Bangladeshsi asylum seekers in makeshift plastic-sheet shelters in Bosnian forests
Bangladeshsi asylum seekers in makeshift plastic-sheet shelters in Bosnian forests Arafatul Islam/Deutsche Welle

The boy will hardly be eighteen or nineteen. His innocent face is streaked with weariness. As I fixed my camera bag, I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He was standing at a distance, silent. It was the last day of my three-day Bosnia trip and I had some snacks left in my car. I went up and handed him a chocolate, asking, "Trying to cross the border?"

"Yes," he replied. Then he explained that he had failed to enter Croatia and had to walk back 37km. He had nothing to eat on the way and was planning to look for food once he reached the camp in the forest.

I don't remember his name, but I have the picture I took of him. In those three days I met innumerable Bangladeshis like him in Velika Kladusa, Bosnia. They stay just 3km from the border with Croatia. Over 600 Bangladesh huddle together to sleep at night under a makeshift plastic shelter on the foot of a hill. Most of them are from Sylhet.

They do not appear to be from poor families. In fact, it is clear from their clothes and their mannerisms that they are from the middle class. On an average they have paid from Tk 1.5 million to Tk 1.8 million to come from Bangladesh to Bosnia, but now are stuck here. It has taken them months to reach here, for some it has taken years.

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From Bonn to Velika Kladusa

I travelled from Germany to Bosnia on 17 October to see the plight of these Bangladeshis. I returned on 20 October. That journey itself, during the coronavirus pandemic, was quite an experience.

German organisations are very strict about coronavirus restrictions and Deutsche Welle is no exception. But the issue of refugees is an important matter for this international broadcaster of Germany. So it wasn't difficult to get permission. The problem lay elsewhere. It is compulsory for foreigners entering Bosnia to test for coronavirus. The test has to be done 48 hours before entering the country, or else entrance is barred.

Yet in Germany they normally don't give the coronavirus test results before three days. However, they make exceptions in some case and I took that opportunity. Once I got the test results, I had 36 hours to reach Bosnia.

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It's about 1,200 km from Bonn in Germany to Velika Kladusa in Bosnia. I began my journey in the office vehicle, accompanied by colleague Anupam Deb. We would have to travel from Germany through Austria, Slovenia and Croatia to reach Bosnia. We were questioned by the border police for about an hour -- why did we want to visit? Where did we want to go? Who was with me? Will I return with whatever I was taking with me? After the interrogation we were finally allowed to enter, on condition that we return within the stipulated time.

In search of the refugees

Velika Kladusa is a small town with about 40,000 residents. As soon as we entered the town, I noticed many stray dogs roaming around, just like in our country. The town had no marking of being a well-to-do place. It was extremely cold. We had our dinner at a restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel.

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Bosnia is a Muslim-majority country and our sleep was broken with the call of azan. We started out early in search of the refugees.

I met a Bangladeshi who had been cruelly beaten at the border just a while back. His forehead was bleeding and the wound was so deep, bone was visible. There were marks of beating all over his body.

It did not take long to find the South Asian refugees -- Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Afghans to be more precise -- at one side of the town. I saw a few of them walking, heads bowed, down one side of the main street in this hilly town of western Bosnia. They were carrying yellow bags. When I asked, they told me that the refugee camp was not far. But there were more South Asian migration seekers outside than in the camps. There were a large number of Bangladeshis near the camp at the foot of a hill.

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Homeless and hapless

These persons at the foot of the hill were mostly quite young. There was hardly space for them to even sit straight in the plastic shelter, let alone stand. There was no electricity there, no water supply or latrines. They light candles at night and use a space in the forest as their toilet. They bathe and wash their clothes in a stream running by the hill.

They have to arrange their own meals. Some of them manage to get money from back home by various means. If they are sent 100 euros, they manage to get 80 euros. They use the money to buy rice and dal (lentils) from the supermarket and use firewood in the forest to cook. Not everyone can manage to bring in money so they plead and request for a share of the food or wait for help from international agencies or local people. International agencies sometimes, albeit rarely, hand them food, that too food which South Asians are not habituated to eat.

However, on the first day that we aired the news of this forest, I saw IOM and the European Union becoming quite active. The next day a few vehicles came up with sleeping bags and food for the 600 persons in the forest. Everyone got a sleeping bag. I realised this assistance was just temporary, but it felt good that at least they would be able to sleep in this biting cold.

They call this 'game mara', as if its sport or a gamble. Some play this 'game' four times before they manage to reach Italy, Portugal or France. Some can't even reach after 30 attempts. But they don't give up hope. They continue to spin the wheel of fortune

That afternoon I felt terrible. I had heard that the refugees and asylum seekers were beaten mercilessly at the Bosnia-Croatia border, but I saw instances of that cruelty first hand that day. I met a Bangladeshi who had been cruelly beaten at the border just a while back. His forehead was bleeding and the wound was so deep, bone was visible. There were marks of beating all over his body.

Ambulances and IOM vehicles came and took some of such injured persons away. Those seriously injured were given long-term treatment in camps run by IOM.

The European Union (EU) talks about human rights around the world, but on their own borders these asylum seekers were being tortured in this manner. It would have been difficult to believe had I not seen it with my own eyes.

There is a glimmer of hope as when the issue was brought to the attention of EU, they said that they will conduct an investigation into the matter. There is no provision for any asylum seeker to be beaten at the borders of the union. On the contrary, it must be determined whether the person is actually eligible for asylum. While this is being assessed, the asylum seeker must be given shelter in any EU member country. Broadly speaking, that is the rule. But the asylum seekers say that these rules are violated at the Bosnia-Croatia border.

Lured by a better life

I asked many Bangladeshis why they were opting for this dangerous route to go to Italy, France, Portugal and other European countries. For many, this was purely an economic matter. They were coming to Europe in the hope of a better life for themselves and their families.

In some cases they had been lured by human traffickers. Some said they had been implicated in false cases for political reasons and so could not remain in the country.

These persons sheltered in the Bosnian forest were desperate to enter European countries by any means. That is why they jump at the chance to cross the border, despite the risk of being beaten by police and attacked by dogs. They call this 'game mara', as if its sport or a gamble. Some play this 'game' four times before they manage to reach Italy, Portugal or France. Some can't even reach after 30 attempts. But they don't give up hope. They continue to spin the wheel of fortune.

Arafatul Islam is a Deutsche Welle correspondent. This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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