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Bosnia - a safe haven for refugees?

Balkans | 29.12.2017

Many refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Syria have reached Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most dream of a better future, but the country's economic situation is difficult. Zdravko Ljubas reports from Sarajevo.

Nasib Khan, a 24-year-old Pakistani, worked for the World Health Organization (WHO) in his home country. When Taliban fighters from neighboring Afghanistan approached his town, his whole life changed. 

"They did not want me to go to college and work with the Americans — as they referred to the WHO," Nasib told DW. The threats became more and more frequent. "One day, while I was on my way to town with my little brother and my friend, by bike, the Taliban opened fire on us. They killed my little brother and injured my friend," said Nasib. He believes the bullets were aimed at him.

Read more: Refugees in Serbia - stranded in a warehouse

His family left the country and he lost contact with them. His decision to leave as well was motivated by the mere will to survive.       

A friend helped him escape to Iran, where he said he could not stay, because he claims Iranian authorities were hostile toward migrants. The young Pakistani passed through Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria before reaching Serbia.

Nasib originally planned to move on, to try to reach Western Europe, but the Croatian EU-border was impossible to pass. He heard about Bosnia and Herzegovina, so he decided to join a group of migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan who were leading the way toward the small Balkan state, which they regarded as a Muslim country.

Nasib Khan currently lives in a house belonging to the Youth Organization Tempo in Sarajevo's northern suburb of Vogosca, as no other accommodation for asylum seekers was available. 

Tempo has 10 beds - but it hosted 13 migrants at one point

More and more asylum seekers

The number of migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina has risen by more than 300 percent in the first nine months of this year, compared with the year before, according to the Security Ministry.

The country's central government therefore decided to form a "Coordination Body" involving the representatives of the Security Ministry as well as representatives of the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees and the Foreign Ministry.

Read moreClosed borders boost people smuggling across Balkans

The Ministry of Security told DW that this body "constantly monitors migration movements in the region." Due to these coordinated activities, "Bosnia and Herzegovina is not part of the so-called Balkan Route toward Western Europe," the Ministry stated.

The number of asylum seekers is "huge" at the moment, according to Irma Muhovic from Bosnia's nongovernmental Legal Aid Network "Vasa prava" (Your Rights), which provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"I cannot discuss the precise numbers, but it is enough to say that some of the migrants had to be accommodated in the premises of Tempo, as the [main] asylum center was already full. Under our conditions, that is a huge number," she added, referring to the difficult economic situation in the small Balkan country.       

There seems to be little resentment against migrants among the general population, but low living standards and a struggling economy make it difficult for Bosnia and Herzegovina to fully integrate refugees.

To Bosnia by boat

Salman Afridi is another Pakistani who has come to Bosnia recently. He told DW that he arrived with a group that entered Bosnia from Serbia by boat, paddling on the river Sava. "We then walked to the border crossing of Brcko, where we asked for asylum. The border police there wasn't able to help us, but told us to go to Sarajevo," Salman said.

Like Nasib, Salman decided to leave his homeland after Taliban fighters came to his village. He could not continue his education. The situation became increasingly dangerous amid the fights between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army. Salman hopes to reach France, because several members of his family live there and would be willing to help him.

Dostmohammad Kahramon from Afghanistan has a 'good feeling' about life in Bosnia

Dostmohammad Kahramon, an Afghan in the group of migrants who have reached Bosnia, does not want to travel to Western Europe. "I want to stay here in Bosnia. I have a good feeling here," he told DW. The young engineer, who talks about his profession with great passion, also left his home because of the Taliban.

Tempo helps migrants

The group of migrants who recently reached Bosnia didn't find a place to stay in the asylum center, and they were facing a cold winter. An imam let them spend the night in a mosque in Sarajevo and asked for help via social networks.

"When we found out about this case, we offered our assistance," Hasan Karisik, the president of the Tempo Youth Organization, told DW. Tempo's premises have a capacity of 10 beds, but at one point, 13 people were accommodated there, according to Karisik, but three Syrian migrants soon left for Italy and Sweden.   

With the help of "Vasa Prava," Tempo also deals with the administrative and legal obligations of the asylum seekers. "We conduct all the necessary work to inform the institutions in charge with the movement of these people, since we are unable to check whether we deal with well-meaning or malicious people," said Karisik.

But the lack of funds is the organization's main problem. Helping the migrants "is a humane gesture," Karisik explained, "but it is a fact that our capacities are very limited. I do not believe we will be able to meet more requests of this kind." 

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Odd one out

Dragan (center), a Macedonian migrant, is hidden in the forests near the Serbian-Croatian border, as he tries to cross to central Europe with other migrants from Arab countries. Dragan, along with one Chinese migrant, is an oddity among the hundreds of Syrians and Afghans stranded in Šid, Serbia

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Plotting their next move

Afghan asylum seekers on the roof of an old abandoned factory in Sid, which serves as a temporary abode, while away their time as they plot their next move to try and reach a western European country.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Risking their lives

Migrants walk on the railway tracks which connect Serbia and Croatia near the northern village of Sid, Serbia. According to reports, two people were hit by a train after they had fallen asleep on the tracks.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Living in the "Jungle"

More than 150 people are hidden in the so-called jungle — an area with dense bushes next to the train lines which connect Serbia and Croatia. Most have tried to cross to western Europe in different ways: either with the help of smugglers, alone or in groups, by jumping on trucks or hiding in freight train wagons.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Washing away the dirt

Ibrahim from Afghanistan washes himself in a cold stream under a bridge near the Serbian village of Sid. Hundreds of refugees and migrants live in untenable conditions, without basic facilities and amenities.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Breakfast on wheels

"No Name Kitchen" is run by a small group of volunteers who distribute breakfast and provide help to refugees and migrants stranded on the Serbian-Croatian border. The authorities have largely abandoned the refugees.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Maybe next time

Jadali, 22, from Afghanistan, had just returned to Sid following a failed attempt to reach western Europe. He was stuck in jail in Croatia for two days before being released by the authorities, who, as he claims, treated him roughly.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Food, glorious food

Two migrants cook dinner for those who gather in the abandoned factory during the evenings near the Serbian border village. Hundreds of asylum seekers face hunger, hardship, injuries and daily violence as they try to survive in the middle of nowhere.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Tracks of my tears

A migrant walks towards a freight train. Moments later he will try to hide in an abandoned wagon in an attempt to cross the Croatian border and eventually reach another European country.

Living in the jungle: Refugees stranded at the Serbian-Croatian border
Next stop western Europe?

Those who can afford more expensive smuggling methods choose to pay taxis to take them across Croatia. The price for a ride is around €1,200 ($1,400).

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