BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Hamid Ahmadi is still feeling the cold of February night when Serbian police left him in the woods with two dozen other refugees.
Loaded in a police van, refugees from Afghanistan thought they were heading to an asylum camp in eastern Serbia. Instead, four years ago, in the middle of the night, they were ordered to leave the country on the border with Bulgaria. At a temperature below freezing, those in dire need of help were all but to head to Bulgaria, the country from which they had left just the day before.
“I will not forget it as long as I live,” said Ahmadi, who was 17 at the time and now lives in Germany. “Even after a period of good life and stability, hard times cannot be forgotten.”
The Serbian border police repulsed or deported them en masse, one of many such operations along road routes used by migrants and refugees trying to reach Western Europe. But unlike most such illegal deportations, the officers’ actions in February 2017 led to the Afghan refugees winning an unprecedented legal victory in Serbia’s Supreme Court.
The Constitutional Court of the Balkans ruled in December that border guards had illegally deported refugees and violated their rights. The court also ordered the Serbian authorities to pay the 17 members of the group who filed a lawsuit for 1,000 euros ($ 1,180) each.
“The significance of this verdict is huge for Serbia,” said Nikola Kovacic, a Belgrade lawyer representing the refugees in the case. It “sends a clear message to government agencies to harmonize their border practices with domestic and international law.”
The decision is a rare official confession that European countries are pushing back in violation of EU և international law, which prohibits the forcible return of people to other countries without allowing them to study their personal circumstances or obtain asylum.
Although refugees and economic migrants from the Balkans regularly report the practice, the authorities often deny that their agencies are backing down, which is difficult to prove, and they remain largely unpunished.
People fleeing war and poverty across borders across the border spend months, if not years, on the road, being subjected to harsh conditions at the hands of dangerous smugglers and traffickers. Refugees and migrants are sometimes sent back across two or three borders, which take months to cross.
Human rights groups have repeatedly called on governments to live up to their refugee rights obligations, accusing the European Union of turning a blind eye to illegal activities on its doorstep.
The UN mission in Bosnia took urgent action this month to stop pushing back EU border Croatia on the border with Bosnia after a UN team injured 50 men who said authorities had pushed them back. their property when they tried to enter Croatia
According to the UNHCR office in Serbia and its partners, 25,180 people from Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and Romania were relocated to Serbia last year.
Kovacevic, a lawyer in Serbia, said that collective deportations were becoming more common after the EU և Turkey in 2016. More than one million people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia crossed the continent last year. The agreement called on Turkey to control the flow of people fleeing its territory to help large numbers of Syrian refugees in Turkey, as well as other incentives.
“All borders have introduced the practice of systematic violations of the ban on collective deportation,” Kovacic said. “But at least now in Serbia it has been officially approved not by a local or foreign non-governmental organization, but by the highest human rights authority.”
To hide any evidence of illegality, border guards regularly expose refugees’ cell phones or documents. In the case of Ahmadi և others, the clear evidence remained due to what Kovacic said was the “open arrogance” of the Serbian police, who “thought he could do what he wanted”.
It started on February 2, 2017, when 25 deportees, including nine children, were apprehended at the Bulgarian border and taken to a nearby police station in Serbia. They were kept in the basement for hours, then taken to a judge on charges of crossing the border illegally. The judge, however, ruled that the group should be treated as a refugee and taken to a shelter.
Ahmadi, who spoke to the AP from Germany through an interpreter, said he clearly remembered when the judge asked them if they wanted to stay in Serbia. He said he was glad that after traveling to Turkey and Bulgaria, they would finally find a place in the camp.
Ours later, inside a border police van that was supposed to take them to camp, Ahmadi realized something was wrong. “I felt broken when the police left them in the woods,” he recalled. “I was thinking about family at home.”
In the dark and cold temperatures on the field, the refugees walked to Bulgaria, directly into the hands of the border police of that country. They managed to call an interpreter in Serbia, who called the ombudsmen in both Serbia and Bulgaria.
The refugees remained in Bulgarian camps, some for days and others longer before returning to Serbia, then moving to Western Europe. The human rights activists later collected the documents left by the Serbian court to the Bulgarian authorities, finding out the clear traces of the cases that contributed to the construction of the case in court.
Four years later, Kovacic is trying to reach out to all the people he represents from Afghanistan. They are scattered in countries that include France and Bosnia. The blockade of the coronavirus made it difficult to establish a connection and arrange remittances for the damage they received, he said.
“It takes a little longer, but we’ll get there,” Kovacic smiled.
Ahmadi, who was granted asylum in Germany five months ago, said he planned to use the damage to help his wife start a new life in Europe. She is now taking German lessons before looking for a job.
“This compensation is very important to me,” he said. “I will be able to buy a bed և a small thing for our apartment as soon as we rent it.”