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The country has become another place in Europe where refugees are stranded without hope

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A group of refugees camping near Trnovi, Bosnia. Photo: Nidžara Ahmetašević

In the first eight months of 2019, over 19,000 people on the move entered Bosnia and Herzegovina. For almost two years, people have been arriving in the country daily. Most of them come from Greece and Turkey, via Albania and Montenegro or Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia. According to official figures, in September 2019 around 7,500 people were present in the newly established reception centres for migrants. It is estimated that at least 1,500 more are left outside, sleeping in the open, in hostels, hotels, or hosted by local people.

What most of the people arriving in Bosnia are not aware of is that they are coming to a state whose structures were created by a peace accord and international intervention and as such are not very stable, nor are they able to provide basic services. The intervention, which began after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 ended the three-and-a-half-years-long war, aimed at state-building and democratization. Even today, the peace agreement defines the state’s construction and is based on a constitution that discriminates against people who do not see themselves as members of one of the “constituent people”, i.e. Bosniak, Serbs, and Croats. As a consequence, Bosnia has an extremely complicated state structure that includes two entities (the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has 10 cantons), plus the District of Brčko as an independent unit. Each level has its own government, parliaments, and structures, making decision-making processes extremely difficult and often confusing.

Dr. Nidžara Ahmetašević is a journalist and independent scholar who received her PhD from the University of Graz, Austria. Her fields of interest are democratization and media development in post-conflict society, transitional justice, media and political propaganda, human rights, and migration. Since 2015 she has been part of the initiative Are You Syrious?, an activist and advocacy group focusing on refugees' and migrants’ rights in Europe.

The highest authority in the country, at least technically, is the Office of the High Representative (OHR), a body created by the peace agreement and tasked with ensuring implementation of its civilian component. Over the years the OHR has imposed laws and decisions that shaped the lives of Bosnia’s citizens. Although the OHR today hardly uses its powers, they still influence policy in the country together with the even more influential office of the European Special Representative. Additionally, European military forces (EUFOR) are still present, albeit in much smaller numbers than before.

These circumstances affect every aspect of daily life in Bosnia, as well as the possibilities for developing democratic society. Civil society in the country is largely dependent on international donations and therefore influenced by the interests of different donors, many of whom are associated with the institutions of the international community in Bosnia. Another result of this state-building effort we see today is a crippled state based on corruption and nepotism and influenced by interests that often do not relate to citizens’ needs. Bosnia today has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe (33.9 percent), while unemployment among youth is the highest in the world (over 46 percent). Those with a job earn only about 600 euro per month on average.

Solidarity Networks

Life in this type of dysfunctional state compels many citizens leave the country. While statistics in Bosnia are not entirely reliable, several sources show that over the last five years almost 200,000 people left. Those who stay, if not part of the ruling elite or close to them in any way, struggle to make ends meet and often find solutions for many problems in solidarity networks. These solidarity networks act in different ways: collecting money for medical treatments for people who are sick and cannot afford it, giving money to charities that provide food and clothes to the poor, or organizing support in case of natural disasters, like the floods in Bosnia in 2014.

These informal networks were again activated with the arrival of people on the move, faced—again—with widespread inaction and ignorance on the part of local authorities. Local self-organized groups and many individuals all over the country got together to provide food, clothes, accommodation, or showers. Many of the people who got involved in different ways were either refugees during the war from 1992–1995, are considering emigrating from Bosnia themselves, or have relatives and friends who recently migrated. Many of them insist that what the people they encounter need is solidarity and not charity, a very different approach from what they see a number of international organizations on the Balkan route since 2015 provide.

At present, the authorities do not support the local solidarity networks but also mostly do not interfere with them. Being aware that the solidarity structures provide very necessary help for people on the move, therefore preventing a humanitarian disaster, most of the time authorities stay aside and observe. The State Ministry of Security, which is in charge of asylum issues, limits its work to registration and border protection, generally not interfering with civic society engagement. At the level of the entities, few institutions show interest in the situation and needs of migrants in its area. In some of the cantons in the Federation—especially in Una-Sana Canton in the north of the country where the number of people on the move is the highest—institutions do much more than defined by the law, often ignoring legal regulations, and putting unnecessary pressure on the people on the move and the solidarity network.

