Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina October 2019, report #6: Travails of the migrants stuck in Bosnia

2019 Report index

Report 1 Why Bosnia; Exodus; protests; Scandal.
Report 2 Impunity, manipulation, activism.
Report 3:
Aluminij conglomerate; Corruption at Gikil.
Report 4
Political charades; militarization of police.
Report 5Pride in Sarajevo.
Report 6Migrants stuck in BiH on the way to Europe. 

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Today in Bosnia, there are two major, intractable problems. One is the Dayton regime that enshrines ethnic partition and endorses the reign of three corrupt, ethno-nationalist political infrastructures that cooperate to divide and rule their respective, corralled populations. We know about that problem; it's practically all I ever write about.

The other problem is relatively new in Bosnia, but it's looking just about as permanent: the ongoing influx, since 2017, of "refugees" and "migrants," mostly from the Middle East, who are trying to travel to EU countries where they hope they can resettle and rebuild their lives. I wrote about this problem in 2015 and last year. Earlier, the influx was primarily on the Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary/Croatia route. When possibilities for transit through those countries became significantly restricted, people shifted their route to go through Bosnia-Herzegovina. It seemed improbable at first, since Bosnia, a rival for the poorest country and least stable state in Europe, has practically nothing to offer refugees. But Bosnia is on the route, and attempting passage through that country seems better than drowning at sea.

Both of the above problems are called "crises," as if they are temporary. Well, "temporary" lasts an awful long time in Bosnia. In an earlier report I re-named the problem a "crisis of humanity." Nor am I particularly comfortable with the terms "migrant" and "refugee." I'm in favor of thinking of them as people.

Most of the migrants come into Bosnia from the east and south, via Serbia and Montenegro. They hurry through the Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia's two "entities"), which has refused to offer any assistance and treats the travelers viciously upon contact. They come through Sarajevo, and most try to head for the northwestern part of the Federation, Bosnia's Croat- and Bosniak-controlled entity. There, the Uno-Sanski Kanton (USK – in English, the Una-Sana Canton) borders on Croatia and people can take the chance to cross into that EU member-state and keep on moving.

The numbers of migrants quoted vary wildly and it is questionable whether anyone really knows, since these people embody the meaning of "undocumented" in every sense. But reports hold that some 25,000 came into Bosnia in 2018, and another 24,000 through October of this year. However, these "statistics" obscure the political haplessness of Bosnia, and the human suffering as well.

On one hand, ordinary Bosnians try to be understanding and hospitable with the migrants; I have witnessed their kindness in the parks, on the streetcars and buses, and at the bus and train stations. After all, Bosnians know a lot about being refugees. On the other hand, the state- and Federation-level governments have proven just about useless, so far, in responding to the uncontrolled influx of travelers. With most of the migrants stopping in the northwestern cities of Bužim, Cazin, Velika Kladuša, and especially Bihać, care for thousands of sorry travelers has been dumped on the mayor of that city, Šuhret Fazlić, and on the Uno-Sanski Canton.

People arrive in the USK, pull themselves together, and try to move across the border into Croatia. Given the size of the influx into Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past couple of years, and the fact that the number present in Bosnia today is much lower than that overall total, it seems apparent that some thousands have succeeded in moving on through Croatia and Slovenia to more affluent and stable lands. One report holds that of the 25,000 migrants who arrived in 2018, only 3,500 remained in Bosnia.

For most people who have arrived in Bosnia, it is a priority to register their request for asylum. Under international law, all countries are required to accept and register people's application for asylum, regardless of where they come from. Few of the travelers wish to remain in Bosnia, but possession of an asylum document, in some sense, legitimizes their presence in the country. And it is a way of buying time until they can move on.

A late-August report had 2,300 migrants living in the camps in the northwest, and another 2,000 in parks and in private accommodations. In mid-September one report put the migrant presence in USK at "3,500 to 5,500," and another at "6,000 to 8,000." So it is hard to tell, and the number keeps fluctuating—but, most probably, it is rising, with reports of 100 to 150 new people arriving in the canton every day.

