Nestled among the wooded peaks of the Plješevica mountains, surrounded by areas still full of landmines from the Yugoslavian wars, the Vucjak refugee camp in northwestern Bosnia stands as shocking proof of the crisis that is still raging at the European Union’s back door. The United Nations has recently described this refugee camp, located a few miles from the barbed-wire-fortified Croatian border, as totally inadequate to accommodate civilians.
There are no major international NGOs working in this refugee camp. It’s officially run by the municipalities of the town of Bihac and unofficially left in the hands of the volunteers from the local Bihac branch of the Red Cross.
It was built after the Bosnian authorities and the municipal governments of the Canton of Una-Sana decided that the migrants could no longer remain in public spaces or abandoned buildings, all located within city limits. Here, bits of plastic and glass, old clothes turned into rags and used tires litter the contaminated soil.
They are all toxic remnants of the past. The camp is located on the site of an old landfill, which was still in operation only a few years ago. The conditions are extremely troubling. Survival is constantly threatened by the non-drinkable water and the land soaked in poison dumped over the years, with the only assistance coming from the work of volunteers.
At least 1,000 migrants are crammed into this living hell. They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Access to clean water is limited to 10 hours per day, as there is no permanent usable water supply.
Vucjak echoes all the inhumanity of the Calais refugee camp in northern France and the abject indifference of European governments. The lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation services in Vucjak is an egregious violation of the minimum standards set by the norms of the United Nations.
In the middle of the camp, an enormous map shows the location of the local minefields. Every day, several times a day, police trucks take Bosnian migrants who are outside the circuits of temporary shelters—those run by the International Organization for Migration—and dump them in Vucjak.
Like stray dogs, they are thrown out in the middle of the camp, after opening the rear door of the van, secured with a shiny new lock. It is strictly forbidden to film these scenes, so there are no photographs, videos or propaganda materials to show what is happening, but the practice goes on undisturbed.
Despite the humanitarian injustice being perpetrated, the migrants are not even complaining about the anti-personnel mines, their poor state of health or the lack of sanitation. Instead, they’re telling stories about the “passive” violence they suffer at the hands of the border police. In recent weeks, the Croatian police have introduced a new cruel twist: confiscating and burning the food, clothing, shoes, backpacks and cell phones of any migrants who try to “play the game” of crossing the border.
If you’re planning to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border, you’ll have to spend about 100 marks (just over €50) on food, mostly bread and similar basic foods. Often, those 100 marks represent months of savings, so burning the food is a sign of the most remorseless cruelty.
Emad fled from Syria with his wife and young son, just 2 years old. He tried to play “the game” and cross the border, but they turned him back to the Borici temporary reception center in the town of Bihac, after they robbed him of everything. While the medical staff from One Life, an Italian NGO, examined his son, Emad held out a plastic bag with a phone inside. He asked me if I wanted to buy it, so he could use the money to try again to cross the border with Croatia. The scene was heartbreaking.
Since January 2018, almost 36,000 migrants have entered Bosnia and remained trapped between the European policies designed to reduce illegal crossings and the political stalemate in Bosnia, which effectively prevents local authorities from offering any protection.
From Turkey and Greece, there are two main routes through Bosnia: one that crosses through northern Macedonia and Serbia, the other through Albania and Montenegro.
Standing in the Vucjak camp, among a crowd of abused bodies and broken bones, we are face to face with the appalling consequences of European geopolitics. As a result of the cynical effort by the Croatian government to prove that it has what it takes to join the Schengen free movement area, the country is rejecting migrants without following proper asylum procedures.
Gulraiz’s journey started in Kunduz, Afghanistan. We struggled to gain her trust. The loneliness that the migrants are steeped in is insurmountable. They smile, but their eyes are vacant. Month after month, they have been walking without rest and without any support. They travel together with occasional friends they make, mere companions along their path.
It cost her one mark to recharge her precious old phone in Vucjak. After telling us a few stories, she showed us on her phone the map that she would use to try “the game” once again, starting from the Plješevica mountain, crossing through the thick Bosnian forest, passing by the Bosnian town of Šturlic, then arriving in an area with circled granicni prelaz, the border crossing points. A constellation of red dots, places, coordinates and steps, all displayed using Google Maps’s “satellite” function.
A blond Bosnian policeman stopped us. His shirt was buttoned up to the top, he had a defiant air and a grim posture. He checked our documents. He wrote our names down in a crumpled notebook, without giving any explanation, seemingly trying to intimidate us.
There is a very thin line here surrounding the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. We were forced to move along. I could not forget the image of Gulraiz’s satellite map. In my hands, I felt the weariness of Abdurahman, who was trying to mend his backpack with needle and thread after the inhuman journey that brought him here. And I kept seeing the eyes—wide with uncertainty—of the young people who weren’t lucky enough to have a badge granting them access to the “5-star resorts” (by comparison) of the temporary reception centers.
I left Bosnia with the image of Ibrahim, just over 3 years old, following right behind his dad with arms folded at the back, imitating his sad, weary posture.