The New Balkan Route

Along the new migration route through southeastern Europe, migrants are beaten, stranded, and neglected, while the EU looks the other way.

The inside of the migrant "accommodation center" in Bihac, Bosnia. Federico Annibale

Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country in the Balkans, is one of the poorest in Europe. Since February, it’s been dealing with an unprecedented wave of migration. The so-called Balkan Route, used by migrants to reach Western Europe from Turkey and Greece, has changed. Previously, this route went across Bulgaria or Macedonia, then Serbia and Hungary, before heading toward Germany or Austria, depending on where people were hoping to end up.

However, Hungary, under Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government, has succeeded in sealing off its borders via heavy surveillance and police brutality against migrants. The route has thus shifted towards the south, crossing Albania, Montenegro, and then Bosnia, where thousands of migrants are now gathering.

Along with Massimo Veneziani of the Italian broadcaster Rai 3, I recently travelled across the new Balkan Route from Ioannina, northern Greece, to Valika Kladuša, the northernmost Bosnian town, close to the Croatian border. Ioannina is the capital and largest city of Greece’s northwestern Epirus region. The Albanian border is only an hour’s drive away, so all the migrants who want to travel from Greece throughout the Balkans start their journey from here.

Due to the Dublin III Regulation, which obliges migrants to submit their asylum applications in the first EU country they are registered, they do not want to be registered in the official Greek reception system. That would prevent them from seeking asylum in any other European countries. Thus, in Ioannina, they live rough on the streets or in abandoned buildings.

“Do you see that shell of a building? That used to be a nightclub. Now, it’s our house,” explains a Kurdish man named Bêcan. At thirty years old and together with three other Kurds, he has decided to set off on the journey to reach Germany. We enter the old nightclub. Two men are sleeping on the ground. What once used to be a dance floor, now destroyed in many parts, serves as a surface to sleep on for the numerous migrants heading towards Albania. “In the night here it is full of rats, and sometimes the police come to wake us up, or force us to move. Then we don’t know where to go and we come back here” says Bečan.

Just behind the nightclub is a deserted farmstead which is also used as a shelter. Bečan suggests kindly that it is not safe to enter, so we decide to go back.  We reach a large field next to the bus station. Among the tall grass, four people are sleeping on the ground, just a few meters away from the dying embers of a burned-out fire. “Last night the police wrecked their tents. Then, of course, they came back. They don’t know where else to go. Soon, we will all get to the frontier and cross the border into Albania,” adds the young Kurd.

Out of Turkey

The number of migrants arriving in Greece have declined dramatically since the EU-Turkey deal reached in March 2016. Under this agreement, the European Union promised Turkey €6 billion of financial aid to stop migrants crossing the sea to Greece and entering Western Europe. According to UNHCR data, in 2015 there were 856,000 sea arrivals; in 2016 this figure declined to 173,450; then to 29,718 last year. It seems like the downward trend will continue this year.

However, thousands of people are still crossing the Turkish border. Syrians, Afghans, Pakistanis, north Africans, and Iraqis are the largest groups. The official numbers do not include all migrants who reach Greece, since Dublin III pushes many to avoid being registered. All of these people soon find themselves travelling across the Balkans.

Before crossing into Albania at Kakavia, we stop in Kalpaki, twenty-seven kilometers from the border. “We see people walking along the road towards the border every day. Even families with small kids,” Katerina, a bartender who works in this little Greek town, tells us. The police cannot do anything, and the Greek authorities are more than happy if these people leave the country, since they will relieve the state of the need to support migrants.

On the border, we speak with a customs officer on his break. We tell him that we are investigating the illegal crossing between Greece and Albania. He points towards a tiny hill close to the border. “Do you see that hill? That’s where the different paths begin, and they all go to Albania.” he says with a sneer. We follow his advice, and we soon come across a small trail, climbing up into the ridge. It’s clear the path is used daily by people trying to cross the border. Nappies, UNHCR information leaflets, and food packaging are scattered on the ground.

After walking for twenty minutes, the GPS indicates that we’ve crossed the border and made it into Albania. The next thing we see is something that makes us turn and walk back into Greece: an Albanian police officer intent on arresting two illegal crossers.

In a May 2018 meeting with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama contended that the number of “illegal” migrants in Albania rose from just 162 in January 2017 to 2,3111 in 2018. If he’s to be believed, it’s proof that that the Balkan route has changed.

Kurz hopes that this new migrant track will be closed. His plan is to prevent people from irregularly crossing any borders within the Balkan countries. In this vein, he has pledged the European Union’s support to help Albania to improve its border controls. The aim of this policy is to eliminate all legal or illegal ways of reaching Europe; to raise higher political and physical walls around the European Union.

