Refugees on new Balkan route stuck in limbo

With the former "Balkan route" closed, more and more refugees are trying to make their way into the EU via Bosnia, where many end up stuck in a muddy tent city. Amir Puric reports from Velika Kladusa.

The camp outside of the city of Velika Kladusa in Bosnia and Herzegovina is growing every day. Its inhabitants: men, women, and children taking the new Balkan route as refugees in search of safety and security in Europe. Here their lodgings consist of improvised tents at best, but more often than not, the only "roof" over their heads is a thin plastic tarp supported by sticks. 

When it rains, the camp gets particularly bad: wet tents and mud everywhere. "This is not a refugee camp," Kasim from Pakistan said. "It was good in Serbia. We had food and received clothing and good tents there. Here, we have nothing."

Changed route

The former "Balkan route" used to lead from Greece through Macedonia and Serbia to Croatia or Hungary. Since early 2018, however, there has been a new route. Because the Serbian border with EU countries is practically impassable now, refugees are trying to reach Croatia via Bosnia and Herzegovina instead.

They are currently concentrated in two areas in the west of the country: in Velika Kladusa and Bihac. So far about 3,500 refugees out of a total of roughly 7,000 who came to Bosnia have been registered there. They have managed to make it to the gates of the European Union. Croatia is only one more hike away and when they get there, they want to continue north as soon as possible.

The makeshift tents in Velika Kladusa do little to protect against the elements

Six months ago Kasim left his home for Europe, crossing through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Now, in Bosnia, he's waiting for a chance to continue. A truck driver in Pakistan, he explains in good English that he left because he feared for his life. He says the Taliban are still very active in the border region where he's from; violence is a part of daily life there.

Beaten and robbed - by police

Right now, most refugees arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina come from Pakistan, according to the Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic. In his opinion, however, most of them have left their country for economic reasons, not so much because they are threatened.

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The men at Velika Kladusa's camp disagree. The Taliban, the army and great uncertainty come up in many of the refugees' stories. Most of the refugees from Pakistan are men. Families, on the other hand, come predominantly from Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq.

Haji made it to the camp with his wife and two small children. For two months now they've been on the road from Mosul, Iraq – a place, he says, where it won't even be possible to live 20 years from now. His goal is to reach the EU, although he no longer knows how the family could get there.

Read more: Refugee numbers in German down dramatically in 2017

Croatian police and thieves stole all their money in Bosnia, he tells DW. And then, when he and his family tried to cross the border, Croatian police also took his cell phone and 1,000 euros (1,166 dollars). To him, the officers are worse than the fighters of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Haji put his finger on his temple and said: "IS kills you. That's better than ending up with nothing." Finally, a Bosnian smuggler cheated Haji and his family: he took the money, but did not take them across the border.

A group of Syrians from a nearby tent tell a similar story. They, too, were beaten, robbed and sent back to Bosnia by Croatian police in a failed attempt to cross the border.

'Utter chaos' on the horizon

In the cold winter months, locals cooked for the migrants and welcomed them into their homes. Now both towns have set up temporary migrant shelters, but the state refuses to fund them.

Migrants in these centers receive one meal a day – and that only thanks to the donations of citizens and the help of the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations.

"We need two to three thousand euros a day to be able to keep up our work here," says Husein Klicic of the local Red Cross. "We are on the very edge of what is possible. And if we withdraw, this place will erupt into utter chaos."

Parliament members have announced a protest in the capital, Sarajevo, if the state does not send help as soon as possible.

Mohammed from Syria
The Kurdish English teacher fled the war in Syria and now has to deal with chaotic circumstances at the train station of Gevgelija, a small town in Macedonia. He wants to be registered here so he can continue to Serbia via train or taxi. He knows where he wants to end up and asks: "When you are in Germany, can you work in English, too?"
Zaman from Morocco
The man with the friendly laugh has already lived in Athens for four years - without papers. "Police there are really racist, though," he says. That's why he has joined the refugees. Even though there's no war raging in his home country, he wants to cross the border to Serbia close to the Macedonian village of Tabanovce. "I hope to find an honest job and an honest life in Germany," he says.
Ahmad from Iraq
"Our country has a big problem with the 'Islamic State.' The terrorists slaughter everyone they can get their hands on," the 17-year-old says calmly. He has traveled through Bulgaria, where he says police beat and robbed him. In Belgrade, he is now sleeping in the open, waiting for a bus heading north. "We want to go to Germany. You can lead a safe life there," he says.
Mohammad from Afghanistan
The two-time father is recovering in an improvised aid center in Belgrade. Like everyone else, he paid a trafficker for the crossing from Turkey to Greece. "But our boat capsized. My whole family was in the water for an hour before the Turkish coast guard arrived." Mohammad is glad that they are all still healthy.
Milad from Syria
"Everyone in Syria knows that Assad is killing innocent people," the 27-year-old IT expert from Damascus says. That's why he's waiting for "the Pakistani" in the northern Serbian town of Subotica. The man is supposed to bribe the Serbian and Hungarian border police and take Milad and his parents to Germany for 4,500 euros ($5,160). "I want to go to Frankfurt. I have relatives there," Milad says.
Falat from Afghanistan
The 25-year-old describes his situation at home in simple words: "Bad situation, every day war." He's also waiting for his trafficker in Subotica. The entire trip will cost him about 5,000 euros ($5,740). The Hungarian border fence? No problem. "We will go to Germany for sure. That is a good country that accepts refugees," Falat says.

EU: No refugee camps at the border

Local politicians are particularly concerned that it's hardly possible to establish the identity of the refugees, as they often no longer have any documents or may provide false information during registration. Officials from Sarajevo are trying to calm their minds. There are, however, no signs that crime has increased, says Dragan Lukac of the federal police, adding that the security situation is under control.

Meanwhile, the Bosnian government has announced that it will set up a refugee camp in an abandoned factory site in Velika Kladusa, complete with heated tents and regular food supply.

But there is resistance from local authorities, who fear that this will become a permanent setup. The EU has also signaled that it will not finance a refugee center directly on the Bosnian-Croatian border. Security Minister Mektic is outraged: "What's the problem? Such a thing already exists at the Serbian-Croatian border in Sid. Why not here?"

Pakistani refugees in Bosnia: Despite the difficulties, they're not giving up

Waiting for a chance

For the refugees who are currently staying in the improvised camp outside Velika Kladusa, the new arrangement would be an improvement, especially if they have to stay in the city until fall. But hardly anyone actually intends to do that. "No border can be closed completely. You can also get into Hungary. It is possible," says Kasim. "If I had 2,500 euros, I'd be in Italy or France in two days."

For now, the refugees remain close to the border and hope to be able to move on soon. Campfires are made as night falls. Evenings can get cold here, and most people are watching the dark clouds in the sky with concern. "When it rains, all hell breaks loose here. It's unbearable," says Michael from Nigeria, fleeing into his makeshift tent, where he spends the night dreaming of someday leading a normal life in Europe.

Date 03.07.2018
Author Amir Puric