Abie Uchenna Alexandra and Kenneth Chinedu arrive in Zagreb Novembver 12m 2019. Image: Boris Gagic/Al Jazeera Balkans
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA (AL JAZEERA) - Croatian police have deported two Nigerian table-tennis players to Bosnia and Herzegovina, claiming they were in the country illegally, despite the pair having arrived in Croatia with valid visas.
Abie Uchenna Alexandra and Kenneth Chinedu, students from Owerri Technical University in Nigeria, arrived in Zagreb on November 12 to participate in the sport's World University Championships in Pula, according to Hina, the government-owned national news agency.
Following the table tennis tournament, they headed from Pula to Zagreb, scheduled to fly back to Nigeria via Istanbul on November 18.
The pair settled into a hostel on November 16 and the following day went to explore the city, reported the Sarajevo-based Zurnal. They were stopped by police as they got off a tram, and arrested as they were not carrying their documents with them.
"They took us to the police station. We tried to explain who we were and that we had left our documents in the hostel. They didn't pay attention to what we were saying," said Chinedu.
He said police officers then put them in a van and said they were "taking them to Bosnia". They drove the pair to the border, along with several others, and dumped them on the Bosnian side, near a forested area.
"I refused to go into the woods," said Chinedu. "The officer told me he would shoot me if I didn't move."
After being chased, they reached the Miral Camp near Velika Kladusa in Bosnia.
That was two weeks ago.
Legal stay in Croatia
Chinedu said they immediately contacted one of their fellow students who had stayed back in Zagreb, and asked him to send them their passports. However, they now faced a new problem: they were stuck in a camp and their Croatian visas were due to expire when they were due to get their flight home.
The students complained to representatives of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs the Miral Camp, where it was confirmed that the students had been staying in Croatia legally.
Dean Sinkovic from the Faculty of Economics and Tourism in Pula confirmed to Al Jazeera that the students were competing in the table tennis tournament, that they had visas and an invitation letter from the university.
Emir Prcanovic, director of the Your Rights Organization, which is currently providing legal aid to the Nigerian students, told Al Jazeera that the documentation from the Croatian consulate proves the students' legal status.
Alberto Tanghetti, a representative of the Inter-University Sports Committee and the organiser of the competition in Pula, said there were a total of five participants from Nigeria - four students and a professor - and confirmed they all had valid visas.
"The two students were participating in the competition, they had a Croatian visa, return plane tickets from Zagreb to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Lagos," Tanghetti said.
Hina, meanwhile, announced "the Ministry of Interior does not know how these students ended up in Bosnia", adding "their legal departure from Croatia has not been recorded".
Ranko Ostojic, an opposition leader who chairs the Committee on Internal Policy and National Security, demanded the police explain themselves.
The students were on Wednesday, December 12 transferred to a field office of the Bosnian Foreign Service in Bihac, reported Al Jazeera's Boris Gagic. After five hours, they were released, accompanied by police officers, and made no statements to the media.
It is understood they are being returned to the Miral camp in Velika Kladusa, where they are currently accommodated with refugees and migrants.
"Those people are victims of illegal acts of the Croatian side," said Dragan Mektic, Bosnia and Herzegovina's minister of security. "Respecting legal procedures, we now have to take them back to Croatia … It is obvious that they have Croatian visas, that they are in B&H illegally. From their statements, it is obvious that Croatian police forcibly displaced them and we have to bring them back there."