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New Routes To Western Europe Take Migrants Across Minefields

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Migrants and refugees en route to Western Europe are looking for new paths that could take them across very perilous ground - minefields. Hungary continues to construct fences and lay down razor wire on parts of its border. So migrants on their journey west now look to cross through Croatia, which has a countryside littered with landmines, an estimated 51,000 of them, according to the Croatian Mine Center, remnants of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Megan Burke is the director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She's just returned from a conference in Croatia and joins us now to talk about the situation there. Welcome to the program.

MEGAN BURKE: Thank you very much, Audie. It's a pleasure to be with you today.

CORNISH: So that 51,000 number, are these mines concentrated in particular areas, or is there any kind of desolate stretch of wild-land that's a potential minefield?

BURKE: Audie, there's a minefield that runs very close to the border between Serbia and Croatia, which is precisely where refugees are currently crossing into Croatia.

CORNISH: How are they marked? Are they cordoned off? Are there signs? Kind of what's the extent of it?

BURKE: So Croatia has said repeatedly that they have done extensive marking of all minefields. And they also have, in some places, fencing. There isn't fencing everywhere. It should be clear to people where there are minefields, but signs sometimes fall down or can be in disrepair.

CORNISH: The other concern is that we're seeing news images of, at some points, stampedes, people fleeing from Hungarian forces. Is there any concern that, like, say, an approaching police presence could drive people from the safety of roads?

BURKE: At this point, Audie, with the news that we've seen today, our biggest concern is the border crossings between Serbia and Croatia. The messages that were being put out earlier in the week by our member organizations was simply to let all the refugees know they should stay on clearly marked roads. With the closing of the border crossings, refugees are now crossing into Croatia through the countryside, and this is really exacerbating the risk that refugees face.

CORNISH: How are groups such as yours or other kind of refugee agencies trying to warn these migrants? Like, is it about flyers? Are they actually walking through some of the kind of makeshift camps? What's going on?

BURKE: So far, there have been some refugee agencies that are regional that have been passing out maps and making flyers, as you mentioned. And quite frankly, we're not sure that that's as useful as it could be. So for a refugee who's coming from Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, it's quite likely that they will not be able to read the maps or know the terrain well enough to recognize where the minefields are.

CORNISH: Help us understand just how significant this risk is. We don't want to overstate it, given that these areas are cordoned off and that there are warning signs. What's your level of concern for these refugees and migrants who are making their way through these areas?

BURKE: Audie, initially, we were concerned but not overly concerned. At this point, with the closing of the border crossings, we are more concerned. Just last week, while I was in Croatia, we heard from Lebanon reporting on several casualties in 2015 of Syrian refugees on their territory. So I think, legitimately, we all need to work together to minimize these risks as much as possible.

CORNISH: Megan Burke is the director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BURKE: Thanks very much for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.