It’s another hideous irony of the moment. Thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their disintegrating country may now face the deadly consequences of another nation’s implosion.
Since Hungary completed its vast, militarized razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia, refugees and migrants seeking sanctuary in the European Union are having to contemplate alternative routes. Their desperation has already led hundreds to trek through cornfields toward the Serbian-Croatian border. But on the other side, they won’t just find the chance for easier passage toward Western Europe — they also risk walking through areas littered with active land mines.
The Balkan Wars of the 1990s, sparked by the unraveling of Yugoslavia, left behind tens of thousands of these devices, particularly in Bosnia and Croatia. In the latter country, there are reportedly more than 50,000 land mines in the ground, according to the Croatian Mine Center. As a result, 198 people have died and more than 300 have been injured in Croatia since 1996. (You can see a detailed government map of the dangerous sites here.)
“The current status of mine suspected areas in the Republic of Croatia amounts to 195,2905 square miles,” reports the organization, as cited by ABC News. This is spread across 10 counties, where “77 towns and municipalities [are] contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance.”
Aid groups and local migrant advocacy organizations are urging those contemplating this new route to stick to highways and avoid deserted fields, though that’s easier said than done, given the risks that many making the trek have already taken.
“We have already crossed so many countries, and our journey was so dangerous. We don’t mind crossing some more,” a teenage Afghan migrant marooned at the Hungarian border told the Daily Telegraph. “We can’t wait here for a long time. We have no information about the Croatian border – but if it is open we will go.”
Those who do make it into Croatia will either seek to move through Slovenia to Austria or enter Hungary — whose border with Croatia doesn’t have the same draconian controls as the one with Serbia — and continue through the central European corridor toward Germany. Hungary, led by hard-line conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has enacted emergency measures along its southern border with Serbia and started prosecuting migrants who manage to slip through the boundary fence.
The Croatian government has said it will help process refugees and migrants and guide them to places of safe transit, in a direct jab at its neighbor.
“Barbed wire in Europe in the 21st century is not an answer, it’s a threat,”said Croatia’s prime minister, Zoran Milanovic.
In 2011, Greece reported that it had cleared a vast tract of land in its Western Macedonia and Epirus regions of “explosive remnants of war,” or ERW, but a high-ranking military official admitted to a leading land mine monitoring group that it “was impossible to determine the extent of the ERW problem in other parts of Greece as there could always be some residual contamination.”
The horrors of the Balkan conflicts led to an international ban on land mines, which took effect in 1998. The United States, Russia and China are among a minority of United Nations member states that are not signatories of the treaty.