As EU states look to stem migrant flows to the continent, aspiring European Union member Bosnia is caught in the middle, with thousands of immigrants stuck in the impoverished Balkan country.
The vast majority of migrants and refugees aim to claim asylum inside the 28-nation EU and Bosnia is irritated at European plans which would see their movement halted at its frontier — in effect making Bosnia the continent’s border guard.
In early June, the European Commission agreed to provide Bosnia with €1.5 million to help cope with the arrivals seeking to reach the EU.
As a key section of the migrant route into Western Europe, Bosnia decided to set up a reception centre in Velika Kladuša, in the country’s northwest, near the border with EU member Croatia.
But Security Minister Dragan Mektić, indicating the European Commission has since said they did not want to finance a facility they were concerned was too close to the border, on June 27 vowed “there will be no refugee camps in Bosnia”.
“We cannot turn Bosnia into a ‘hotspot’. We can only be a transit territory,” Mektić added in a speech last week in Bihac, a western city of some 65,000 currently housing the majority of the newcomers.
Prime Minister Denis Zvizdić warned against what he termed any attempt by the European Union, “and notably Croatia”, to turn Bosnia into “a migrant impasse”.
‘Finish the voyage’
Yet amid all the political chicanery and despite the “very bad” conditions in the makeshift camp housing him at Velika Kladuša, Malik, a 19-year-old Iraqi who left Baghdad eight months ago with his family, has no desire to transfer to a shelter further away from the border with passage to the EU now tantalisingly so close.
“People don’t want to stay here — they want to finish the voyage,” he insists at the camp which used to be the site of a cattle market but where more and more tents are put up daily to shelter people eking out an existence by side of a dusty road.
The border is only three kilometres (two miles) away. Malik and his family have already tried twice to make it across — so far, in vain.
Municipal authorities have installed running water as well as night lights and mobile lavatories.
For now, the migrants are just making do as they can, says Zehida Bihorac, a primary school director who, along with several volunteers, is providing makeshift activities for children and helping the women provide meals.
“It’s a truly desperate situation. Nobody deserves to live in such conditions,” says Bihorac.
“There are now many families with children, 50 to 60 kids, some of them babies needing milk and appropriate food.
“These people are being fed by residents but the residents can’t keep it up for much longer because they are becoming more and more numerous,” she added, deploring the general lack of state intervention.
According to the security ministry, of 7,700 migrants who have registered in Bosnia since the start of the year, 3,000 are still there, mainly in Bihac where one of them drowned in the Una River last week.
Around 800 to 900 lunches are served to migrants in the city each day in a disused building, according to local Red Cross official Selam Midzić.
With the building overflowing, tents have been erected in a field outside to serve the overflow and other squats have also appeared.
“The number of migrants is rising daily,” says Midzić.
The mayor, Suhret Fazlić, accuses the government of abandoning Bihac as Bosnia finds itself a part of the “Balkan route” to Western Europe.
“We do not want to be xenophobic, we want to help people, and that’s what we are doing on a daily basis. But we can’t cope with this situation,” he says.