VELIKA KLADUSA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Hisham and Said seemed close to reaching Italy, their dream destination, when Croatian authorities caught them and deported them this week back across the border to Bosnia, which is outside the European Union.
In shoes caked with mud and seeking medical aid at a migrant camp, the two men are among the first migrants to have reached the northern Balkans since Turkey said last week it would no longer try to keep migrants on its soil in return for EU aid.
Hisham, a 24-year-old student, and Said, a 26-year-old construction worker, told of how they flew from Morocco to Turkey, then managed to evade increased Greek border security and cross into EU territory.
“We crossed the river from Turkey into Greece when there were no Turkish border guards,” Hisham told Reuters at Bosnia’s Miral migrant camp in Velika Kladusa, near the Croatian border.
They followed the ‘Balkan route’ toward the EU taken by more than a million people during the 2015-16 migrant crisis, which strained Europe’s security and welfare systems and boosted support for anti-immigrant and eurosceptic parties.
“We walked, took trains and buses all the way to Zagreb,” he said, adding he had wanted first to reach Slovenia, a member of the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone, and then Italy.
Hisham said he was beaten by Croatian police and fears he has a broken arm. Croatia has routinely denied accusations by migrants and rights groups of mistreating migrants.
His tale underlines how difficult it will be to keep determined migrants out of the EU despite tighter border security and a more hostile political climate in Europe.
Greece said on Thursday it had repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross from Turkey in the past week and plans to deport hundreds who made it through.
Croatia said this week it was considering deploying troops along its hilly, heavily forested border with Bosnia, which is one of the EU’s longest external frontiers.
The United Nations’ migration agency IOM said up to 10,000 migrants daily could start arriving in Bosnia en route for the EU if migrants move en masse from Greece, a number the impoverished country would struggle to handle.
Bosnia currently houses some 5,000 migrants in eight overcrowded camps run by the IOM. Some 2,000 others are believed to be staying in rented rooms or abandoned houses.
Aid workers expressed concern about increased pressure on food and medical supplies in Bosnia’s camps, where men, women and children sleep in rickety bunk beds in cramped, often windowless rooms.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian civil war and says it cannot take in any more, opened its border with EU members Greece and Bulgaria last week after a renewed upsurge of fighting in Syria’s Idlib province.
“There’s no option to go back to Syria,” said Syrian art student Waiel Devi, 38, a resident over the Miral camp for over a year. “I’m looking for a country that can protect me.”
The Moroccans have also not given up hope of reaching the EU.
“As soon as I recover, I will try again,” said Hisham.
Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Gareth Jones