For 21-year-old Sarfraz Ali, the border manifests itself in scars left on his hands from beatings. He was one of the residents of the recently demolished Vučjak migrant camp, in northwest Bosnia near the Croatian border.
It took the Pakistani boy six months and seven thousand euros to get to Bosnia from Pakistan, travelling about five thousand kilometers through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. Then, beaten up by Croatian border police, he couldn’t go any further. He’s been waiting in Bosnia for more than two months, though in the meantime he’s also tried to reach Italy five times. Others have tried up to fifteen times.
Like Ali, sixteen-year-old Muzamil was forcibly pushed back by Croatian police. Muzamil is, like twenty percent of refugees travelling the Balkan route, a minor. His feet are wrapped in gauze, his eyes dismayed. "The Croatian police arrested me, beat me, took my shoes, my money, my phone. I returned to the camp almost naked".
Sarfraz Ali once tried to pay a trafficker three thousand euros to be taken across the border by car, but he was stopped. His uncle had lent him the money. Now, he says, his pockets are empty. "In my hometown in Pakistan they say if you leave, you stay forever, that is, you remain in the minds of your loved ones after you leave." He wants to work, to repay the money. He can no longer return.
Emergency in Vučjak camp
Recently, with freezing temperatures in Bosnia, conditions in the Vučjak camp reached a state of emergency. Some of the makeshift tents collapsed under the weight of the snow and the rain. On December 10, authorities began dismantling the camp and evicting its residents. About 750 migrants were transferred on fourteen buses to camps near Sarajevo and to the Salakovac camp in western Bosnia, more than two hundred kilometers south of Bihać. According to Caritas staff, others were instead moved to the overcrowded Bira camp run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bihać, a mountainous town in northwest Bosnia, on the border with Croatia.
Until last summer, many migrants were living in abandoned houses and city parks in the town of Bihać. In June 2019, police raided those spaces, chasing the refugees out. Refugees were given a working over and forced to board buses that took them to the Vučjak camp, run by the local municipality in cooperation with the Red Cross, eight kilometers from town and eleven kilometers from the Croatian border.
The camp was built over a landfill in the same area where the front line was during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. According to the local Red Cross, the camp recently housed some 600 migrants. Many of them said they did not want to be moved further from the border, despite the camp’s reprehensible conditions, made worse by harsh winter weather, because they wanted to continue trying to cross.
Europe’s first outpost
Conservative estimates show that more than forty thousand people have passed through Bosnia since 2018 – see here and here – and up to six thousand are stuck in the Una-Sana canton, where Bihać is, while they wait to try to cross the border into Croatia, Europe's first outpost. Migrants call their attempts to cross into Europe and evade Croatian border patrol “the game” – a game they have to restart multiple times, paying a high price in suffering, money and time. At the border, in the woods, chances are high that the refugees will encounter the violence and batons of the Croatian police and be returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has become a sort of buffer state on the margins of Europe.
Even if the refugees arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not intend to stay, the closure of European borders has produced a humanitarian crisis in the Balkans, which feeds racism and xenophobia. In cafes lining Bihać’s main street, there is an unwritten rule: refugees cannot sit at the outside tables:
“The owners of all the bars have decided not to allow migrants to sit, even if they pay. The problem is that they don't wash, they stink,” says Nerning, a bar owner. "Our customers are afraid of the diseases migrants carry”.
Despite no incidents to speak of, the citizens of Bihać seem exasperated by refugee arrivals. It wasn’t always this way. During the Balkan Wars, more than a million people fled Bosnia, some returning after the conflict. According to Abdurahman Osmanović, Bihać’s imam, locals initially demonstrated empathy towards today’s migrants, with local- and grass roots organizations working to provide aid to those recently arrived or passing through. “They know what it means to leave their homes behind,” he says.
Yet for some time now, that empathy seems to have cracked. While scooping ice cream into cones for her customers, Azerina Junuzović, a woman in her sixties and owner of RB Bar, on the main street, is keen to point out that today’s Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees are not in the same situation that Bosnians faced in the nineties:
"It’s another type of migration. They escape from their country more for economic reasons than for war".
Memory seems erased, empathy dissolved.
To avoid alienating the population in view of the 2020 elections, Bihać mayor Šuhret Fazlić decided first to deport the refugees to Vučjak, and then to dismantle the camp, which housed up to 1,500 at any one time. At an October 21 press conference in Sarajevo, Fazlić announced that the local administration would no longer pay the camp's expenses, cutting the water supply, electricity and waste collection.
Winter weather then turned the situation into a major humanitarian crisis. On December 3 the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic said Vučjak should be shut down immediately. "If we don't close the camp today, tomorrow people will start dying here", she told reporters while visiting the camp. "Whose responsibility would that be? That is the question I ask everyone." Mijatovic, a Bosnian national, said she was upset by the situation. "I think this is a shame for Bosnia. The conditions here are not for human beings".
Memory seems erased, empathy dissolved.
Provoking an EU response
It had also become difficult for volunteers and aid workers to enter the camp. The only health clinic inside the camp, run by German volunteers, had been closed down. Doctors Without Borders, which runs a clinic in the area, called for action. "The Bosnian government must urgently escalate its efforts, increase accommodation capacity and improve provision of services so all people living in squats, informal settlements or sleep in the streets to be accommodated and protected. No human deserves to live in these conditions”, the group said in a press release.
Edin Morankić, deputy mayor of Bihać, explains that the municipal administration took these drastic measures to provoke responses from the EU and national governments: “We opened the Vučjak camp to make the European Union and the central government understand that it was no longer possible to host refugees in Bihać, that they should wake up and find a solution. But we’re still waiting: neither the European Union nor the central government has lifted a finger”.
Before the closure of Vučjak, the area of Bihać had five camps, all overcrowded and with few services. Every night 150 people arrive in the canton, double the 2018 arrivals. a situation Morankić deemed out of control. Local administration became unwilling to manage the situation, for both economic and political reasons: “We don’t receive any funding from the central government. Instead we’ve been left alone to deal with it as a municipal administration,” continues Morankić. In recent years, local groups throughout the country have organized to provide aid to migrants but have faced the challenges represented by the lack of resources and the increasing number of migrant arrivals.
For now, it seems, the eviction has shifted these issues to other municipalities, without resolving the situation for migrants or local communities. The camps to which Vučjak residents were transferred are also in questionable conditions, and locals are protesting the migrants’ presence.
While Bosnia's Ministry of Security oversees migration governance, the country did not have an elected government from October 2018 to November 2019, during which time the management of centers and decisions about where migrants can reside was largely the purview of local authorities, non-governmental organizations, and the IOM. Official camps are managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and by UNHCR. NGOs have a hard time obtaining permission to work in the country. Since 2018, the EU has promised Sarajevo 34 million euros for the migration crisis, most of which has been transferred directly to IOM. In late October 2019, Croatia was deemed ready to enter the EU’s Schengen area in 2020, joining Europe’s free movement zone. Twenty-five years after the end of the war, Bosnia instead seems trapped in a paradox, not part of the EU yet functioning as its border.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Italian news magazine Internazionale. Some clarifying amendments were made by the authors to this article on January 6, 2019.