Refugee crisis in Bosnia: Political failure, violence and hatred

The country, from which hundreds of thousands of people fled during the war from 1992 to 1995 and were accepted in Western European countries, is treating refugees increasingly inhumanely. They are confronted with ignorance and harassment. The blame for the alarming conditions is assigned to the EU and its rigorous isolation policy. 


The scenes have been the same for months: at the crossroads, people from Iraq, Syria or Pakistan are trying to earn a few “pfennigs“, in pedestrian zones from Bihac to Sarajevo they are desperately offering passers-by small packs of handkerchiefs, in order to generate at least some earnings for the day. It is early October; the first snow has already fallen in the Bosnian mountains. Now it also gets very cold in lower regions during the night – and the situation of the refugees is becoming increasingly desperate. 

In the course of the year, around 10.000 refugees came to Bosnia and Herzegovina via the so-called Balkan Route. The influx has been going on for three years, but the situation of those affected here, in one of the poorest countries in Europe, resembles a deadlock. Mainly local initiatives were ready to accept the refugees and provide for them. However, the majority of Bosnian politicians has hitherto largely ignored the needs of the fleeing people and failed to organise an adequate way of managing their reception.

Instead of offering political and above all humane solutions, the refugee problem is exploited for political ends by the parties in Bosnia; the refugees can splendidly be used to divert attention from their own failure.


The radically nationalist Serbian President of the country, Milorad Dodik, even has refugees brought from the Republika Srpska to the other part of the country, to the Federation of the Croats and Bosniaks, in order to keep his own Entity “refugee-free”. Harassments are on the daily agenda here as well, though. 

IOM: “Sad and inhumane“

While Europe is discussing the reception of the refugees from the Greek Moria, the desolate state of the refugees in Bosnia remains without resonance in the debates. While the Bosnian population in the beginning still reacted with a readiness to help the newcomers, the climate has increasingly become aggressive, now the refugees are met with a mixture of contempt and hatred. The unsolved housing situation of the migrants, who are meandering on their own through the country and try to survive somehow, is perceived as a threat by many people who are incited by the media and the politicians.

In Bihac, a refugee camp was closed by the authorities in the beginning of October for no reason; hundreds of refugees were cast adrift, with dramatic consequences: severe violence broke out between different refugee groups. Two migrants were killed, several were injured. The chaos was provoked deliberately, so it seems, in order to demonstrate to the migrants: You are not welcome in Bosnia. “Sad, inhumane and unnecessary “, IOM representative in Bosnia, Peter van Der Auweraert commented on the actions of the authorities. This was what the beginning of a humanitarian crisis looked like. [1]

In the forests outside Velika Kladusa, hundreds of refugees are living in self-made provisional shelters built out of plastic sheets, they are lacking food, blankets, everything. Whether they will survive the winter here is not ensured. Their desolate situation is not an issue. 

By contrast, violent and theft offences are blown up into a major issue in the public eye, just as if only the migrants are posing a security risk in Bosnia’s brutalised society. The one-sided press reports undoubtedly are contributing to the fact that the rejection of the foreigners is increasingly growing. 

That the overstrained political caste has contributed to the development of the precarious situation with their inaction and their ignorance, sure enough is not heard of in the public discourse. Human rights are under systematic attack anyway in Bosnia’s daily political routine – they especially do not apply to refugees.

Bosnia’s politicians: blind for the rights of refugees

Quite obviously overwhelmed with the situation, the Una-Sana Canton imposed far-reaching restrictions during autumn: according to them, migrants are no longer allowed to move freely, the population was likewise prohibited from providing them accommodation. A country from which thousands of refugees fled during the Bosnian War to Germany and other countries and were accepted there, now is denying humane solutions to people coming from other crisis regions. [2] What is worse, those responsible in Bosnia seem to be purposely increasing the suffering of the refugees.

People helping the refugees are hindered in their work or pestered by the authorities, many even receive threats from the population. Helpers no longer openly disclose their identities in social media – fearing to be exposed to abuse. In the border area with Croatia, a so-called civil group was formed, openly calling for resistance against the “black people“, how refugees are called derogatorily across the country – allegedly in order to protect the population. An outright “people-baiting” is taking place, says a woman activist assisting the refugees from Sarajevo, who is attempting with a girlfriend to organise urgent medical care at the Bosnian-Croatian border. 

Croatia’s brutal border regime

On the other side of the border, the refugee problem is aggravated by Croatia defending the EU border with dubious methods and resorting to illegal measures for months. Brutal, illegal puschbacks [3] – systematic returns back to Bosnia – while having been repeatedly documented by Amnesty International, have so far remained without consequences though.

But other EU member countries have played a rather contentious role against this backdrop as well, including Germany. Instead of speaking openly about Croatia’s breaches of law, the government in Zagreb is being congratulated and acknowledged. Although Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer assured the support of the Balkan countries [4], there has so far not been any substantial support which would have benefited the refugees. Instead, the German donated thermal imaging cameras during a visit to the Croatian Border Police and signalled thereby to be supporting the brutal actions against the refugees.

EU member country Croatia has been systematically breaching European and international law “, stated Sascha Schießl from the Refugee Council of Lower Saxony. The fact that Croatia has been systematically denying the possibility of applying for asylum, does not seem to interest anyone outside of the EU. Apparently, orderly asylum procedures are not desired along the Balkan Route.

Questionable isolation

And Brussels? Remains in silence regarding the occurrences on the Balkans, which have been triggered by the Union itself and its hermetical policy of “strong boundaries”. It is evident that a sustainable strategy is lacking with regard to how problems at the external borders are supposed to be solved. In 2018, the Commission allocated over 50 million euros to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the refugee relief. If one considers the dysfunctionality of the Bosnian state system and the endemic corruption in the post-war country, it does not seem surprising that the funds have evidently under no circumstances been, as planned, used for the expansion of the refugee reception capacities.

The complex political conflict situation in Bosnia, with its exuberant bureaucratic structure, the political power games, apparently were underestimated in Brussels. And, thus, the barely perceived hotspot along the Balkan Route is lacking accommodation possibilities, it is lacking organisation. And there is a lack of political will to meet the needs of the migrants and to safeguard their (human) rights. 

Apparently, the EU has relied on the problems of the refugees in the Balkans to resolve themselves. The opposite is the case now. Now the situation is escalating, when winter is approaching. The ones to suffer are thousands of refugees who do not know how they are supposed to survive the following months in Bosnia. The EU is facing the ruins of its isolation policy.