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As Winter Arrives, Thousands of Migrants Are Trapped in Bosnia

BIHAC, Bosnia and Herzegovina — His right arm was swollen and badly bruised. He didn’t so much walk as shuffle because of injuries to his legs that, like those elsewhere on his body, he said were inflicted by Croatian police batons.

Grimacing from pain and exhaustion as he staggered back into Bosnia last month after yet another fruitless effort to sneak across the border into Croatia and enter the European Union, Aman Mutani, a 23-year-old from India, muttered the words that European leaders these days long to hear.

“There is no hope,” he said, tears of despair and shame welling in his eyes. “I am going home.”

With anti-immigrant populists on the rise across Europe, and even the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in retreat from her open-door refugee policy, Europe’s long struggle to reconcile political reality with human sympathy for desperate people has come to an end in the forested hills along northwestern Bosnia’s border with Croatia.

Croatia denied reports by rights groups and aid workers of brutality.

Mr. Mutani and thousands of others mostly came to Bosnia from Serbia, which offers visa-free entry to Indians and, until recently, Iranians. Serbia had been the main jumping-off point to the European Union for migrants and refugees traveling the so-called Balkan Route through Greece and the former Yugoslavia.

But Serbia’s northern border with Hungary has been sealed by a fence since 2015, and its northwestern frontier with Croatia is also now closed. So the flow has moved into Bosnia.

The country is poor and dysfunctional but, unlike its neighbors, was initially relatively welcoming because so many of its own people were themselves refugees during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

So far this year, Bosnia, which, like Serbia, is outside the European Union, has recorded the entry of more than 23,000 refugees and migrants, many of them single men from Pakistan and Afghanistan, compared with 758 last year. Many have spent months, sometimes years, to get there, and now must either risk crossing into Croatia, camp out in the town of Bihac and another border town, or give up and go home.

With unseasonably warm weather giving way to a cold and snowy winter, aid workers warn that migrants trapped in Bosnia risk exposure and even death. The International Federation of the Red Cross said conditions were deteriorating rapidly, adding to pressure on migrants.

The Red Cross said it was “extremely concerned by reports of violence against people trying to make their way into Croatia,” adding that first aid teams in Bihac were treating 70 people a day, many of them for injuries sustained while trying to cross the border.

At least 700 people have reported “violence and theft by law enforcement officers” during summary expulsions from Croatia, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe said recently, voicing alarm at the “allegation of systematic violence.”

Peter Van der Auweraert, the chief of mission in Bosnia for the International Organization for Migration, which is working to feed and shelter thousands of migrants now bottled up in and around Bihac, said that he did not know the extent of any violence by Croatian police. But “there are certainly enough pictures and reports to warrant an international investigation,” he said.

Croatia’s Interior Ministry said it strongly rejects accusations made by people who, by passing borders illegally, “are violating a whole series of national and European regulations.” It said checks of all “verifiable” accusations “showed them to be incorrect” and part of a campaign to discredit Croatia.

The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm in Brussels, declined to comment on whether it had looked into accounts of brutality and whether the reported violence was in part the result of its demands on member states like Croatia.

While denying police officers on the border use force, Croatia’s interior minister, Davor Bozinovic, said in an October letter to the Council of Europe that the European Union had in June instructed member states to “take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to counter such movements.”

He added: “In the majority of cases, those persons are not refugees in need of international protection, but economic migrants.”

Nobody in Europe, except for a few far-right extremists, is openly advocating violence as a solution to the continent’s migrant crisis. European Union officials, while calling for tighter border controls, stress that migrants and refugees must be treated humanely.

But Europe’s overriding goal these days is to get the numbers down. The bloc’s border agency, Frontex, reported last month that “2018 is on track to see the lowest number of illegal border crossings since 2013.”

Part of the answer to how Europe slowed what in 2015 seemed an unstoppable tide of refugees and migrants lies in the near-impenetrable border fence built by Hungary. The country was an early champion of keeping desperate foreigners out and increased controls along borders.

But the answer also lies in the broken spirits and bruised bodies of people like Mr. Mutani.

Defeated by fatigue and pain, stripped of his last money and his cellphone by Croatian border police and robbed of his passport by a smuggler who abandoned him in the woods, Mr. Mutani said he had decided to ask the Bosnian office of the United Nations to help him get back home to his village in Kashipur, a poverty-stricken area of eastern India.

