the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

An Afghan girl runs through slush near the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

Foto: Alessio Mamo
Global Societies

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They're not playing "cops and robbers." Instead, in the iteration played by children of migrant families stranded in Bosnia-Herzegovina, some of the kids are refugees while the others play the border police who are constantly trying to hunt them down.

The charade is but a reflection of what takes place every single day as asylum-seekers try to cross the border into Croatia and the European Union – a daily cat-and-mouse chase that the migrants simply call "The Game." Most, though, are stopped in the attempt, often with violence, and forced back into Bosnia-Herzegovina – with children often having to stand by and watch as their parents are robbed, beaten and humiliated, or are the victims of violence themselves.

Among the thousands of people trying to get into the European Union across the border into Croatia are many families with small children.

Among the thousands of people trying to get into the European Union across the border into Croatia are many families with small children.

Foto: Alessio Mamo

Croatian border police "have used force, pummeling people with fists, kicking them, and making them run gauntlets between lines of police officers," according to a Human Rights Watch report  on the systematic human rights violations. "Violence has been directed against women and children," the report continues. The report notes that migrants who are intercepted by border guards are not returned to areas near border crossings, but to remote regions, and they are "at times forced to cross freezing streams."

Human rights organizations around the world have been criticizing the illegal returns – so-called "pushbacks" – for years . Currently, officials with the European Union border protection agency Frontex are under investigation  in connection with such pushbacks. Nevertheless, the controversial practice continues, thus denying migrants the possibility of submitting asylum applications in the EU.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has documented 16,000 illegal pushbacks carried out by Croatian border guards in 2020 alone, including 800 incidents involving children. "Compared to previous months, the rate of women and children reporting pushbacks is also increasing," notes a report from November 2020 .

Trying to survive in below-zero winter temperatures: Teenagers light a fire to keep warm.

Trying to survive in below-zero winter temperatures: Teenagers light a fire to keep warm.

Foto: Alessio Mamo

Since the EU closed down the Balkan Route, more and more migrants have found their journey to Europe coming to an end in Bosnia-Herzegovina, including numerous families. In the past months of winter, their situations have worsened significantly, particularly through the closure of several refugee camps. In December 2020, for example, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) cleared out the Lipa reception center near Bihac because it had neither running water nor electricity. But there were no replacement shelters, leading to 1,300 people suddenly having no roof over their heads.

The refugee camp in Lipa had to be closed, but there was nowhere for the occupants to go.

The refugee camp in Lipa had to be closed, but there was nowhere for the occupants to go.

Foto: Kemal Softic / AP

The IOM estimates that there are currently between 9,000 and 10,000 migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with around 3,000 people camping out in below-zero temperatures with no water or electricity in vacant homes and factory buildings, in tents or in the forest.

It isn't a pleasant place to stay, so people desperately continue trying to cross the border. The Italian photographer Alessio Mamo accompanied families from Afghanistan, with babies and small children, in their attempts to get into Europe.

Check out the photo gallery for more images of refugee children trying to make the best of a bad situation:

Fotostrecke

Refugee Children Playing "The Game" on the Croatian Border

Foto: Alessio Mamo

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.