Refugees’ names in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Velika Kladusa, Bosnia – Broken phones and broken bones: these are the risks refugees are running in Bosnia as they attempt to cross over the border into Croatia, the EU’s newest member state.
In a warehouse near the town of Velika Kladusa, close to the Croatian border, most of the 200 people living here are trying to play “the game”, a term many use for the attempt to reach Europe. It is a game with high stakes and risks as a group of Iranian men living here well know.
Seven men are recovering from a beating, which they say happened the previous night. They say it was at the hands of Croatian police.
They spread out their phones in a line; the screens have all been smashed. One man winces as he pushes himself up to lift up his shirt. “Holy s***,” says Arash, one of the older Iranians who was not with them the night before and is seeing the injuries for the first time.
“They put them in the car one by one and were beating them really hard. They used sticks to beat them. They also kicked and punched them,” Arash says, translating.
Farhad, another Iranian member of the group, adds: “They said, ‘If you come back again I’ll kill you’.”
Croatia’s Interior Ministry has dismissed allegations of police brutality.
Representatives from Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials MSF) were unable to confirm that it was Croatian police who beat those trying to cross the border, but told Al Jazeera that the injuries are consistent with the allegations.
“We also regularly see patients with injuries varying from soft tissue injuries to sometimes fractures which are allegedly inflicted by Croatian border forces. These injuries are consistent with exposure to force on the specific body part and it is therefore possible that these wounds are inflicted as testified by our patients,” says Julian Koeberer, a humanitarian affairs officer with MSF.
This year, Bosnia has seen a surge of refugees and migrants passing through the country. According to data collected by UNHCR, there were 7,600 arrivals in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the beginning of the year until June, compared to a total of 218 in 2017.
A short drive from the warehouse, around 200 people are living in a field next to the local dog shelter.
Stray dogs and puppies roam around the field. Some people say they have sometimes come back to their tent to find a dog inside.
“It’s because we are like dogs, that’s what they think,” says Dalir, a Pakistani.
Most here keep playing “the game” even though they keep losing.
“Three times we were pushed back by police, they beat us and broke our mobiles and took a little bit of money,” says Hussein who is also from Pakistan.
The bruises and the beatings will not deter them though, they say they will try again “maybe tomorrow”.
Conditions in the field are poor and MSF, which works in the area, treats people from a mobile clinic.
Doctors and volunteers say that scabies and lice are common due to poor living conditions.
But their most pressing concern is the weather.
Winter is coming, temperatures are already dipping below zero at night and snow has fallen.
Locals say minus 10 degrees Celsius in winter is not unusual.
“Living conditions for most migrants in Bosnia remain horrific,” says MSF’s Koeberer, “most patients coming to our mobile clinic suffer from skin diseases caused by poor hygiene conditions and from respiratory infections due to cold weather and are unable to recover while remaining outside exposed to harsh weather.
“During the last weeks, our team already treated an increasing number of patients but with temperatures soon falling below five degrees and further at night … we expect severe cases of hypothermia and frostbite, with people’s lives at risk if not provided with safe shelter.”
The arrival of snow is worrying for all those on the ground.
“It’s zero degrees now, you have to rely on others to distribute food. As you can imagine, it’s not good for your mental health,” says Marc who works with No Name Kitchen, an organisation which provides showers for those living in the field in Velika Kladusa.
He adds that the constant pushback from Croatian police have a significant effect upon those living here.
“Maybe half of the time they are beaten up, their money is stolen, their phones are broken.”
The Bosnian people are good … but the camp conditions are very bad.
Near the town of Bihac, also close to the Croatian border, is the previously abandoned Borici dormitory.
The dormitory was built in the fifties and intended for war orphans; now around 1,000 migrants live here.
Men cook chapatis outside around a fire. According to the International Organization for Migration, the building is steadily being prepared for winter, but conditions inside are bleak.
It is dark, hard to walk through without tripping up and has the feeling of a squatter camp rather than an official facility.
“The Bosnian people are good … but the camp conditions are very bad,” says Ali from Pakistan.
He points to a dark cavern under the dormitory to show where he sleeps at night.
“They don’t have water to wash their face,” he says of people living there, “it’s very cold here.”
Most of the men express gratitude towards Bosnians and the Bosnian police who they contrast strongly with their Croatian counterparts across the border.
But snow and broken bones will not deter most from attempting to seek safety and economic stability.
Faisal, who comes from Pakistan and is living in the dormitory, rubs his hands together and coughs in the cold.
“I will always try to cross again,” he says.