Problems mount for migrants on new Balkan route into EU

Health issues and violence spiral as refugees gather at tightening Bosnia-Croatia border

Migrants take a shower in a makeshift tent camp in Velika Kladusa at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Photograph: Dado Ruvic

Migrants take a shower in a makeshift tent camp in Velika Kladusa at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Photograph: Dado Ruvic

 

International organisations say health and security risks are rising for a growing number of refugees and migrants trying to reach wealthy European Union countries via a new route through the Balkans.

After crossing overland from Turkey to Greece, they travel through Albania and Montenegro to Bosnia, which has registered more than 9,000 such arrivals this year – well over 10 times the number counted in 2017.

Some 4,000 refugees and migrants are now in Bosnia, the vast majority in northern areas near its border with Croatia, which has tightened patrols to try to stop them entering the EU and continuing towards Austria, Germany and beyond.

The route emerged following moves by several Balkan states to close their frontiers to migrants in March 2016, after more than a million people from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa crossed the region the previous year.

The main flashpoint on the new route is Velika Kladusa, a town of about 40,000 people on Bosnia’s border with Croatia, where some 1,500 migrants are now sleeping rough in increasingly squalid and tense conditions.

Stabbing and clash

A Moroccan man was stabbed to death there in a fight with other migrants in June, and another clash last week injured about 10 migrants. Reports of violent “pushbacks” on migrants by Croatian border guards are also on the rise.

Several hundred people are now living in fields near the frontier, where the summer heat is fierce and occasional downpours flood their camp with a mixture of rainwater and sewage.

A migrant shaves his friend in Velika Kladusa at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Photograph: Dado Ruvic
A migrant shaves his friend in Velika Kladusa at the Bosnia-Croatia border. Photograph: Dado Ruvic

Talks on opening an accommodation facility at a large site owned by local company Agrokomerc have dragged on for weeks, hamstrung by the fiendishly complex system of local, regional and national governance that has hobbled ethnically divided Bosnia since its 1992-1995 war.

“The situation [in Velika Kladusa] is quite dire,” said Peter Van der Auweraert, the representative of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bosnia.

“I hope the local authorities give us permission to open Agrokomerc. It will be an open centre but with social workers, food and security, so the situation there can be controlled . . . It is very urgent,” he told The Irish Times on Sunday.

Muslim conspiracy claim

Bosnia’s response to the growing crisis could also be hampered by the approach of national elections in October, as parties try to make political capital out of the issue by blaming rivals and shunning co-operation: nationalist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, for example, has refused to accept migrants in his region and called their arrival part of a conspiracy to boost the country’s Muslim population.

Bosnian officials have discussed deploying the army to guard the country’s borders and trying to close them completely to migrants – a task that Mr Van der Auweraert described as “virtually impossible”.

Some 1,150km to the southeast, Médecins Sans Frontières said this week that it was stepping up its efforts “to meet the growing medical needs” of migrants crossing the Evros river from Turkey into Greece.

More than 10,000 people have entered Greece that way so far this year – several thousand more than during the whole of 2017.