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This essay is the third instalment in a multi-part series exploring shifting geographies of enclosure and mobility for refugees in the Balkan region.
VELIKA KLADUŠA- APRIL 18th, 2018 – After several days spent visiting hospitality centres for refugees in Serbia, we decide to change our plans and take a detour via Bosnia-Herzegovina on our way back home to Trieste. We have just learned during our meetings with the representatives of the Serbian Commissariat for the Refugees that the irregular refugee route towards the EU is now deflected towards that country, and in particular that in Velika Kladuša, a few kilometres away from the Croatian border, a new set of informal encampments was taking shape. This was the result, in their view, of the increasingly harsh conditions enforced on the refugees who intended to enter Hungary or Croatia from Serbia and the related violent pushbacks. In a somewhat perverse sense, the ‘Hungarian wall’ has proven successful: not so much in reducing the number of migrants along the Balkan Route, but rather in deflecting the route itself. In other words, ‘another Idomeni’, we were told, is emerging in Bosnia-Herzegovina, resulting from the bottleneck effect of the border policy in the Balkan region and the presumed looser border controls in that country.
We reach the Muslim enclave of Velika Kladuša, in Bosnia-Herzegovina territory, at 5pm just in time to witness, in the very centre of the city, the provision, on the part of a group of local residents, of a warm meal to a large group of young men lining up in the urban park nearby the main square. Other young male refugees are populating the outdoor bar just in front of the main mosque (see Fig.1). The managers of the bar and of the supermarket in the same building allow them to recharge their phones using multiple sockets made available at the entrance for this purpose. Other young men walk frantically back and forth between the bar and the park while engaging with endless and apparently urgent phone calls.
Three years after our visit to the Idomeni makeshift camp in Greece, at the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, we are faced here with a distinct but somehow similar situation. The refugees seem to be everywhere in the centre of this otherwise quiet and marginal Bosnian city. The men waiting for the meal have many things in common with the ones that we have met in all the makeshift camps along the Balkan Route. When approached, they speak of similar experiences of border smuggling and deprivation, but also a language of hope when they declare their intentions to go to Germany or France where family members or friends are waiting for them. They also repeat some of the mantras that we have encountered during our work along this informal route and in its camps in the last three years in Greece, in Serbia and now in Bosnia: border, police, ‘the game’, camp, jungle, Europe… a geography of good and bad countries emerges in their narratives.
The local authorities are conspicuously absent. We are not able to say if this is indeed another orchestrated space of abandonment (Leshem, 2017), like that of the warehouse camp in the centre of Belgrade in 2017, where the police allowed some 2000 refugees to squat several abandoned buildings behind the central station with no intervention, but at the same time forbidding humanitarian organisation to directly support them (Minca et al, 2018; 2019). Many of these young men now in Velika Kladuša, we find out, come from Serbia; others have taken a different route, via Albania and Montenegro. The volunteers declare that every day, in the past few months, they have distributed between 200 and 500 meals.
Despite the complete lack of coverage on the part of the international media, we realise that this population on the move has elected Velika Kladuša as a key hub on their route to Europe. They are not hiding, they are entirely visible in the main public space of this small city, with the local population busy in their daily whereabouts as if nothing was happening. Some of the refugees apparently spend the night outside closed cafes and shops where they find some shelter. Others pick up their tents in a field just outside the city; all waiting for the first real or apparent opportunity to cross the border. We have the clear feeling that a new chapter – and a related new geography – of the recent history of the Balkan Route is unfolding in front of us. The refugees stranded for months in Serbia due to the closure of the Hungarian and Croatian borders are now moving to Bosnia were apparently things are less monitored and the possibility of entering Croatia much higher.
When trying to quantify or even qualify new movements along these informal refugee corridors, one is immediately confronted in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the difficulty of obtaining reliable data. During our work in Serbia, the quoted number of refugees hosted in that country was largely based on estimates made by the authorities through the registration system operating in their network of hospitality camps. The absence of these camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina makes these calculations far more difficult and imprecise. However, as noted above, the number of refugees has certainly sharply increased in 2018, with Bosnia-Herzegovina becoming the most important ‘bridge country’ along the Balkan route at present.
Refugees, most of them ‘irregular’, began to arrive in Sarajevo in early spring 2018. It started with a few individuals, then a few families and small groups of young men, until eventually over 100 people occupied the entire park facing the Vijećnica – the building hosting the famous national library destroyed during the Sarajevo siege in the 1992 and now renovated and re-opened after many years- with their tents and improvised dwellings. Similar to Afghan park in the core of Belgrade, the Vijećnica park has quickly seen the emergence of an urban makeshift camp right in the centre of the capital, where a growing number of migrants received daily basic support provided by volunteers, social workers, humanitarian organizations (Nuhafendić, 2018).
