Two Nigerian student table tennis players wrongly deported to Bosnia by Croatian police who mistook them for undocumented migrants had regular visas valid until 3 December.
Abia Uchenna Alexandro and Eboh Kenneth Chinedu, who arrived in Croatia on 12 November to participate in the fifth World InterUniversities Championships, had the right to remain in the country.
But police who stopped them in Zagreb on 17 November did not believe them and, without verifying their status, forcibly sent them to Bosnia.
The Guardian obtained an original copy of the visa issued by the Croatian authorities to Alexandro, who, like Chinedu, is a student at the Federal University of Technology Owerri in Nigeria. The InterUNiversities organisation confirmed Chinedu’s visa was also valid until 3 December, like all the Nigerian participants in the tournament.
The pair, both 18, left Pula for the Croatian capital, Zagreb, after the tournament and were supposed to fly to Lagos on 18 November. “The night before our departure, on the 17th, we checked out from the hostel and went for a walk in Zagreb,” Chinedu said in an interview on Wednesday. “Suddenly … we were stopped by the police who asked us for our identification documents. We tried to explain that our passports were in the hostel and that we had a regular visa, but they paid no attention to what we were saying.”
The officers allegedly mistook them for undocumented immigrants, put them in a van and transferred them to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina where, that day, Croatian authorities had gathered together a group of migrants who were intercepted as they were attempting to cross the country.
“I begged them one more time to check our status,” said Chinedu, “but they wouldn’t listen. They kicked me in the back and told me they would shoot me if I didn’t move.”
Last weekend they were transferred to an immigration centre in east Sarajevo where they are currently being held.
The plight of the two students has made the news around the world and sparked a row between Croatia and Bosnia.
“Those people are victims of illegal acts on the Croatian side,” Dragan Mektić, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s minister of security, told Al Jazeera. “It is obvious that Croatian police forcibly displaced them.”
Police in Croatia denied any wrongdoing and raised doubts over the table tennis players’ intentions, suggesting they were lying. According to the police, another Nigerian who participated in the championship had attempted to cross the border with Slovenia from Croatia a few days before.
“Police officers have already witnessed cases of individuals who make an attempt, even abusing their participation in sports competitions in Croatia, to remain in the country or continue their journey illegally to other European countries,” Croatian police said.
However, even after the mistake was evident, Croatian police claimed the two men intended to stay in Croatia and not leave.
The original copy of the visa, issued by Croatian authorities, contradicts the interior ministry in Zagreb’s version of events and confirms the two are the alleged victims of an injustice. If they had wanted, the two Nigerians had every right to remain in Croatia, as their visa was valid until 3 December.
The students are now begging authorities in Sarajevo to return them to their home country, but only on one condition: “If they take us back to Croatia, we want to have UN escorts with us. We will not go to Croatia without a UN representative. We are scared of the Croatian police after what they did to us.”