Submission of Evidence - Humanitarian Crisis Monitoring: Impact of Coronavirus

Title: Special Report on COVID-19 and Border Violence Along the Balkan Route

Organisation: Border Violence Monitoring Network

Submitted: 8th April 2020

Summary: This feature length report presents the latest findings relating to COVID-19 and migration in the Western Balkans and Greece. The document outlines first hand testimony from refugees, migrants and persons in transit who are subject to recent developments such as: the sealing of camps, movement restrictions for asylum seekers, deployment of army and security forces, inhumane detention and violent collective expulsion. In particular, this submission highlights how the policy of externalisation, at national and European Union borders, has persisted during the viral outbreak, placing affected communities along the Balkan Route and in Greece at disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19, or being subject to violence of deprivations of liberty as a result of lockdown measures.














The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) during the spring of 2020 has presented a major concern for people across the world. The rate of fatalities and pressure on hospitals has strained communities and public institutions, engaging a crisis response. However, the emergence of this highly infectious disease has had an even more pronounced impact on vulnerable communities, especially in the securitised response it has induced. This imbalance reflects existing patterns of state-based violence applied specifically to migrants, refugees and transient communities. This report looks in depth at the convergence of public health policy and securitisation of the border regime in the Western Balkans and Greece to explore how rights suspensions affecting people-on-the-move have been shaped by the pandemic.

The Border Violence Monitoring Network[1] (BVMN) have been recording and advocating against illegal pushbacks on the Balkan Route since 2017. With a database of over 700 reports, BVMN have shown these acts are a shared policy of EU countries and other states within the region. Since the "lockdown" measures came into force during mid-March, BVMN have continued to monitor and receive reports of violent collective expulsions, confirming that illegal removal practices have not stopped, in spite of the formal closure of borders. The scope of this report challenges the understanding of public health measures as simply directed towards the curbing of viral transmission, but expands on their intersection with methods of border externalisation and the targeted narrowing of fundamental rights for people at national and EU borders.

With site specific analysis of pushback regimes in Western Balkans and Greece, the report looks at how cross-border removals have persisted, adapted and been augmented by institutional responses to the pandemic. COVID-19 measures such as lockdowns, isolation, physical distancing, and personal protective equipment highlight the contrasting experiences of the people-on-the-move with that of the general public. Alongside this disjuncture, the way capture, detention, transportation and ejection has adapted to the context of the pandemic also shows the forging of new powers for actors managing border and asylum regimes. In many cases, the core act of collective expulsion has persisted across the wider region as a tool of externalisation. Yet the COVID-19 period has also seen the staging of new practices such as paint tagging in Croatia, or pushbacks from inner city camps such as in Greece and Serbia.

Considering the unfolding situation across multiple borders, the report exposes the move by authorities to apply exceptional practices to people-on-the-move. Within existing health restrictions, the proposed militarisation of the Slovenian border, garrisoning of camps in Serbia and movement restrictions in Bosnia-Herzegovina have all eroded fundamental rights along the Route. These securitised responses to COVID-19 bodes ill for the future, as reactive policy soon establishes itself as an enduring mechanism of control. In the aftermath of COVID-19, whether and how such unlawful treatment will be lifted is an open ended question: "the emergency never ends, but merely becomes a natural context of everyday life".



BVMN is an alliance of grassroots organisations and NGOs working with the common goal of documenting, exposing and advocating for the cessation of illegal pushbacks and border violence practices. BVMN uses a shared database to publish first hand testimonies of pushbacks which are taken via interview. Volunteers working along the Balkan Route and Greece apply a common interview framework and methodology, recording hard data (geo-locations and times), as well as narrative stories of individuals or small groups affected by pushbacks.

Within the context of COVID-19 measures, face-to-face contact and fieldwork has been interrupted, therefore meaning only a partial dataset has been gathered on existent violations carried out during the lockdown period. In response, BVMN have been using alternate mediums to record and track pushbacks, such as interviews via video call, contact with affected groups via social media and gathering of shorthand testimonies. In order to gain up to date information from the field, this report also pools insights from partner organisations working on various borders in the Balkans and Greece, bringing together their insights on legal support, integration work, documentation and advocacy. Through these contributions, and the framing of specific case studies, the report examines policy developments, major news stories and events relating to pushbacks and transit conditions.



Pushbacks are the informal expulsion (without due process) of individuals or groups to another country. This lies in contrast to the term “deportation”, which is conducted in a legal framework, and “readmission” which is a formal procedure rooted in bilateral and multilateral agreements between states. In the past five years, pushbacks have become an important, if unofficial, part of the migration regime of EU countries and elsewhere.

