‘No Man’s Land’: Migrants, Refugees Stranded at a Bosnian Roadside

Bosnia has run out of capacity to accommodate all the migrants and refugees trying to cross the country en route to Western Europe, leaving many to sleep on forest floors or at roadsides.

Between the villages of Ribnik and Kljuc in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, near the administrative boundary between the country’s two entities, sits a wooden hut built by the Red Cross with the help of some local residents.

The hut is home to dozens of migrants and refugees, including small children, who have found themselves caught in a game of human ping-pong en route to Western Europe. Dozens more sleep under the stars by the side of the main road connecting the country’s northwest with the capital, Sarajevo. A baby stroller and a small red and green plastic slide sit out front.

The hut’s residents are stuck, caught between new restrictions on their freedom of movement introduced by local authorities in the northwestern canton of Una-Sana, part of Bosnia’s Federation entity, and a police checkpoint at the entrance to the country’s other entity, Republika Srpska. Heavy-handed Croatian police blocked their path over the border into the European Union.

“I thought Bosnia was one country,” said a man from Morocco who gave his name as Abdul.

Abdul said he had been in Bosnia for a year and had tried to cross the Croatian border eight times, at one point reaching Slovenia and, almost, the Italian port city of Trieste. “But they caught us,” he said.

“The Slovenian police first took us back to Croatia, and then the Croatian police to Bosnia. They took everything from us, money and mobile phones. The Croatian police hit me with a rubber stick.” Now, within Bosnia, he faces a similar fate.

“I don’t understand why we were stopped or what Republika Srpska is,” said Abdul.

‘No-man’s land’

Their route via Serbia and Hungary blocked by a fence at the border, migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have turned increasingly to Bosnia. But even within Bosnia their movements are stymied.

The Una-Sana Canton, part of the Federation entity, sits on the border with Croatia and so has become a magnet for migrants and refugees, but local authorities say they are overwhelmed and have imposed strict restrictions on where they can reside while they play cat-and-mouse on the border with often violent Croatian police.

The mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska entity refuses to let them stay at all. Hence the wooden hut in what the migrants and refugees call ‘no man’s land’.

“We can’t stay here, in a small tent,” said Nasim, who left Afghanistan 18 months with his family in hopes of reaching Western Europe. “Why don’t they let us go?”

New rules in Una-Sana Canton allow police to round up any migrants and refugees not already housed in one of the already full asylum centres in the canton and send them to the demarcation line between the Bosnian entities, a legacy of the country’s 1992-95 war. Likewise, police in Republika Srpska escort migrants and refugees to the line.

According to the IOM, there are currently about 7,400 registered migrants in seven reception centres in Bosnia, but local authorities in Una-Sana Canton estimate that there are about 3,000 more migrants in this canton alone.

Abdul and Nasim both say they want to get to a temporary reception centre called ‘Camp Lipa’, near the city of Bihac, administrative centre of Una-Sana Canton. It is some 90 kilometres up the road they sleep beside, but with 1,178 residents it is 178 over capacity.

Those who cannot get in end up sleeping in the surrounding forest. Estimates of their number range from 300 to 600.

They shelter from the August sun in the shade of trees. Entrance to the camp means a roof, three meals a day, running water and electricity.

But without an ID card issued to registered residents of the camp by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, entry is impossible, through the main gate at least. Some try their luck over the perimetre fence.

From the camp, it is roughly 40 kilometres to the border with EU member Croatia. “I need five hours of walking to get to the border,” said Mohammed from Bangladesh. “When I come, I’m already tired and I can’t even try to cross the border.”

Readying for winter

The camp was peaceful when BIRN visited, but two nights before there was an incident involving a group of those housed there and the police. One police officer suffered minor injuries and one migrant was arrested.

“The incident was caused by a small group of people who complained about police brutality, but not here in the camp. In other words, they attacked police officers in Lipa because they had a problem with the police elsewhere,” said Vladimir Mitkovski, the IOM coordinator for the area.

The police have since left and handed over responsibility for security to a private firm.

“We regularly hold meetings with representatives of all ten different nations staying at the camp, and on the last meeting they begged for the police to return and said they had no problem with the police in Lipa so far,” Mitkovski told BIRN.

While the August heat is uncomfortable, concern is growing for what winter will bring.

The IOM says it has a plan to ready the camp for colder weather but Mitkovski said it needs the support of all levels of government in Bosnia’s highly decentralised system of power.

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