Footage from Bosnia and Herzegovina screams out for a reaction.
It’s a scene that will make your stomach churn at the very least: In a 30-second smartphone video, at least five people are shown inside two-meter-by-two-meter cages, which look more like dog kennels.
Seeing a dog held in a space like that is enough to make you queasy. However, it turned out that those cages are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Klobuk near Trebinje, and that, according to the information that came from refugee support initiative AreYouSyrious, and published by Voice of America’s Bosnian service, they held 11 people on April 22. Six adults and five children.
If your stomach indeed churns at the thought that in Bosnia, scenes from dystopian scenarios like the one in “Children of Men” have become true, what happened next will terrify you: The local media casually relayed the news, together with a reaction by the Bosnian Border Police who operates the cages at the Klobuk border crossing, duly stating that “everything is according to EU standards” and denying any inhumane treatment. And that was the end of this particular story.
“[The facilities] are air-conditioned and heated, under video surveillance, with daylight and sanitary conditions, and the migrants were not locked [inside] them,” stated the Border Police, pointing out that this is a temporary accommodation where migrants are kept before being returned to neighboring Montenegro.
What we couldn’t hear at all is any kind of question or serious investigation into the facts surrounding the claims of activists and migrants that the latter are not even allowed to request asylum in Bosnia, which is their right guaranteed by domestic laws and international conventions, to which Bosnia is a signatory.
For instance, Bosnia is obliged by the Convention on the Rights of Children, which states that every child has the right to suitable protection and humanitarian aid; holding children, even if it is temporarily, in a dog cage, hardly meets basic human needs, while no one showed any concern for the psychological health of children and the consequences that even a temporary stay could have on their life and development; it is clear from the video that books or toys, for example, are nowhere to be found.
No one bothered to think, “Well, although perhaps the migrants may not be locked in cages, even if they can in fact exit to the hallway that connects the three cages seen in the video it’s still an enclosed space of barely 10 square meters altogether, with bars waiting for them at the edges, regardless.
We also couldn’t hear which particular EU standards as a higher authority are being invoked by the Bosnian officials. Primarily, no one got upset in the least by the fact that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country whose citizens were subject to the entire horrific ordeal of one third of the population having to seek refuge elsewhere themselves, everyone seems to be shrugging their shoulders at the sight of people — and children in particular — in cages.
Let’s take a look at what is exactly in the aforementioned EU standards: The Common European Asylum System (CEAS) defines proper treatment of migrants and refugees under the directive laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection; this particular document contains the rules on detention as well.
A mere glance already tells us that the Bosnian Border Police claims are unfounded.
To begin with, the Directive obligates the officials to inform potential asylum seekers of their right to apply for asylum, in a language understandable to them, which already goes against the practice of returning migrants across the border to Montenegro.
Article 8.3 precisely states that immigrants can be temporarily held with the view of returning them to their country of origin only if their application for asylum has already been rejected.
As for the conditions for holding immigrants, the video also clearly shows that, for example, Article 10.2, which states that migrants must have access to an open air area, is being violated as well.
European standards, which are always treated as a handy excuse by Bosnian authorities, state that people — children in particular — are not to be held in cages.
Article 11, dealing with detention of vulnerable persons, including children, states that the mental health of applicants in detention shall be of primary concern to national authorities, whereas detaining children is a measure of last resort, and that children have to be given access to activities such as play and entertainment according to their age group, while families held in detention must be given adequate privacy.
Translated into non-bureaucratic speak, European standards, which are always treated as a handy excuse by Bosnian authorities — who are aware that very few journalists would ever look them up and read them through — state that people, children in particular, are not to be held in cages; it becomes quite apparent that what we have here is a lie with serious consequences to the lives and health of those who are already its victims.
It is also not necessary to read through the slew of legal acts: the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has already asked its member states to “expeditiously and completely cease the detention of children on the basis of their immigration status,” in light of the fact that holding children exclusively due to them being immigrants or children represents arbitrary detention and is against the principle of acting in the best interest of the child.
