Reportage. This is how the migrants live in Bihac nowadays: a separate world, a foreign body lodged into the fabric of a community that is still struggling to come to terms with its past.

A Bosnian town reaches its limit, crammed with refugees barred from Europe

Ali has been waiting for hours at the gates of the Bira migrant reception center. He’s waiting for his brother Samir, to see him for one last time and say goodbye. A furtive movement forward, an expectant hand waiting for a quick handshake, then the door of the reception center slams shut once more. “Now I can go,” says Ali, smiling. The two brothers have not seen each other for five years, since they both fled from Aleppo: Ali to Greece, Samir to Beirut. For three months, Samir has been back on the road, and is now trapped—quite literally—in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

If Samir had decided to go out and hug his brother, he would not have been allowed to return to the center. He would have lost what little he has: a small camp bed in a place where everyone is huddled together, 2,000 people, adults and minors, in constant fear of being robbed or dragged into some fight. But at least Samir has a roof over his head, and that is the price of his freedom.

Stories like this one come as a consequence of the decision to restrict the freedom of movement of migrants housed in temporary reception centers. The decision was made by the local authorities of the Una-Sana Canton, the region of northwestern Bosnia on the border with Croatia. This is where the largest part of the migrants flow through, seeking to enter Europe. The authorities are simply unable—they say—to shoulder the weight of an emergency with which they have been burdened for many months.

Nearly 45,000 migrants have passed through Bosnia over the last year: Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds, Pakistanis. At the moment, according to the local authorities, there are only about 6,000 in the Una-Sana Canton, mainly in Bihac and Velika Kladusa, while the facilities available to accommodate them are supposed to hold less than half that number. It can take them weeks, months, or even years to get to the other side of the fence. “The game,” even when everything goes well, leaves them with nothing more than the skin on their backs.

“It’s their job to reject us, but why burn our clothes, shoes, cell phones? Why beat us? We are poor people, not criminals,” says Adnan, with a flash of despair in his pitch-dark eyes. Adnan knows that these rejections are illegal, that he has the right to file an asylum application—but it makes no difference. It’s this sadistic game that Adnan finds unacceptable. On Saturday, “the game” almost ended in tragedy, with a migrant seriously wounded at the hands of the Croatian police as he was trying to pass through to Slovenia.

Winter is coming in Bihac. The rain makes crossing the border more difficult, and the conditions in which migrants are received are getting worse, leaving them trapped in a place where everything seems on the verge of collapse. As a result, the local government has adopted an iron fist policy, with an aggressive attitude towards Sarajevo, Europe and the international organizations, particularly the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the conduit for the greatest part of the European funds for the management of the humanitarian crisis.

Hypocrites—that’s what some locals are calling the NGOs. “Hypocrites,” because they’re supposedly saddling Bosnia and Herzegovina with a crisis they don’t want to solve, even though they have the means to do so. “Hypocrites,” because they are accusing Bosnia of violating human rights. “Hypocrites” is the insult of choice for the protesters outside the gates of the Bira center, who are demanding for it to be closed down. “Criminals go home,” “Free Bihac,” “IOM go home,” read some of the signs held aloft by the handful of people protesting. These are the signs of the impatience of a city, Bihac, which is a place migrants cannot but go through to pass on to Croatia—a country which, at the beginning of the crisis, had opened its doors to migrants with generosity and empathy.

Talking to the protesters, we hear that they had also been refugees themselves in the times of that accursed war that is still vivid in their memories. They know what it means to have an empty stomach, to have to sleep out in the open. They still remember—however, they believe that “these people aren’t running away from wars, like we did.” A year and a half since the crisis began, this claimed distinction has taken root here in Bosnia—even for the mayor of Bihac, Suhret Fazlic, who put so much effort into ensuring the reception of migrants at first, but is now trying to chase them away from his city.

“We can only accommodate persons in possession of an ID, nowadays only few dare rent rooms to migrants,” Meliha tells us, in a tone of voice that mixes fear and despondency. When the first immigrants arrived in the city, Meliha hosted them in her tiny bed and breakfast, in groups of 10 at a time. Then, it became more and more difficult to do so. “Look,” she says, handing me a register, “we need to write down the foreigners here, separately.”

This is how the migrants live in Bihac nowadays: a separate world, a foreign body lodged into the fabric of a community that is still struggling to come to terms with its past. And now, the imperative is to erase all traces of the passage of migrants, herding them like rats into temporary centers or transferring them to Vucjak, the improvised tent city a few kilometers out from town, on the site of a former toxic landfill, where they have to do without everything—first of all, dignity. 

“The police came here yesterday and set fire to the sheds,” says Safik, from Afghanistan, who has been in Bihac for three days. Along with a hundred companions, he had occupied the abandoned premises of what had once been the flagship of the local steel industry, the Krajina Metal plant. They went there to seek shelter at night during this cold and rainy early winter. There are no places left in the centers, and so many minors are forced to stay on the street.

The police, however, accuse the migrants: it was them, they say, who accidentally set fire to the abandoned buildings and warehouses with the fires they started to warm up. A woman was in tears as she told us how much of a misfortune it was for her to own a house in the mountains that line the border. Migrants have broken into it several times, she says, breaking doors and windows. “Of course, they have to find a place to sleep and something to eat, but what have I done wrong? Is it possible that nobody is managing to find a solution?”

That is the question that is hanging over all our heads. And there’s an aggravating factor at play: Bosnia is a fragile and divided country, so much so that one year after the elections, Sarajevo still doesn’t have a government. The divisions that exist are being exploited by the corrupt parties in power. For them, the migrant crisis is the perfect storm. They’re doing great political business, and entrenching these divisions even deeper in the process.

It’s enough to cast a glance at the long route traveled by migrants to realize how all this works. The refugees have no difficulty going across the border between Serbia and the Republika Srpska (Editor’s note: one of the two entities that make up Bosnia, a majority Serbian area; the other is the Bosniak-Croat Federation), as if the two were a single state. However, they are rejected at Klujic, on the line that separates the two political entities that make up Bosnia. There, they are treated like animals, and kicked off trains and buses. This internal checkpoint inside the country is forcing the refugees to continue their journey on foot, and forcing the Bosnians to face the prospect of walls being built once again, after they had so painstakingly tried to break them down in the first place. 

And then, there is another border, the one with Croatia, patrolled by drones and baton-happy policemen, a violent boundary that marks the separation between Bosnia and Europe. On that line, we find Vucjak, where we see the migrants shuffling zombie-like through the mud—a symbol of the defeat we all share, despite the walls that separate us.

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