People-on-the-move A broad demographic encompassing both refugees, migrants and other transient communities who navigate borders and transit routes.






BiH - Bosnia and Herzegovina

HR - Croatia

SRB - Serbia

SLO - Slovenia

EU - European Union


HUN - Hungary

MNK - North Macedonia

GRC - Greece

TUR - Turkey








Rights Suspensions

Changes caused by COVID-19 have manifested themselves in different ways for people-on-the-move. Many developments have occured at a policy level, through state and EU decision making, meanwhile others have been observed in the informal application of pushbacks and the dire transit conditions these bodies sponsor. Securitisation forms the backdrop to these institutional and informal changes, set by the wider understandings of the pandemic and its transmission as an invasion. This narrative opens up state recourse to physical force, and was furthered by the World Health Organisation who placed COVID-19 on a par with terrorism. The subsequent merger of institutional mandates saw bodies, such the Ministry of Interior in Croatia, blending responsibilities towards crime, migration and the pandemic in a concerning fashion. Within this state of emergency, governments have even enlisted the military to manage health measures. While personal autonomy and movement is necessarily ceded to prevent viral transmission, the application of securitised policy has disproportionately targeted transit populations along the Balkan Route.

It is useful to understand this targeting under several core rights suspensions which relate to transit, borders and international protection. Right suspensions are examined here as breaches of domestic and international laws preserving the rights of refugees and other transient communities. Alongside this legal reading, rights suspensions are also modes of repression which operate within a web of other inhibiting practices such as the fining of homeless people, dispersal of squat communities, poor living conditions in camps and other developments which are outlined in this report.

       Asylum access

The landscape of asylum access has changed drastically since intensive restrictions came into force during March. BVMN has already reported on asylum as an eroded set of rights, but due process for international protection claims has been further challenged in recent months during the health emergency. Firstly, persistent pushbacks from borders continue to deny people access to claim international protection, with states performing collective expulsion without considering applicants' individual cases. Second, government decisions to pause or close asylum offices with no effective alternative or remedy have placed transit groups and applicants in an effective limbo, and at risk of pushback. Within the existing denigration of asylum rights, the development of COVID-19 measures has allowed countries such as Greece, Croatia and Hungary to complete their ongoing trajectories in blocking internationally mandated access to protection.

       Freedom of movement

The penalisation of movement, both internally and at borders, has been furthered under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions. Under the Geneva Convention, an individual cannot cannot be punished for crossing into another territory when attempting to seek asylum, yet measures during March and April continued to breach this, marking people-on-the-move as public health risks. Parallel deprivations of liberty have occurred across camps throughout the Balkan Route where transit populations have been issued further restrictions on their movement, beyond the scope of those faced by the general public. For example, throughout the restrictions, the penalisation of homeless transit groups in search of basic necessities by imposing fines has become the norm in the Greek urban areas.

       Safety and healthcare

Within the context of the viral pandemic, the physical rights of people-on-the-move have been suspended in both settlement and transit. Protections against inhumane accommodation and detention have been cast aside with the mass confinement of tens of thousands of people in the Western Balkans and Greece. This report considers in particular the use of military, police and private personnel to trap people in overcrowded camps under full lockdowns or curfews. In these centres the lack of access to health care, relevant isolation, basic amenities, and recourse to leave these site have violated multiple laws and raised questions about the racial discrimination underpinning the application of COVID-19 measures against people-on-the-move. During pushbacks, the lack of effective health screening, alongside the summary use of mass detainment and group transport is deeply concerning.



EU and Schengen Measures


In the midst of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, the EU launched the Joint Action Plan for Human Rights. However, the intention of this communication and the reality on the ground has borne acute differences. Most notably, violations of fundamental rights continue by EU Member States and third countries who have various EU agreements on migration, asylum and border security, alongside funded camp systems. Rather than assisting vulnerable transit communities in this precarious period, policy and guidance has allowed reborderisation across a majority of member states to erode further the right to asylum, due procedure and humane treatment.


On 16th March 2020, the Commission had already issued recommendations and implemented measures concerning the reintroduction of internal borders, the closure of external borders, as well as Community management of public health. This ostensibly aimed at halting all non-essential travel to the EU as a bid to limit viral transmission. Though this was framed as exempting “person[s] in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons respecting the principle of non-refoulement”, the continuation of pushbacks at the EU’s external border has shown little respect for such  safeguards.