More likely, what the Bosnian Border Police considers “EU standards” might be what we have seen in previous years in Greece or Hungary: Hungarian authorities have shamelessly placed minors in cages in the Roszke transit zone in the past, as witnessed by Human Rights Watch; similar cages and enclosures have appeared on the Greek island of Lesbos as well.
In both — distinctly different — cases, these practices were met with serious reactions from both domestic and foreign public. The example of Lesbos, where activists have managed to successfully close down the so-called “Guantanamo of the Aegean,” an old detention center in the Pagani industrial area, and also founded the solidarity village called Pikpa, showed that empathy and help, as an alternative to the militarization of borders and surveillance systems, control and suppression, are a far more constructive and healthier approach in the long run.
In Bosnia, we seem to be using Hungary as the measuring stick.
It is clear that by holding people in cages we are not aligning ourselves with some European standards.
As Irish Senator Paul Gavan wrote in November last year, in Hungary we are witnessing institutionalized racism and Islamophobia embodied in the ruling Fidesz party and its leader, Victor Orban. Senator Gavan testified to acts of open derisiveness and hatred, embodied in the words of an unnamed Hungarian parliamentarian who cracked jokes on the “final solution,” nonchalantly raising the ghosts of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany from the dead.
Speaking of the barbed wire fence that Hungary raised at its border with Serbia in recent years, Gavan recounted that Lajos Kosa, chairman of the Defense Commission of the Hungarian Parliament, had proudly stated: “If someone climbs over our fence, we let the dog deal with that.”
It is clear that by holding people in cages we are not aligning ourselves with some European standards — but rather only that our role models just happen to also be a part of the European Union. It’s convenient to say that “everything is in accordance with the law,” because if they can get away with it, realistically speaking, so can we.
It’s not even our usual indifference to standards, where minimum is the norm. It’s just about looking up to the wrong kind.
What hurts the most, however, is the complete lack of interest and empathy from the Bosnian public.
A case from June 2018, this time in a different country whose president is obsessed with building walls, the United States, can be quite illustrative as well. When it became public that, due to an initiative by President Donald Trump, there were immigration camps where the U.S. authorities took children away from their parents and held them in cages, the UN human rights experts pointed out that the detainment of those children in cages could represent an act of torture.
It wasn’t just the experts who objected: Inhabitants of the Texas hamlet of Tornillo, close to the Mexican border, openly spoke against a “sickening and shameful” camp for migrant children in their village. The denizens of Tornillo had no additional motives for this reaction apart from pure humanity: Neither was Tornillo a tourist destination, nor economically relevant in any particular way. Those living in Tornillo were simply disgusted at the very idea that they live next to a camp where someone decided that children should be held in cages.
Although we need to avoid idealizing this — there were indeed those who though it “wasn’t so bad” for the children in that camp — it was still the majority who stood up, while the images of children in cages from other parts of the U.S. caused a huge outpouring of public anger that is still not quietening down.
It’s hard to accept that, despite our collective experience, each cell in our bodies is not screaming in horror at the thought that a single child is being treated like a stray dog.
The Bosnian public, however, has already forgotten about the nauseating images of human beings in cages. A part of this can be understood as a general lack of focus from Bosnian society, whose attention has already been stretched thin by the most recent escalation of nationalist rhetoric from the Republika Srpska leadership, together with heightened sabre-rattling.
This lack of empathy was further enabled by the fact that the local media space lacks those who see immigrants and refugees primarily as a category in need of our help and as people who deserve much better treatment than the constant labeling as a security threat or the potential source of crime, violent or otherwise.
Despite all of this, it’s hard to understand how it is even possible to remain ambivalent at the fact that five children can spend the night in a cage here, among us. It’s hard to accept that in Bosnia, in 2019, despite our collective experience, each cell in our bodies is not screaming in horror at the thought that a single child — there are five in total in that video — is being treated like a stray dog.
Treated by us all, indeed — the responsibility in this case is shared and collective, because the Bosnian authorities are doing it in our name and in our safety’s name. All according to the law, supposedly, while mostly because they can get away with it; because their acts will never get questioned by anyone.