There are about five centers in the Uno-Sanski Canton where refugees have been placed. Two, "Bira" and "Miral," are privately owned and funded by international organizations such as the International Organization for Migrants (IOM). For a time, many people slept in parks and all available "green spaces" around Biha
ć. As the numbers grew, local citizens began to feel crowded, and authorities discouraged camping. They directed travelers to the established camps, which soon filled up. Another one, on state-owned property, was established at Vučjak in June. The international community objected to the location, but many migrants were nevertheless relocated there.

The European Union and the IOM have sternly criticized use of the site at Vučjak for several reasons. Vučjak is "too close to the Croatian border"; it used to be a garbage dump; there is a minefield nearby; and generally, conditions are not fit for human inhabitation. With these objections the EU has, while supporting work at Bira and Miral, declined to provide any resources to Vučjak. The local Red Cross and some volunteers have helped, and there have been donations from Turkey and the Bavarian Red Cross. But with anywhere between 800 and 1,200 people stuck at Vučjak, resources have been stretched. And there has been no electricity, unstable water supply, few toilets, and scarce medical relief.

As summer wore on, the internationally supported camps filled to overflowing, and migrants were gathering in the canton's population centers. Bihać's population was said to be 20% migrants. Local citizens
complained of feeling crowded out and endangered. One said, "It's horrible that the EU dictates what we can do with the migrants; they can't be put outside the city, but we can convert the city into a ghetto." Some locals stopped shopping at stores frequented by migrants.

There were incidents of violence. Most of them were among the migrants themselves, but there were over 150 crimes reported in USK, and in late August, a migrant robbed a local teenage girl with a knife. There was a brawl in one camp involving 300 people, and a fire broke out in Miral, with many people wounded there. Tuberculosis was reported at Bira, where there were at least 2,000 people camped, and more recently, there has been an outbreak of scabies. These health problems have been nearly impossible to control, especially at
Vučjak, where there were only volunteers, including two German doctors and a journalist/humanitarian, also from Germany.

In June, the local government decided to compel migrants who were not already at one of the camps to go to Vučjak. They started raiding private houses; it was reported that in one, they found 130 people, mostly elderly and without documents. There is YouTube footage of the police rounding up hundreds of dark-skinned young men and marching them, on foot, the 10 kilometers from Bihać to Vučjak. Migrants have complained, understandably, that they do not appreciate being rusticated to the woods, to a place without resources nor services. To make matters worse, in October the German volunteers were expelled from Vučjak for working without permits.

The matter of permits for volunteers borders on the Kafkaesque. It takes many months and mountains of paperwork—all requiring translation—to acquire permission to work as a volunteer on behalf of the migrants. Good-hearted local people have brought meals, clothing, and blankets to the newcomers. But grassroots organizations such as the No Name Kitchen have been compelled to work underground, for example serving meals only at night and changing their location regularly. And in Sarajevo, the Aid Brigade NGO was shut down completely after the Service for Foreigners' Affairs (SFA) sent all the local volunteers home and told all foreign volunteers to leave the country.

The local citizens' response to conditions that they have experienced due to the presence of throngs of unfamiliar people in their midst could be criticized as heartless—or perhaps the influx has truly crossed the threshold of control to the point where any ordinary person would feel threatened. But some local authorities sounded most reasonable when, rather than criticizing the migrants, they spoke out about the inattention of those responsible at the entity and state level. Officials criticized the state-level Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Security, the Foreigners' Affairs Service, and the border police for not doing their jobs, saying that it was "shameful that everywhere in the world, the state deals with migrant problems, but in Bosnia-Herzegovina, only the cities of Bihać and Velika Kladuša are doing anything.

