Prokop (Bosnia-Herzegovina) «All of us want to go to Italy» explains 25-year-old Abdul Qayum, a former Afghan policeman, as he washes himself bare chested in a stream running through the fields. A dozen aspiring refugees huddling around the railway tracks in north-west Bosnia nod when they hear the word ‘Italy’. Together with a few hundred migrants living rough in the hills, they are trapped in a no-man’s land between the country’s Serbian and Muslim territories. The Republika Srpska wants nothing to do with them and loads the migrants arriving via the Balkan route onto buses to be transported over to the other side of the Bosnian Federation who, in turn, send them back. The result is an attack on a feeble Bosnian police line along the railway by some one hundred angry migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. To the cry of «Allah o akbar» they outwit the agents, disappearing into the forest.

Then, a few of them block the road in protest. The police charges, causing the migrants to disperse into the corn fields. Qayum points out: «We only want to play the game» as the illegal route to reach Italy across Croatia and then Slovenia has been renamed. Currently, Bosnia is an explosive reservoir counting some 7000-8000 migrants. «Every year 10,000-12,000 migrants arrive through the Balkan route and we estimate 90% get through. The Covid lockdown caused a bottleneck in spring. Now we are experiencing a backlash» explains Nicola Minasi, the Italian ambassador in Sarajevo. The «game» takes about ten days on foot, when the Croatian guards don’t intercept the migrants, often beating them badly and sending them back to Bosnia. The Afghan leader however reveals that «if you have 4,000 Euros the local smugglers will drive you to Trieste or Udine».

A trusted source in Sarajevo confides that «some migrants become traffickers. If you want to cross the border, the Afghani network is one of the most reliable». And it extends all the way to Milan where fellow countrymen having arrived from Bosnia await, offering assistance and a bed. «In truth they keep them captive and ask for a ransom from their relatives who might be wating for them in another European country, then they let them go» our source reveals. The Balkan route’s springboard to Italy is Bosnia’s north-western canton, bordering with Croatia.

The population of the main city of Bihac is exasperated. They feel the government has abandoned them. «Migrants go home» is their watchword following a rise in crime, fear of the pandemic and the increase in arrivals through the Balkan route. On 29 August thousands of people gathered in the main square where the red letters on a large billboard read «Stop immigration». There is also a photo of migrants with tents, camp-site style. The title, «Tourists?» is provocative. Speakers take to the stage, their nationalist speeches exploiting the protests in view of the November administrative elections as the hammering notes of Balkan rock blare in the background. Among the public there is also a veiled woman clapping vigorously. «The European Union is hypocritical. It must understand that illegal immigrants aren’t the only ones who have rights. The local population also has them» attacks Aldijana Munjakovic, a Bosnian ‘pasionaria’ who accuses the foreigners of 4000 crimes. The main request is to shut down the reception centres decided a few hours ago in Sarajevo. Ipsia is an NGO affiliated with the Christian workers’ association operating in the Bira centre in Bihac itself and housing 550 migrants. An Italian aid worker denounces the hunting down of migrants «with beatings and intimidation». She believes that «the only solution is to open the borders making no distinction between those who are fleeing from war, poverty or climate change». The result is that tension increases, migrants are left to themselves in the streets, in forests, or in abandoned factories for example in the outskirts of Velika Kladusa. A gateway to hell where some 200 people, who arrived here from Algeria and Bangladesh, live in miserable conditions. Many are ravaged by drugs. Tarek from Bangladesh explains «that many suffer from cholera, vomit and diarrhoea». Mice scuttle amongst the rubble of the former factory with makeshift small tents and straw beds. A rage against the entire world is palpable in this circle of hell. A time bomb punctuated by attempts to reach Italy. The rendez-vous is at half past one at night, after stocking up on bread, cans and water. Idris from Algeria, a rucksack on his back, gathers his small group: «Seven kilometres on foot to reach Croatia. And then the game begins until we reach Trieste».