Bosnia and the Balkan Route

Bosnia has been part of the Balkan Route for migrants for centuries. However, in 2015, when over one million people were on the move towards Western Europe, this small country was bypassed. Apparently, people were aware of the high mountains, dangerous forest roads filled with landmines left from the war, and wild animals. Some did pass through, but the numbers were insignificant. The situation changed when the EU began fortifying its external borders, starting with the signing of the EU–Turkey deal in March 2016. The EU allowed Hungary and other states that share borders with the Balkan countries to build almost impenetrable border control systems, accompanied by wires and armed guards who do not hesitate to use force. However, this did not stop people from trying to reach the places where they hoped they would be safe. But trying to cross from Serbia to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, or Croatia, many became victims not only of pushbacks but also of brutal violence from border guards.

For a while, the violence at the Hungarian border was a symbol of the EU’s closed border policy. People then changed routes towards Croatia, which in turn took over Hungary’s role as symbolic border guard by 2017. According to UNHCR, 6,567 persons were pushed back from Croatia to Serbia in 2018 without being able to apply for asylum in Croatia. When the route turned towards Bosnia, this policy of collective expulsions along the Croatian borders was continued. Activists and organizations monitoring border violence in the field view this as a terrifying and systematic practice to discourage people from attempting to go to the EU.

Soon, media reports drew attention to the brutality of the Croatian border police. Even the Minister of Security of Bosnia denounced the use of physical violence and forced expulsions by the Croatian police. Some members of the European Parliament were also ready to hear these concerns, but the European Commission, as well as the authorities in Zagreb, more or less ignored or denied the allegations. Clearly feeling the support of European authorities, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, President of Croatia, announced that Croatia should learn from the Hungarian example on how to protect its borders. While Croatia is pushing people back, Serbia, which for a long time hosted a significant number of refugees and migrants, keeps its borders towards Bosnia mostly open and therefore contributes to the creation of a bottleneck from which people can hardly find a way out.

Dire Conditions

While the authorities in Croatia claim that their aim is not to prevent people from entering the EU, but to fight against smugglers and traffickers, they achieve the opposite: pushbacks and border violence have also increased the prices people have to pay to smugglers to cross into the EU from Bosnia. In April 2019, the figure reached 3,200 Euros for the journey from Sarajevo to Trieste.

In April, members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the European Commission calling for an end to pushbacks at the Croatian border and noting the poor living conditions in the Bosnian camps, concluding that “despite the fact that the EU granted 9.2 million euro to Bosnian authorities and international organisations, reports show that their capacity is not sufficient and that conditions in these buildings remain inadequate, with for example insufficient toilets, showers, health care and violence due to overcrowding”.

Of the seven camps in Bosnia, one is situated near Sarajevo, four in the northwestern Unsko-sanski Kanton, and Salakovac, near Mostar, as the only one run by the state. Additionally, the state controls the asylum centre Delijaš near Sarajevo and an immigration centre in Lukavica that serves as a detention facility. The other camps are established and controlled by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). A new camp is planned to be built near Bihać on municipal land in the near future. Pictures, videos, and reports from the cities of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, where most of the people are concentrated, show disastrous conditions. While over 3,000 people are placed in newly constructed centres, hundreds are left outside to sleep and live in the streets, forests, and—for those who are luckier—in abandoned buildings. A few people live with locals.

By not providing for thousands of people in need, state institutions have put much of the burden on their shoulders. Additionally, state authorities decided to hand over responsibility to deal with the situation to IOM, UNHCR, and UNICEF. The European Commission backed this process, and granted over nine million euro to these international organisations in 2018, and committed to additional 13 million euro in 2019. Funding is used to set up camps, many of them with a hostile atmosphere inside, aimed at discouraging people from their journey. This policy of alienating people on the move has also negatively affected the public’s attitude and local solidarity structures.

At the same time, the arrival of a big number of refugees and migrant to Bosnia showed how the existing nepotistic structures are occupied by people due to their party of private connections who are rather incapable of doing their job. In this case, the “job” would be to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to people on the move, as well as to implement laws that guarantee the rights of migrants and refugees. Aware of the dysfunctional state, it was thus easy for the “international community”, currently dominated by the EU, to impose the approach and ways of operating the camps in Bosnia based on the premise of closed borders. The result is another place in Europe where people are stuck in a country that can hardly provide for its own citizens.

