UNA-SANA, Bosnia and Herzegovina – There is an unfinished farmhouse in the hilly northwest corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, just about a kilometre down the road from the Croatian border. It lacks proper windows or doors, but it has a roof and exposed-brick walls that provide at least some relief from the freezing Balkan winter.
Inside, Noruz, a father from Afghanistan, wakes up his wife and their four daughters, aged five to 15. It’s 4AM and he’s lit a fire so they can defrost their gloves and boots and try to soak up some last bits of warmth before setting out on their gruelling trek into Croatia. They have enough food for ten days, even though they know this leg of their journey is unlikely to last that long.
“Be careful tonight,” he warns one of his young daughters as he zips up her puffy jacket all the way to her chin. “We can’t make any noise, we have to walk silently and slowly.”
What Noruz wants to be cautious of lies on the other side of the border. He knows because he has already attempted this trip four times, and four times the Croatian police have pushed him back into Bosnia.
It’s been more than a year since this family left Iran, where they had spent years living as refugees with few rights. They crossed the border to Turkey, then traveled across the country and then by smuggler’s boat to the Greek islands.
After seven months in a refugee camp on the island of Chios, they set out on foot through three more countries in the Balkans before arriving here to the Una-Sana canton in Bosnia. The family wants to get somewhere in northern Europe where they can get asylum, but first they have to get across Croatia.
“We have to go that way,” Noruz said motioning north. “No matter how many times it takes.”
Once everyone is standing and bundled up, the family of six sets out. At first Noruz illuminates the ground with a dimly-lit phone screen for his youngest daughter, but after a few hundred metres he puts it away and clenches her hand in his. They leave the main road for a dirt path as the world around them turns pitch black.
The trip Noruz and his family are making has been commonly referred to as the “Balkan route”. Popularised in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants used it to get from Greece to countries in northern and western Europe where they sought asylum.
The route has changed many times since, starting in September 2015 when Hungary, led by the fiercely anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban, tightened its border with Serbia. After protests on the border in which Hungarian police fired water cannons and tear gas at would-be asylum seekers, the flow of people redirected to the west to Croatia.
I witnessed those first moments when refugees and migrants crossed from Serbia into Croatia. The Croatian police, knowing that thousands of weary travelers were headed their way, showed the kind of hospitality that people in this region are famous for. Croatia’s prime minister at the time said his country was willing to “accept and direct” the refugees through his country.
That was more than five years ago. Today, according to Abid Ali, a 33-year-old migrant from Pakistan stuck in Bosnia, the Croatian police, “kick us around like a football.”
We met in the Lipa camp, one of the few official camps in Una-Sana where around 1,000 refugees and migrant men are temporarily housed. He welcomed us into an army tent that had become home to him and 40 others, most also from south Asia.
Abid Ali showed two places on his head where he had recently received nine stitches from one injury, and 14 stitches from another, that he said were caused by beatings by the Croatian police. He said that during his 18 attempts to cross into Croatia that he had been robbed of personal items like phones and money, and even had his clothes and shoes removed and lit on fire so they were forced to return to Bosnia barefoot and underdressed.
The other men inside the tent all had similar stories of abuse and mistreatment by the Croatian police, although few wanted to speak openly about it because they knew that soon they would be going back into their hands.
This process of trying to cross into Croatia and avoid detection is something people here call “the game,” because, says Abid Ali, “sometimes we lose and sometimes we win.” But for human rights groups the practice of pushing back refugees and migrants without considering a case giving them a chance to apply for asylum, is not playful, it’s illegal under international, European and Croatian law.
The Danish Refugee Council has gathered more than 21,000 reports of pushbacks by Croatian police since May 2019, and together with seven other non-governmental organisations called for the EU to establish an independent monitoring mechanism to investigate the claims.
Croatia has mostly denied the pushbacks and said it would launch its own investigation into the NGOs’ findings.
The changing attitudes of authorities in countries like Croatia, is also reflected among many in the local populations.
When refugees and migrants first started traveling through the Balkans in large numbers, there was no shortage of empathy and support from locals. This was, after all, the former Yugoslavia and during its break up in the 1990s the region was the arena to one of the world’s most violent conflicts in recent decades. More than 100,000 people were killed and millions were displaced.
When the refugees came to town, it wasn’t uncommon to find local people knocking on their neighbours’ homes, some still scarred from the fighting more than 20 years earlier, to collect donations for the passersby.
But as time went on the dynamics of those coming through the region changed. Whereas most were people fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, today a large number are fleeing non-conflict-related hardships in countries in south Asia and north Africa.
“There is no aggression against Pakistan, Morocco, Iraq isn’t at war anymore,” said Fikret Draganović, a resident of the town in Bihac, the biggest city in Una-Sana and a hub for migrants and refugees passing through the region. “There is no end [to the flow of people], we want it to stop.”
Four months ago, Draganović and other local residents protested authorities who wanted to house refugees and migrants at an abandoned factory not far from his home. The group came out to protest and the authorities pulled back. To ensure they don’t attempt to come back the locals have gathered in protest every day since.
Another neighbour, Hatidža Mureškić, disputed claims they were anti-migrant, but that her community wasn’t set up to handle such a large number of people.
“We aren’t fascists, we don’t have anything against the migrants,” Mureškić said, adding that her problem was with the European Union and Greece, which allowed the migrants to travel through the Balkans. “They literally allow them to run us over so we’ll be forced to move, and we won't accept it.”
Vanja Stokić, a Bosnian journalist and editor of the site eTrafika, which focuses on marginalised groups including migrants, says opinion is changing as the crisis enters its fourth year in Bosnia.“[Locals] simply the way things go back to the way it was before the immigrants.”
Stokić also accuses local media, including a number of new anti-immigrant websites, of stoking the anti-immigrant flames in the country. She pointed to reports that have said Islamic State fighters in the refugee camps, or that immigrants have committed rape and murder. “But if you ask police about these cases they know nothing,” Stokic said.
“Whatever happens immigrants are to blame. It’s the easiest thing because they can’t defend themselves.”
Hours after leaving Noruz and his family, we received a message that the Croatian police had caught them and forced them back to Bosnia. Their fifth failed attempt.
But even though they had been stopped five times, they would keep trying. And despite the pushbacks and stories of abuse, the data shows that, eventually, they will probably make it.
Since 2018, the UN says that at least 70,000 refugees and migrants have passed through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Today, the number in the country is less than 10,000. With only a few hundred repatriations, that means that the overwhelming majority of those who came through Bosnia, eventually made it out of the country and to their destinations in the European Union. “The game” would probably pay off, but they would have to keep playing.
A few days later we received another message from Noruz. On their sixth attempt the family made it deep enough into Croatia and were unlikely to be returned to Bosnia. They had completed another step on their journey and were being held in a reception center for refugees.
But even as Noruz makes gains for himself and his family, he grapples with the difficult decisions he’s taken to get here.
“It’s not logical that I’m risking their lives because I want to give them a bright future,” Noruz said. “I hope this path will have a successful end.”