Migrant Lives

On The Border Of Bosnia: Voices Of Afghan Migrants

On The Border Of Bosnia: Voices Of Afghan Migrants

Hundreds of migrants are living in an old buildings in the cities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa

Benedetta Zocchi

As the Taliban closed in on Afghanistan, the European Union co-signed a joint statement with dozens of nations agreeing that "the Afghan people deserve to live in safety, security and dignity" and that the international community was "ready to assist them".

As someone who has been researching the refugee crisis on Europe's borders for years, I found the statement surprising. Before it was making bold statements about events in Kabul, the EU had spent years failing to help thousands of Afghans seeking help at its borders.

Since 2015, more than 570,000 Afghan citizens have sought protection in the EU. Thousands of them remain stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after having been pushed back by the Croatian police catching them on the EU border.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a member of the EU, nor of the Schengen area, so only a small number of migrants apply for asylum there. A large majority try to move forward – to pass through in order to reach EU countries where they have a better chance of obtaining asylum.

Crossing borders, an endless "game"

For four years, migrants attempting to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border have been sent back by Croatian police forces. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights defines pushbacks as "a set of state measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border – generally immediately after they crossed it – without consideration of their individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken". Pushbacks violate – among other laws – the prohibition of collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights, which defines collective expulsion as "any measure compelling aliens, as a group, to leave a country, except where such a measure is taken on the basis of a reasonable and objective examination of the particular case of each individual alien of the group".

The Border Violence Monitoring Network recorded 110 testimonies of pushbacks affecting 1,656 people in 2020 alone. In almost 90% of the cases, witnesses reported some form of degrading treatment or torture.

Afghans arrive at this border alongside Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Pakistani refugees. From Bosnia, they attempt the so-called "game". Refugees use this expression to describe the attempt to cross a border on foot. The "game" consists of days and nights walking in the woods that connect national frontiers. It takes at least 20 days to travel from the Bosnian border to Italy. The "game" is "played" against the border and against the police. They face low temperatures, wild animals and food and water shortage on one hand, the fear of police pushbacks on the other.

Several told us the police have taken their phones, shoes and money. Others have reported violence.

Migrants keep their feet dry by wrapping plastic bags around their ankles — Photo: Matteo Trevisan/ZUMA

Jungle camps

Amir has been travelling for five years. He left Afghanistan when the Taliban invaded his village. He went to Turkey where he worked for three years in a factory. When his temporary papers expired, he was afraid of being deported and continued his journey into Bosnia. "I have been stuck in Bosnia for nine months. I have tried the game 27 times and I am still here," he told me.

The majority of those who remain blocked in Bosnia and Herzegovina stay in the so-called "jungle camps" scattered around the provincial roads that connect the cities of Bihac, Cazin and Velika Kladuša, or in the International Organization for Migration's temporary reception centres. They live in awful conditions, far away from urban centres, often with no access to running water or electricity.

With each deportation, migrants have to regroup to find money and resources. Most of them are financially assisted by relatives in their home countries. But in the last month, many Afghan migrants have lost contact with their families.

The physical and psychological stress of squatting and deportation mixes with the anxiety generated by the events that are taking place in Afghanistan.

Living among ruins

There are around 15 Afghan families living between the villages of Bojina and Sturlic, right on the Bosnian border. They have found shelter in the ruins of houses abandoned after the Bosnian war. Kala, a 17-year-old girl from Kabul has been travelling for four years with her mother and her younger brother. They have been stuck in Bosnia for nine months. She said:

"During the last game, they even took our jackets and our backpacks. My brother was left in the rain with only a t-shirt. In the backpack there were my mom's medicines. She is very ill and she needs them but they did not care and now she does not have them anymore."

Kala told us that the police had started being violent with women. "They use tasers on our necks to make us fall down," she said. "They use sticks against us even if we surrender. Usually, it is a female officer to beat the women, but sometimes they even use dogs against us." Sana, another girl travelling with her family, showed us dog bite marks on her leg and told us the police set dogs on her and her mother.

The stories of these people living in limbo at the border remind us that the Afghan crisis, while currently acute, is not new and is not far away. The EU's indignation over what is happening in Afghanistan rings hollow when contextualised with the consistent unwillingness to address the situation in its own neighborhood.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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