All posts

Bosnia: Refugees’ Supporters Demand Open Borders

This article appeared first in German on mosaik blog.

Aside from a handful of local and international organisations, it is women who are leading the charge to support refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina. mosaik editors Franziska Wallner and Klaudia Wieser report on what they witnessed while accompanying the ‘SOS Balkan Route’ donation convoy from Austria to the north of the country during the last weekend of October.

It was the Vučjak camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina that ultimately caught the media’s attention – the pictures of people living in tents without mattresses, sanitation facilities and running water which made it into international coverage. Yet Vučjak is hardly an exceptional case. On the contrary, the conditions there reflect the politics of the European Union: similar ones predominate at refugee camps elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in other countries on the EU periphery such as Greece and Malta. And the conditions at these places are bound to worsen with the onset of winter.

Fortress Europe

‘What we’re doing here is just a drop in the bucket, the Vienna-based rapper and convoy co-initiator Kid Pex reflects. And that’s just what it feels like. Soon after we cross the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina, the first groups of refugees slowly appear, marching in the dark on the roadside. They carry only the essentials with them.

Credit: authors.

First stop in Bosnia in the dark of the night

The first stop of the SOS Balkan Route takes us to a border town. Around midnight we unload boxes full of warm clothes and sleeping bags as quietly as possible. There we meet a woman who has been engaged in various forms of refugee activism for several years and who – despite all the obstacles – will not stop: She offers her shower and her living room to refugees, accompanies people to hospitals, cooks for hundreds of refugees and organises school books for children.

Credit: Owen-Browne

‘The mood has changed due to inflammatory media coverage’, she tells us during an interview in her small apartment. ‘At the beginning I announced my activities on Facebook; now I can’t do that anymore. There used to be 30 of us, now there is only a small network of supporters. Last winter was a disaster. People lived in abandoned shelters in the cold. We have tried to find families in the village for people to stay with, but the authorities have declared their homes to be illegal shelters. Even if I pick up refugees from the hospital with my car, I can be reported for human trafficking.’

As we return to our vans at two o’clock in the morning, we all receive a traffic ticket. The neighbours must have informed the police.

When they closed the Balkan route

In the summer of 2018, the European Union began to actively inflame the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In its response plan, the EU stipulated above all that there be no official accommodation for refugees within 30 kilometres of the Croatian border.

The EU set aside a sum of almost ten million euros for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of this, 2.5 million was given to the country as so-called humanitarian aid. Another 7.2 million flowed into project funds administered by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM), the United Nation High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In November 2018, this sum was increased by another 50,000 euros. Under the pretext of not leaving the money in the hands of a corrupt and decentralised state, the EU strengthened the position of international NGOs. Yet many of these organisations are complicit in the deadly European border regime. Furthermore, this tactic weakened the efforts of autonomously organised local supporters and ultimately harmed refugees – the very people whom the policy most directly concerns.

This devastating situation is also a result of the closure of the Balkan route advocated by former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and former Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner in 2015. Additional deadly policies were implemented with the Turkey-EU deal in 2016.

Arrival in Bihać

Fifteen minutes away from Vučjak lies the picturesque town of Bihać on the banks of the river Una. Yet if one takes time to stroll through the town and talk to the residents, not even the beautiful landscape can hide the harsh reality of life in Bihać. Here, one gets a sense of the effects of the Bosnian unemployment rate of over 30 percent, which has driven many young and well-educated people to emigrate. This and a general social insecurity are evidence of a comprehensive socio-political crisis in the region.

Credit: Ben Owen-Browne.

The three-year (1992-1995) siege of the city during the war also left its mark: There are still minefields around its periphery. Defusing the mines is a job that is dangerous and poorly paid.

Women organize local support

It is above all women who have created the local support structures and maintained them to this day. One of these women is Zemira, whom we visit during our donation convoy’s second stop.

Zemira worked as a nurse during the war and is one of the original organisers of the informal refugee support networks in Bihać. When we arrive, a group of refugees is helping her with her work. In her attic and in other rooms of her house, she has set up a large storage area for donated supplies. 

Many refugees in Bihać know ‘Mama Zemira’, as they affectionately call her. Talking to her we get an insight into her motives and the effects of the increasing obstacles she faces. She tells us that she hasn’t done her aide work outside for two months because usually the police is called immediately.

Zemira identifies the cheap propaganda against refugees and their local supporters as a key obstacle to providing quality support. While she received a lot of practical assistance from Bosnians in the beginning, there are now several groups on Facebook that agitate against refugees and against individual supporters like her. After receiving threats, her daughter demanded that she stop working. She stopped for eight days, then started again. ‘I can’t stop – these are someone’s children. I can’t see them suffer’, she reasons.

‘Most people would rather sleep on the street than in Vučjak’

Zemira calls the situation in Vučjak a disgrace. There is no infrastructure for the people who live there because of its location outside the city. There are no regular sanitation facilities, nor is there sufficient food, water, light or security. Many people suffer from health conditions, various skin wounds and infections are especially common. Treating them would require a much stronger presence of medical staff, but the local Red Cross has long been stretched beyond its capabilities. Zemira cannot understand why a camp was set up in Vučjak at all given the existence of far better locations for accommodation.

