Croatian police open fire on migrant smugglers as new crisis looms

Croatian police open fire on migrant smugglers as new crisis looms
Migrants near Hungary's border with Serbia in 2015; the closure of the main route via Serbia and Hungary has led to the opening of new paths across the Balkans.
By bne IntelliNews May 31, 2018

A new migrant route has opened up in the Western Balkans, with Bosnia reporting that almost 5,000 illegal migrants have arrived since the start of this year. 

Police in the village of Donji Srb on Croatia’s border with Bosnia opened fire on May 31 when a van apparently driven by people smugglers refused to stop. Several of the 29 passengers were injured, including two children, while the smugglers managed to evade capture. 

Croatia is the main entry point to the EU on a new migrant route that has opened up in the Western Balkans since the closure of the main route across the region in 2016. Migrants from the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly using the new route from Greece via Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina to EU member Croatia. 

It was created after the original Balkan route, which ran from Turkey, Greece via Macedonia and Serbia, was closed in 2016, when people smugglers turned to alternative routes through the region where borders were less closely guarded.

Bosnia is now at the centre of a looming new migrant crisis. Ministers are due to meet in Sarajevo next week to discuss how to respond after Security Minister Dragan Mektic announced on May 29 that 4,870 illegal migrants had entered the country since the beginning of 2018. 

This doesn’t compare to the hundreds of thousands of people who travelled through the region in 2015, on their way to Germany and other West European countries, but the rising numbers of arrivals have put pressure on Bosnia and other countries in the region that are ill equipped to cope. 

This is part of a wider picture. In a statement on May 16, the European Agenda on Migration said the situation on the continent “gives no cause for complacency”. 

“While joint EU efforts have continued to show results, the situation remains fragile due to ongoing migratory pressure, as evidenced by newly increased arrivals along the Eastern and the Western Mediterranean routes,” said the report. 

“While the situation has overall stabilised along the Western Balkan route, increased movements through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina have been reported in recent months,” it added. 

The Western Balkans are one of three routes into Western Europe along with the Central Mediterranean (where arrivals have fallen sharply this year) and the Western Mediterranean route, where numbers are growing. In addition, the report published by the European Commission said that “arrivals from Turkey have seen a significant increase since March 2018 both to the Greek islands (9,349 since the beginning of 2018) and via the land border (6,108 so far in 2018 – nine times more than during the same period in 2017).”

Struggling to cope

Reports from Bosnia say migrants are sleeping in parks in Sarajevo and other cities, as the authorities simply don’t have the resources to cope with such a large number of arrivals. Sarajevo has already announced plans to increase the number of police officers on Bosnia’s borders along with other measures. 

The pressure this is putting on the authorities is also adding to the already tense relations between central, entity level and regional governments in the country that faces fraught elections later this year. 

In mid-May, police in the Herzegovina-Neretva canton (HNK), which is dominated by ethnic Croats, stopped buses transferring migrants from Sarajevo to an asylum centre in the southern town of Salakovac. Mektic responded angrily to the move, calling it a “coup attempt” by the Croats. 

The migrant situation was also the pretext for yet another attempt by authorities in Republika Srpska, led by the Serb entity’s President Milorad Dodik, to assert their independence vis-a-vis the central government. Dodik has announced that no refugee asylums will be established in Repubika Srpska and says Bosnia’s borders should be shut to migrants.

Unless the government manages to resolve the situation, the migration issue is likely to continue to erupt periodically with the approach of the October elections, in which Dodik recently confirmed he will stand for the state-level presidency. 

Most of the migrants in Bosnia want to cross over the border into EU member Croatia. Zagreb doesn’t publish data on migration, so the situation in the country is hard to gauge, though local NGOs claim migrants who cross into the country are immediately returned to Bosnia. The NGO Are You Syrious (AYS), which was founded in 2014, says Croatia sent back more than 3,000 migrants and refugees last year and many more this year. 

“How many people have to die or be seriously injured before someone is held accountable for the violence at Croatian borders?” the organisation wrote on its Facebook page after news of the shooting on May 31.  

“People have the right to ask for international protection in Croatia. They are stripped of this right on daily basis. In the end, they turn to smugglers who might seem as the only option to them. This is EU's responsibility. This is Croatian responsibility. The government must act to end the violence and provide a safe way to ask for asylum in the EU.”

Amnesty International also claims that “Refugees and migrants entering [Croatia] irregularly were returned without access to an effective asylum process.”

Meanwhile, Montenegro is mulling plans to build a razor-wire fence on some points of its border with Albania to prevent the rising number of migrants passing through the new Balkan route to the EU countries. Podgorica would have the support of Hungary, whose own razor-wire border fence almost entirely blocked irregular migration from Croatia and Serbia; the Hungarian government has already said announced that in the event of a new migrant crisis, it will donate barbed wire to Montenegro.