‘We eat tobacco, drink shampoo’: Overdosing for asylum in Europe

Asylum seekers trying to enter the European Union via Croatia are deliberately ingesting dangerous substances, including powerful opiates, in the hope that police will take them to hospitals rather than illegally deporting them. Many are travelling with young children in tow.

Croatian authorities have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years for the violent treatment of asylum seekers during “pushbacks”, an illegal practice in which people are deported before they are allowed to apply for asylum. Hundreds of migrants and refugees are stranded just over the Croatian border in northwest Bosnia and have tried to enter the EU dozens of times to lodge an asylum claim.

Asylum seekers hope medical distress will trigger a hospital visit, and a chance to make their claim. They explain, however, that it is mainly women who ingest the substances – which include opiates, painkillers, sleeping pills, cigarette tobacco and even shampoo – because a sick man is unlikely to elicit any sympathy from the Croatian police. An ill woman, they say, may touch officers’ hearts.

“I went to Croatia for asylum [with my family], and I took four Tramadols,” a 38-year-old mother of three from the Kurdish region of Iran said via a video message sent to Al Jazeera from an abandoned house in Hadžin Potok, a Bosnian town less than two kilometres (about a mile) from the Croatian border. She declined to give her name out of shame at having taken drugs. An ordinary dose of Tramadol, an opiate that can cause severe and sometimes fatal breathing problems, might be one or two pills.

“[The pills] made me feel very sick, [and I had] dizziness and nausea. But when the police arrived they still pushed us back to Bosnia,” she said. “I had to take these tablets because of my children, so we can leave this country and go to Europe.”

This woman and other asylum seekers in Hadžin Potok showed Al Jazeera the stashes of Tramadol they use “on the game”, the term refugees use to describe an attempt to cross borders. Others living in the same area say they have also eaten cigarette tobacco and drunk shampoo, which many judge to be safer than ingesting opiates.

‘For the sake of my family’

People’s faith in this dangerous tactic is buoyed by stories of women like Ferhana*, who swallowed the contents of a cigarette last November in the Croatian forest while “on the game” with her husband and children.

“My heartbeat slowed down [and] I was out of breath … My body was numb. I could only hear sounds [but] could not react,” the 33-year-old remembered, communicating via text message from Munich, where she, her husband and their two young daughters now live as asylum seekers. She says she has long had a heart problem that required her to get an angioplasty upon arrival in Germany.

A refugee sits by a fire inside a tent in a makeshift camp in a forest near Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 31, 2021 [File:Reuters/Dado]

About 30 minutes after eating the cigarette, Ferhana says she lost consciousness. She woke up some hours later in a hospital in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

“Even now my body trembles as I remember those days,” Ferhana explained, but says what she did was “for the sake of my family.” After a month in quarantine in a Croatian camp, they were able to travel to Germany, though her daughters, aged five and seven, are still “terrified” of police officers.

It is difficult to pin down how many people try this tactic, but asylum seekers of different nationalities and living dozens of kilometres apart tell similar stories of using controlled substances in a desperate attempt to trigger the asylum process.

The Danish Refugee Council, one of the main migration organisations operating in Bosnia, said in an email to Al Jazeera that its outreach team, which includes Red Cross medics, had heard “anecdotal reports” of such overdose tactics, but “did not have data available to share”. The International Organization for Migration, which runs several of the country’s refugee camps, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

‘Everyone here takes Tramadol’

Asylum seekers say they buy Tramadol from local pharmacies, other refugees, and everyday Bosnians on the black market for as little as 2.25 euros ($2.65) for 20 tablets. Tramadol normally requires a prescription, but refugees say they easily buy it without one. About a dozen asylum seekers named the same pharmacies where they get the pills.

Foreign volunteer medics in Bosnia report high usage of powerful drugs among migrant populations generally to treat physical and psychological pain.

“I would judge 95 percent of adults here take Tramadol or other pain medications,” said a German paramedic, referring to a small village where some 200 asylum seekers, most of them Afghan families, live in abandoned houses. The volunteer asked that her name and the location be withheld because it is illegal for her to provide medical services without a Bosnian license.

“Guys as young as 15 or 16 are taking these pills, and I have seen children under 14 with overdose symptoms from sleeping tablets,” the volunteer added.