We recall that the Bosnian state resides in a certain amount of chaos after the 2018 elections, as one year on, the new government has (still) not been formed. But this does not excuse the acting officials, still in their old positions, from working on the migrant problem. However, mayor Fazlić
noted, "We sit down for a meeting with state ministers and then they complain to each other about how the state is not functional. That is very frustrating....being left to ourselves in this is very difficult for us.”

While the lives of the local people in the Uno-Sanski Canton are disrupted, and the lives of the migrants are for the most part miserable, unnanounced attempts to go across the border to Croatia and beyond are ongoing. People who discuss these attempts call them "the game," as in, "they went back into the game." They pick up at night and leave their camps to try to cross the long and crooked border, hoping to evade Croatian police and make their way to Slovenia. It has become a hellish undertaking—not gamelike at all—as the the Croatian and Slovenian authorities have taken it upon themselves to turn back the migrants in a variety of nasty ways.

While the migrants go into the game, the Croatian police go hunting for them, in an exercise that has come to be called "pushback." The Croatian police have at their disposal thermal cameras, helicopters, and drones. Theoretically, there are routes that migrants can take through the woods all the way from the Croatian border through to the next country; Bosnians in USK remember having had to do this when they were fleeing the war in the 1990s. But people from Pakistan and Afghanistan do not know the routes, and when the Croatian police catch them, they rob the travelers, taking their money and their cell phones, and sometimes their personal documents. They often beat them before pushing them back across the border into Bosnia.

A Human Rights Watch report read,
"In some cases, they [Croatian police] use force, pummeling people with fists, kicking them, and making people cross freezing streams, and run gauntlets between police officers. Violence is directed against women and children..."

A report from August states that over 4,500 migrants were turned back from Slovenia into Croatia. Those who have been pushed back say that Croatian and Slovenian police have broken their phones and stolen or damaged their personal belongings. "Immediately after we crossed into Slovenia," one migrant reported, "we ran into the police. We attempted to ask for asylum, but they said that this was not possible. That in Slovenia 'there is no asylum.' They sent us back to Croatia, where they took away our telephones. The behaved with us as if we were beasts, even though we were traveling with children. They threw us into a van and took us to a place near the Bosnian border." Croatian police have shot into the air to scare migrants, and have even shot across the border into Bosnia. There have been cases of travelers being struck by live ammunition.

It is still worse than I've made it sound. Recently one man who crossed the border with Croatia was apprehended; his shoes were taken away, and he was forced to walk back to Bosnia in the snow, thereby suffering frostbite. Dozens, in separate groups, have been returned to Bosnia and had to be taken to clinics immediately, with bruises, cuts, and broken bones. And Croatian police have violated Bosnian sovereignty by driving across the border in vans with captured migrants and dumping them back in Bosnia. In one of the most shocking stories, people have reported being arrested, hancuffed, beaten on their legs and then shaved on one leg, then burned with a hot metal bar on that leg. The Croatian authorities deny it all, but the reports are regular and consistent. See below for a couple of sources on this matter.*

Mistreatment of migrants by Bosnians supervising the camps has been routine as well. A report from the Border Violence Monitoring group noted that guards at the camps sometimes take money away from migrants or accept bribes in order to allow them to find refuge in a camp.

Then there are Bosnians who are helpful, including some who devote their lives to trying to make things easier for the travelers. Asim
Latić-Latan, who runs a restaurant in Velika Kladuša, is one of those. He has provided free dinners to as many as 800 people a day, for over a year. And there's a rare story of a refugee from Pakistan settling down in USK; Raza Taslim, after traveling through Turkey and Greece, and after trying to get through Croatia and beyond several times, opened a restaurant in Bihać. Since then he has made chicken biryani popular among the locals. He imports the rice that he cooks from India.

There have been other small inroads of assimilation in the distraught environment of Bosnia; in USK nearly 200 migrant and refugee children have been registered in elementary schools. Their first task is to learn the local language. Dunja, from Afghanistan—on the road five years—says that this is not a problem, as she has already become acquainted with six languages since leaving home. She is trading Urdu lessons with Maja, a ten-year-old local friend.