Private Business

In Unsko-sanski Kanton, where most of the migrants reside, the state did not allocate space or buildings for camps. Therefore, the IOM decided to make arrangements with private companies, renting spaces to be filled with containers and big tents. At least two of these companies are related to people with connections to local politicians and legal or corruption issues in the past. One example is Hotel Sedra in Cazin, where families and people with special needs are housed. The hotel was supposed to go into foreclosure due to debts towards, among others, former employees. The plan was also for the old, dilapidated hotel to be renovated or demolished. Nevertheless, this did not stop IOM from signing an agreement with the owner in August 2018, just a couple of days before the hotel was to be publicly auctioned. Details of the agreement the IOM made with the owner of this old hotel, as well as other agreements between IOM, UNHCR, and private companies or organizations are not transparent to the public.

Nevertheless, the camps they created soon became horrors resembling the worst camps in Greece and Turkey. The camps in the former factories BIRA and Miral (in Bihać and Kladuša) have been compared by some of their residents to Moria, Lesvos, a place often described as “hell on earth”. Volunteers and activists report daily about the living conditions in camps, where there is a lack of everything from food, safety, electricity, to drinkable water and showers. People sleep in large tents with no possibility even for a minimum of privacy. Sexual and gender-based violence is common, while little is done to address it. Due to poor living conditions conflicts often occur, but IOM representatives and local officials tend to describe them as conflicts between different nationalities or ethnicities, rather than admitting that the living conditions are often the cause of violence and frustration among the residents. A Red Cross representative in Bosnia described dire living conditions, reporting about three people who sought shelter in a derelict building in Bihać burning to death when a candle they were using caused a fire. Other cases of people falling from dilapidated buildings or setting themselves on fire are reported.

OM is in charge of security (among other things) inside the centres in Bihać and Velika Kladuša, but also in Sarajevo. They decided to hire private security companies that seem to have permission to use force against people, including beatings and use of tasers, which are illegal in Bosnia. Additionally, restrictions on freedom of speech and movement, as well as humiliation have been reported. The organizations in charge usually do not comment or react to these reports, similar to the missing response of the European Commission to reports of violence along EU borders.

Local authorities have easily accepted a discourse and policies often used by the far-right in the EU, refusing to look for humane solutions and using this opportunity to further militarize and securitize the country. Among the first to offer support for increased border security was the Hungarian government, which announced they were ready to send police to Bosnia to assist in border controls. Additionally, according to the Bosnian Border Police, the European Commission donated cages that were installed at least at one border crossing (Trebinje), and in which people were held for several hours before being pushed back to Montenegro. This encouraged local authorities to start using pushbacks and violence, as reported by activist groups. They also noticed an increase of cases of police brutality inside the country, as well as an increase in harsh language and even hate speech towards migrants by Bosnian authorities and in the media.

A Place of Lost Hopes

The results are violations of human rights on a massive scale, the victims mostly being people on the move mostly, but also the local population in Bosnia who is retraumatized by scenes often reminding them of war and the suffering they went through themselves. It also reminds them that there is little reason for anyone to stay in Bosnia, and motive for many to leave—thereby becoming migrants themselves.

Nevertheless, a significant number of people who have entered Bosnia since January 2018 managed to find their way towards destinations in the EU. Some, after they tried to cross the border countless times, were beaten up by the border police, pushed back, had their property and money confiscated, and after months of living in extreme conditions in Bosnia have decided to go back to Serbia, Greece, or even back home. They left Bosnia after their dreams were destroyed, brutally, or just before they exhausted even their last drop of hope. For them, life in the safety of the EU remains a mere dream, at least for now.

Soon, as announced from Brussels, Frontex will be deployed to Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia. In May 2019, for the first time ever, the EU agency launched an operation outside the EU supporting the Albanian border police. Their presence may increase border controls in the region and lead to a further fortification of the EU’s external borders. Additionally, it may aggravate the already very difficult situation for people on the move in the Balkans, including Bosnia, where people will likely remain stuck with few prospects of rebuilding their lives there or continuing their journey. In Bosnia, people who have to or choose to stay have little to no chance of obtaining asylum or even refugee status. According to the 2018 Special Report by the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights, asylum procedures are slow and the system in general is hardly functional. Official data shows that from 2008 to 2017 only nine persons gained refugee status in Bosnia, and 85 persons subsidiary protection.

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a place where the dreams and hopes of many—both people on the move and locals—are being destroyed. One reason for this is the EU’s policy of border closure, which not only allows and even makes use of violence at the borders, but also imposes policies in its neighbourhood that are unbearable. As in Greece and other countries, the struggle of the local population and people on the move must become a common struggle for equality, justice, and human rights.