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Between Bosnia and Croatia, the desperate “game” of migrants to the EU

Pressure mounting in Bosnia and in the canton of Una-Sana in particular: together with a delegation from Caritas Lombardia we visited the largest centre for migrants in the country, where conditions are very difficult but where some, like IPSIA, try to offer support - starting with a cup of caj

Among insiders, some call the Bira centre the worst centre for migrants in the whole of Bosnia, and among the worst on the whole Balkan Route. Try to picture it: an old, abandoned refrigerator factory, consisting of massive concrete warehouses side-by-side which make up an industrial area of over 20,000 square meters altogether. Inside, among peeling, punched-through walls and dim lighting, migrants sleep 120 to each tent, while an area of containers with six places each is set aside for families and minors.

The centre was opened by the International Organization for Migration last autumn as a temporary measure to tackle an emergency situation on the border between Bosnia and Croatia, and now hosts over 2,000 people, many more than the official maximum capacity of 1,500.

We are in Bihać, provincial capital of the Una-Sana canton, at the northern frontier of  Bosnia and Herzegovina, a hot border of Europe. The “Bosnian route” passes through here. It is the route taken by migrants attempting to bypass the stiffening of checks along the Serbian-Croat and Serbian-Hungarian borders. According to the official data of the International Organization for Migration,

24,000 migrants passed through Bosnia in 2018, most of them attempting to cross the northern border, going towards Bihać and Velika Kladuša.

Most of them are men or boys, alone, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and to a lesser extent from Morocco, Tunisia and India, but there are also Syrian and Iraqi families with small children. These last ones resist in Bira while they wait to be transferred to Borici, another camp just outside the city which has just been renovated by IOM, and assigned to families and the most vulnerable. The camp, which used to be a halls of residence for students, is currently home to 150 people, but it will be able to host over 500 when it is fully operational.

Migrants arrive in  Bihać on foot or on buses, regardless of the cold and the snow that still covers the mountains, and they wait for the right moment to cross the border: some go for it alone, at times aided by smartphone maps and the advice of those that already made it, while others rely on traffickers, whose business around here has never been better.

Migrants call it  the “game”, because for most of them, each attempt ends them up right where they started. A macabre game of chutes and ladders which often gives rise to physical and psychological injuries.

“Those who come back to Bira often return with injuries, especially on their feet: excoriations, cuts and bruises, frostbite”, says Selam Midžić, local secretary of the Red Cross. This is due to hours spent in the woods, or from crossing the river Una, but also because of the Croatian police’s collective refoulement: a practice forbidden by European legislation, but which goes on here as along other frontiers.


“The number of people passing through the Balkans has lessened considerably following the March 2016 agreement between Turkey and the European Union, but clearly the flow has not stopped and Bosnia is the area with the most kilometres of border to attempt a crossing”, tells to SIR Silvia Maraone, co-ordinator of the Balkan Route interventions for Caritas and IPSIA (an ACLI affiliated NGO), showing her concern for what might happen in the coming months.
“Since the closure of the Central Mediterranean route” – the worker explains – “there is the risk of mounting pressure on the Balkan Route”. It looks like the government in Sarajevo does not want to face this possibility, as it refuses to take over the management of the country’s existing centres, which are all managed by IOM.

On top of this, there is growing resentment in local communities: for example, authorities in the Una-Sana canton have threatened to close all centres in the canton if the maximum capacity is not adhered to, and have increased the transfers of migrants from the border areas towards Sarajevo. So for the past few weeks entries to Bira are blocked –

at least on paper – as confirmed by Mite Cilkovski, in charge of the camp, and this increases the number of people forced to spend the nights outside.

Alongside IOM, only local and international NGOs, Caritas, and independent volunteers who regularly come from Europe to bring aid remain to help the migrants. IPSIA has opened a “Social Café” inside Bira, open three hours a day during which it serves over 400 cups of Caj, the name given to tea in Turkey and several other countries in Asia and the Middle East. We visited the café with a delegation from Caritas Ambrosiana and Caritas Como, who are supporting projects for migrants along the Balkan Route together with other donors and with the Italian Caritas.

“We began with a few thermal flasks” – says Greta Mangiagalli, aid worker with IPSIA in Bihac – “serving the first cups of caj on Christmas Eve; then came the tables, a ping pong table, and the board games. The Social Café is the only space inside Bira where you are allowed to sit quietly, to sit down for a chat”. It is a “garrison inside the Bira where you know you will be listened to”, adds Michele Turzi, a volunteer with Caritas Mantova.

“It is vital for us to work in a camp like Bira, because of the state in which people find themselves. The social café and similar interventions are of the greatest importance for them, to maintain their dignity. It’s not about offering a cup of tea, it’s about recognising each individual as a person”, concludes Silvia Maraone.

It’s one o’clock and the kiosk must close. Some migrants help to put away the tables of the café, which they feel is partly their own. We move towards the exit feeling impotent in the face of this humanity on the move. For the last time we watch the faces of migrants sitting outside the tents, and they appear suspended between the hope of making it and the resignation of having ended up in limbo: too far from home to go back, and too tired to go forward. But it lasts only a moment: the border is so close, and they will all try again, even if it should be the last step they take.

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