29 / Nov / 2021 04 / Dec / 2021

Mission Logbook

The mission to Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina, organised by Mediterranea Saving Humans, took place from 29 November to 04 December 2021 with the aim of observing and witnessing the psycho-physical health conditions of refugees stranded on the border between Bosnia and Croatia.
The team consisted ofCarolina Migliorino social worker, Dr. Claudio Pardini general practitioner and Dr. Eliana Cannazzaro medical specialist.

Being on the border with Croatia, and Bosnia being the first non-EU country, Bihać has been experiencing, for some years now, a very controversial historical period, being an almost obligatory crossing point of the new "Balkan Route" followed by migrants from Asia and the Middle East.

Our team, engaged in the mission, carried out the monitoring and assistance interventions over the four agreed days, with a supervision frequency of 3 lodgings per day, inhabited by about a hundred people.

With respect to the conditions of the camps visited, it is necessary to highlight a few aspects:

  • In some cases, the dwellings are old abandoned cottages of no more than 40 square metres where up to 15 people live. The occupied houses have no electricity, only in some of them the inhabitants have installed makeshift solar panels;
  • Some lodgings are simple 4x4 camping tents where on average 2/3 people live. Especially in these cases, sanitary and living conditions are the most prohibitive;
  • As for food, it is generally cooked on a bench outside the lodgings. The fire is lit with great difficulty, as it is almost impossible to find dry wood and the temperatures are almost always below zero. Only in one of the houses where a Pakistani family was staying was there a small kitchenette that was also used as a heater;
  • As one can easily imagine, there are not the slightest conditions of liveability in the accommodations examined. In rooms of only a few square metres, between 10 and 15 people sleep at the same time, with few blankets available and, at best, a few tents for additional shelter from the cold, rainwater and frost;
  • Despite the precarious situation, the refugees consider these accommodations as their home.
  • There are several abandoned lodgings. Migrants confirm to us that they leave the accommodation for other migrants or, otherwise, for themselves when they cannot cross the border.

In our supervisory work, with regard to the origin of the migrants seen, we could see that almost all of the interviewees are Syrian, Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani. All have followed the Balkan Route migration route, many have been travelling for at least two years with the hope of reaching Italy, France, Belgium or Germany. Most of the migrants interviewed are between 20 and 23 years old. We met only one adult in his 50s and one family consisting of four minors and their parents.

A curious and at the same time dramatic aspect emerged from the interviews. The name given by migrants to the final moment of the Balkan Route, i.e. crossing the border into Croatia or Slovenia to enter Europe, is 'The Game'. The attempt to cross the border is defined as a game, full of dangers and obstacles to face, which once successful allows one to achieve victory: to reach Europe. Migrants arriving in Bihać continuously try the 'Game' in different ways:

  • Paying, even as much as €3,000, for a taxi to be smuggled to the Croatian border. If on the way they are caught and taken back to Bosnia, the driver returns the money;
  • Trying their luck through a dangerous footpath through forests, inaccessible areas, frozen rivers: in this case the risk of being discovered is greater;

Trying their luck through a dangerous footpath through forests, inaccessible areas, frozen rivers: in this case the risk of being discovered is greater;

Among the refugees heard, some testimonies were significant and deserve to be reported in order to better frame the living conditions of refugees in this area of Bosnia:

Mustafa says: 'after several unsuccessful crossing attempts, before the snow comes, I will try to cling under a truck'. This is another option to try to cross the border, especially at this time of year when the arrival of the torrid winter with snow, cold and temperatures well below zero is feared.

Rashid, a man in his 50s, tells us: 'I was living in Italy and working in a factory. I went back to Afghanistan to see my family and had an accident on my moped; for this reason I was not able to return to Italy and, since my residence permit had expired, I was forced to try the 'game' several times without being able to pass. I cannot give in, my family is waiting for me in Afghanistan and hopes to join me once I return to Italy'. He was advised to try to contact the company where he worked to obtain a work contract and consequently apply for a residence permit to be able to return to Italy.

The only family known and interviewed consists of two children, two teenagers and their parents. In their faces one can see the fatigue and weariness of the journey that has lasted three years; the children have grown up on the journey amidst continuous prohibitions and hatred from people. Despite several unsuccessful attempts to cross the border and having suffered any form of violation of their rights, they remain positive.

Finally, interviews revealed how all migrants fear the Croatian police, who are accused of threats, theft and violence. Some say that Croatian police also adopt technologically advanced and borderline illegal physical deterrence systems such as tasers and electronic stun guns or remote surveillance systems such as night cameras, making this territory one of the most difficult to cross in the world. In addition to fear of the police, many migrants also fear other refugees, who often rob the most fragile and defenceless in an increasingly dramatic war between desperate people.

All of those interviewed are aware that they will have to look for work immediately in the future, but none of them have a clear perspective and vision of what is required to be able to stay legally in Europe. For this reason, it was necessary to provide them with basic information both from a legal and bureaucratic point of view (documents, residence permits, etc.) and from a health and education point of view.

Finally, as far as the territorial context is concerned, Bihać appears as a hostile city, not inclined to any attempt at integration and/or socialisation, even minimal, between migrants and the local population. There is no contact of any kind between refugees and citizens; assistance and management of the phenomenon is totally in the hands of the Bosnian government, which does not allow outside interference in management and monitoring. All the non-governmental organisations present, both local and foreign, which provide even minimal assistance, do so illegally without any kind of coordination, with a worrying overlapping of actions. It would be optimal to create a network, a coordination with a technical committee that recognises the various Organisations and allocates roles, competencies, resources and personnel. This would really provide a good service for migrants and give a little hope in a context of desperation that seems to have no way out.

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