Urgent Humanitarian Situation: Migrants in BiH – Update: December 9, 2018

Posted: 9. Decembra 2018. in Intervjui


“The International Organization for Migration has opened three facilities to house the migrants, one in an abandoned orphanage. Among the 800 or so migrants now sleeping mostly on filthy, concrete floors in the wrecked orphanage, there is only one woman, Julie Meya, a 33-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She wants to get to France. She came to Bihac with three sisters but they recently gave up and left. ‘All of us here have the same goal — to live better. Why do they treat us like animals?’ Ms. Meya said, referring to the Croatian border guards.” (New York Times)


In 2007, Turkey’s land border with Greece became a major crossing point for illegal migrants into the EU. In 2012, the EU’s border protection agency, Frontex, upgraded border controls there, and in 2015, Bulgaria erected a fence on its border with Turkey, to block the migrant flow that had spilled over onto its territory as a result. Since the foreign intervention in Libya in 2011, and the subsequent failure of that state, illegal departures from there have become possible, and indeed commonplace. A new illegal migration route was established from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa, 113 km from Tunisia and 205 km from Sicily.

In October 2013, the deaths of over 350 migrants in a shipwreck led the Italian government to set up a major naval search and rescue operation, Operation Mare Nostrum. In 2014, Frontex took over responsibility for search and rescue in the Mediterranean with Operation Triton. Meanwhile, other migration routes were established via Malta and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco. It is thought that over 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. In the first half of that year, a new migration route was established, by sea from Turkey to the Greek islands. It is thought that in 2015, over 1,200,000 people entered the EU by sea, the majority by this new route, from which traffickers are said to have earned up to EUR 6 billion. Once in Greece, the refugees make their way to the mainland, and then head north into the Balkans. Macedonia and Serbia initially responded to the latest refugee crisis by waving the thousands of people through on their way to Germany.

When Hungary closed its border with Serbia with a razor wire fence on 15 September, Zagreb adopted the same tactic as Belgrade as the refugees turned west, to enter Hungary via Croatia. The day before, the Croatian prime minister had stated they were ready for the influx, ready to handle up to 5,000 per day; but as predicted by the media, 7,500 arrived on the first day alone. On 15 October, Hungary completed a fence on its border with Croatia as well. As a result, the refugees were diverted west from Croatia through Slovenia, and a major bottleneck of wretched men, women and children, collectively labelled “refugees” or “economic migrants”, built up at that border, with the authorities completely overwhelmed. The Slovenes responded by building a razor wire fence on their border as well, while the Hungarians extended their fence to their border with Romania. Attempts by Croatia to stem the tide flowing in from Serbia resulted in verbal confrontations between the border guards on both sides.

At the end of February 2016, the Balkan countries agreed to introduce stricter border controls, with more fences and riot police. In March 2016, the EU promised Turkey 6 billion Euros and visa-free entry for Turkish citizens if Ankara would stop the flow, and Serbia and Macedonia closed their borders. In early 2018, migrants began to appear in Bosnia, crossing the eastern border from Montenegro or Serbia, and travelling across the country to exit into Croatia and the EU on Bosnia’s north-west border, at the town of Velika Kladuša. Over 22,000 migrants have now entered BiH, of whom 7,000 are still in the country, the majority in the Una-Sana canton in the north-west. In May, the Croatian police reinforced their border controls, to prevent the migrants crossing their territory to Slovenia. As a result, the US canton, which has still not recovered economically from the war, has become the theatre of this international crisis. But the great international institutions, and interested foreign governments, have proved as powerless as the local authorities to come up with a solution. In October, the main border crossing at Velika Kladuša was closed for a week as migrants held a sit-in, and 60 of them went on hunger strike. This situation was resolved after a week by the VK Federation of Small Businesses, who made industrial premises (“Miral”) available for two weeks to house 150 migrants.

The situation facing Migrants in Bosnia on Sunday 9 December 2018

BiH is almost exclusively a transit country for migrants, with most people generally staying for a few days or weeks before moving to other countries. Despite the tens-of-thousands of people who are registered as having arrived in the country, the total number of migrants present at any one time is a few thousand. After arriving in BiH, the majority of migrants head for Sarajevo and the US canton, seeking to enter the European Union areas through Croatia. The transitory nature of their presence in BiH makes supporting people effectively a serious challenge with little opportunity for long term engagement, health or livelihoods assistance, or protection, or social integration.  Reliable, accurate figures of the numbers of Migrants in BiH and their exact locations do not exist, because of the constantly evolving nature of the problem and lack of coordinated efforts/adequate information management.

