Life between closed borders - Kosovo 2.0
Perspectives | Migration

Life between closed borders

The Balkan Route through Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to be active.

By - 06.02.2020

This is the third year since Bosnia and Herzegovina became an active part of the route for refugees and migrants who are trying to reach Western European countries. During this period, more than 50,000 people have entered the country. 

Only a few of them have managed to continue on their journey. Some have given up and returned to their country of origin but thousands are still in the Balkans, trapped between two worlds: The one they are coming from, where life is often unbearable, and the one they dream about.

There are many reports about the brutal and inhumane actions of the police safeguarding the EU’s borders. This is an increasingly frequent topic in the European Parliament as well. The people on the move talk about the brutality exercised against them, including the excessive use of force, confiscation of property, clothes, mobile phones and money. Apart from this, they are being forcefully pushed back from the EU’s borders.

Those who are being thrust toward Bosnia and Herzegovina are forced to survive in poor conditions, while their basic rights, such as the right of access to asylum or dignified and humane accommodation are denied.

Ajdin Kamber, journalist, videographer and photographer, has spent the last year travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina, reporting on the lives of refugees and migrants. From Sarajevo, Bihać, Velika Kladuša and Tuzla, he has been following people on the move in what they call “The Game.” They are forced to make these journeys to find a safe place to live.

Tuzla, Train Station, January 2020

The temperatures drop to minus 10 celsius overnight here. Several hundred people are forced to live in an improvised camp, between the rails. They have arrived in Bosnia through Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo or Montenegro. They set off from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Morocco, India and elsewhere.

They spend their time at the train station, because the local authorities refuse to provide any accommodation. Care for the migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes under the jurisdiction of the state level Ministry of Security that is unable to demand that the local authorities abide by the laws and secure dignified and humane treatment of all the people on the move. Or at least so it seems according to what has been going on in the past two years.

More than 100 people who are currently staying in this improvised camp will have to wait for the end of winter there. As soon as spring begins, they will continue on their path towards the European Union. Ahead of them are mountains they have to hike, rivers they need to cross and closed borders with angry guards.

Those who have been left in Tuzla’s streets live in extremely poor conditions; no running water, no toilets, or showers. They also lack doctors, psychologists, and access to state institutions. For over 18 months, local citizens and humanitarian organizations have been providing warm meals, tea and clothes. The people living there face different kinds of discrimination daily.

Bosanska Krajina, Winter 2019/2020

The largest number of migrants and refugees are located in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, along the border cities of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, as well as in the surrounding villages and towns. The reason for this is simple — this is the shortest road to safe countries, where they will try to seek asylum or find a way to stay there.

Vučjak, Winter 2019

Until mid-December last year, several thousands of people were forced to live in a place they referred to as “The Jungle.” The city authorities improvised a camp in a former dump within the Vučjak region, alongside a minefield left over from the previous war, which is two kilometers away from the EU’s border. For half a year, a few hundred exhausted people lived there, trying to survive in impossible conditions: No electricity, no toilet, insufficient food and water, no doctors or medicine. This camp’s very existence will be a permanent stain not only on the authorities in this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the whole state as well.

Over 4,000 people are living in the centers that were established in 2018, when people on the move began passing through Bosnia. The centers offer only the basics. They are financed by the EU. According to official data, around 3,000 people have been living in five centers in Krajina.

Simultaneously, the number of people for whom there is no place in the camps or who don’t want to spend their time there, is almost the same. They are sleeping in abandoned buildings and factories that were shut down during the transition and the privatization processes. The living conditions are extremely poor. Often, they fall victim to police abuse. Their freedom of movement is restricted and they lack food.

During the past year, on several occasions, the citizens of Bihać gathered, expressing their dissatisfaction with the situation in the city and with the reluctance of local and state authorities to care for refugees and migrants. They have partially directed their anger toward the government and international humanitarian organizations. There were also those who openly opposed the presence of any migrants and refugees in this area, seeking their expulsion, detention in camps and prohibiting public transportation vehicles from bringing migrants.

Blockades and forced removal from buses and trains

In order to prevent the inflow of refugees and migrants into the Una-Sana Canton (USC), the local authorities have decided to introduce illegal checkpoints. However, no one has so far stopped them in doing so. Police patrols are stationed at the Canton’s entrance, removing people from public transport, mainly based on their skin color.

Velečevo village, close to Ključ, is one of the checkpoints where more than 7,000 people have been detained since October 2018, when it was originally established. Many were forced to sleep on the ground, even children. Members of the local Red Cross were the only ones mitigating the difficult situation by providing warm meals, temporary shelter and heating.

Besides the traffic jams, the authorities and police of USC have also stopped all movement through the train station on the route from Sarajevo to Bihać. At the first USC station, in a place called Bosanska Otoka, the police are forcefully evacuating refugees and migrants although they have paid their tickets all the way through to Bihać.

After taking them off the train, the police are using buses to drive them several kilometers away, north of Bosanska Otoka, where they are leaving them in the dark, without shelter, food, water or any help.

Sarajevo, January 2020

Camps were also established in Sarajevo. For now, there are two. Just like the ones in Bosanska Krajina, these are also only providing the most basic conditions to accommodate around 2,000 people, including women, children and unaccompanied minors.

Sarajevo’s centers also don’t have room for everybody, while some of them don’t want to go to the camps, believing they aren’t safe enough or they simply think they couldn’t possibly live there. They are spending their time outdoors, in the open, where they manage to survive thanks to generous citizens.

In order to survive, pay for food and perhaps some cheap accommodation, dozens of young men in Sarajevo’s streets are selling tissues. We often meet them at the crossroads of the capital city while they are patiently standing, smiling while trying to sell a pack of handkerchiefs to the passersby and drivers. They are preserving their dignity and trying to earn some money for a meal. M. from Morocco is one of them. He spends most of his days at the crossroads nearby one shopping mall in Sarajevo. He is having issues with the mall’s guards and police officers who are trying to drive him away.

Some of the people on the move will spend the Bosnian and Herzegovinian winter in camps. The rest will be forced to sleep under tents and in abandoned houses and factories. Most of them will head to the west and a better life. They call this path: The Game.