The northwestern Bosnian towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, nestled at the very border with Croatia, have become a temporary refuge for some 5,500 refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty. They arrived via the so-called “Balkans route”, passing through Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, and are now on what they hope will be the last leg of their long journey.
Very few people will decide to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the vast majority will try to reach the European Union (EU) by crossing into neighbouring Croatia – braving unfamiliar, and often inhospitable, terrain and unwelcoming police on its borders. While a member of the European Union, Croatia is not a Schengen area country, but is eager to demonstrate its readiness to join the border-free area in 2020 by decisively protecting the EU’s external borders from irregular migration.
Owing to its mountainous terrain and underdeveloped road and rail infrastructure, Bosnia and Herzegovina had previously remained largely outside of the established refugee route. As Hungary erected impenetrable fences along its borders with Serbia and Croatia in 2015 and virtually choked off a key access point to EU territory, and Slovenia fortified its borders, people stranded in Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece gradually forged a new route to Western Europe – through Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The two countries share a 950 km long border, much of it on the so-called “green area” outside of official crossings. The porous border is not a significant obstacle for most refugees and migrants.
But in order to reach Italy or Slovenia, where the EU Schengen open border regime begins, they have to navigate an unfamiliar and challenging terrain through Croatia, lined with dense forests, fast moving rivers, and live minefields – a legacy of the wars from 1990s. The multi-day track becomes more dangerous in winter, as the heavy snowfall and low temperatures render the unmarked forest paths virtually impassable. Those who make it into Croatia are not welcomed. Instead, they are routinely denied an opportunity to seek international protection and are often violently pushed back by the Croatian police to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But even this combination of dangerous journeys and border violence does not deter people from making multiple attempts at what migrants and refugees ironically call “the game” – a risky undertaking that for some ends badly. At least 12 people died in the Western Balkans in the first ten months of 2018; most of them drowned trying to cross the border from Croatia to Slovenia. Dozens more died in other ways, including after being hit by trains or cars while walking in remote areas.
Amnesty International’s research that was carried out between June 2018 and January 2019 found that systemic and deliberate pushbacks and collective expulsions – sometimes accompanied with violence and intimidation – are a regular occurrence at the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among the 94 interviewed refugees and migrants stranded in the temporary accommodation camps in Bihać and Velika Kladuša, nearly all confirmed being returned from Croatia, often multiple times and after having been held in police stations deep inside Croatian territory, without due process and without access to asylum procedures. One third of those interviewed had experienced violence at the hands of the Croatian police. Many described how they were beaten and intimidated and had their documents and mobile phones stolen or destroyed in what appears to be a deliberate practice by Croatian authorities designed to deter and discourage future attempts to enter the country.
The 5,500 men, women and children currently stranded in Bihać and Velika Kladuša occupy defunct former factories without basic amenities. Limited capacity and resources, along with the political stalemate and institutional dysfunction that has paralyzed the country since the end of the war in 1995, mean that Bosnia and Herzegovina has been ill-prepared to provide adequate protection or living conditions to refugees and migrants. The conditions in the camps are below the standard and the people Amnesty International interviewed had serious concerns about their safety and security. Many of them spoke of inadequate hygiene and lack of hot water, insufficient food and difficult-to-access medical care.
Local authorities and the European Commission (EC) documented over 24,000 arrivals in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018, a marked increase from the previous year, when fewer than 800 people were recorded in the country. Most people had arrived from Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but also Algeria, Bangladesh and Eritrea. The arrivals, which peaked over the summer and autumn months, somewhat subsided over the winter. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are well aware that the number of people trying to cross into Croatia will gradually increase with each warmer day this spring. Moreover, the continued – and seemingly coordinated – pushbacks and collective expulsions from Croatia, but also Slovenia and Italy, to Bosnia and Herzegovina threaten to turn the country that is still reeling from a devastating conflict into a new crisis point.