Left: A package of Tramadol, a powerful opiate, asylum-seekers living in the village of Hadžin Potok showed to Al Jazeera, and right: An unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan demonstrates how asylum-seekers tear open cigarettes and consume the contents to induce medical distress [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera]

“Everyone here takes Tramadol,” said one Afghan man in his twenties living in the village the paramedic mentioned. “We take it when the Croatian police hit us, so we don’t feel the pain.”

One 17-year-old girl living in a nearby house says her father sometimes takes Tramadol for pain while “on the game”.

“He has to carry my brother because he is four years old and can’t walk the whole way,” the girl, the eldest of seven children, explained.

Instead of knowingly overdosing on Tramadol “on the game”, asylum seekers in this encampment say they swallow cigarette tobacco with a sip of water, causing them to vomit repeatedly. Excessive vomiting, they hope, will prompt a hospital visit rather than a pushback.

A desperate attempt

“People will do anything to get to Europe,” an unaccompanied 17-year-old Afghan boy put it simply.

On a cold morning last December, Asal*, a 32-year-old Afghan mother of two, took the same gamble.

The pills were her idea, said her husband, Osman*, also 32, recalling that he pleaded with his wife to reconsider, reminding her that their children, aged seven and nine, needed her. But Asal was sure this was the only way the family could reach Croatia.

For 10 euros ($11.76), she bought a pack of 10 powerful sleeping tablets at a local pharmacy. Neither she nor Osman could remember the medication’s name or the dosage.

Before dawn, Asal, Osman, their children and Osman’s 70-year-old father, who has chronic breathing problems, crossed through the forest from Bosnia into Croatia alongside three other Afghan families with young children.

Not long after they crossed the border, Asal took eight of the 10 tablets, Osman recalled. The other women in the group did not take any medication.

Migrant families from Iraq and Afghanistan stand inside an abandoned house where they live in the village of Hadžin Potok near the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on January 12, 2021 [File: Reuters/Marko Djurica]

Asal’s memory of that day is poor. But Osman remembers that less than an hour after his wife swallowed the pills, her skin turned yellow, her eyes became glazed and heavy and her head drooped to one side. The couple’s children started to cry because they did not understand what was happening to their mother.

On previous attempts to cross the border, the family had always encountered police in the spot where Asal took the tablets, and they hoped the police would soon come, find Asal in a bad state, and take everyone to the hospital. But this time the police did not show up.

Soon Asal was in extreme distress. She was screaming “‘Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!’” her husband recalled, and her skin was “like hot water”. She managed to walk one more kilometre (0.6 miles) after taking the pills before she collapsed, unconscious.

‘Go back to Bosnia!’

“Like dead. Finish,” Osman said soberly of his wife’s condition. The group decided to keep going. There were no police around, and if their luck continued they might make it to a refugee camp for families in Zagreb.

So they did the only thing they could, alone in the middle of the Croatian forest with no promise of help. The four men in the group took it in turns to carry the unconscious woman, who weighed about 60kg (132lbs), on their backs.

A few kilometres south of the Glina river, Osman said, Croatian authorities caught them. Asal was still unconscious, slumped over with her tongue hanging out. The officers’ only comment on her physical state was, “‘No problem. Hajde [“Let’s go” in Croatian],’” her husband recalled.

The group was brought back by car to Bosnia at approximately 10pm, and as the families were returning over the border they had just crossed that morning, Osman said the Croatian police shot their guns in the air threateningly, shouting: “Go back to Bosnia!”

When Al Jazeera met Asal in June in Velika Kladusa, one of the main towns in northwest Bosnia, she was herself again; a kind, mild-mannered woman. The family’s spirits, however, were low: July marked their 10th month in Bosnia.

Nearly every day this summer, Asal’s elderly father-in-law walked the two kilometres (1.2 miles) from their home, an abandoned house with no electricity or running water, to the Croatian border, alone, to ask the border guards for asylum. Sometimes he carried a plastic grocery bag with a few clothes, sometimes nothing at all. For months, he returned each day to the house, about an hour later, with the same answer.

Until one day in July, out of the blue, the authorities let him pass. The old man crossed the border in a worn pair of sandals and with only a change of clothes to his name. He now waits alone in a Zagreb refugee camp for the rest of his family to join him – but just when that will be is anyone’s guess.

*Names have been changed to conceal the identities of the people who spoke to Al Jazeera.