The long road for people trying to reach safety seems to reach epic proportions. Shezad left Pakistan seven years ago, and says that he was in Turkey, and then Greece, for three years. He misses his wife and three children back home.

People are coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, and other countries. Sometimes they are called "economic refugees," but one man from Bangladesh said, "My life was in danger. There are big political problems in Bangladesh, and I was attacked. That is why I left Bangladesh, because of security problems."

The greatest concentration of migrants is in northwest Bosnia, since that is the place that is closest to the Croatian border. But there is a camp on the outskirts of Sarajevo at Ušivak and one near Mostar, and there are many refugees in the Tuzla area as well. In late October it was reported that some 200 people were arriving in Tuzla each day. Some of them have come through eastern Herzegovina from Montenegro, passing through the wretched town of Bileća in the Republika Srpska, trying to make it to Stolac in the Federation. There has been trouble in Bileća, with reports of burglaries, break-ins, and skirmishes between migrants and the local Serb population. One migrant was killed earlier this month, and more recently, local people staged a protest demonstration to pressure the authorities to control the movements of the travelers.

Migrants have moved back and forth between Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Bihać on the bus and train. In an alarming Jim-Crow incident, during the summer one bus driver in Tuzla demanded that the migrants sit in the back of the bus, saying, "No one wants to sit with you." Later the bus company, Transturist, apologized, announcing that the segregation was the driver's idea, going against company policy, and that the driver was then fired. Transturist noted that it has helped travelers extensively over the last year, giving them discounts and sometimes free transportation, along with allowing them to congregate and sleep in the bus station yards. I witnessed this to be true in Tuzla.

As the cold weather closes in on the Bihać area, the situation with the migrants is coming to a head. The authorities of the region have been pushing back in two directions: on one hand, they have been calling on the state-level authorities to take responsibility for the problem, and on the other, they are threatening to close down not only the disastrous Vučjak site but the overloaded camps at Bira and Miral as well. This, after 1,700 additional migrants were shoved to Vučjak over the weekend in mid-October. Perhaps as a warning, water was shut off at Vučjak on the same weekend. It is hard to avoid seeing the parallel between Vučkak's former existence as a garbage dump and its present one as a human dump.

To inquiries as to where the migrants should go, USK authorities respond that this question should be directed at the Bosnian Ministry of Security and the Council of Ministers, which is the state-level equivalent to the US Cabinet. The USK has suggested that a camp be set up at Bosanski Petrovac, south of Bihać in the same canton. But given that the local population there is primarily composed of local Serbs, the proposal was politicized immediately, and interpreted as a "demographic attack" on that ethnicity. Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik did not refrain from encouraging this uproar. Meanwhile, the USK canton police chief suggested that "the climate in Herzegovina would be more appropriate for surviving the winter."

IOM contracts with the privately-owned camps in the Bihać area are expiring in mid-November, and it is up in the air whether they will be renewed. Meanwhile, officials in Sarajevo have announced that they will open a second refugee center in that canton, but they ran into fierce resistance when they suggested a location in the suburb of Vogošća.

In early
October the French Minister for European Affairs reported that there are some ten countries in Europe that are prepared to receive immigrants. This has been visibly illustrated in Germany, which has recently relaxed its visa requirements in the interest of augmenting its labor force.

In spite of the alleged readiness of part of the EU to receive immigrants, chaos reigns in northwestern Bosnia, and it promises to get worse in the next few weeks. There are people who report having tried to leave Bosnia as many as twenty times. Facing the oncoming frigid weather, some of the migrants trapped in the area are planning to go all the way back to Greece, to start over next spring.


For more detailed information on the Croatian "pushback" actions, see
Illegal Push-Backs And Border Violence Reports
, September 2019,
Systemic Pushbacks and Border Violence Continue in the Balkans, a report from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, October 18, 2019
BBC Video, October 24, 2019:
Inside Bosnia’s 'nightmare' camp for migrants trying to enter the EU



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