‘We were almost in Europe,’ says Hamit (16) from Syria, “Just before we wanted to cross the border, the Croatian police got us. They took us back to the border with Bosnia in a blinded van. There we were handed over to masked men. We had to get out of the van one by one, they took all our money and wrecked our phones. Then they started hitting us. Three of my friends managed to run away, but I fell. While they were hitting me they said: go away, go back to Bosnia.”
Only this year, the crossing to Europe killed more than 2000 people. Also within Europe, borders are being locked down. Crossing the borders in Europe, ‘The Game’ as migrants call it, is becoming harder and more dangerous. But anyone who wants to apply for asylum in Europe, is forced to play the game.
Now the border between Serbia and EU member Hungary is sealed tight, the route has been shifted to the border of Croatia. Thousands of migrants are currently stranded in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the poorest country in Europe. Most of them are located in the border towns of Bihac and Velika Kladusa, in the northwest. Hamit is one of the hundreds of unaccompanied children who are surviving here, on the threshold of the EU. They are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, among other countries. They are often on the road already for years, looking for safety and a better life.
In anticipation of their next attempt to cross the border, they camp out in tents and squats, without water, electricity, heating or sanitary facilities. No one wants to stay. Winter is coming, and it can hit -20 degrees around here. So every evening groups of people find the courage to play ‘the game’ again. Hamit wants to try again soon as well. ‘Of course I’m afraid, but what choice do I have? I can’t go back to Syria.’
To travel onwards to the European Union from here, the minors have to cross very dangerous grounds. Landmines from the Balkan War are still scattered around the no man’s land, and there are bears, wild pigs and wolves. Moreover, Croatian border patrol is notorious. Almost everyone has a story about assault. Anyone who is detained is put across the border without any form of process. These ‘pushbacks’ are illegal, but happen on a large scale.
The ‘game’ takes place in the shadow of the night. It’s around a seven-day walk, over the mountains and through dense forests, to the border with Slovenia. They hardly ever sleep, supplies often run out. With help of their GPS the children try to reach the other side. But the rules of the game change constantly. Even children who reach Slovenia are send back, handed over to Croatian police who in turn puts them across the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Game over. Who dares again?
Text: Eefje Blankevoort