Verhaal, 24 augustus 2022

Pushbacks in Europe: 'They deliberately shot around our feet'

The story of Reza and his family is as horrifying as it is heartbreaking. In 2019, the persecuted atheist flees Iran head over heels, along with his pregnant wife and two young children. Reza tells his story in a refugee camp in Bosnia, just one day after the family got shot at by the infamous Croatian border police.

Premature contractions in Turkey

'I did not leave Iran of my own free will, but in order to safe my life. Yet we are unwanted everywhere,' Reza says from Poric, a Bosnian refugee camp for families near the border with Croatia. His wife Samileh (42) sits quietly next to him and stares at the table in front of her. 'Since we left Iran, we've had nothing but problems. In Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Greece and Croatia: there was always police and always violence.'

He continues with a tired look. 'When we fled, my wife was pregnant. Along the way she got more and more problems, until we were in Turkey and her contractions started at seven months. The Turkish police picked us up to take us to the hospital. "We'll help you bring this child into the world," they said, "but then we'll take you back to Iran."'

The conversation halts when Reza becomes overcome with grief. Beside him, Samileh is still staring at an imaginary point on the table, but tears are now streaming down her cheeks. When Reza resumes his story, even the interpreter cannot help hide his emotions. 'After Samileh gave birth, we fled the hospital with our daughters… and left our baby behind.' Then Samileh looks up and says: 'I have a paper from the hospital with all the details of my baby. I always carry that with me.' As if she hopes that she can be reunited with her child in the future.


The Greek police does not see us as people but as dogs that you can beat


Chain pushbacks in Europe

Reza, Samileh and their daughters aged fifteen and seven arrive in Greece, where the police immediately arrest them and send them back to Turkey. Reza: 'They beat us and took our clothes. The Greek police do not see us as people but as dogs that you can beat.' After three failed attempts, the family finally manages to reach Greece, but receive no protection in the country.

The family moves on and looks for a safe haven in other European countries, but at every border they become victims of illegal 'pushbacks', as happened earlier on the border between Greece and Turkey. A pushback is when refugees are literally pushed back from one country to another and the international right to ask for asylum is ignored to them. Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, Italy and even Austria: the list of countries guilty of these human rights violations is long.

Thirty percent of refugees are now experiencing a so-called 'chain pushback', in which they are expelled from multiple European countries without access to the asylum procedrue, according to the Border Violence Monitoring Network, a human rights network of organizations that monitors pushbacks in Europe and document the stories of victims, a human rights network of organizations that monitors pushbacks in Europe and document the stories of victims. 

Two days before this conversation, Reza and his family arrive in the Bosnian border town of Bihac. In the inhospitable mountain area around the town, also called 'the jungle' by residents and refugees, the family tries twice to cross the border into Croatia. But the Croatian Border Police are notorious for their sophisticated tracking equipment and extreme violence against refugees. Reza, Samileh and their daughters are caught both times.

My seven year old daughter completely panicked and begged them to stop


Encounter with the Croatian police

'The Croatian police beat us and took our bags. Yesterday, on our second attempt, they shot at us; right above our heads and around our feet just to scare us. Again we were beaten and this time they also smashed our phones and power banks. Someone in our group filmed the shooting, but his phone was also smashed. My seven year old daughter panicked and begged the police to stop but they yelled and told her to shut up. I said that I want to ask for asylum in Croatia with my family, but that made no difference.'

The Border Violence Monitoring Network observers that pushbacks in Europe are becoming increasingly violent: forced undressing, electric shocks, dog attacks, the use of guns and unlawful detention are now very common. Reza and his family were locked up in a white van with bars for hours after being shot at. 'Then the cops got in and drove us like crazy through the mountains. At high speed they tore through the bend after bend. Some of us got so nauseous that they vomited. After a while the van stopped in the middle of the jungle and the police let us out. Nobody knew where we were. "Stay in Bosnia!" they shouted to us as they left us and drove off.'

Tears well up in the couple's eyes again. Reza: 'We just want to be seen as normal people. My wife and I don't even care about our own lives, all we want is for our daughters to be safe.'

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