No way forward, no way back: the nightmare of migrants trapped in Bosnia

No way forward, no way back: the nightmare of migrants trapped in Bosnia
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Hans von der Brelie
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Unreported Europe looks into the living conditions of economic migrants stuck in Bosnia desperately trying to get into the EU.

Bosnia is a transit country for migrants trying to get to the European Union, but the European Union’s external border is closed. This has left thousands of migrants stranded. Hundreds of them, like Salman and his brothers, are sleeping rough in abandoned buildings, makeshift tents and even in old freight wagons. Temperatures in winter are way below zero in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So why are these people not placed in emergency shelters?

The toll on mental health

Salman explains to me that some of his fellow travellers developed mental health problems on their journey from Pakistan to Bosnia. Middle-class families save thousands of euros to send their sons to Europe. But now they are stranded half-way, no way forward, no way back, crushed by the guilt of having failed their families back home.

Salman and his brothers are part of a group of Pakistani migrants stranded in the Tuzla region for a year and a half. They have been living in an abandoned freight wagon for seven months. They have tried several times to cross the Bosnian-Croatian border without success. They say that they will try one more time and if they fail, they will opt for repatriation back to Pakistan. According to them, doing so puts their families at huge risk. It cost 3000 to 4000 euros each to get them this far and many families have contracted debts to raise this money.

The local authorities refuse to open a migrant camp in the Tuzla region, but the city remains an important transit zone between Serbia and Croatia.

Charities picking up the slack

NGOs, such as EMMAUS, have stepped in and offer migrants a place to get warm. Many are economic migrants from Pakistan or North Africa, like Brahim Radi and his friends who are from Algeria. He has tried to cross the border into Croatia many times. He tells me that a Croatian border guard broke his tooth with a truncheon. He feels he got off lightly as some have lost eyes and broken ribs in confrontation with border guards.

At Emmaus, the migrants can take a shower and change into clean clothes. Dzeneta Delic-Sadikovic is a young lawyer, she manages the Emmaus in Tuzla. She tells me that “the problem regarding the violence at the Croatian-Bosnian border has to stop. These people don’t want to stay here, a solution has to be found to allow them to leave Bosnia and head towards Europe.”


We went to the Lipa camp in western Bosnia that burnt down at Christmas. An investigation is still underway to ascertain who set the fire, but for now, there is no answer to this question.

The Lipa camp was set up for the summer. Local authorities have failed to make it suitable for winter. The International Organization for Migration realised this and pulled out of the operations there. The Bosnian government found another location for it, close to Sarajevo. But local protests made the transfer impossible. To stop people from freezing to death, the Interior Ministry took over and set up heated tents.

Suleman Shahid is a migrant from Pakistan. Back home he was a civil engineer. He has been at the Lipa camp for four months now. He found the Euronews team filming around the camp and offered us some of his home-made food. It's then that he tells us that they have to walk two kilometres to get drinking water. He says they are only given "three bottles of water a day for 33 to 45 people".

There are currently around 9000 migrants in Bosnia-and-Herzegovina. The EU ambassador in Sarajevo told us that it shouldn’t be a difficult task to find shelter for them and he urges the authorities to speed up action.

But for now, the migrants are forced to go to a local spring to get a wash. There is no hot water. Ziaullah Zaheer is a migrant from Afghanistan. He is one of the official speakers for the migrants at Lipa. He says that the EU should take serious action to help the migrants. Zaheer left Afghanistan because he was being targetted by fighter groups. One of his brothers lost an eye in violence in his home country. He wants to get to Europe for a safer life.

A disfunction system

Every year the EU channels around 20 million euros to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The money is supposed to be for migration management, but dysfunctional state structures in the country often get in the way. Decisions by the federal government can be blocked by local authorities. Some regions in the country refuse to take on any of the burdens linked to sheltering migrants.

A frontier town camp

We headed to Bihac, close to the Croatian border where there are around 60 squats. The International Organisation for Migration delivers food to them. Natasa Omerovic works for the international organisation, she says “the situation is dire, serious and these people are in need of basic living conditions", (...) some 1000 people in the whole region are squatting in places and buildings”.

Bira is a former refrigerator factory. Until last September it was used as a temporary camp to host 2000 migrants. But locals were upset by the increase of burglaries and that’s not all. Seid Sehic lives near the former camp and tells us about a traumatic event he experienced whilst planting potatoes:

"Five migrants came here into my garden and one of them had a long knife in his hand and he attacked me, luckily the knife did not go into my stomach, just through my clothing. I stepped back and picked up a pitchfork that was lying around and I hit the migrant who was trying to stab me. I told him to drop the knife.”

We discussed the matter of migrants with the Prime Minister of the Una-Sana canton where Bihac is located. A high-ranking diplomat told us that we should bear in mind one thing about Mustafa Ruznic: He is a man who was ready to let migrants freeze to death. He justifies this tough anti-migrant stance because of alleged security concerns and high numbers of crimes committed by migrants in his area. He tells us that “in the Una Sana canton, there are permanent brawls between Pashtuns and Hazaras, between Shiites and Sunnites. Over the last three years, those migrants have committed over 3200 offences. Among those crimes are rapes, migrant killings, and also several murder attempts on our citizens. They commit arson and break into private homes. All the migrants walking around our city should be deported, they are here illegally”.

His stance on migrants seems unlikely to change. This might explain why 'NO CAMP' billboards are up around the entrance of the Bira camp and why angry locals oppose re-opening the fully-equipped site.

Also, in April of last year, Bihac experienced a major brawl among rival migrant groups. 450 people were involved. In September, the camp was closed, but the entire infrastructure is still there. To solve the urgent problem of migrants sleeping outside in the middle of winter, the EU suggested re-opening the facility. But local decision-makers vetoed that. Natasa Omerovic, a manager at the IOM, tells us how much of a tragedy this is:

“This place can be used in the next 24 hours, it’s ready. We have a total of 250 accommodation units and each accommodation unit can accommodate six people in there, so this is giving us the number of 1500 people that can be accommodated in this camp.”

IOM staff helped 303 stranded migrants return home last year. They assist voluntary returnees with logistics and plane tickets.

Journalist • Hans von der Brelie

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