In the overall response to the migration situation in the country, accommodation remains the main challenge to establish permanent and adequate shelter for all the migrants in country before the winter. There remains a worrying gap in terms of both quantity and quality between the accommodation available and people’s needs. The table below, using data provided by UNHCR and the RCSBiH (Bosnian Red Cross), shows the locations, names, current occupancy and assessed capacity of the various migrant centres in BiH:

Location Name of Centre Current Occupancy Potential Capacity
Una-Sana Canton, Federation of BiH Borići (Dormitory) – Bihać 1,000 530
Bira – Bihać 440 1,200
Miral – Velika Kladuša 300 500
Hotel Sedra – near Bihać 430 430
Sarejevo Canton, Federation of BiH Ušivak 520 800
House for All – Sarajevo 100 100
Immigration Centre – East Sarajevo 115 115
Asylum Centre Delijaš 154 154
Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, Federation of BiH Refugee Centre – Salakovac 250 250
Republika Srpska Duje – Doboj East 30 30
Total 3,339 4,109
  • Following constrictive meetings last week, 61 migrant children in Bihać will now be attending junior school there. A local organisation is raising money to buy them the necessary equipment.
  • The makeshift camp at Drmeljevo/Trnovi in VK was bulldozed last week, and the remaining residents moved to Miral. The police and IOM were present, and the 20-odd remaining migrants were persuaded to leave peacefully. The bill for the operation is being footed by the local civil defence and IOM: https://www.radiovkladusa.ba/uklanjanje-kampa-trnovi-mali-broj-migranata-izmjesten-uposlenici-jkup-komunalije-ocistili-podrucje/?fbclid=IwAR21jU6UPuL4jVXmcdojFZu5kHYOmP4F5gMSzMs1xneTEcInIgs-Oh9rnfE
  • The local police are continuing their policy of preventing new arrivals in the canton, by searches of all modes of transport. As a result, dozens of migrants are roughing it in places like Ključ, caught in the administrative no-man’s land between the two devolved regions that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina (being the Federation and Republika Srpska).
  • A spike in new migrant arrivals is expected in spring. People smugglers are still touting for business among the migrant population, charging 3-5,000 euros to get to Italy (a route not without danger).
  • On Saturday 8 December, the New York Times published the following article on the migrants: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/08/world/europe/migrants-bihac-bosnia-croatia.html


Specific Issues and Areas of Need

  • Contrary to the UNHCR figures provided above, it seems that the number of people in Bira in Bihać is now approximately 2,000. This is far more than it was planned to house. Numbers have been increased by migrants leaving private accommodation where they have been staying thus far, and from the Dormitory.
  • The 400 people in the Bihać Dormitory have been moved out to allow renovation works to conclude this month. 500 people, consisting of families, currently in the Hotel Sedra, will be moved in once the work is completed.
  • Winter conditions have emphasised the (entirely predictable) urgent need for appropriate accommodation for migrants. The average temperatures in BiH are extremely low, dropping to minus 15 degrees at nights. Although IOM has made enormous efforts in adapting several centres in Una-Sana Canton, conditions are still insufficient.
  • Migrants are often injured when trying to cross the border, and have little or no access to health services. UNHCR has a contract with the Danish Refugee Council, which in turn has an arrangement with the local health structures. But in reality it appears that the system is not functioning well, and so migrants do not have effective access to health care.
  • As an example; a young Syrian refugee who was living in a forest near to Bihać succumbed to an infection and needs urgent and appropriate treatment for this appalling post-operative wound on his leg. More than a fortnight of repeated and determined efforts by an Italian NGO working locally have been fruitless in trying to get him referred for treatment. (We have written to UNHCR Sarajevo on Friday 7 December – from the UK – to ask for them to intervene, or to advise, as a matter of urgency).


    • The migrants are reluctant to move away from border areas, from where they hope to travel to other countries. Exposure to the elements and crowded living conditions can cause serious health conditions as well as tension among migrants and with local populations.
    • Many migrants are currently housed in shelters that lack heating; are not adequately isolated from cold temperatures; and have inadequate sanitation facilities. Many more are staying in tents or improvised structures.
  • Outside the centres, migrants are present in the country away from the main accommodation sites. Although these represent relatively few people, the total lack of services available to them make them extremely vulnerable.    
  • Coordination meetings organised by UNHR and IOM take place bi-weekly at a national level and regionally in the US canton and Salakovac. During their recent visit to BiH, the EU Delegation stressed the need for a coordinated operational response to the migrant crisis.


Humanitarian Response by Organisation:

The central Government of BiH is in the lead with the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees and Ministry of Security allocated roles in coordinating and managing reception centres. However, the humanitarian response relies mostly on the humanitarian community, where UN agencies are the biggest stakeholders.

