In Bosnia, a Migrant Way Station Is Becoming a Winter Prison
For years, the country remained untouched by the global migrant crisis, but now, even in a place where many people were once refugees, tensions are on the rise.
BIHAC, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Zohaib Ali, a 22-year-old student from Pakistan, has attempted to cross into the European Union through the mountainous border separating Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia 16 times. Many of the migrants he met during his repeated efforts have now made it to Italy or France. “I tried, and they tried. … [I had] bad luck,” he told Foreign Policy in December. But bad luck is not the only element to blame.
Ali speculated that if he had come to Bosnia earlier in the spring of 2018, when the border with Croatia wasn’t so heavily guarded, he might have succeeded. Instead, he arrived in August, finding himself in one of the world’s most difficult migration bottlenecks.
For years, the global migrant crisis was a remote concern for Bosnia. Migrants traveling along the Balkan corridor first arrived in Greece by sea from Turkey and then moved toward Macedonia and Serbia in order to enter Croatia and Hungary, both EU member states. As in 2015 and 2016, countries along the route have closed their borders, sending migrants fanning out across the Balkans.
Now, migrants leaving Greece go through jagged mountains and dense woodland to reach Albania, then Montenegro, only to find themselves stuck in Bosnia. This small, ethnically divided country with a dearth of economic opportunities has found itself at the epicenter of the crisis, as more people make their way in and can no longer find a way out.
Since January 2018, more than 23,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have arrived in Bosnia. The year before, there were fewer than 1,000. The shift has caught the country’s authorities flat-footed. Many international actors, including the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, have expressed concerns over the slow and chaotic response to the needs of these new arrivals.
Despite his determination to reach his brother in Germany or his sister in Canada, Ali has resolved to spend the winter in northwestern Bosnia before he attempts his next crossing in the spring. Maybe borders won’t be so heavily guarded and Croatian police so brutal, he speculates. He wasn’t beaten or attacked with dogs, as was the case for many less fortunate migrants, who have accused Croatian forces of systematic violence. But he was the victim of theft on multiple occasions. “They took my rucksack with belongings,” he recounted matter-of-factly.
It’s an uncomfortable compromise. Ali’s efforts to find help to get out of Bosnia have been anything but fruitful. When a smuggler promised to get him a safe passage to Italy, Ali handed over 16,000 euros ($18,000), and in return, he received nothing.
In Bosnia, he was told that he would need a visa. Then a smuggler took his passport and never gave it back, making his presence in Bihac—without documents or refugee status—completely illegal. “It’s not a problem,” Ali said. “There [are] too many migrants here. No one will notice.”
Extreme temperatures are a factor, too. “The cold in the mountains is like ice going inside you, in your blood,” Ali said. In these conditions, around 4,000 others have made the same pragmatic decision—Bosnia will have to do, for now.
For migrants and asylum-seekers stuck in Bosnia through the winter, options are limited. They’re allowed to stay in one of four refugee camps along the border with Croatia. The camps are temporary and were never intended for their current purpose.
In Bihac, children and families receive shelter in the Sedra hotel. Most migrants, though, are housed either at Bira, which is a factory that used to make refrigerators, or at Borici, a former dormitory close to the city’s center. In the neighboring town of Velika Kladusa, they are getting by in a warehouse that used to make plastic products.
For months, Ali made a base for himself at Borici camp, which offered, at that time, three stories of concrete floors, rough walls, and broken windows. Located on a hill next to a football stadium and a supermarket, it looked like a gothic mansion. Inside, tents were put up everywhere—not only in what used to be rooms but also in the middle of the corridors or on the stairs. There was no electricity or hot water, and most rooms lacked doors. For those who couldn’t get a spot inside Borici to roll out a sleeping mat, there was a tent settlement scattered in the woods around the crumbling dormitory.
Since then, though, miserable Borici has been completely made over. Walls are now plastered and painted white. There is electrical wiring, doors, and windows. Bira, the former refrigerator factory, has a high tin ceiling and a huge floor area; it looks like an aircraft hangar. For now, though, it’s home to a cluster of big white tents that have done a lot to shelter migrants from the harsh winter.
Ali, meanwhile, has found an alternative—a rented one-bedroom flat in a private home with a kitchen and bathroom in southern Bihac. For migrants who can stretch their savings to cover rent, there is at least partial relief. Fed up with the camp, he is paying 100 euros ($113) per month to share a one-bedroom flat with four other men, who are also from Pakistan.