COVID-19 Guidelines from the Commission also invited further breaches by allowing border officials to “refuse entry to non-resident third country nationals where they present relevant symptoms or have been particularly exposed to risk of infection”. Invoking this state of emergency legitimised tougher border controls during the March period, especially  against people exiting transit states with confirmed cases. Framing crossings as a “threat to public health”, the Commission failed its own guidance to act “non-discriminatory” by indirectly implicating transit communities as carriers of the disease.


Similar guidelines were issued on asylum, return procedures and resettlement, but again fell shy of wider demands from initiatives such as the Leave No-one Behind campaign calling for the evacuation of people stuck in overcrowded camps in Greece. Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, also raised concerns over the growing risks for people being detained or at risk of removal. She urged states to “review the situation of rejected asylum seekers and irregular migrants in immigration detention, and to release them to the maximum extent possible”. While some divergent examples exist, such as the granting of temporary citizenship status for asylum seekers in Portugal,  a more integrative approach to handling the crisis. Elsewhere  in the EU such as in Croatia, and across the Greek-Balkan Routes, action was leant towards the suring up of borders rather than protecting those stuck at them.






Pushback: Slovenia - Croatia

Date: 19th April 2020



a direct consequence of closed borders”


Three people seeking asylum in Slovenia were caught in the Koper area by police, where one injured group member had his finger amputated. Despite claims for international protection, the group were pushed back to BiH, where the victim nurses a lasting injury.


[Read the InfoKolpa post]



Government change

March brought a double change in Slovenia. Besides general pandemic restrictions, a new far right government took power. The change of government was accompanied with sweeping personnel changes in key functions. The new government formed under the leadership of Janez Janša whose party SDS (Slovene Democratic Party) is closely aligned with the Fidesz government of Hungary. In addition to political ties, Hungary is also subsidizing a consortium of conservative media outlets that are dedicated to far right propaganda and under direct control by the SDS party. Aleš Hojs, the new Minister of Interior, used to be the director of NOVA24, a media organisation that specializes in fear mongering, conspiracy theories of a “Soros & NGO backed invasion of Europe”, and general demonization and criminalization of people-on-the-move, activists and organizations that work in the field.

While still under Hojs’ control, NOVA24 fabricated and heavily publicised a fake story that the first COVID-19 patient in Italy was a Pakistani person who came via the Balkan Route. This plays into  the narrative of pushbacks as a health measure against COVID-19, falsely justifying the practice of removing  groups to Croatia (who in turn eject people to Bosnia-Herzegovina). Additionally, the government is using spending cuts to defund organisations working in the field of international protection such as NGO’s that are providing legal help in asylum camps.  There has also been an announcement to substantially reduce funding for the projects involved with integration of refugees and asylum seekers.


Administrative overview

March and April saw a decrease in the number of irregular border crossings compared to both the first two months of this year and the same period in 2019. The number of people detained at police stations due to irregular border crossings in March and the first half of  April in 2019  was down by 40%  and 75% respectively.

The trend of deportations to Croatia however remains consistently high. Of the 1835 people detained between January and March of this year 1246 were readmitted to Croatian police. This clearly shows that in the early 2020 during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions, Slovenia has continued the systematic denial of  asylum rights and used the readmission agreement with Croatia to deport large numbers of people across the border as observed previously in the InfoKolpa report on chain-pushbacks. According to this bilateral readmission agreement, a person can be returned to Croatian police from Slovenia if there is proof that they illegally crossed the border in the last 48 hours. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic Slovenia continues to readmit people to Croatia with full knowledge of the high risk of torture and further illegal pushback to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this sense, the limits on authorities carrying out faulty readmissions seem distinctly light when compared to the wider health restrictions that the general public cannot circumvent.

At the same time the Ministry of Interior Affairs has suspended asylum procedures until the first of July. Ministry officials are not accepting any new asylum requests, nor do they conduct interviews with asylum seekers or make decisions in individual asylum cases. The number of people in asylum camps is in the meantime high. Because of measures against COVID-19, movement in camps has been restricted and asylum seekers can only exit one by one, presenting a further check on the indepence of many left in a precarious situation during the asylum office closures.


The case of M. from Morocco

The case of M. from Morocco is an example of the Slovenian police attempting to exploit COVID-19 restrictions to further infringe on the rights of asylum seekers. On Saturday 2nd April 2020, after two denied asylum requests, police came to the Asylum Camp Ljubljana-Vič to take M. to the border and deport him to Croatia. InfoKolpa, who are handling the case, share how officials failed to deport M. but on the way back to the camp, one of the police officers pulled him out of the car and started beating him. As the camp officials refused to report the incident, there was a quiet protest of 20 asylum seekers the same night. Police Station Cerknica filed an order for M.’s detention on the grounds that he “entered the country illegally two times”, and therefore constituted a “flight risk”.  Police carried out the order four days later.  This action sets a new precedent - a retroactive criminalisation of border crossing - which has previously been filed within 48hrs of the first police contact.

