As Corona spreads, Refugees Hit the End of the Road on the Balkan Route

Stray dogs walk the dirt road to the migrant camp in Velika Kladuša, Bosnia, on the border with Croatia. Passed a precarious bridge, a canine shelter is visible first. Puppies cover the trail, obstructing cars as they trot along obliviously. There are ten kennels with roofs and space to roam, but dozens of dogs lie around outside.

Beyond the kennels is a self-organized camp where human beings do their best to make a home. There are no roofs—makeshift tents are scattered across the mud, which is covered in garbage. On the ground, fire pits contain heaves of burnt plastic and aluminum. Walking in, a group of men roll out aloo paratha, Pakistani bread. They make dough in a bucket, roll it out on an aluminum sign, and bake it over an open fire.

There are mostly men here, except for an Afghani family: a husband, a wife who wears a thin blanket as a hijab, and a four-year-old girl who kicks a plastic ball and smiles. Some are fleeing war and political persecution while others have left ethnic violence and poverty.

Still the people here manage to relax in their tents, play chess, and share small talk despite the fact that they all need something. Some don’t have shoes and others don’t have blankets. There are about 1,000 migrants living here and hundreds more in settlements around town, but no one knows how many migrants there really are in Kladuša. The number has continued to grow since Turkey opened their border.

Early the morning reporters and aid workers arrive, 80 men try to cross the border and are stopped by Croatian police, which has occurred along this border for months. Although Croatian authorities deny all violence against refugees, migrants consistently say police lined them up, beat them with batons, broke their phones, and stole their money.

Hours later they welcome Westerners. In a tent under a Bosnian flag, an Afghan refugee tries to give volunteers and journalists mandarins, biscuits, coffee, and tea. After hearing stories from aid workers about migrants killing ducks with stones for food, most people don’t take what he offers. Yet welcoming guests appears to give refugees some dignity, an uncommon feeling in the stasis and terror of their transient lives.

Inside another tent where a group of Pakistani relatives are living, a young man has a swollen, bloody lip, and injuries on his back and legs. The floor is covered with blankets in an attempt to make the tent feel like home. They walked to Bosnia through Iran, Turkey, and onto the so-called Balkan Route of immigration.

This proverbial path to prosperity began in earnest when Syria’s war forced millions of people out of the country. While the Route was considered “closed” when Serbia and Hungary tightened their borders, migrants remained hopeful that the Route would lead to asylum in the EU. They have continued to come to Bosnia, trying to get to the EU through Croatia to Slovenia, and, until recently, Italy. New people arrive every day, only to find a barricade of Croatian police.

Thin slashes cover migrants’ faces, including a young boy’s. A man walks with a makeshift cast on his foot. It’s not only the Croatian police migrants have to worry about. Mines from the civil war in Yugoslavia, which ended in 1995, are scattered across the forest. The conflict’s legacy is not just present in the UXOs, it can be felt in the kindness of the Muslim locals. After being converted to Islam by the Ottoman Empire and enduring a prejudice-fueled civil war, Bosnians remember what it’s like to be confronted by ethnic and religious violence.

Kalam Abul knows this feeling also. He is a Rohingya Muslim from the Rakhine region of Myanmar, where the Buddhist military has been killing the religious minority and pushing them across the border to Bangladesh, in what the United Nations has called ethnic cleansing. “They burned my house,” Abdul says. His eyes are swollen red, like he hasn’t slept in days. He is extremely soft spoken and astoundingly clean.“I lost everything,” he says repeatedly. “I have nothing. I need to save my life.” After the junta murdered Abdul’s wife and children, he fled without any idea whether his mother, father, sisters, or brothers were alive.

At a camp in Bangladesh for three months, Abdul left on foot, spending 25 days walking through India and Pakistan, and a month in Iran. Through Turkey, he and his Rohingya companions made it to Europe. Leaving Greece, where he tried to apply for asylum, Abdul began the Balkan Route. Arriving at the camp, he fears more violence—the arduous journey has met a dead end. For migrants the only way to achieve residence in the EU, where it is illegal to push back refugees seeking asylum, is through the hostile Croatian police. There are many reasons why Croatia, and Europe at large, don’t want to absorb refugees. They are well-documented in the press and brought up frequently by politicians. Few of the migrants are educated, and many are not stable. Fears about crime and radical terrorism loom large. So do concerns that migrants will get assistance from the European social security system without earning it, or at the expense of EU citizens.

Now there is the threat of Coronavirus. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people to the disease, and the tight living quarters of camps are conducive to its spread. Many believe it is imperative to treat refugees as citizens in order to stop the spread of the virus.

There are around 7,000 refugees currently in Bosnia. Most are ignored. Now NGOs are warning that even the most basic support structures are being stripped over Coronavirus concerns. There is no certainty for the future. Even when the virus clears up, if a migrant makes it passed the police they are confronted with the rigorously uncertain asylum process where bureaucracy, courts, and relived trauma await them. Most will remain here, stuck at the road’s end—the camp in Velika Kladuša, Bosnia.

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Ryan Beitler is a journalist, writer, and blogger who has written for Paste Magazine, The Slovenia Times, Addiction Now, OC Weekly, AI Time Journal, New Noise Magazine, and many more.

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