When I met Ali, the weather in the valleys was still autumnal, but the harsh winter is now in full swing. “The situation isn’t tragic, but with the freeze approaching, it’s getting more complicated,” said Drazan Rozic, a field coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Ali’s journey is familiar to Rozic because he is a former refugee himself; Rozic made a similar journey after fleeing the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.
Born in Mostar in southern Bosnia, he and his family were forced to flee to Croatia. During the war, which was one of the bloodiest armed conflicts of the 20th century, Mostar’s old city lay in ruins, including the famous 16th-century Old Bridge, a symbol of reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. “My family was in the same situation as these guys,” he commented, pointing to the group of migrants who were waiting in a queue outside Bira camp.
Bihac, just like Mostar or the capital city of Sarajevo, was under a long-lasting siege in the 1990s that killed 5,000 people. The city seemed like a natural place to adopt a humane approach to those who escaped from war or poverty. I heard dozens of stories about individual efforts of people who donated clothes, shared food or blankets, or, such as the owner of the factory-turned-Bira camp, rented their properties to migrants.
In multicultural Bosnia, where 50 percent of people identify as Muslim, the narrative, which is common in the EU, “that migration is a major security threat or that it’ll negatively affect our culture isn’t so widespread,” said Hajrudin Solak of Pomozi.ba, a Bosnian charity organization.
However, as in so many places affected by the refugee crisis, initial enthusiasm is gradually turning into frustration. “We aren’t against these people,” said Senad Zanacic, a former aviator who helped organize protest rallies on behalf of “Citizens for a Safe Bihac.” He was especially concerned about the migrants from Borici camp, located just a few minutes’ walk from the city center, who hung around with nothing to do, often with no documents. “Our point is that authorities should provide them normal conditions to live,” Zanacic said.
Complaints about the authorities’ failings are the one thing that unites supporters and opponents of migration. At the heart of this problem, as with many other problems in Bosnia, lies the country’s complex and hugely decentralized governance structures, with power dispersed between the government in Sarajevo and the two entities with significant autonomy: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.
The federation, where the camps are located, is further divided into cantons, which are then subdivided into municipalities. Authorities in each canton and in the central government often have different political or ethnic backgrounds. As a result, when it comes to taking care of the migrants, the buck has long been passed on to someone else.
An aggressive campaign before the October 2018 general elections further complicated the picture. Nationalist figures such as Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik raised the alarm that the recent wave of arrivals was part of a larger scenario to increase the number of Muslims in the country, echoing the Islamophobia that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used to stoke fear of Muslim migrants.
Peter Van der Auweraert, the IOM coordinator for the Western Balkans, called these fears unjustified. “Migrants have no intention to stay in Bosnia,” he told FP in an interview at his office in Sarajevo. He said that because they weren’t trekking through the whole country, as they did in Serbia and Macedonia, almost all migrants—with the exception of those in Sarajevo, where last summer they pitched a tent in a local park—have stuck to the northwestern canton of Una-Sana, close to the border with Croatia, a gateway to the EU. “There’s no reason for politicians from other regions to engage in this issue as their voters aren’t affected,” Van der Auweraert said.
There might be a silver lining in the crisis. It has proved that Bosnia, still aspiring to EU membership, needs the union. The EU allocated 2 million euros ($2.2 million) last year to provide humanitarian assistance in the country—the highest number of all the international donors. And people seem to notice. In the Balkans, only Kosovo and Bosnia have not been granted EU candidate status. A majority of Bosnians support EU membership, regardless of ethnic divisions: 88 percent of Bosniaks, 76 percent of Croats, and 57 percent of Serbs. For Van der Auweraert, it’s a sign that the EU, in a time of crisis, can help or even replace an inefficient state.
But, now, frustration is growing—and is mutual. Those who left home to seek the safety of Europe are facing prolonged uncertainty and are passing their days stuck in inadequate conditions, sometimes with members of rival ethnic groups. Rozic admitted that Bihac is struggling as internal clashes—ranging from verbal provocations to violent altercations severe enough that security guards have been asked to intervene—have taken place almost every day among a complex mosaic of Pakistanis, Syrians, Afghans, Iranians, and Iraqis struggling to co-exist in Bosnia. Some, though, lost their temper outside the camps.
Snezana Galic, a spokeswoman for the Bihac police, said that between January and October 2018, migrants committed 103 crimes. They accounted for some 10 percent of all crimes committed at that time in the whole canton. Although these were often nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting, there were also far more serious crimes, including instances of attempted rape and attacks on officials. It was these acts of violence and criminality, and the harm they have caused to the reputation of all the migrants in Bihac, that Ali said hit him the hardest.
“I prefer not to leave home after 5 p.m.,” he said. “I don’t want any trouble.”