Over the past few months, the number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving to Bosnia has steadily increased. Border closures – both political and physical – in other Balkan states have pushed greater numbers of people to travel through Bosnia, in their attempt to reach the European Union.
In 2017, authorities registered 755 people; this year, in January and February alone, 520 people arrived. The trend has continued into March; and in the coming weeks another 1000 people are expected to arrive from Serbia and Montenegro. Resources are already strained, as the small country struggles to meet the needs of the new arrivals.
The unofficial “Balkan Route” developed in 2015, as thousands of refugees and asylum seekers travelled through the Western Balkan states en route from Greece to the EU. Unprecedented crowds of people crossed Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia – until the border closures began in Spring 2016, and the EU-Turkey deal was signed. The old Balkan Route was effectively sealed, and the number of people travelling dropped significantly. Yet to this day, refugees and migrants still succeed in crossing into Europe, resorting to increasingly treacherous and hidden tracks to avoid an encounter with the Croatian and Hungarian border police. One such passage now leads through Bosnia.
The situation on the ground
The new arrivals are a transient population: most are passing through Bosnia, rather than looking to set up roots in the country. Recent improvements in the weather has led to a greater number of arrivals, as well as a greater number of people moving onwards – including families with small children. Bosnia, however, is hardly prepared for this sudden influx; official accommodation centres are already full, meaning that hundreds of asylum seekers are left homeless and sleeping rough. Locals and grassroots groups have identified hostels and arranged accommodation for some, but MSF’s Stephane Moissaing has warned that civil society groups are approaching saturation point.
Some 300 people are sleeping at the border between Croatia and Bosnia, and have faced unlawful pushbacks by Croatian authorities. Police have confiscated the shoes of people who are caught while attempting to cross the border, a practice that has been documented across Europe – including in Calais – since 2015. In the nearby town of Velika Kladusa, refugees and migrants are heavily dependent on the help of local townspeople, as there is no access to official accommodation, food or medical care.
Challenges in responding to refugees’ needs
The transient nature of the refugee population in Bosnia creates challenges in and of itself, which are then exacerbated by the country’s poor infrastructure and lack of resources. The impact of this is multifaceted, but has a particular effect on vulnerable populations who require specialist support. The identification and referral of unaccompanied and separated children, for example, remains a key challenge for Bosnian authorities. Unaccompanied minors are required, by law, to have legal guardians who can make decisions in their best interest – yet proper identification, referral and communication barriers (due to the lack of on available interpreters) can make this challenging in practice.
As the weather warms up, it is likely that greater numbers of refugees will pass through Bosnia in the coming months. We will monitor the situation, and respond to the emerging needs where possible.
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