This essay is the second instalment in a multi-part series exploring shifting geographies of enclosure and mobility for refugees in the Balkan region.
n 2015 and 2016 Bosnia-Herzegovina received almost no migrants during the humanitarian emergency that saw nearly one million refugees moving north to reach the rest of Europe, establishing an informal corridor along the so-called Western Balkan Route (see Šantić et al. 2017; also, Cocco, 2017; Šelo Šabić, 2017). This changed in 2018 when Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced a sharp increase in arrivals coinciding with a related humanitarian crisis in the north-western Canton of Una-Sana, where a significant number of refugees have gathered in the past few months waiting for the opportunity to cross the Croatian border and enter the EU. The Canton of Una-Sana is one of the ten cantons that comprise the administrative partition of the territorial ‘entity’ named Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (also known as Croatian-Muslin Federation).
The two municipalities of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, both near the Croatian border and having majority Muslim populations, are where most of this population-on-the-move can be found today. The refugees, from here, attempt to enter Croatia via the Velika Kladuša Pass and, after no more than 60km in Croatian territory, the ‘Schengen space’ in Slovenia, until they reach Trieste in Italy, which is only 240km away from the new Bosnian ‘jungles’. A sort of ‘new Idomeni’ as it is at times referred to by the volunteers involved there in the humanitarian aid, this northern Muslim enclave in Bosnia is now hosting thousands of people in the most precarious living conditions: people-in-waiting, people squatting in abandoned buildings, and pitching tents in urban parks or in the fields at the margins of the two cities. This is the new front of ‘the refugee crisis’ in the Balkans. (The Guardian, 2018).
Like in most of the countries along the Balkan Route, the national and local authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina were caught largely unprepared. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a state composed of two ‘entities’, the result of a long and difficult process of pacification of the region in the aftermath of the intestine war in Yugoslavia: the ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina entity’, populated largely by Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians), and the Serb Republic, populated by a majority of Bosnian Serbs. These two ‘entities’, together the Brčko District (see Jeffrey, 2006; 2013), form the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The most recent general elections (see BBC, 2018) have shown a pattern of radicalization along ethnic lines, contributing to political and institutional instability. Due to the already fragile political context and institutional instability in Bosnia- Herzegovina, state authorities were woefully unprepared to handle the influx of migrants and had almost no plans or resources to address the new situation created by the presence of thousands of irregular migrants entering from Montenegro and Serbia. On several occasions in the past few months, the central government in Sarajevo has declared its incapacity to fully control the national territory or to provide the refugees with adequate support.(Valle, 2018b).
The few existing asylum centres in Bosnia-Herzegovina are nowhere near capable of meeting the needs of the number of refugees, perhaps a consequence of the fact that it is clear to everyone that the refugees have no intention to stay in the country. The result of this is that the authorities have turned a blind eye to the presence of the refugees in the hope that they will soon move north and leave. The movement of thousands of people towards the Canton of Una-Sana in the following months has thus gone largely unnoticed. This perhaps explains why a new Balkan Route could easily take shape in the past few months, and why the humanitarian emergency related to it has also been largely unnoticed.
Local media and residents have been growing increasingly frustrated with the presence of refugees living in precarious conditions in their neighborhoods and have been putting pressure on local authorities to address the situation. This mounting frustration has manifested in public demonstration against both public officials and humanitarian organisations, and the possibility for these protests to turn against the migrants themselves seems real and imminent (Corritore, 2018).
As noted by Mandić (2018: 13; also, 2017), in his analysis of a similar situation in some areas of Serbia, “the unintended urban integration of migrants stranded in bridge societies poses deadly dilemmas. On the one hand, they cannot integrate further because of official obstruction; on the other hand, they are connected enough to local communities to engage in tremendously risky (even deadly) attempts to leave the bridge country.” While the emergence of informal settlements is temporarily and conditionally tolerated in the so-called ‘bridge countries’ in the Balkan region, urban integration tends to be criminalized. Thus, these refugees straddle and legally precarious status as “the encampment policy incentivizes extensive assimilation into the cities’ informal economy, housing, and culture. In a word: the migrants are here but forbidden to be” (Mandić, 2018: 12).
In an interview with a local TV network in October of 2018, the Mayor of Bihać, Mr. Šuhret Fazlić, denounced the lack of expediency from the central government in Sarajevo in addressing the refugee question. The migrants today, he said “are residing in the informal spaces originally made available by the city when there were only 150 people. Nobody could imagine that we will have to host over 3000 individuals a few months later. The winter is coming, and the situation will soon deteriorate; as a consequence, the Bihać residents will be under even more pressure due to this unruly presence of irregular migrants around the whole city. The villages along the border also suffer from this situation, since every night someone tries to cross the border… every day things get worse. We feel like ‘sitting on a powder keg’.” (N1 Sarajevo, 2018a).
The situation is indeed getting worse. For months the local and national authorities have been discussing the possibility of converting adequate buildings into hospitality centres, but were unable to find a solution due to the resistance of several local municipalities and a lack of funding. In the meantime, the number of refugees taking this route and entering Bosnia-Herzegovina from the south has been steadily growing, and the population living in makeshift camps along this European border has been increasingly neglected by local authorities while supported in their mobility by a network of smugglers well prepared to facilitate informal routing to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. When in Velika Kladuša, we witnessed the arrival of a group if Iranian families directed towards a makeshift camp in the fields just outside the city: when asked why they were there, their answer was straightforward: “tomorrow we go to Italy”. Our walk-along interview was interrupted by their encounter with someone waiting for them at a bridge in the fields, and they quickly disappeared in the nearby forest.
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