A bruise on a migrant’s calf. Federico Annibale

Kurz is now the chancellor within a political coalition of which the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has become an important part. During the 2017 Austrian elections, the FPÖ centered its propaganda on the fear of a “migrant invasion” and the supposed “Islamicization” of the country.

Tirana, Albania’s capital, is home to the only reception center for asylum seekers in the whole country. If migrants in Albania have no legal status, they cannot travel either by bus or by taxi. If police discover migrants in the border area, they immediately push them back into Greece; however, if they find them clearly within the national territory, they are brought to the center in Tirana.

“The police brought us here,” says Mohammed, standing in front of the entrance of the shelter in the capital. He comes from Morocco, and flew to Istanbul to start his long journey. “Others get a taxi from Kakavia. It costs a lot, but at least you get here, to a place where you can rest before going on towards Montenegro,” says Mohammed. Albania features high levels of state corruption. The authorities know about this taxi-trafficking, but they allow it to happen.

The center is closed, and we need permission to get in, so we wait outside to speak with some of the people travelling this new route. “We’ll stay here for another couple of days and then make our way to Montenegro,” explains another guest at the center for asylum seekers, a friend of Mohammed’s.

We leave Tirana in the afternoon, driving on to Hani i Hotit, the border between Albania and Montenegro. Here, the police are meticulous. They check every possible hole and compartment in the car. The Montenegrin authorities accuse the Albanian state of letting migrants cross the border too easily. In fact, for exactly the same reasons as the Greek authorities, Albania has little incentive to deal with people who can easily be sent on to next-door countries. For them, migration is a problem to be passed off to others.

Outsourcing Humanitarianism

This year saw the opening of the first and only reception center in Montenegro, thanks to European Union funds. The European Union is funding all those countries affected by this new coastal route. In particular, Montenegro has recently reached a €3 milion humanitarian delegation agreement.

The next morning, we drive to the villages close to the Montenegro-Albanian border. We arrive in Tuzi, a few kilometers from the border, and stop at a café. These villages are mainly comprised of ethnic Albanian populations; unlike the rest of the country, where most citizens are Christians, here there is a Muslim majority. Several mosques, with their minarets, stand out in the villages among tiny traditional Montenegrin houses.

We heard rumors that these holy places have served as shelters for large numbers of migrants, who crossed the borders by trekking through the mountains separating these two nations. “Yes, we’ve heard this too,” says a middle-aged man sitting in a café. “People come from the mountains and then follow the train track which connects the border to the capital, Podgorica.”

Alongside the railway tracks there is a carwash, where Dragan from Tuzi works. We ask him what he thinks about the journey that migrants make to reach Europe. “I don’t think it’s normal: I don’t think it’s okay. People should not do this awful journey. I have no words, no comment. I’m sad,” he replies.

Beneath a flyover, discarded rail passes, underwear, shoes, and empty water bottles indicate the migrants’ passage. Podgorica is only two hours’ walk away, and then from the capital, people travel on by taxi to the hospitality center situated in Spuž.

When we arrive there, a big group of fifteen Pakistanis are lying down in the shade under the trees waiting to be registered and thus admitted into the reception center. Migrants do not care if they are registered in Montenegro, since Dublin III does not apply outside the European Union. Registering here will not prevent them from asking for asylum in the European Union.

A taxi stops in front of the main door and three Moroccans get out. “They have just arrived direct from the border,” Shaid explains. Shaid is a twenty-three-year-old from Pakistan who crossed the border last night together with the other Pakistanis.

We ask him how he arrived there and to tell us about his trip up until Spuž. “We basically walked from Greece to here, except for short stretches when we took a bus or were taken in a police van. We are tired, dirty. But, if God wills it, we will get to Italy: Trieste,” Shaid replies calmly. Just as they did in Tirana, they will rest here for a few days, and then continue their journey to Bosnia.

Violence as Policy

The next morning, we are ready to travel onward to Bihac, a city in northeastern Bosnia. The Croatian border is only ten kilometers from here, and migrants gather here for a simple reason. From this part of Bosnia, Slovenia is closer, and the route to Trieste, Italy seems easier. However, the number of migrants living or staying in Bihac is increasing every day. An EU country, Croatia is implementing a robust border control strategy: its methods to cut off this route range from helicopters to night-vision binoculars and a huge deployment of police officers.

On the outskirts of Bihac, in front of the football stadium, an abandoned school is now used as an “accommodation center” for the hundreds of migrants stuck here. “This is the only building that the mayor has allocated to us to deal with this humanitarian emergency,” explains Adem, an employee of the Bosnian Red Cross, which is the official organization responsible for the building. “We started this intervention into the migrant situation here on April 23. Indeed, migrants started arriving here at the beginning of April. When they arrived, since they didn’t know where to sleep, they put up tents in the city center. That’s why the mayor decided to offer this half-ruined building, which is better than camping outdoors, but is still not halfway decent,” Adem declares frankly.

