PLJESEVICA MOUNTAIN, BOSNIA – Their shoulders hunched against the bitter cold, dozens of migrants tramped towards Bosnia’s border with Croatia, trying to cross illegally into the EU along a route that days earlier almost claimed the lives of a similar group.
About 30 men, women and children, some dressed only in tracksuits, were late on Wednesday following a snow-covered route established by smugglers.
In an area frequented by wolves and bears, it takes them to the foot of the Pljesevica mountain from where they are directed to walk several kilometers through thick pine forest to a border crossing not monitored by Croatian police.
Some made peace signs, but most were in too much of a hurry to talk. Ali, a 26-year-old from Algiers, stopped briefly to say he was not afraid of the winter as a Reuters photographer measured the temperature at 10 degrees Celsius below zero (14 degrees Fahrenheit).
Even if they cross into Croatia, where they will hope to apply for asylum, most are likely to be returned to Bosnia.
Croatia denies accusations that its border police mistreat such migrants, though Croatian watchdog Border Violence Monitoring published a video on Sunday that showed armed police kicking refugees and illegally pushing them back into Bosnian territory.
On the same day, Bosnian rescuers saved two dozens migrants who got trapped in a snowstorm trying to cross the mountain, some of whom were badly frostbitten.
Bosnia, bypassed in 2015 and 2016 when more than a million migrants passed through the Balkans on their way to Western Europe, has since become a major transit country as other states, notably EU members Hungary and Slovenia, have sealed their borders.
More than 23,000 migrants, most from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran, have entered Bosnia since January. About 5,000 are now stuck there, as the cold winter and Croatian police make it virtually impossible for them to continue their journey.
“We have only one option to go to Europe, to cross these borders,” Wali Khan from Afghanistan told Reuters last week in the northwestern town of Bihac near the Croatian border.
Khan said he had been arrested by Croatian police three times and returned to Bosnia. “If there was peace in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t be here.”