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They Came to Play Table Tennis. They Were Deported at Gunpoint in the Dark.

Thursday December 12, 2019
By Patrick Kingsley

Kenneth Eboh, left, and Alexandro Abia, traveled to Croatia from Nigeria to take part in a table tennis tournament.Credit...Magazin Zurnal Online, via YouTube

Two Nigerian students, in Croatia for a sports tournament, were mistaken for undocumented migrants. They were robbed of their money and clothes and expelled to a country they had never heard of.

VELIKA KLADUSA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — For two Nigerian competitors at a recent table tennis tournament in Croatia, losing was just about the high point of their trip.

Days after their defeat, the two men say they were arrested by the police, robbed of their money and clothes, and deported at gunpoint to a country they had never heard of.

The players, Alexandro Abia and Kenneth Eboh, had been mistaken for undocumented immigrants — the latest collateral damage in an increasingly aggressive campaign by European governments to prevent a repeat of the migration crisis of 2015.

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Even though migration has declined dramatically since then, the authorities across the Continent continue to tighten their borders, increase expulsions and, in places like Croatia, crack down violently on undocumented migrants.

Mr. Abia, 18, and Mr. Eboh, 29, say they were not intending to settle in Europe. They are both students at the Federal University of Technology Owerri in Nigeria. They entered Croatia legally in November to participate in an international sports competition for university students in Pula, an ancient city on the Croatian coast.

After being knocked out early in the tournament, the pair say they decided to make the most of their visa by visiting Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

On their last night, they were arrested by the police while on an evening stroll, and accused of entering the country illegally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country to Croatia’s south.

“We said: What is Bosnia?” Mr. Eboh said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “We thought they were joking.”

Migrants line up at a refugee camp in Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina,Credit...Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA, via Shutterstock

But the police were very serious. Officers refused to let the two men fetch their passports from their hotel. The next day, the police drove them to a forest next to the Bosnian border, forcing them at gunpoint to walk south into Bosnia alongside a group of Pakistanis, Mr. Eboh said.

“They said: ‘You go Bosnia, go, go,’” said Mr. Eboh. “I said: ‘Go where? I‘m not from Bosnia.’ But he brought up his gun and said he would shoot me.”

A representative of  for the Croatian Interior Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. The ministry has previously said officials do not know how the Nigerians ended up in northern Bosnia.

But the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations department that gave assistance to the Nigerians in Bosnia, reviewed the men’s documents and confirmed that their Croatian visas were valid until Dec. 3. Records provided by the tournament organizers show they both participated in the table tennis competition.

The incident has highlighted the often violent ways with which European governments have sought to avoid a repeat of the European migration crisis in 2015, when more than a million people made it to Europe without a visa.

Most traveled from Turkey to Greece, before heading to northern Europe via Hungary.

But a deal between the European Union and Turkey has persuaded Turkish officials to make it harder to reach Greece. In turn, Greece has placed greater restrictions on those hoping to leave its northern borders.

With Hungary erecting a fence along its border with Serbia, the primary migration trail north has shifted westward, through Bosnia and Croatia.

And to throttle movement still further, the Croatian government has employed a policy of violent nighttime deportations, seizing many migrants suspected of entering the country from Bosnia and forcing them back across the border without letting them apply for asylum.

In interviews in Bosnia this week with dozens of migrants, residents and aid workers, a consistent picture has emerged of migrants being beaten, robbed and deported without due process from Croatia to Bosnia.

“Whenever we ask anyone what happens, everyone says the same,” said Semra Okanovic, a Bosnian government doctor who works with Doctors Without Borders, a medical aid group, to treat wounded migrants in northern Bosnia. “They get beaten, their telephones broken, their money stolen. Some of them have their arms broken. Some say their clothes are stolen and pushed in the river.”

A third Nigerian, Sunday Awojobi, interviewed in northern Bosnia on Wednesday, said he had been deported in a similar fashion to the two table tennis players.

Mr. Awojobi had a visa valid until March 2020, and a stamp in his passport showed that he had entered Croatia legally on Nov. 9.

After an international outcry about their fate, the two table tennis players have been confined inside a government-run center in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, while the Bosnian and Croatian governments debate who should take responsibility for them.

Their mobile phones were confiscated, meaning they can only be contacted by the center’s landline.

“We have been locked up and it’s not fair — we are human beings,” said Mr. Eboh.

Mr. Abia added, “You have to take us away from here.”

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