Thousands of migrants are enduring a cold winter in northern Bosnia, unable to make it across the border to the EU. Stranded in Bosnia, they face hostility and attacks from local residents.
Forty. That’s the number of times Amim Hzam says he and his family have tried to cross the border between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia over the last two years. Hzam is just fourteen years old.
On one attempt, about a year ago, his mother and one of his siblings got through. But he and his father and two more children were caught by police and sent back to Bosnia.
The Iraqi family is among more than 8,000 migrants who have made often long and difficult journeys to Bosnia from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa in the hope of reaching the European Union.
But as it has become more difficult to cross the EU's external borders, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bosnia has become the end of the line – a cul de sac. Migrants like Hzam and his family have little hope of getting through to the EU states to the north and west of Bosnia to request asylum.
Now Hzam and his siblings are learning German. They get sad when their mother calls from Germany and she herself is in tears.
"I need mama, I need school, but Croatian police say: 'Sorry, go back to Bosnia'" Hzam said in a report by the Reuters news agency.
'We can’t go outside'
Many of the migrants live in tents in the woods or in houses and factories that were destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
Hzam's family is staying in a furnished house near the border town of Velika Kladusa, belonging to a Bosnian living abroad who agreed with a local charity to provide them with shelter. The family does not leave the house. They are too scared that they will be abused by locals who resent their presence in the village.
Zehida Bihorac Odobasic, a school teacher and activist whom the migrants call "Mother" said: "They are judged when they come out. These houses are actually their hiding places." Bihorac Odobasic helped to arrange accommodation and food for the family, bringing colored pencils for the children to draw.
Another migrant from an Afghan family of five staying in similar accommodation also said he was afraid of trouble from neighbors and police "We can't go outside, we just sit at home," he said.
Even Bihorac Odobasic has been attacked verbally and physically by locals for helping and defending the migrants. She says her complaints to police went nowhere.
Pressure on Bosnian authorities
Last November, UN human rights experts called on the Bosnian government to investigate a "smear campaign and death threats" against Bihorac Odobasic and bring those responsible to justice.
"Here and now we are witnessing an absolute violation of human rights," Bihorac Odobasic told Reuters in a forest tent camp covered by snow, where around 50 people were trying to get warm in sleeping bags.
The EU has repeatedly called on Bosnian authorities to provide accommodation to at least 1,000 people sleeping rough during the winter. Since early 2018, the EU has provided more than 88 million euros to help Bosnia manage migration.
This story is based on a Reuters report.