A failure at multiple levels: Bosnia’s migrant crisis grows deeper amidst stop-gap measures

Image Credit: Facebook Page of Una-Sana Canton, Bosnia & Herzegovina


Co-written with Dijana Dedić

Dijana Dedić is the Coordinator for the European Union integration processes for the Una-Sana Canton and the Secretary for the Development Agency of the Una-Sana Canton. She has multiple years of experience implementing EU-funded projects for the Canton and local communities, EU integration processes of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and strategic planning.

While the world was attempting to celebrate the holidays and bid farewell to 2020 as safely as the pandemic allows, a migrant crisis was brewing in unprecedented ways near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell called it a ‘serious humanitarian situation,’ while the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called out the situation at the beginning of December, highlighting the importance of coordination at all levels in the country.

Namely, nearly 900 migrants near Bihać were left without adequate migrant accommodation after one migrant camp, Lipa, was closed, and then burnt down (it remains unclear as to who is responsible for the fire). The camp had originally been opened in March 2020 as one of the few locations that satisfied the condition of being owned by the city (rather than privately) and was located outside of the city center, thus making the potential of being a migrant camp site in the medium to long-term (in coordination with the EU through the International Organisation for Migrants) also possible. Additionally, nearly 3,000 migrants are sleeping rough in and around Bihać, hoping to cross the border into Croatia and move to their desired destination countries in Western Europe.

The local community’s dissatisfaction with the situation was on display after BiH Council of Ministers’ decided to reopen camp Bira in response. The site had previously served as a temporary migrant camp for close to 2000 people, with nearly as many sleeping rough in the area in hopes of being able to enter the camp or receive meals. Bira’s inability to accommodate all migrants only added to migrants’ desperation evidenced by subsequent acts of vandalism on one hand and feelings of insecurity in the community by the local population on the other hand led to its initial closing. The local population’s refusal to accept the BiH Council of Ministers’ decision to reopen it led to protests including blocking the entrance to Bira and not backing down until an alternative solution could found. The lack of deliberation, coordination, and frankly, basic communication between the local and national levels of government was thus on display, in large part at the expense of the local population in Bihać and the migrants at risk.

Ultimately, Bosnian armed forces set up military tents in Lipa, currently being equipped with heaters in order to shield migrants from the upcoming winter months, thus mitigating the humanitarian catastrophe international organisations and civil society actors on the ground have been warning against. However, this make-shift solution, implemented in a haphazard way, still does not present more than a short-term solution. Visits by EU delegates including Ambassadors, IOM representatives, and national level governmental representatives over the last days signal more engagement and pressure on Bosnian authorities but remain stop-gap solutions to broader migration management issues beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina’s control.

The migrant crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina is nothing new as the country has been on the route for migrants attempting to cross into the EU for years. As a reminder, in the same period in 2019, a similar situation was unfolding, with international organisations urging Bosnia and Herzegovina to close down the Vučjak camp raised on top of an old landfill on the outskirts of Bihać and find an alternative solution. The potential for a humanitarian crisis due to the cold, inadequate sleeping arrangements, and continued human rights abuses on the border in Croatia and Slovenia, which send migrants back into Bosnia and Herzegovina repeatedly, only continue to exacerbate the already complicated situation. The search for adequate locations for migrant accommodation continues, with the Republika Srpska entity clearly expressing it is unwilling to host migrants and communities within the Federation also demonstrating reluctance.

Arguments at potential migrant integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina fall flat. Between 2018 and 2020, there were only 2,565 asylum applications out of the nearly 70,000 registered migrants (Ministry of Security BiH). The data about total numbers of migrants remains disputable, with authorities in the Una-Sana Canton (where Bihać is located) reporting higher numbers. This points to the ongoing problem of inadequate data collection on migrants crossing (due to illegal border crossing and trafficking), lack of coordinated registration efforts, and inability to follow migrant exits. Even in the case of migrant deaths, it is difficult to follow through with procedures including repatriation, in part due to inadequate documentation.

Attempts at providing migrant education in and around Bihać lead to mixed results as migrant children may not attend regularly if their families attempt to cross the border collectively, often on multiple occasions before succeeding. Unaccompanied underage migrants, much like in Lesvos, are not guaranteed protection in migrant accommodation centres. While official data is scarce, anecdotal data in Bihać indicates this population is especially vulnerable to others posing as their parents or physical and sexual abuse, especially in larger migrant camps without adequate hygienic and safety conditions. To date, there has been no coordinated transfer of these individuals out of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The migrant crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a migration management failure at multiple levels and between different actors. The situation primarily reflects the EU’s failure to provide adequate migration policies for citizens of third countries, especially when considering the migrants’ desired destination countries. This has in turn fuelled illegal migration routes such as the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Providing additional funding in order for Bosnia and Herzegovina to ‘solve’ the crisis rings hollow, especially as the state and institutions themselves decide how to allocate funds differently. Rather, IOM serves as the primary conduit, responsible for carrying out projects such as supporting site management of migrant camps. Bosnian authorities are then left to squabble over the location of additional migrant camps, unwilling or unable to reach agreement due to the entrenched political system.

They have been unable to coordinate their response to the migrant crisis adequately, remaining stuck passing the proverbial ball of responsibility between different levels and agencies, inspiring little confidence on all accounts. There are multiple disconnects in place – capital vs. periphery, between national-level government ministries, cantons and entities, not to mention individual politicians exacerbating ethnonational tensions. Civil society organisations and local activists are unable and unauthorised to do much more than they are already doing.

Meanwhile, Bosnians and Herzegovinians, themselves seeking to migrate to countries in Europe seeking a better future and employment (and pursuing this through existing legal mechanisms for the most part), perceive the crisis in different ways. For the local communities in and around Bihać, there are serious safety concerns due to potential clashes, violence, and property damage committed by migrants sleeping rough as well as human traffickers who perpetuate the situation. While not as prominent as in Bihać, individual attacks by and among migrants have also been recorded in Sarajevo and elsewhere in the country, adding to citizens’ anxiety.

The majority of citizens interviewed over the last few months shared encounters during which they felt threatened or unsafe in their own city over the last years. The police and prosecutor’s office in Bihać has intervened over 3,000 times to a variety of calls involving migrants to date. While this includes everything from disturbing the peace to more serious offenses, it nonetheless demonstrates the strain on law and legal enforcement communities. They are overextended. Moreover, they often struggle to identify individuals who might not have proper documentation or language skills to adequately communicate.

Ultimately, migrants on the move in Bosnia and Herzegovina have become victims of the fragmented decision making process in the country and the lack of adequate policy solutions at the EU level. Their plight has been added to ethnonational political squabbles in the country. They remain in their proverbial waiting room in Bosnia and Herzegovina, some freezing to death, others making it to their desired final destination only to begin new asylum processes. The local community in and around Bihać continues to bear the burden of migrant accommodation without an end in sight, with support for infrastructure projects, to local organisations, or law and legal enforcement limited. Meanwhile, the EU benefits by delaying the arrival of migrants as it works to resolve internal division related to migration and asylum policies. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has traditionally been an emigration state, not an immigration state, and does not have the adequate border control or data management mechanisms in place to account for a revolving migrant influx, continues to be portrayed as a dysfunctional EU member aspirant, thus further delaying already tedious integration processes.

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