The first arrivals in Velika Kladuša were registered in December 2017, when small groups of men began to gather in makeshift camps around the centre and the main mosque. As noted above, in the following months their number has grown exponentially, reaching a point in which the authorities decided to move them to the periphery of the city and away from what had become a sort of urban shanty town. Notably, the eviction happened with no use of force on May 17th 2018, a few weeks after our first visit. In Trnovi, just behind the municipal sport centre, an area in the fields has been cleared and provided with very basic facilities – a makeshift shower, a few mobile toilets, and a few tents, creating a sort of authorised ‘jungle’ [see Fig. 2].
When we visited this new makeshift camp, we learned that a few NGOs and other humanitarian organisations, like the Bosnian Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontiers, along with a network of local (Pomozi, Sos Kladuša) and international (No Name Kitchen, A Bridge to Idomeni) volunteer organisations, were providing basic humanitarian support in a context that remained nonetheless extremely precarious and unhealthy. Accordingly, we expected the situation to rapidly deteriorate with the arrival of the winter, bringing with it subzero nighttime temperatures. A few hundred meters away from this makeshift camp were two other informal shelters and two abandoned buildings rearranged by the volunteers in order to make them suitable for some support to the migrants: one was previously the municipal slaughterhouse, and the second a hangar now abandoned by the Aero Klub Jasterb.
In an interview with InfoMigrants on 2 August 2018, the IOM (International Organization for Migration) representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Peter van der Auweraert, declared that: “The site is not sustainable and it was never intended to be. We are working together with the local authorities in Velika Kladuša and the Ministry of Security to find a short-term solution to move those people to another location. One of the locations that have been mentioned is Agrokomerc, which could be an alternative for the short term” (Ahmadi and Purić, 2018). Today, the Velika Kladuša jungle is populated by over 500 residents with frequent turnover, and the refugee population is constantly ebb and flow.
At the beginning of August, the Director of Service for Foreigners Affairs, Slobodan Ujić, declared that, according to their data, 9730 people had entered the country irregularly, with about 60% having already informally crossed the border with Croatia (Valle, 2018a; 2018b). At the end of September, the Minister of Security, Dragan Mektić, officially indicated 14,969 registered arrivals, with 13,958 migrants having expressed their intention to apply for asylum in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but with only 399 having done so (Reuter, 2018). More recent journalistic accounts report over 20,000 people having entered the country (InfoMigrants, 2018), with about 10,000 pressing on the border (Manzin, 2018).
The arrival of thousands of refugees on the move has been greatly impactful on the country and, in particular, on the life of the municipalities of Velika Kladuša and Bihać. Most recent reports confirm that thousands of individuals are clustering in makeshift camps in this Canton and some even at the border, putting new pressure on the border police of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (Avòn, 2018). This was clearly visible during our last visit in Velika Kladuša e Bihać, while other ‘clusters’ of informal dwellings have been spotted in other locations along the southern and eastern borders: from Bijeljina to Višegrad, Goražde, Foča and Trebinje, but also by the border passages of Rudo and Čajniče (Refugee Aid Serbia, 2018: 1; United Nations, 2018: 11).
The refugees reach the Canton of Una-Sana via two main routes. One route is an alternative to the traditional Balkan Route across Serbia, that now instead of continuing in Hungary and/or Croatia, turns west to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina after crossing the river Drina. This has been confirmed by the authorities in Serbia, who have witnessed a decline in the number of refugees in their hospitality centres, and the appearance of new makeshift camps along the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, made of small groups of people waiting to pass the river when the opportunity would appear. These are mainly contingents of young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who, after having been stranded in Serbia for months due to the closure of the northern borders, now attempt to move further by taking advantage of the softer border police controls in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the relatively friendly attitude towards the refugees from the authorities and the residents of that country until now.
The second route merging into the Bosnian enclaves of Velika Kladuša and Bihać arrives directly from Greece via Albania and Montenegro. According to our interviewees, the refugees along this route meet very few obstacles, and walk their way to the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina largely undisturbed. Unlike the first route, the refugees taking this new route include an increasing number of Syrians, most of them coming from Greek camps located near the Turkish border (Frontex, 2018). In other words, the first corridor represents a new ‘correction’ of the original Balkan Route, something similar to what happened in 2016-17 when the refugees, instead of attempting to go to Hungary, decided to try their fortune by entering Croatia, whose border had no fence.
However, the second corridor has quickly consolidated into the ‘southern route’, again, stimulated by the relative porosity of the Albanian and Montenegrin borders. This route has presented the local authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina with new challenges related to the provision of humanitarian support, but also to the geopolitical implications of becoming a new presumably ‘soft’ bridge country in the region (Giantin, 2018a). It is commonly believed that the increase in refugee arrivals in Greece in the first part of 2018, together with the news concerning the thousands of refugees stranded for months in Serbia with no realistic perspective of going north, might have been at the origin of the formation and the further consolidation of this new southern informal route in 2018 (IOM, 2018a: 4).