Photo Essay

For Migrants in Bosnia, the ‘Game’ Is the Road to a Better Life

Hundreds of migrants brace for winter as they try to cross into the European Union.

Afghan and Pakistani refugees stand outside an abandoned building.
Afghan and Pakistani refugees stand outside an abandoned building.
Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan stand outside an abandoned building on the outskirts of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Jan. 20. Amnon Gutman photos for Foreign Policy
By , an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies, and , a photographer based in the Middle East and Europe.

Bihac, an isolated enclave in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, was once the scene of brutal fighting during the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war. Now, it is an entry point for migrants and asylum-seekers into the heart of the European Union, the final stop in the transit corridor running through Greece, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

After authorities closed the previous routes through Serbia and Hungary in 2016, Bosnia—a country that was decimated by war and still bears many of its scars—became Europe’s main hub for migrants. It’s on the shortest route to the richer countries of Northern and Western Europe.

Travelers come from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa to flee poverty, war, and persecution. They call their unhappy journey to the EU “the game.” If they cross from Bosnia into Croatia without getting caught by police, they win, as borders between EU member states are either uncontrolled or can be easily crossed. If they lose, they are sent back, often as far south as Greece, to start over. Some are deported from Europe entirely. A handful settle in Bosnia, often to bide their time.

Bihac, an isolated enclave in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, was once the scene of brutal fighting during the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war. Now, it is an entry point for migrants and asylum-seekers into the heart of the European Union, the final stop in the transit corridor running through Greece, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

After authorities closed the previous routes through Serbia and Hungary in 2016, Bosnia—a country that was decimated by war and still bears many of its scars—became Europe’s main hub for migrants. It’s on the shortest route to the richer countries of Northern and Western Europe.

A sign warns of land mines in the woods of Prsine Uvale mountain.
A sign warns of land mines in the woods of Prsine Uvale mountain.

A sign warns of land mines in the woods of Prsine Uvale mountain, on the outskirts of the city of Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Jan. 17, in an area near the border with Croatia, where some refugees try to cross into the European Union.

An Afghan refugee washes his face.
An Afghan refugee washes his face.

A refugee from Afghanistan washes his face on Jan. 13. He and another refugee live out in the open on the outskirts of Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Travelers come from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa to flee poverty, war, and persecution. They call their unhappy journey to the EU “the game.” If they cross from Bosnia into Croatia without getting caught by police, they win, as borders between EU member states are either uncontrolled or can be easily crossed. If they lose, they are sent back, often as far south as Greece, to start over. Some are deported from Europe entirely. A handful settle in Bosnia, often to bide their time.

Some end up in Velika Kladusa, another Bosnian border town and migrant hot spot, to sleep in abandoned buildings where soldiers once fought hand-to-hand battles 30 years ago. As temperatures slip below zero, migrants build fires to stay warm, forage for food, and build up strength to try their luck with the game the following night.

An Afghan family gathers on the streets of Velika Kladusa.
An Afghan family gathers on the streets of Velika Kladusa.

An Afghan family gathers on the streets of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, after being pushed back by Croatian police while trying to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border the night before. On the father’s backpack hangs a small pink toy for his young child to play with while the family is on the move, looking to find refuge in the European Union.

Their voyage to freedom is one of misery. Bosnian winters are long and unforgiving, and some of the roads are still littered with mines from the war. Many of the travelers find themselves moored in the snow and mud or slipping on icy roads with all their heavy possessions on their backs. They don’t have the clothes, food, or roofs over their heads to survive the elements. Some build huts or outdoor shelters in the woods. Others live in the abandoned Krajina Metal factory outside of Bihac. A stark reminder of the dangers they face is a bleak cemetery nearby, where eight refugees—their identities unknown—are buried under frozen earth and deep snow.

Afghan refugees exit an abandoned building.
Afghan refugees exit an abandoned building.

A group of Afghan refugees exits an abandoned building, where they sheltered in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Jan. 11.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan warm themselves by a fire.
Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan warm themselves by a fire.

Refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan warm themselves by a fire in an abandoned building in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Jan. 11.

Blankets cover a window to keep the heat inside an abandoned building.
Blankets cover a window to keep the heat inside an abandoned building.

Blankets cover a window to keep the heat inside an abandoned building being used by refugees in Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Jan. 20. With Bihac, the town is considered one of the best starting points for “the game” to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border without being detected.

Despite the added danger of catching COVID-19 in their weakened state, the migrants still yearn and risk their lives for a life in Europe. In 2021, around 15,000 migrants arrived in Bosnia alone; some 200 of them were unaccompanied children.

In 2020, the Danish Refugee Council reported that some of the migrants claimed “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” by Croatian border police, including spray-painting crosses on their foreheads, giving severe beatings, and confiscating their property. The Croatian government denied the reports.

Afghan refugees return from Bihac to Lipa camp.
Afghan refugees return from Bihac to Lipa camp.

A group of Afghan refugees return from Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, toward Lipa camp for refugees and migrants on Jan. 12. They were pushed back by Croatian border police after trying to cross the border into Croatia a few days before.

Still, they gamble to win the game, believing life somewhere else will be better than in the countries of their birth. “I will reach a better country, God willing,” a 57-year-old migrant from Afghanistan told NPR last year. “You cannot take the wrong path in this way.”

Janine di Giovanni is an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies. Twitter: @janinedigi

Amnon Gutman is a photographer based in the Middle East and Europe, whose work is dedicated to covering humanitarian and environmental stories around the world.

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