  • IOM is the main humanitarian actor, providing shelter for migrants by renting Hotel Sedra, Bira and Miral factories in the US canton, as well as supporting food provision implemented by the RCSBiH. Water and sanitation facilities are also provided by IOM in areas where no established infrastructure is available.
  • UNHCR is in charge of health care as well as supporting vulnerable groups by providing protection and accommodation in hostels and private accommodation. UNHCR also provided RCSBiH with significant resources and materials for distribution, including two field warehouses, six housing units, 7,000 blankets, 500 sleeping bags, 700 mats, 6,100 clothing items and 400 bags.
  • The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: In a very welcome announcement, on Saturday 8 December the IFRC launched an Emergency Appeal “Bosnia and Herzegovina: Population Movement”, requesting CHF 3.3 million over one year. http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=220998
  • There has been an immediate release of CHF 300,000 from the IFRC Disaster Response Emergency Fund (DREF). This Emergency Appeal will support the RCSBiH to deliver assistance and support for up to 7,600 migrants every two weeks for a period of 12 months, as well as 1,500 households from local communities for a period of two months. The focus is on shelter (Non-Food Items – NFIs), livelihoods and basic needs, health, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), Protection, Gender and Inclusion (PGI), and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) from 9 December 2018 to.


  • Pomozi.ba, a local volunteer group, organized food distributions for migrants sleeping rough in Sarajevo and are also in charge of food provision in the Ušivak centre near the city.


  • Danish Refugee Council and MSF are providing health care to migrants in the US canton. MSF also provided a container used by RC first aid teams in Borići.


  • MFS Emmaus provided food in Velika Kladuša until September 2018 and hosted a small number of vulnerable people in Duje, near Doboj. They have offered accommodation for 2,000 people in Duje, but this is off the migration route and people are not willing to stay there.


  • On Tuesday, the Women’s Institute in Vrnograč, near VK, delivered 200 kg of groceries to a public kitchen serving migrants in Bihać.


  • Latan, the local restaurant owner providing hot meals free of charge for migrants in VK, is now being supported by a Dutch NGO, Lemon Foundation.

Donor Support:

European Union:

  • Following the recent announcement of the allocation of a further €500,000 from the European Commission to continue assisting the most vulnerable refugees and migrants in BiH, on Thursday 13 December the European Parliament will debate the “situation of migrants at the EU border in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.


  • The Slovak Ambassador to BiH visited Bihać last week, and in a meeting with the canton executive announced he would encourage firms from Slovakia to do business there. He made a donation worth nearly KM 90,000 to the RCSBiH in the US canton and in Višegrad on the border with Serbia.



  • While the majority of migrants in the canton are apparently now under cover for the winter, the crisis is not over. Migrants are people, they are not commodities to be put into storage over winter.
  • Just waiting for the migrant flows to all start again in the spring, with even greater numbers, cannot be an option and humanitarian actors alone do not hold the answer to what is a European problem, not just a Bosnian one.
  • Housing large numbers of young men in industrial premises, with controlled access, is potentially explosive. There have already been several instances of affray between the different groups of migrants, and instances of alcohol and drug abuse have been reported. (Last week, two migrants who had been arrested on suspicion of theft, started a fire in the cells in the VK police station. One of the migrants was seriously injured, and three police officers suffered minor injuries).
  • Bosnia, practically a failed state, must not become a dustbin for this mass of humanity which is unwanted by Europe, and whose legal status is frequently disputed.
  • At least 700 people have reported “violence and theft by law enforcement officers” during summary expulsions from Croatia, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe said recently, voicing alarm at the “allegation of systematic violence.”
  • Peter Van der Auweraert, the chief of mission in Bosnia for the International Organization for Migration, said that he did not know the extent of any violence by Croatian police. But “there are certainly enough pictures and reports to warrant an international investigation,” he said.
  • Croatia’s Interior Ministry said it strongly rejects accusations made by people who, by passing borders illegally, “are violating a whole series of national and European regulations.” It said checks of all “verifiable” accusations “showed them to be incorrect” and part of a campaign to discredit Croatia.

Key stakeholders and Contacts:  

IOM BiH: Peter Van der Auweraert.


UNHCR Sarajevo:

Stephanie Woldenberg. Email:  wolden@unhcr.org

IFRC Regional Office Budapest: Henriett Koos, Disaster and Crisis Response Snr. Officer

Tel : +36 1 888 4518    Mob. +36 70 430 6516   Email henriett.koos@ifrc.org

European Commission:

Press contacts:

British Embassy Sarajevo: Laurie Hunter. Laurie.Hunter@fco.gov.uk

DFID Migration Team, London:  Joe Kuper. Email j-kuper@dfid.gov.uk

British Red Cross, London: Ben Webster, Head of Emergencies.

Tel: +44 (0) 207 877 7615 Mobile: +44 (0) 7872 063 288  Email: BWebster@redcross.org.uk


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