The growing migrant crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Migrants have been getting stuck in the Balkan country for the past three years as they attempt to reach Croatia, the new gateway to Europe, but the EU is failing to provide for those living in limbo.

The snow that fell in Bosnia and Herzegovina at this year’s Holocaust remembrance day on 27 January covered traces of another humanitarian crisis happening on European soil. The European Union (EU) is turning back thousands of migrants, mainly from Asia and North Africa, who are stuck at the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

According to the Bosnian government, around 60 000 migrants have moved through the country since January 2018. The wall built in late 2015 along the Hungarian border has increased migratory flow to Europe through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Currently, there are around 8 000 migrants in limbo in the Balkan country. That figure has not undergone major changes over the past year as Covid-19 restrictions and the increased intransigence of the Croatian police has made travelling more complicated.

“I just want to live in a democratic country without much corruption,” says Ukrainian Elena Kushnir, 41. 

23 January 2021: Elena Kushnir takes in the view from the top of Dom Penzionera in Bihać.

Kushnir left Krivoy Rog in 1996 as a 16-year-old. She flew to Amsterdam on a tourist visa and stayed undocumented when it expired. “I’ve never applied for asylum because Ukraine was considered a safe country. My parents weren’t happy with my departure, but they understood my choice … I have never managed to see them again,” she says. 

She spent around 23 years in the Netherlands, until her boyfriend reported her to the police after she asked him to return money she had lent him. She was deported on 10 May 2018 but left the Ukraine again in December 2019 and entered Bosnia and Herzegovina on 1 June 2020. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the last country before entering the EU for a number of routes that cross into Turkey and continue through Greece and Albania or North Macedonia and Serbia. 

There are other routes, but when migrants try to go through Croatia, the police there, partly funded by the EU, are not willing to let anyone through. They reportedly beat, rob and sometimes torture or sexually abuse people on the move before deporting them to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Border Violence Monitoring Network and the Danish Refugee Council have documented these allegations repeatedly, but Croatia keeps denying them.

11 January 2021: Dom Penzionera, the abandoned retirement home in Bihać where about 100 migrants live, seen from the bridge over the Una River.

Poor living conditions 

Kushnir has not suffered this violence. She is waiting for European countries to ease Covid-19 lockdown measures before trying “the game”, as migrants call the attempt to cross the Croatian border to reach Italy and often go further into northern Europe. In the meantime, she spends time with the migrants forced to live in an abandoned retirement home in the centre of Bihać, a frontier town in the northwest of Una-Sana Canton, the territory most affected by the ongoing migratory crisis. Dozens of people found shelter there when the temporary reception centre of Bira closed in September. 

The Lipa Camp, which was built in an isolated area 30km from Bihać in April last year to curb the spread of Covid-19 among migrants, burned down on the day of its closure in circumstances not yet clarified. This has worsened the situation, leaving hundreds of people without shelter. Those who remained in heated tents that the Bosnian government set up live in unsatisfactory conditions. 

Complaints of poor quality of life come from all the single-men camps around the country – one in Velika Kladuša, two in the vicinity of Sarajevo and one in the Mostar area. Only the family and minors camps in Bihać and Cazin are considered acceptable. All the camps, except for the “new” Lipa Camp, are run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations body that manages the money the EU allocated to Bosnia and Herzegovina effectively to keep migrants outside the EU’s borders. 

31 January 2021: Migrants walk through the snow at the temporary reception centre in Lipa.

Allegations relating to the mismanagement of the about €90 million Bosnia has received to date have come from various sides, and the generic overview published by the IOM in January does not justify the shortcomings of its reception facilities. Outside the official camps, there are hundreds of migrants scattered across the country, but they prefer to stay close to the border so they can try “the game” frequently.

Mangal Saifullah, 57, from Afghanistan, wants to go to Italy. “Some compatriots told me that it’s easier to obtain documents there,” he says. Saifullah escaped his country one year ago after 40 years of war and violence, five of which he spent in prison. 

“I was tired of fighting, and Talibans have targeted me. I have done several back and forth to Pakistan with my family, but Afghan refugees aren’t welcomed now, so I decided to leave.” 

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One of Saifullah’s six sons is in Belgium. He arrived through the Balkan route. “He told me, ‘Don’t leave,’ because this route is very demanding. But I want a better life for my children,” he says. Saifullah has tried “the game” seven times but has consistently been sent back. 

Only once did he manage to enter Slovenia, where the police took his fingerprints and eventually deported him to Bosnia in a chain refoulement. Saifullah speaks calmly and flashes a weary smile. The practice of pushing migrants from Italy and Slovenia back to Bosnia and Herzegovina has become common and is well documented

26 January 2021: A migrant shows the route he has planned to get to Italy.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s challenges 

Saifullah sleeps in an abandoned metal factory not far from the Bira Camp. The police evicted migrants living in the factory and abandoned retirement home on 24 February. Saifullah had noticed the rising tension and evaded the officers, only returning to his shelter in the evening after the police had left. Some migrants moved to improvised shelters on the outskirts of town, but most were deported to the Lipa Camp. 

Saifullah has stayed away from the town centre for a while now because although residents were initially willing to help them, intolerance towards migrants has escalated. The lack of a long-term solution has produced greater insecurity and the hate speech some politicians are using to benefit politically from the crisis has made people wary. Attacks on migrants are on the rise and acts of solidarity are criminalised by institutions that have taken various measures to restrict the movement of migrants, such as a ban on using public transport.

24 January 2021: Mangal Saifullah in his ‘room’ at the former metal factory in Bihać.

Were it not for people’s acts of generosity and the work of non-governmental organisations that makes up for the institutional coldness of the IOM, life for many of the people on the move would be utterly intolerable.

“I have been on the Balkan route since 2015. [The] support that migrants receive [from local people] is unique,” says Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian human rights journalist.

The EU has delegated the responsibility of managing the migrants to the Bosnian authorities, but their failure to find a nationwide solution has put all the pressure on the Una-Sana Canton. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a dysfunctional state that has not progressed much since the 1995 Dayton Agreements, which ended the war. It is divided into two entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS) – along with the autonomous district of Brčko. 

The FBiH entity is divided into 10 cantons. Each entity and each canton has its own government. The population is mainly composed of three constituent peoples: Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians). “From a state perspective, there can’t be a systematic response,” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist. “Local authorities haven’t allowed any credible response. We see this especially in the RS [the entity with a Serb majority], where all possible state actions are blocked and come to systematic obstruction.”

23 January 2021: One of the rooms migrants have occupied in the former Dom Penzionera retirement home.

Bosnia still has to cope with 99 000 internally displaced people from the 1990s war, so “it’s absurd and unrealistic that this small country can become like a migrant centre in Europe. I perceive it as an incredible rudeness on the part of the EU, the largest economic union in the world, which has half a billion inhabitants. These people have to be admitted to the EU from time to time or unfortunately returned to their countries. There is no third option,” says Mujanović. 

“The longer this agony lasts, the worse the situation will be for everyone: [the] EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state and society, and for those troubled people who are in these terrible circumstances.”

9 February 2021: Migrants prepare a meal inside the abandoned Krajina-metal factory.

Correction, 10 March 2021: Dom Penzionera was mistakenly named as Dom Penzjonera.

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