She emphasises three points: (1) We have to accept that it is people who are fleeing – people who simply want a better life than the one they left behind. (2) Everyone should do what they can to help, and everyone can help somehow! According to Zemira, this also applies to journalists. They should report more critically, especially on the EU and the Bosnian and Croatian police. (3) The accommodation of refugees must finally be normalised. According to the refugees themselves, nowhere else is the situation as bad as in Bosnia – not in Greece, Turkey or Serbia. This especially saddens her because the people in Bosnia know exactly what it means to flee and leave their homeland behind. 

Credit: authors.

In spite of everything, the supporters cannot be kept down

The criminalisation of supporters of refugees is on the rise. This is due not only to police repression, but also to residents who closely observe their neighbours and often report them to the authorities for accommodating refugees.

Despite this difficult situation, we meet two women who are not considering ending their support for refugees, who urgently need warm sleeping bags and winter shoes to equip them for “the game” – the cynical name by which many refugees refer to attempting to cross the border. The supporters often cannot provide more than a warm place for a few weeks, food, clothing and a little human dignity. But even providing these things alone often leads to interrogations with the local police and exclusion from the community. 

One of the two women shows us a video in which the police round up refugees in the centre of  Bihać and force them to board a bus to Vučjak. But few want to stay there. The conditions are so bad that most of them come back to the city. Our meeting does not last long. We agree to drop off the donations during the night so as not to cause a stir.

Credit: authors.

For the second-to-last stop of the SOS Balkan Route, we visit an activist named Nahida. She appreciates the donations. Especially with winter on the horizon, these donations are vital. She cannot and does not want to say more than this. She is exhausted and sees no sense in further interviews. She has often talked to journalists, but little has changed.

Inhumane living conditions and abuses

While visiting local supporters and walking through Bihać, we strike up conversations with many refugees. Most of them have left their homes months if not years ago and have been visibly marked by the inadequate care and abuse at the hands of the Croatian border police.

Credit: authors.

They come from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and North Africa and have in some cases already been deported two or three times to their home countries. However, they have made their way back to Europe.

Credit: Ben Owen-Browne

 ‘I have been on the move for more than two years’, T. from Pakistan tells us. ‘I came via Iran to Turkey, and from Macedonia to Bosnia. I’ve been here for four months trying to get to Italy. There are many problems in Pakistan. I have to get to Italy to survive and support my family. The Croatian police are a problem. When they catch us, they take everything from us: Backpack, sleeping bag, shoes, and they burn everything. They beat us and force us to go back without shoes. Other countries must help us to open the borders. Winter is coming, and every person I know here is sleeping outside because the camps are overcrowded.”

Critical coverage is needed  

The journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic is the last activist our group meets in Bihać.

She is a human rights reporter who, for years, has been covering people on the move in the Balkans and Europe. While working in Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, she has drawn particular attention to two major problems local activists are facing. First, internationals who come to support often put themselves in the spotlight, sometimes forgetting that their task is to support people who have been marching thousands of kilometers to reach Europe. Second, local support networks for refugees are not always respected by volunteers from elsewhere who sometimes know little about the local political and social environment.

International organisations and individuals offering their support should orient themselves around local structures which have already been in place for years. With the arrival of winter Ahmetasevic points out that donations such as sleeping bags and warm clothes are most important because the local population cannot afford to provide them.

The solution is open borders 

This afternoon, Nidzara Ahmetasevic recalls something which we have heard often from local supporters and refugees we’ve met during our trip: “Everybody is currently reporting about Vučjak, but Vučjak is not the only problem. The EU does not look at Vučjak or any other place in Bosnia as a humanitarian problem. For them, the only issue is that that place is located 2 km away from their border. They dont give a shit that people are sick, hungry and dying. Bira, an official camp run by IOM, is a prison, and that is the real problem. The EU is funding these camps like Bira which are run like prisons and do not represent places where people are treated in a dignified way. The EU is the problem because of its closed borders. You have to see where the money is coming from. (…) The problem is closed borders.”

The organizers of the SOS Balkan Route convoy come from a variety of backgrounds. They include activists, individuals, associations, left parliamentarians, students and pensionists living in Austria. Their goal is to collectively fight the deadly European border regime through political activism and practical solidarity, because all people deserve to live in dignity and freedom.

The convoy is already planning its next donation campaigns, actions and events – in hopes that one day, enough drops in the bucket might cause it to overflow.  

Thanks to Adam Baltner for editing this text.  Pictures by Ben Owne-Brown:

Franziska Wallner is a member of the editorial board of mosaik blog. She studied Political Science at the University of Vienna and Human Geography at the University of Amsterdam. She is also a member of the editorial board of Radio dérive, a radio show for critical urban research. Her current goal is to challenge and combat the EU border regime in practice. 

Klaudia Wieser is a member of the editorial board of mosaik-blog. She is a PhD candidate at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna. Her dissertation addresses revolutionary knowledge production and the question of Palestine. She also is a member of the research project KnowWar: Knowledge Production in Times of Flight and War- Developing Common Grounds for Research in/on Syria.