BIHAC, Bosnia — Ahmed and his friends had hiked for days through the snow, sleeping in the forest by day and walking for hours every night, when they saw a police car approach on the winding, mountainous road. They’d barely crossed into Croatia when things turned violent.
“We hid in the trees beside the road,” said Ahmed, 30. “But then two men got out of the car and started shooting and yelling at us.”
The police forced the nine Palestinian men into a van and drove them to a secluded spot where a small stream marked the border between Croatia and Bosnia. “They took our money and broke our phones,” Ahmed recalled. “Then they pointed the gun at me and said, 'Move' [...] I was afraid to be hit on the head and faint and die from cold.”
The group was physically pushed into a stream, then told to run until they were back across the border in Bosnia.
The border here might mark a separation between Muslim-predominant Bosnia and Catholic Croatia, but for refugees and migrants escaping war, persecution and poverty, it signals the doorstep to the European Union, and a chance at safety and maybe even economic well-being.
“People in Europe think refugees are bad, but given a chance we will prove ourselves,” said Wali Khan, a translator from Afghanistan. He’s tried to cross the border into Europe three times, and each time he has been met with violence.
“If it wasn’t for the problems in Afghanistan, I would not be here. My only dream is to bring my daughters to Europe so they can study and graduate,” he said.
Once among the most heavily trafficked routes for migrants and refugees seeking asylum in the EU, the Balkans have largely been viewed as a dead end since 2015, when the border of Serbia and Hungary was sealed off by barbed-wire fences. But the flow of refugees never completely stopped; it just moved south. And recently, people like Ahmed have been trying a new route through Bosnia, with the hope it will bring better results.
In 2018, 24,067 migrants and refugees were recorded in Bosnia, up from 755 the year before.
In the face of this influx, Croatian police are resorting to fear and violence to stop people from entering, and acting as a sort of front guard for the greater EU.
This is not a mistake but rather a cornerstone of the EU’s de facto policy, said Bodo Weber, a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a research and advocacy organization. By preventing people from entering its borders, he explained, the EU is washing its hands of any responsibility for their safety while shifting the burden onto non-EU members.
“Keeping as many asylum seekers away from EU territory, by tolerating the profound undermining core values of the EU — human rights and the rule of law — has turned into the core of the EU policy,” Weber said.
The Croatian government denies using violence to keep migrants out, but organizations like Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, and a coalition of grassroots NGOs have all detailed systemic violence perpetrated by the country’s police against refugees and migrants. And while 22 EU Parliamentarians have called for a full investigation, the EU has yet to act on the allegations, instead pledging nearly $7 million to Croatia to further reinforce its borders.
Roughly 4,500 refugees are now are biding their time in Bosnia’s border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, and that’s straining the country’s limited resources.
To cope with the demand, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is funded mostly by the EU, turned abandoned factories and schools in these border towns into emergency housing.
People no longer have to sleep on the streets, but conditions inside these makeshift camps are bleak: Thousands of men, women and children live massed together, with little access to basic services like clean toilets and showers, often forced to queue for hours for a bowl of soup and a piece of bread.
Still, refugees continue traveling through this route.
“From a migrant's perspective, this is an open route,” said Peter Van der Auerwaert, IOM’s head for the region. With a deadly Mediterranean to the south and barbed-wire fences to the north, for many this is the only route, even under the specter of police brutality.
In the Mediterranean, for example, the death rate for people attempting to cross has risen from one in 42 to one in 18. According to UNHCR, the cause of this spike includes the EU’s partnership with the Libyan Coast Guard, who returns people to Libyan camps where they are subjected to ‘unimaginable horrors’, and the criminalization of NGO rescue ships by countries like Italy and Malta.
Experts warn the dire conditions in Bosnia could transform into a full-blown crisis when the weather warms and the number of migrants traveling through Bosnia spikes again.
“It can potentially turn into a bottleneck, with thousands of migrants and asylum seekers being stuck,” said Weber.
Already, the burden on Bosnia can be felt. “Informal camps are now becoming formal, long-term solutions,” said Andrea Contenta, an independent researcher focusing on migration. “And when emergencies become permanent, exceptions become the norm,” he said, referring to living conditions in camps like Miral and Bira, where thousands of people live in cramped quarters.
Karolina Augustova, a researcher and volunteer with No Name Kitchen, a local NGO, said the setup of these camps was now a legacy of EU’s closed-door policy. She warned that the state-sponsored violence on the border coupled with the EU’s silence, was increasingly pushing refugees toward criminal smuggling networks.
“More restrictive borders give so much power to smugglers” she said. Facing deep snow and violence on the border, refugees are now paying smugglers exorbitant funds for a good chance at Europe. The price of passage to Italy, for example, went up from 2,500 euros to 3,500 euros in December, Augustova said.
For some, even the chance of being smuggled into Europe is out of reach. Jano, a 25-year-old Kurd from Syria who fled the war one day hopes to start a new life in Germany, can’t afford a smuggler and has been stuck in Miral camp for several months: “I am very tired of this life. We are like prisoners here,” he said.
Last time he and his friends tried crossing the border, the Croatian police beat them so badly that they still carry the scars on their bodies.
“I will not give in, but the truth is I am afraid,” he said. “We fled our country because of war and then the Croatian police came and beat us. Is this justice?”
Megan Iacobini de Fazio is freelance journalist based in Rome. Photography by Matteo Trevisan.
Cover: A young migrant from Afghanistan in the street of Bihac. During the winter the temperature goes below the zero most of the times. Bosnia, Bihac, September 2018. Matteo Trevisan for VICE News.