About Balkan Witness                        Contact Balkan Witness



Articles on the Bosnia Conflict


Trapped in the Krajina
By Peter Lippman
Transitions Online
November 10, 2020

Stuck just miles from the EU border, thousands of migrants are helplessly entangled in the complexities of Bosnian politics.

In the past few years tens of thousands of migrants have passed through Bosnia and Herzegovina on their way to a more secure life in the European Union. Of that number, thousands remain in Bosnia, stuck in atrocious living conditions. The hobbled political structure of Bosnia prevents the country from living up to its legal and moral responsibility to help the migrants.

The precursor to the influx of migrants into Bosnia took place in 2015 with the arrival to the Balkans of thousands of people from northern Africa and the Middle East. For much of 2015, the migrants passed through Macedonia into Serbia, and then into Croatia or Hungary on their way west. But by the fall of that year, Hungary, Austria, and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants, and Croatia closed the border with Serbia. The continent was reaching a low point in its treatment of the migrants, even though Germany remained open to the desperate travelers.

The migrants then started shifting their route through Bosnia. Although Bosnia is the country least prepared in the Balkans to accommodate an unorganized mass influx of impoverished, often undocumented immigrants, by 2018 hundreds of people were coming into the country daily, especially across the Drina River from Serbia. Most of them headed toward the northwestern region of Bosnia known as the Krajina, the closest area to Croatia and passage into the EU.

Two Entities, Two Systems

Local authorities in the region set up improvised camps for the migrants near Bihać

 and Velika Kladuša, in Uno-Sanski Canton. With time, sporadic incidents of violence inside the camps began to take place, with weary travelers acting out their frustrations. Some concerned local residents kept a "night watch" in the vicinity of the camps. The number of migrants quickly overwhelmed the service infrastructure in the region and tried the patience of local leaders.

Compounding the difficulties, officials in Uno-Sanski Canton have received precious little help from authorities in Sarajevo. The blockage of assistance from the top down is a manifestation of the fractured political structure enshrined in the Dayton constitution, which broke the country up into two "entities" (the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the Brcko District; 10 cantons in the Federation; and 14 parliaments. The bloated and lethargic governmental structure is good for very little other than maintaining an ethno-nationalist, clientelist system that keeps its demagogic leaders comfortable and its three main ethnic constituencies divided and mistrustful of each other.

On the other hand, ordinary Bosnians – especially Muslims residing in the Federation – have a natural sympathy for the migrants. Many experienced displacement and exile themselves in the 1990s, after all. Individuals and a number of local NGOs responded with compassion to the migrants early on, working to supply food, clothing, and blankets to the travelers. At times these grassroots activists have been forced to work undercover, concealing their activities in the face of obstruction from hostile local authorities.

The most inhospitable response of all has been that from the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska (RS), under the de facto leadership of Milorad Dodik (the Serb member of Bosnia's three-part presidency and head of the dominant Serb nationalist party, the SNSD). Ever ready to stir up hateful sentiment in service to his long-term secessionist goals, in 2018 Dodik accused the Muslim leaders of plotting to resettle migrants in the RS "to change the demographic structure" in that entity. And he refused to set up any refugee camps in the entity.

Allegations Against Croatian Border Guards

The assistance and employment opportunities available in Western Europe are incomparably greater than what is available in any country along the Balkan route of the migrants. There are jobs for newcomers in Germany; but the migrants must arrive there. However, they are thwarted at the borders of the EU and, for migrants trying to leave Bosnia, Croatian border enforcement poses a formidable obstruction.

Migrants trying to enter Croatia have encountered great brutality on the Croatian side, with border police detaining and beating them, stealing their money, breaking their cell phones, and at times molesting the women. Croatian police have strip-searched people and destroyed their personal documents, detained them, and chased them back across the borders into Bosnia. Some migrants succeed in avoiding this treatment – at times after many attempts – but the blockage at the Croatian border means that at any time, thousands remain stranded in the Krajina.

By 2020, of the roughly 50,0000 migrants who entered Bosnia in the previous two years, several thousand remained in the country. In 2019, two privately-run camps, "Bira" and "Miral," were set up, funded by international organizations such as the International Organization for Migrants (IOM). Another camp, on state-owned property, was established at Vučjak, near Bihać, in mid-2019. International relief agencies objected to the location, but many migrants were nevertheless relocated there. The local Red Cross and some volunteers helped out at the site, but resources were stretched. And there was no electricity, an unstable water supply, few toilets, and scarce medical relief.

By mid-2019, with the internationally supported camps filled to overflowing and migrants gathering in the towns and cities, local authorities decided to compel those who were not already at one of the camps to go to Vučjak. The police rounded up hundreds of mostly young men – families, far fewer in number, were sent to another camp – and marched them, on foot, the 10 kilometers from Bihać to Vučjak. Migrants complained, understandably, that they did not appreciate being sent into the woods, to a place without resources or services.

Some local authorities, rather than simply lashing out at the migrants, began to speak out about the inattention of those responsible at the entity and state levels. The prime minister of Uno-Sanski Canton, Mustafa Ružnić, 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, according to Oslobodjenje, 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.

Center vs. Periphery

Parts of the Bosnian government have been in disarray since the 2018 elections, as nearly two years on, a new government has still not been formed in the Federation. But this does not excuse the acting officials, still in their old positions, from working on the migrant problem. However, as the mayor of Bihać commented in September 2019, "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.”

The scandal that was Vučjak festered over the winter into 2020, when the problem was compounded by the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants stuck in the unsanitary camp or out on the streets and fields were particularly at risk – but precious little COVID testing was available to them. In the face of this worsening situation, in April of this year the IOM finally set up a new, more sanitary camp near the village of Lipa, outside Bihać, to house some 2,000 of the estimated 7,500 migrants that were present in Bosnia at the time. Vučjak was closed down and people were moved into the isolated new camp. At the beginning of October 2020, Bira camp was also closed down.

The struggle of the migrants to survive and press northward carries on, with tension increasing between them and local police and residents; a confrontation between Afghan and Pakistani migrants recently ended with two Pakistanis stabbed to death, and some vigilante attacks against migrants have also been reported. Authorities in the Krajina have been trying to curtail free movement of the migrants. Exacerbating this problem is the practice in the Serb-controlled entity of rounding up all arriving migrants and busing them to the administrative boundary with the Federation, leaving many stuck in limbo. Dodik characterized this as "organizing transportation for them to go where they want to go."

Today, with camps full and hundreds of migrants sleeping in fields and abandoned buildings in the Krajina, hope for a resolution is dim. One local resident complained about the situation in the town, saying the presence of migrants made her feel insecure: “I cannot just let my children go off to school.” While she was referring to the feeling of insecurity and powerlessness among local residents, the sentiment applies to the migrants as well. The leaders of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina have failed to act responsibly on behalf of its citizens and of the wretched arrivals to their land.

Peter Lippman is a human rights activist and writer. He has written extensively on conflicts and refugees in the former Yugoslavia and is the author of Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vanderbilt University Press, 2019). See his blog at http://survivingthepeace.org



Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index


Articles by Roger Lippman




Report broken links

About Balkan Witness          Contact Balkan Witness