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Effectively closed?

Michael Vit on the state of migration along the Balkan route

11. April 2019
Magazine > Voices > Effectively closed?

The “Balkan route” was closed off in April 2016 – but only in political terms. Particularly during recent months, Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen a significant influx of people fleeing their home countries who were eventually stopped at that point. Why are some 5,000 people suddenly stuck in north-western Bosnia, enduring disastrous conditions, although solid, EU funded support and care services are available in Serbia? The answers can be found in the local realities and the two central hotspots of Bosnia, close to the Bosnian-Croatian border: the cities of Bihać and Velika Kladuša.

The Balkan route has been back on the agenda of international and national media since April 2018. This time, however, reports focus not on the situation in Serbia, Hungary or Croatia, but on Bosnia – more precisely the north-western part of the country. Until recently, Bosnia was not particularly affected either by the large migrant movement that started in 2015 or by human trafficking networks. It was not until 2018 that it became an attractive location, with other routes to the European Union becoming increasingly difficult to pass. Furthermore, the tense political situation in Bosnia was a major advantage when it came to avoiding direct responsibilities of the state. Since then the two border towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša have seen a massive influx of migrants.

Reasons for the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina

There are many reasons why the current crisis has emerged in Bihać. The proximity to the EU’s external border of Croatia, the relatively readily accessible area and thus the prospect of imminent entry into the European Union make the city an attractive stopover destination. Currently, it is the easiest way into the EU, and hence into the Schengen area. Another factor is the failure to consistently prosecute illegal activities such as human trafficking in the region around Bihać. Rule of law mechanisms are not particularly effective, and institutions are dysfunctional. Illegal activities go hand in hand with dirty political power games in connection with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s parliamentary elections, which took place in October 2018. The “crisis” was a welcome topic to aggravate growing tensions between the two entities,[1] but there was no significant and sustainable interest in changing the overall situation. The refugees in Bihać have little chance of entering the European Union legally and applying for asylum, which plays into the hands of people smugglers.

The cantonal government, as well as municipal authorities in Bihać and Velika Kladuša, have only very limited material and financial resources to meet the migrants’ basic needs. At the same time, the state and its institutions have proved incapable of providing adequate support to both cities. Experts working with the migrants in Bihać and Sarajevo have pointed to the shortage of long-term state funds earmarked for securing the basic needs of people arriving in Bosnia.

Currently, it seems virtually impossible to achieve a coordinated policy towards migrants in Bosnia. Bosnia’s political system has at least three different institutional authority levels, as a result of which none of the three institutions feels responsible. In the case of Bosnia, one must consider the state level, the government of the two entities and the decision-making process at local level that is independent of the two other levels. The cantonal police in Bihać, for example, can only deal with petty crimes linked with migrants, but is not authorised to investigate smuggling activities or illicit trade.[2] These fall within the jurisdiction of the institutions at state level. The police at state level, in turn, does not have sufficient resources to investigate such a complex and geographically distant problem. One significant effect of this crisis has been to create a climate of enormous political tension between the two entities. The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, claimed as early as May 2018 that the influx of migrants might pose an ethnic threat, as shown by the language he uses in his speeches or interviews.

© EXPA / Pixsell / picturedesk.com / Armin Durgut
Meanwhile approximately 2000 migrants are accommodated in the Bira reception center in Bihać. Shelter and containers adapted for winter conditions are provided for the migrants. Immediately upon arrival, a medical examination is performed, and three daily meals, blankets, hygiene and other necessities are provided. Photo: © EXPA / Pixsell / picturedesk.com / Armin Durgut

The current tense atmosphere in Bihać has seen turbulent development that some seek to profit from. While local authorities are still trying to orient themselves and figure out how they got to this point in the first place, organised crime has realised the (economic) benefit of the short geographical distance to the EU. Sarajevo’s lack of interest, tensions between the entities, the relative indifference of EU members and the European Union in general, have further escalated the situation in Bihać and Velika Kladuša. What is more, the ongoing artificial tension between the entities prevents urgent matters concerning the responsibilities of the authorities from being discussed in public at all.

What’s the situation on the ground?

On the one hand, locals show solidarity with people in distress, which, however, can only improve the migrants’ hopeless situation on the threshold of the European Union to a limited degree – as they are merely provided with the most pressing needs such as food, first aid and a roof over their head. On the other hand, illegal economic activities have thrived since the beginning of the local crisis in April 2018 both in Bihać and in Valika Kladuša. It is an open secret that continuing on to Germany (the most popular destination) is just a question of money, irrespective of reinforced border controls. The owners of small hotels or vacant lots have not hesitated to make their facilities available to various criminal groups who smuggle people among other things, to such an extent that even tourists will encounter criminal groups in accommodation they booked via booking.com.

An NGO estimates that 70% to 80% of the migrants have entered the Bosnian canton of Una-Sana via Serbia. More than half of these people claim Pakistan to be their country of origin. There are also people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Morocco. In many cases they come from one-stop centres run by Serbian authorities, where they are provided with food, shelter and schooling for children. These are important facilities that meet the basic requirements of those who stay in Serbia. The operation of these centres is financially supported by the European Commission.

The EU’s responsibility

It would be naive to assume that the European Union and individual EU countries are not aware of the situation in Bosnia, in particular in Bihać. Since the Balkan route was closed off politically, little attention has been paid to the situation in the Western Balkan countries and those who capitalise on it. In other words: in exchange for keeping up the appearance of having a secure external border, the EU indirectly allowed a crisis to develop at its borders. Since the number of asylum applications filed in EU countries is considerably lower than in 2015 and 2016, there is currently neither the political will nor any interest in solving this problem. The EU and its member states are simply “too busy” dealing with other matters, such as the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, for example. The migration crisis is still a very popular topic in many contexts – except with regard to sustainable cooperation that could rest on common interests between the Western, Eastern and South-Eastern European countries.

Instead, the crisis in Bosnia is used to justify various vague political aims, such as the deployment of troops to the EU’s external border, as recently proposed by the Austrian government at the summit in Salzburg in September 2018. There is little interest on the part of the EU countries in recognising organised crime as one of the major problems of the migration crisis, in this case in the Balkans. The problem is not so much the political situation of Bosnia’s institutions as the question of how serious the EU and its member states ultimately are about fighting organised crime and corruption in their countries and the accession countries in the Western Balkans.

[1] The predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the largely Serb Republika Srpska, or RS.

[2] Criminal offences that concern the state as a whole, such as smuggling and other forms of illegal trade, are investigated by police officials at state level. These, in turn, neither have the capacity nor the will to investigate such illegal activities at the local level.

Original in German. First published on 6 December 2018 on Eastblog (Blog of the research group for Eastern Europe at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna).
Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text is protected by copyright: © Michal Vít. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Approximately 2000 migrants are accommodated in the Bira reception center in Bihać. Shelter and containers adapted for winter conditions are provided for the migrants. Immediately upon arrival, a medical examination is performed, and three daily meals, blankets, hygiene and other necessities are provided. Photo: © EXPA / Pixsell / picturedesk.com / Armin Durgut