The building isn’t safe. Glass is missing from most of the windows, and the indoor staircases have lost their bannisters, posing the risk of a dangerous fall down the stairwell.

The abandoned school in where 300 people reside with the support of the Bosnian Red Cross in Bihac, Bosnia. Federico Annibale

“We know that the conditions are terrible, but we don’t have any alternatives. In the beginning, there were only forty people. Now, every week, the number increases by one hundred. Yesterday at lunch we distributed nine hundred meals. And what’s more, since last month we’ve been experiencing an increase in families, and we have fifty children,” continues Adem. The Red Cross is afraid that the number will increase considerably. In fact, during the summer, the migration flow tends to increase, thanks to the more favorable weather conditions.

We meet another Kurdish man who invites us to have a cup of tea in his room. His name is Javarin and he sleeps there with five other Kurdish people from Iraq. Soon the room fills up with other Kurds, and we start to talk about some of the rumors we’ve heard. “Is it true that the Croatian police beat the migrants who crossed the border?” we ask them firmly. “Yes, brother. This is true.” There are ten people in the room, and almost every single person has been beaten up, robbed by officers, or witnessed police violence against migrants. One man shows us a tablet with a damaged screen. “When they found me, they hit the screen with a rock,” he says.

“If they find a good phone, they keep it; if it’s a cheap one they destroy it or break the charger port of the phone with a knife, so people cannot use it anymore. They know we use our phones for GPS localization which helps us to find our way through the forest,” Javarin explains.

The morning before, an Iranian-Kurdish family was pushed back after having been beaten up by border police. “They still have bruises on their bodies.” We asked them if we can meet them. Javarin stands up and calls them from a neighboring room.

A middle-aged man comes in, his hand clamped against the small of his aching back to hold it straight. Very slowly and carefully, he sits down. His wife helps him, trying to minimize his pain. Their faces are sad and defenseless. After a few minutes their eight-year-old daughter joins and sits clinging to her mother.

“We were caught on the road, going towards Slovenia. When they found us they made us go with them into the forest” explains the father Sivan.

“In the forest, hidden from prying eyes, they start to beat me and my wife.” He shows us the bruises on his body: across his shoulder, on the ribs, the tibia. All the marks are still fresh. We asked about the daughter, hoping that somehow she hadn’t been there to witness the assault. “She saw everything,” responded the mother. “She was crying and then they threw water over her to make her stop.”

The police then robbed them of their money and broke one of their phones. “The other one was hidden in my underwear,” explains Sivan. Once the Croatian police were finished, they threw them back into Bosnia. “We escaped Iran because we were persecuted as Kurds. Our human rights were constantly violated, we thought we would find them here. We were wrong.”

We discovered that Sivan’s episode of violence was not isolated. While in Bihac, we spoke to at least fifteen other people who admitted to having been beaten up by the Croatian police. Similar to the brutality against migrants in Hungary last year, the Croatian authorities are trying to discourage border crossings through a deliberate and calculated use of violence. However, these systematic cruelties have never stopped the rational desire behind migration. When I asked everybody in the room if they were still going to attempt these dangerous crossings, they all replied, without hesitation, “Yes.”

At Europe’s Mercy

Europe’s goal is to tighten its external borders and protect the Schengen Area. This zone consists of twenty-six European countries which agreed to remove border controls among themselves and recognize a single visa policy. Schengen has guaranteed citizens of member countries near total freedom of movement. But it’s produced a stiffening of Europe’s external borders.

Illegal pushbacks are paired with constant human rights violations — usually perpetrated by peripheral countries, to keep responsibility as far as possible from Brussels. Borders represent a racist division: open for the free movement of capital and citizens of the West, closed for formerly colonized people or those who are simply not rich enough to get a legal visa.

It is crucial to remember that Croatia is an EU member state and its politicians sit in the European Parliament. The European Union as a whole has a clear responsibility for the violence perpetrated at its external borders.

The European Union is rapidly becoming engulfed by nationalist and racist political movements. Austerity has shifted the social burden of the economic crisis onto the poorest classes in Europe. Politicians used this period of deprivation to unite people against migrants. People who migrate are seen as deviants from a model of society imposed in Europe by a growing right-wing. At the same time, we lack a strong internationalized left which could stop this racist political drift.

Through all of this, migrants remain at the mercy of political contingencies. Without legal channels to Europe, they are left stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean or in ruined buildings in northern Bosnia. What is needed now is not more volunteers or NGOs at the borders, but a political solution. The humanitarian crisis is caused by a political crisis. Now is the time to cure the causes instead of the symptoms, and end the European Union’s cycle of neglect.