Stripped naked and beaten while police set belongings on fire: Extreme violence against refugees at the Croatian-Bosnian border 

Published 6th June 2024

After five years of providing mental health support to refugees at the border between Croatia and Bosnia, Doctors of the World has drawn a grim conclusion: “Under the guise of efficient border policy, Europe turns a blind eye to the lifelong trauma inflicted on children, women, and men. The new migration pact threatens to worsen the situation even further.” 

From 2019 to 2024, Doctors of the World provided mental health support to refugees and migrants temporarily residing in camps in Sarajevo and at the Bosnia-Herzegovina border. Most of these individuals eventually attempt to travel through Croatia to reach Europe. 

It is during this crossing between Bosnia and Croatia that moral compasses and human rights seem to be completely disregarded: “Men, children, and women are stripped naked and pushed into ice-cold water. Their teeth and feet are broken, their clothes and belongings are confiscated or set on fire, and pregnant women are beaten.” 

Every day, our psychologists treated people in and outside the Bosnian reception camps who had experienced traumatic pushbacks. Data shows that these pushbacks are widespread: it is estimated that between 2020 and 2023, more than 25,000 violent pushbacks occurred at the Bosnia-Croatia border. In 90% of these cases, violence was reported, including beatings with sticks, threats with guns, rubber bullet shots, punches, exposure to cold and water, strip searches, and confiscation or destruction of personal belongings. 

Trauma Upon Trauma 

Currently, 65% of the refugees in Bosnia come from Syria, Iran, or Afghanistan: “These are people fleeing violent regimes. The violence they experience here adds to the psychological suffering they have already endured in their home countries and on their journey.” 

The combination of these multiple traumas, poor living conditions, and uncertainty leaves deep scars, as shown by Doctors of the World’s data: “Over the past four years, 32,000 people came through our mental health projects in Bosnia. Among them, anxiety disorders (32%), depressive symptoms (21%), and severe sleep problems (20%) were the most common. 7% reported suffering from suicidal thoughts or excessive use of medication or drugs.” 

New Migration Pact: A New Blow to Refugees 

Despite numerous reports of human rights violations, Europe not only continues to systematically ignore human suffering but goes a step further: “The new migration pact, approved last December, doubles down on drones, barbed wire, border patrols, and detention centers. Meanwhile, there are insufficient guarantees for monitoring and safeguarding human rights.” 

After five years, Doctors of the World is leaving the project due to a lack of funding, which means they can no longer provide nor guarantee the same high-quality mental health care. The humanitarian organization remains active in other European migration hotspots in Croatia, Greece, France, Italy, Spain, and England. 

A Grim Future for Refugees 

Doctors of the World’s withdrawal from the Bosnian project marks a significant setback for the refugees who relied on their support for trauma recovery and healing. As Europe continues to prioritize border control over human rights, the physical and psychological well-being of refugees remains at grave risk. The new EU migration pact, with its focus on surveillance and the criminalisation of refugees, threatens to exacerbate the already dire situation at Europe’s borders and the slow collapse of human rights protections. 

[photo credit: ©Olivier Papegnies] 


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