Umar is 56 years old and comes from Meydan Shahar, a city in central Afghanistan, very close to Kabul. He is Hazara, an ethnic minority group of Turkish-Mongolian origin and of Shiite faith, mainly livestock farmers, who in the cities are treated as an underclass, subjected to widespread discrimination. In Afghanistan, he worked as a coachmaker and left for political reasons: “My father was imprisoned by the Taliban twice,” says one of his sons. “They accused him of talking with the military, they considered him a spy, they threatened him with death.” They left more than a year ago, and their destination is Frankfurt. It’s a big family, and they show plenty of smiles, even as they recount the violence suffered at the hands of the Croatian police during the last attempt to cross the border a few days ago.
We are in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it feels like being on a Central Asian plateau. In a large flat clearing, dotted with tents and carpets, men, women and children with features typical of the Caucasus region are talking, cooking, washing, resting and playing. There are at least 300 of them here, all from Afghanistan, from different ethnic groups, including Pashtuns. We are in Velika Kladuša, on the border with Croatia, and this large camp formed in the spring. It is next to a small stream, used for washing and cooking, and a broken pipe that provides water for drinking.
Throughout the canton of Una Sana, there is a very large presence of people in transit: at least 4,000 are known, more than half of them outside the camps, and they are now part of the landscape: you see them camping in the meadows, bathing in the rivers, resting or walking on the side of the road, with backpacks and shopping bags. Most of them are young Afghans and Pakistanis, but there are also families with children, like those in the Kladuša camp.
One of those providing assistance in this remote corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina is Alma, a local English teacher: she has been doing this for three years, ever since traffic on this stretch of the Balkan route intensified, affecting a poor country which is still struggling with the consequences of the Balkan war. She initially did so in a spontaneous and informal manner; then, to avoid problems with the police, she founded an NGO. In addition to bringing food and clothes, she and her five partners have set up a laundry service and showers. They are trying to do everything without being too conspicuous, because they’re feeling the pressure of the authorities and the people against them. “I don’t blame them, though. There is a lot of poverty among the local population too, and it’s understandable that they don’t understand those who are helping migrants. It takes time, this is a new phenomenon for us.”
The public management of the presence of people in transit has also become an issue for the Bosnian authorities. Recently, evictions of informal settlements have increased in frequency. Even camps with formal status, such as the all-male camp of Miral, also in Velika Kladuša, are going to close. The reason? They are located near inhabited centers. For the same reason, in September 2020, in Bihac, the capital of the region, the cantonal authorities decided to close the reception camp for asylum seekers and refugees in Bira, on the outskirts of the city, and transfer people to Lipa, 25 km away in the countryside.
After the fire in December 2020 that brought the humanitarian catastrophe that has been taking place on the EU’s doorstep for years before the horrified eyes of European citizens, the migrants in Lipa are living in camp tents provided by the Bosnian Red Cross; the only bathrooms are sanitary containers reserved for those who have dermatological problems, managed by the local association SOS Bihac, while showers and sinks for washing have been provided by the Italian NGO Ipsia, which is also organizing common activities inside the camp, much loved by the migrants, whose living conditions are inhuman also because of the suspension of family relationships and of those of belonging to a community: yet more sources of despair, and it’s not easy to keep from falling into it.
A new Lipa is under construction: with some delay from the scheduled deadlines, it will soon be operational. The European Union has put up the money for a camp with a larger capacity, from 1,000 to 1,500, which will have water and electricity. Its management will pass from the IOM, the United Nations organization for migration, which has been on the receiving end of serious criticism for the conditions of the old camp, to SFA, the Bosnian Foreign Affairs Service under the Ministry of Security.
The context of this handover likely explains the evictions in recent months of large squats in the city, such as the “Factory” or “Dom Penzionera”: former abandoned factories where hundreds of people in transit found a roof over their heads and nothing more, and which are not only being emptied of people, but closed down with grates. Likewise for the intensification of police raids against the people in transit who are camped in the woods, the so-called “jungles,” which, according to what these people are telling us, have become routine and are proudly featured on the social media pages of the local police force. During the course of our stay, we learned of an ongoing eviction and went to the site together with workers for JRS, the Jesuit Refugee Service, whose international staff has been working in Bihac since 2018.
Near a hovel with no windows and a broken roof, among the garbage and tall grass, we found 3 boys who managed to escape the police by running. Among them is Mohammed, an 18-year-old Pakistani. His journey started when he was still a child: 7 years ago, he left Pakistan together with his mother, because “where we lived was like being at war. All day long, we had to deal with weapons, terrorists, soldiers, and then explosions, constantly.” It was in one of these explosions that his father died. His journey followed the same pattern as always: Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he arrived two years ago.
He has lived through what is widely called “the game,” the attempt to cross the border, more than 20 times. He tells of how Croatian police broke his arm before dumping him back outside their borders. He will try again: “We just want a normal life, please don’t treat us like this.” There were 30 of them before the eviction: the others were loaded onto a bus and taken to Lipa. But they will return in the coming days, because the migrants do not want to stay in Lipa.
They have a number of reasons for that: the conditions have never been acceptable, neither before nor after the fire. Food is scarce and awful. Ajmal, stateless because his Afghan family had to flee to Pakistan, says that for the entire 40 days of Ramadan, during which people fast during daylight hours, he was given only boiled rice. Furthermore, Lipa is in the middle of nowhere, dozens of miles from the nearest town, in total isolation. Finally, Lipa is off the route. To try “the game,” the migrants must return to Bihac and then go dozens and dozens of kilometers on foot.
This is why people in transit prefer to camp out in a meadow, or occupy an abandoned house: although the material conditions are more difficult, and sometimes terrible, they have more freedom of movement and autonomy. In some cases, these informal encampments appear more dignified than the camps: sturdy tents donated by some NGO, community kitchens, tarps, small solar power generators. That is, unless the police come and destroy everything, forcing them to start all over again.
In light of all this, the new camp in Lipa is merely a band aid, and a poor one at that; but the intention of the Bosnian authorities is to turn it into the reception place for anyone arriving in Bosnia-Herzegovina via the Balkan route, meeting the demands of the European Union and hiding the migrants away as much as possible from the eyes of their own citizens.