“I give up,” he groaned. “No humanity here.”

Like most of the thousands of bedraggled people now sheltering in Bihac, the scene of horrendous fighting during the war that engulfed former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Mr. Mutani never had any real hope of being offered asylum in Europe.

He is not a refugee fleeing war but a migrant fleeing poverty in India. And with sympathy on the wane across Europe for even genuine refugees, who enjoy extensive protection under international law, throwing the door open to economic migrants like Mr. Mutani is not an option for any elected government that wants to stay in power.

Efforts by the European bloc to deter economic migrants from coming — like beefed up controls of its “external border” — have mostly just shifted, not stopped, the flow.

Pledges of extra development aid to help poor countries brighten their people’s future and deter them from leaving for Europe will take decades to have any impact. As a result, each European country has been left to find its own forms of deterrence.

Croatia, a democratic, mostly Catholic country, has been governed since 2015 by a nationalist party that honors convicted war criminals who engaged in ethnic cleansing during the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia and has played down the multiple crimes of Croatia’s Nazi puppet regime during World War II.

Croatia is also pushing for admission to the European Union’s border-free Schengen zone and is thus under pressure from Brussels to show it can keep its borders secure. So deterring illegal entry, migrants and groups that help them stay, has often meant violence.

“No one is content with such state of affairs in Europe,” said Mr. Bozinovic, the interior minister.

Increasingly, that includes the people of Bihac.

“I don’t want them here, and they don’t want to be here, either,” said Suhret Fazlic, the town’s mayor, cursing Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban, as a “fascist” whose anti-immigrant policies had left Bosnia struggling with the consequences.

The sudden flood into Bihac, the mayor said, has destroyed his picturesque town’s tourism industry, which relies heavily on visitors from the Arab world who now worry about being mistaken for illegal migrants. One visitor, he said, had been picked up by city police by mistake and dumped in a decrepit, foul-smelling refugee shelter.

Recently, the Bihac police force started sending dozens of officers to the railway station each night to meet migrants getting off the train after a journey of eight-and-a-half hours from Sarajevo — not to welcome them but to lead them gently but firmly onto buses for a long, bumpy ride back to the Bosnian capital.

“One by one, the countries of the region have closed their borders such that the migrants are now funneled into Bosnia, practically a failed state,” said John Farebrother, a British aid worker and author of “The Damned Balkans: A Refugee Road Trip.”

Remira Gorinijac, a Bihac volunteer with a charity group called Solidarnost, said that anti-immigrant activists and local media outlets had worked tirelessly to turn residents, who are mostly Muslims and often former refugees, against migrants, spreading fake stories about rapes and other crimes.

“Most people want to help but they are frightened,” she said.

The increasingly hostile mood in Bosnia and the fear of being beaten across the border in Croatia has so far done little to halt what migrants in Bihac call “the game,” a daily and increasingly dangerous venture into Croatia across mountains just a mile or so from the center of town.

Having spent thousands of dollars paying smugglers and having made the arduous trek to get this far, most migrants say that turning back is not an option, no matter what the risks.

“We know we are illegal,” said Faraz Khan, a 26-year-old from Pakistan who said he had tried four times to sneak into Croatia and been beaten and robbed twice by police officers. “We all know that. When we run across the border in the forest, we know that this is not right This is not human. Forget whether you are Christian or Muslim, but why do this?”

Unlike Mr. Mutani, he said he would keep trying. “This is my last chance,” he said.

The International Organization for Migration has opened three facilities to house the migrants, one in an abandoned orphanage. Among the 800 or so migrants now sleeping mostly on filthy, concrete floors in the wrecked orphanage, there is only one woman, Julie Meya, a 33-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She wants to get to France.

She came to Bihac with three sisters but they recently gave up and left.

“All of us here have the same goal — to live better. Why do they treat us like animals?” Ms. Meya said, referring to the Croatian border guards.

She acknowledged that she had no real claim for protection as a refugee but said she had no future in the slums of Kinshasa, her home country’s capital, so she had to take a chance at getting to Europe.

“Why should the rich all stay rich and the poor just get poorer?” she asked.

Source: NYT > World

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