In the first months of 2016 the EU-Turkey agreement shut off the “Balkan migration route” that had brought some 764 thousand refugees to West-European countries. Since then there has been a significant reduction in the number of arrivals. But migrants did not vanish into thin air: walls, barbed wire and hostility have only made their journey more dangerous. The closure left thousands trapped inside Serbia, hoping to continue their journey of hope. Since 2018 people continue arriving through the new route that passes through Greece, Albania and Montenegro up to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their destination – the poorly-controlled border with Croatia, a gateway to the “promised land” – is Germany or the Scandinavian Countries.
600% more migrants. Figures released by national authorities and by the UN High Commission for Refugees show that 5.116 refugees have entered Bosnia and Herzegovina since early January 2018”, said Dijana Muzicka, Emergency Coordinator of Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina. An increase of 600 -700% according to National Security Minister Dragan Mektic. Arrivals are increasing with the good weather and the summer season. “It’s impossible to make accurate forecasts. Two weeks ago the government enforced tighter border controls and nobody knows what will happen next – remarked the Caritas worker – Every week law enforcement authorities send back approximately 200 people trying to cross the border.
A makeshift camp in the park. The first stopover is usually Sarajevo, where migrants can file an asylum request at the local Immigration Office. “At the beginning authorities and charity organizations were taken by surprise, there were no migrant reception facilities, no food, water… nothing”, Musicka went on. Thus migrants set up a makeshift camp in the historic centre of the Bosnian capital, in disastrous conditions.
The citizens of Sarajevo gave a helping hand to the people left in those conditions.
“Here everyone has tragic memories of the war and they know what it means to be a refugee”, pointed out Daniele Bombardi, Caritas Italy representative to the Balkans, underlying the fact that since the first arrivals past October Catholic bishops mandated Caritas to care for the migrants.
Local authorities were not prepared. Caritas Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the front line of assistance to migrants. “We contributed to drafting a plan for migrants under the coordination of the Refugees Minister, head of the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, created for internally displaced peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s”, Musicka explained. However, the plan’s implementation required the green light of national authorities. For the Caritas worker, “authorities are doing all they can, but everything proceeds at a very slow pace.” Bosnia-Herzegovina has a very complex administrative structure due to the Dayton Treaty and the inclusion of members of the various ethnic groups in different levels of administration. The migrants issue is problematic also in the light of the election campaign for national elections scheduled for 7 October.
The most striking example was the transfer of migrants from the Sarajevo park to the centre of Salakovac, near Mostar.
“The government had organized a convoy of buses carrying migrants but once they arrived to the neighbouring Hercegovina-Neretva Canton (a mixed canton with Croatian and Bosnian population), the local police stopped the buses”, said the Caritas worker. The immigrants, including several children, were left on the street waiting for the government to resolve the issue. On the other hand, the other entity, the Serbian Republic, has categorically refused to accept any migrant on its territory.
Five migrant reception centres. The Federal Government’s plan, launched past May, envisages five migrant centres for the reception of migrants arriving into Bosnia and Herzegovina: Delijas, Salakovac and Bihac, and Hadzici, near Sarajevo, have been completed, while Doboj Jug is under construction. Most refugees go to the cities of Bihac and Velika Kladusa in the attempt to cross the border with Croatia. “There are 500 refugees in Bihac, many of them found shelter in an old student house. But these are abandoned structures, and despite the ongoing renovation works, the conditions are very bad”, said the local Caritas worker. There are only 40 beds, there is need for more places to sleep, mattresses and blankets.
A generous restaurant owner. In Velika Kladusa, another border-town with high numbers of immigrants, one of the local restaurant-owners decided to give them a helping hand. Every day he supplies 200 to 250 hot meals. “It was hard to ensure this service for many months”, Bombardi said. But now Caritas will be helping inside and outside the camps. They have already set up a refreshment centre in Delijas for immigrants, with tea, coffee and biscuits.
“We will try to help out in all those places where national institutions don’t have the means to meet people’s needs”,
added the Balkan representative of Caritas Italy. A home for the vulnerable migrant population – families, pregnant women, unaccompanied minors – will be completed by the end of June. Furthermore, their colleagues in Belgrade working inside the camps in Serbia shared their experience with the staff of Caritas Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mined border. At some point many of the migrants coming from the south into Bosnia-Herzegovina are no longer traceable, probably they manage to cross the border to the north of the Country. However, official border crossings are closed for them and the first countries are very distant from the border, they would have to walk many kilometres.
In mid-May, Ihsan Udin, a 21-year-old youth from Afghanistan, drowned in the Korana river separating Bosnia from Croatia.
“Refugees reported abuse and violence by the Croatian police”, Bomardi said recalling that recently “police opened fire at a van carrying migrants and two children were injured.” In his view “violence does not discourage people, whose basic rights should be respected.” In the mountains on the border, however, there are other dangers, “it’s a landmine area – he pointed out – and we don’t know whether migrant people are aware of the risk.”