In the detention centre, M. started a hunger strike. With the help of a lawyer he filed a complaint to an administrative court which decided that the detention was indeed illegal and ordered that the Police Station Cerknica reconsider the detention. The police responded by filing a second detention order. The order was amended to include that  M. would pose a threat to public security during the pandemic on the assumption that he would violate the decree on the restriction of movement. Currently M. is at high risk of deportation to Croatia or Morocco, especially since the court recently rejected his appeal. His case symbolises the mobilisation of COVID-19 measures to demonise people in transit.

Article 37a to deploy the military

Despite a decrease in irregular border crossings during March the new Slovenian government announced the activation of “Article 37a” of the Defence Act. The act was intended to grant the military police authority to process civilians at the border. The army has been present at the border ever since 2015 so this prioritisation of the article at the height of the pandemic was met with wide public concern, especially as the new government made sweeping personnel changes in police, military and parts of the judiciary. The article did not receive the required two thirds majority in the Committee of Foreign Relations, due to a wide public outcry, including a letter written by groups organisation in Slovenia and signed by BVMN to the EU Commission. Military deployment is already a feature of the Balkan Route, starting at the Evros border in Greece. Moves in Slovenia to increase powers during COVID-19 were also matched with army installment around camps in Serbia, elevating the role of defence forces as a primary agent in health management.






Pushback: Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina

Date: 6th April 2020



"we need help our friend is hurt"...

“we gave ourselves to Croatian police”



16 Afghani people pushed back close to Basara (HR). The group sought medical helped for their friend who had collapsed, but were pushed back directly to Bosnia with the use of batons and a fire to burn some of their clothes


[Read Report]



Pushbacks continue far from sight of monitors

The COVID-19 emergency is influencing daily routines, making public and private life radically different from before. Unfortunately some things, such as Croatia’s pushback regime, stay the same. The only difference is that these violent removals operate  in a further silence, especially with global attention preoccupied with the pandemic and human rights observers unable to monitor in the field due to health restrictions.

Pushbacks and violence at borders have persisted, as seen in  the case study above where a group including a severely injured person and a minor were ejected into BiH. Croatian officers burnt their clothes and used batons to beat them, as in hundreds of cases documented before by BVMN. These acts persisted in March during the height of restrictions, and a case from the nearby Poljana area,documented via facebook video, showing an injured man being carried away from the border with Croatian policemen in the background controlling the area.

A relatively new development in pushback practices is the tagging of groups with orange spray paint. No Name Kitchen’s ongoing monitoring base in Velika Kladusa picked up on two cases reported in the first week of May where transit groups returned with spray paint markings administered to their clothes and exposed skin. The pictures show much of the marking around the head and neck area of people, suggesting the paint was launched as an irritant (at eye/face level) as well as providing a tagging function.

Orange spray paint markings on transit groups pushed back from HR to BiH (Source:NNK)

Chain pushbacks from from Slovenia via Croatia have also continued. A family, that had risked death, hiding under a clay deposit on a freight train, were transferred from Dobova (SLO) to Harmica (HR) by police forces at the beginning of March. Along with other families, they detained in cramped conditions by authorities in Croatia before being pushed-back to Serbia, a far cry from the mandated physical distancing required:

“we couldn’t breathe because of the large amount of people who were there and we were all lying on the floor”



Health risk posed by border guards

Across Croatia’s border with Serbia and Bosnia, reports of violent and indiscriminate expulsions continue to surface during the COVID-19 outbreak, showing no concern for people's health or fundamental rights. This neglect was also highlighted in severe allegations of whistleblowers from the border police who approached reporters of the Croatian-based NGO Are You Syrious (AYS) - a key member of BVMN. The incidents concerned relate to the COVID-19 case among a division of police being housed in a hotel facility in Topusko and tasked with apprehending irregular migrants.

“They went to work with migrants. They were in the hotel for 10 days, using the restaurant and other facilities together. One had a diagnosed case of COVID-19 and his closest contacts were put in self-isolation, but not the others. There are up to 200 officers in that hotel. The others continued operating [with migrants] and were later returned to their designated police stations. Officers are afraid to speak up because they are afraid of losing their jobs ”, a whistleblower described.

Following the similar information from a concerned health worker, and learning about the corroborating information gathered by a credible Croatian journalist, AYS approached the Croatian Ombudswoman with a request for investigation.